Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nothing but breath

The lake has frozen over, a thick layer of ice a quarter mile across. The surface is blinding in the early sunlight. It is fifty-eight degrees this morning in the cottage with the wood pellet stove going all night. But my mind is clear. For a few moments anyway. Holding in itself the shivery thought that -- yes -- when dead, I too will be subsumed into the austere and monumental beauty of the world, forgotten except as part of the infinite pattern of light and dark, cold and heat, now and forever. Or is it 'never?' Time for coffee and the tug back into mundanity -- stoking the fire, frying some eggs, then heading out into the woods for a hike.

Last week, as I sat at my kitchen table, I saw the sharp-shinned hawk that roosts around here swoop down and pluck a sparrow off the back lawn in its talons, then fly up into the big bare oak tree in my neighbor's yard. It looked around carefully. Woodland creatures are larcenous but there was nothing else in sight. After the precautionary pause, it began to tear the feathers off the little dead body with its hooked bill. Methodically, with a minimum of effort. I thought of my uncle shaping dowels at his wood-lathe. I thought of my friend practicing a transcription of the Sarabande from Bach's Violin Partita no. 2 on his guitar. I thought of the little one with her nose buried in a book, her mouth open, exhaling little puffs of breath. I couldn't make out the title but her concentration was rapturous. I wanted to be like the hawk, without thought.

I looked again but the hawk was gone. It had taken its denuded prey with it. The branch where it had perched was still as ice. And above the bare oak a sky so blue you could read anything you desired into it: life everlasting, the passage to paradise, an oceanic emptiness, or maybe, if lucky, a lover's embrace. Delicious, to return to stillness and silence, here, just sixty miles from New York, where titmice and nuthatches punctuate the unfolding day with their chatter, before J. across the street starts up his chainsaw. He's building a garage to house his restored '56 Chevys. It feels far from the madding crowd in Highland Lakes but it's an illusion. There's madness all around here.

Turmoil on the roads, anxiety in the supermarkets, malevolence in the malls, drunkenness and self-hatred in the bars, gluttony and empty laughter in the pizzerias. Organisms constantly jockeying for position. Like sea-spume or corpuscles seen under a microscope. Those poor souls without any real power -- working for nine bucks an hour in shit retail -- driving their second-hand Altimas and Civics like maniacs down the long ramp to I-287. Piss on death. It's just a fact of life, like hunger or jerking off. Who cares if the cops pull you over? The world is a congeries of impulses -- you want to do this, you want to do that. And if you destroy yourself in the process? Who gives a shit? Families are scattered and the community is non-existent. How many intelligent journalists have given us pictures of our broken society? George Packer is just the latest in a long line. There's no social order any more up here -- just a bunch of laws, inconsistently applied. A porous border on the outskirts of acceptable behavior. The law is a goddamn net -- if you can get away with something, fine, if you get caught, you're fucked.

I want to be like the hawk, without thought. Instinctual, adaptable. Able to soar above garbage dumps and railyards just as easily as farmland and nature preserves. Let me go tramping through the woods over by Wawayanda, the thin rime of ice crackling underfoot, watching the buzzards ride the thermals overhead. No loneliness, no words, nothing between me and the world. Nothing but breath. Hell, it may be bullshit, but it's the bullshit I'm gonna live by today.

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