This Is Why
It was of no use, trying to discern whether the anchorite was happy or unhappy; in the first days of her visit Mary assumed this was why she had come. The longer she stayed the more she felt at home; the more she felt at home, the more she felt free to be miserable. Mary saw that the question was useless.
The anchorite was in the habit of keeping lists. Among them Mary noticed a continuing list of regrets, under that heading: and though many of them were crossed off or blackened out, new ones were added as well. Mary asked him if a kind of balance were kept, to which he replied: "If only! As a matter of fact, your question is an item I have been tempted to add to the list."
There was a long silence during which he seemed to be struggling. Suddenly he looked up at her. "I wish to tell you as quickly as possible that when I was a boy it was my sole responsibility to feed the baby goats from a bottle containing their mother's milk. On one such occasion I managed to spill the goat's milk down my shirtfront--over which I should have been wearing a smock in the first place. And though I can't tell you why, I was wearing my best shirt: perhaps for the like of that alone I deserved to be punished. I went immediately to the washroom and began to rinse out the milk spots, using a large bar of my mother's soap, which was always in plentiful supply since she made it herself. And as I stood there it struck me--my mother's soap was goat's milk soap, and with goat's milk I was desperately trying to erase goat's milk. That something could be its own remedy--though I did not then think in those terms--struck me as a rather serious joke. It was my first occasion of panic."
Moments of Delight
Once Mary found his shopping list--it was written on a pink slip from one of those rainbow pads: trout, staple gun, cherries, hammer, ribbon, wire. "Ah, that summer," he said, "that summer. I sought perfection in all things. When a few groceries were needed I would spend hours devising--then revising--the list. Then in the store I carried it crunched in my hand, filled with an excruciating fear: the fear that others would discover, perhaps in the checkout line, that my list was less perfect than theirs."
On the second occasion of Mary's finding a shopping list--this one pinned under the weight of an extra-large egg sung in its styrofoam pocket--the anchorite chanced to see her with it. Peering over her shoulder he read "Rhubarb, roses, crab legs, gray socks." "Isn't that the fate, Madam, of one destined to think in scraps?" What follows are a few of those scraps, thrown to Mary while she did what few chores needed to be done while tending to the anchorite, who was ailing at that time.
Whatever habit one is most faithful to--whatever one does most, loves best, is their religion. A simple matter of precedence.
Penance is the heart of the matter. Why do any of us live the way we do? It is why I live here, in the middle of nowhere. Precisely, it is the penance for never having sinned.
Can we conceive of a religion without prayer? And what, exactly, is prayer? If I am in prayer I seem to be concentrated. But I seem to be concentrating now and I am certainly not in prayer. What then is peculiar to one's concentration in prayer? It seems, simply, that one must concentrate on something that doesn't exist, as in prayers to our Lord, or prayers for the future--prayers for a turn of events, against all odds. What counts is that it does not exist. In which case, algebra seems a very good way to get to heaven.
It would be best if one could not hear oneself pray, since one always tends to eavesdrop on their own conversations with God, as though neither of the parties were oneself!
Which brings me to the subject of gossip.
It is true I once spent some time in a novitiate. One evening after supper there was a lively conversation concerning whether the ideal hands for prayer should be gloved or ungloved. I suggested that they be disembodied. "Do you yourself pray--now?" Mary asked.
"My hands pray."
"And what do they pray for?"
"My hands pray to be kept on!"
Mary noticed a small door, slightly ajar, etched on the left side of his chest.
Mary learned the anchorite was a great believer in mottos. He dreamt of a world in which mottos were given in place of names. In such a world, the mere presentation or introduction of one person to another would result in effortless conversation:
"Capable of Dissembling"
"Free from all pastimes"
"With honor and valor"
At the end of the first year of their acquaintance the anchorite gave Mary a motto. It had been a difficult decision, he said, for he wished to bond them through similar mottos yet bestow Mary with her own characteristics. He finally decided upon "I disappoint."
Just as one lover can be better than another it seems possible that one celibate might be...more accomplished...than the next. In this vein, I consider myself the greatest of all celibates.
"Look here," the anchorite said one day, "I have been reading about a new abyss."
"What's that?" asked Mary.
"The Eucharist is acidic and will upset an ulcer."
Some of us are happy living a double life, and some of us are tortured by it--though for those there is always the hope that our doubleness will consist in being both of these persons.
The anchorite ate a single fried egg each morning, just as the sun came up. One morning, while seasoning his egg, he told Mary how he had come to have faith: he simply realized that he had never--not once--refilled his salt and pepper shakers, which he had used profusely for twenty years.
God is a toddler. He is learning to walk, tumbling into everything, touching the red, luminized surface of your innermost thoughts like coils on a hotplate. He has got to learn. It is up to you to teach him.
I believe it was Chekhov who said there should be a little man with a hammer in the heads of happy persons, to remind them of the poor and famished. A noble thought...but the little man is also a member of the Guilt Berets, and the spiritually fortified should be able to be happy in the midst of great squalor, disappointment, and ghastly circumstances. Thus the homunculus must be shot.
Sometimes I think I am of a species that is bored to extinction, or that I am the last of such a species whose predominant trait was boredom. Nothing modern mind you--not in the least. Just an oversized head that looks up as soon as it gets dark and is heard to remark "Heigh-ho little moon, heigh-ho!" Wherein completes the activity of an evening.
I met a twenty-first century French feminist literary critic who said, "How can women describe their feelings in a language that was primarily devised by men to describe theirs?" I told her the truth--that that was a direct quote from Thomas Hardy.
Large, Sad Numbers
Which number is greater--the number of poems collected and preserved by man, or the number of poems thrown away by the women who wrote them? And if the lesser poems outnumber the greater poems, consider this: is it sadder to read such poems or to write them?
Trick or Treat
My head is like a pumpkin with eyes; both hollow and lit. Hollow except for a few seeds, left over from my birth, and long bits of stringy, mashed flesh--yet someone, who is most definitely not myself, has placed a candle there. It positively glows.
How Finely We Argue Upon Mistaken Facts!
Imagine the man who, after having made the world, consented to become a carpenter! I'm led to believe there was a want of privacy. In other words, I'm led to believe there is absolutely no substitute for a human lifetime.
The Magnifying Glass
Mary noticed the anchorite did not wear spectacles, nor was there any evidence of such a need. But one large magnifying glass he did keep, and used to distinguish anything he himself had put to ink. "Can't you read your own writing?" she asked, pointing to the magnifying glass. "Oh, that," he said, "it's because my thoughts are so small."
I've read a few, but as for scholars, professors, intellectuals, academics, authors and poets, historians and philosophers--now there's a lot I can't get close to. Their lives would not exist without their books. How they must suffer from an overdose of masterpieces! My idea is...memorize as much as you can and forget the rest. Heigh-ho little moon!
Poets are so coarsely bred they believe in force-feeding, arranged marriages, predestined outbursts. Any two tricks between words will do. It's true, I, too, delight in being vulgar...Yet once I was a boy of five years and one place: I didn't even know the word Poetry existed; I had never read a poem: what did I do then? I went fishing! I lived in a trout's world, that strange underwater adagio. A slow circle. And now...I think of it, so poetically! Haven't I then been two completely different persons? And lived in at least two worlds? China trees, cinnamon trees, cypress and spindlewood, the ash tree and the holly bush: some dog has shat on them all. The true trouble with poetry is simple: it depends on distraction to survive. If God is a poet then I am afraid--for it is frightening to think that He is a no one, and speaks not from Himself, but from the character He has found in me.
In Bruges, in the 18th century, they sold the shutters of a triptych by Gerard David at the request of the sacristan, who objected to the trouble of opening and closing them, complaining that they broke the altar candles each time he did so. Wise man.
Lord, let nothing get behind me.
In a dark mood, I lie down on the ground and the sun that has reached the earth and sunk into it rises up through the ground and enters my back. Nothing comes from above.
A very old librarian with the kind of blue eyes that absorb nothing but reflect everything. The kind you cannot look at, the blueblind eyes of a psychic or beauty queen. She had skin like a fine handkerchief that has been folded many times, smelled faintly of talcum, and wore a rhinestone flower on her lapel. She was in fact the world's expert on violets. The was very sweet to me and gave me a tour of the library which lasted from sunrise to sunset--that's how large the library was. She listened politely while I explained to her that I was only an anchorite with a very small IQ and could not possibly read all the books in her library or even understand them and that the tour, though finely given, had somewhat depressed me. I felt she had wasted her time, and I was sorry. She was even more polite, and infinitely sweeter, when she explained my mistake. These are the books, she said, that have yet to be written, so how could anyone read them?
Sequel to a Dream
The very next night the librarian came back to me, for she had forgotten to tell me something of the utmost importance. She said violets are more common in English literature than the rose, a little known fact that was nonetheless true, and if I thought about this bit of information for long enough it was the equivalent of reading all the books in any earthly library and all those in her own. She told me this with great tact and compassion, as if offering me a little aspirin in the palm of her hand.
Once I was face to face with a great snowy owl. As it happened I said to myself this will never happen again. Such a sad reaction! The bird flew off before I could have any other. This is an example of my intellectual fate. I have no memory of the bird whatsoever, and it never happened again.
The anchorite wanted most to know what the bear felt like upon first awakening from his hibernation. When Mary asked him to elaborate he replied, "That is precisely the question I have in mind: is it an elaborate moment for the bear, or is it essentially spare? Anchored and massive, or does he feel--wouldn't it be delightful--like a fly in a cathedral?"
are the cancer of the earth. Because of us she wanders the universe with a shaved head, full of spleen, without a cure. One day she will lose the words for white hawthorn, black locust, Dutch elm. Then periwinkle will be gone. She will, undoubtedly, still spin. The sound of a Coke bottle being opened on the next planet will bring some momentary sense into her days: she will remember the word for fizz. And when she dies, who will be seen squatting on her grave?
"I don't know of any," he said.
How odd the years are. If we were thermometers everyone would want to be 80.
The problem with past lives is just that...they're extinct. Some sooner than others, and none so soon as mine. I am reasonably assured that I was Phillip the Assured, who in 1467 was the richest prince in Europe and shut himself up in a little workshop to spend his remaining days fitting together pieces of broken glass. They buried him in St. Donatian's so great was the throng at his funeral, and the heat engendered by thousands of candles, that they shattered the gorgeous stained glass windows to let in air...
Mary asked about the fig tree in his garden. "It was a gift," he said, "from--shall we say--an anchoress I once knew. The lady in question has escaped my attention. I dare say she knew exactly what she was presenting me with: the fig tree, as you know, has had an illustrious past: Buddha attained enlightenment under the relative of a fig tree and Jesus made one barren. Have I then been blessed or cursed?"
Though sometimes it is simple, it is never easy--to be alone and thinking of nothing. In the bonsai brain, there is no branch so old, and none so small, that from time to time it doesn't do something peculiar!
I picked a bouquet of twenty lady's slippers, the genitalia of spring, which are an endangered species in these parts. They sat on my desk in a paper cup and gave me great joy. The following year our spring woods, devoid of any such mauve, gave me an ever greater thrill.
The book whose every page is turned by Satan's breath! The most ill-mannered, violent, demented book ever written--and by a lady!--can you guess? No, Mary, you're much too dull to know I mean Wuthering Heights. And need I remind you of the opening lines of Chapter Ten: "A charming introduction to a hermit's life! Four weeks' torture, tossing, and sickness!"
How many books have I read? Only one--just as everyone who is literate on this earth has read only one book, or, to be precise, is in the process of reading the one book they will complete in this lifetime. That book is the particular sum of every book they have ever read written in the particular order in which those books were read. The book is never the same, for no two persons have ever read exactly the same books in exactly the same order. There is a great difference between The Secret of Larkspur Lane followed by Anna Karenina and Anna Karenina followed by The Secret of Larkspur Lane. And if What One Can Do With A Chafing Dish happens to fall between...I don't mean to insult the genetic researchers, but I have a hunch that if no two people are alike, this is why.
What makes tow illiterates unalike? But there are no illiterates! What you call an illiterate is simply someone who has the time to read the greatest books of all--a bush, a bird, a toe--so that the same principle of a single book applies. In fact, the difference you seek is between those who don't understand what they read, and those who do. Now I ask you, to which of these persons does the greatest pleasure belong? That is the interesting question. I'll give you a hint: it is my great pleasure to know such an illiterate. Mary, have I ever misled you?
Mary asked which were the worst years of his life. "Well, there have been two bad years--1951 and again in 1976. Particularly dry springs--no morels, my dear."
Late Breaking News
My latest occasion of panic was not so far removed from the first; ten days ago I realized I was sobbing in a Saab.
It May Be
It may be, in an occasional pew, wisdom independent of thought arises: you ought to think deeply about this. There are not...as I once thought...a variety of ways in which we think. I began to worry that I was thinking less and fantasizing more. Until I realized that all thinking was fantasy--the reductionist, structuralist, logician, the computer and the dreamer...they are all fantasizing!
You should know there have been several opinions as to what makes the homo sapien distinct. But I think these can be safely reduced to three:--his ability to think symbolically, or metaphorically if you are a nit-picker,--his ability to be bored, which supports a basic non-utilitarian nature,--and his capacity, in all ages and in all places, for intoxication; the corn, palm, sugarcane, vine, curl of the tobacco leaf, poppy unfurled! The holy trinity of what makes man man, woman woman: isn't it sad and ridiculous that according to such criteria the classic human being would be the bored drunk writing poetry? And if I may carry the results further we may distill the distinctions to poetry alone, which first intoxicates and then bores.
That I am not an electron--lightest of all particles--lightest and lightest of mass--and still to be!
There are only two tombs: the tomb of Jesus and the tomb of Tut. Roll away one stone and you will be given everything: food, clothing, shelter: gems, cloth, seeds and oil, a replica of the world in pure gold. Roll away the other stone and there's nothing.