THE THEATER OF IGNORANCE
All night the weather kept waking me with snow plows grating on the pavement. I tossed and turned, twisted the covers around me and kneaded the pillow like bread dough. It was hard work lying there, knowing the snow would fall all night and into the morning, and the cars would come by splashing up slush on the way to work. An ocean moved above us,
just over the roof, heavy and bloated with pent up frozen rage. It was like being under the Hindenburg before it burst into flames over Manchester. A logy heaven drunk on its own inertia, with nowhere to go, no wind to pull it toward a destination. Just mountains of icy pebbles wanting to fall and melt away in the stony ground. March came in like a lion, but refused to let the lamb graze on its brittle pastures.
I’m told a cherry-picker arrived one afternoon last week to refresh the straw on the osprey pole. It had turned to mush all winter long and was now fetid. So a man raked off the topmost layer and replaced it with dry grass, and the pole lay there like a spear plunged into the ribs of heaven. But no osprey came around. It was still too cold, too unsettled to make one’s way this far north to lay her eggs and share the incubation with her mate. The deer roamed around in the denser thickets, having survived a hunting season of arrows, muzzle-loaded rifles, shotguns in its annual war with the human kingdom. The does were fat and snugly wrapped in fur, and the fawns were spindly ballerinas wobbling behind their mothers.
I had to drag the front door open to get to the car. The path was buried under a shag rug of snow drift and my feet sunk down into it as I made my staggering way. I wanted to go to town, to buy a paper, some groceries, maybe a few tomatillos for an omelet, an avocado to be salted and drowned in lemon juice. I was inspired by these needs as I slid behind the wheel, cranked the engine, and backed out with all four wheels grinding on the ice. The road was empty, and I crawled along under the flocked trees, the silver-grey sky peppered with a few crows out for the hunt. I was alone in this slag of seasonal waste, this glistening wilderness of late winter. As usual, the town was slumbering through the morning; hardly a soul was stirring out of their warm houses. Even the cannabis dispenser was without a customer looking for his daily high. But overhead was the lattice work of black branches and the polka dots of wandering sparrows. For some reason, the bright metallic glow of the heavens made me feel good. I drove along listening to a symphony pounding out some militant thumping music to celebrate the imperialist urges of its original patrons.
I just finished teaching The Sun. Also Rises to a tiny group of elderly widows and one younger ex-vet who had been to Iraq for a tour or two. They thanked me cordially for showing them that there was more to bullfighting than a matador stabbing some hapless onrushing bull foaming at the nostrils. I had made the case that maybe there was a buried religion to it all, a Mithraic bull worship from early Roman times. It kept my brain in tune to take on these seminars for a few weeks instead of watching documentaries on the TV. Meanwhile, I observed the emergence of a new generation of autocrats polishing their oratory to take on Trump in ’24, among then, the puffed out rooster of Ron DeSantis, who would rewrite history as an uninterrupted renaissance of white supremacy without a history of slavery or genocide or aggressions against our Latin neighbors. How easy it is to scrub away the printed record and write over it with a free hand to flaunt your manliness. He has quite a following in Florida, poor souls. No one knows how often these tragic errors of judgment will be repeated until some reversal makes us all ashamed of our loneliness and desperation for a father figure.
The earth reminds us that nothing much changes in the years we use up and give back. It tells us to take a breath, sit back, observe and learn as best we can how the stillness is an epic story unfolding with the slowness of an owl’s vigilance on a tree limb. Nothing disturbs its wakeful patience. There are no straight lines in nature, just one intricate curve within another, all leading nowhere but the next moment. The air circulates among these ornate structures that thrive in the emptiness of time. A child picks her way delicately through the weeds, touching the petal of a flower and gently stroking the long neck of a wild onion stalk. She peers into the glowing pocket of a marsh rose, pink and solitary on a wobbling stem. She moves on to the bumble bee, who ignores her as he prods all the crumbs of nectar buried in the yellow funnel of a tansy ragwort. She is a flash of light, ephemeral and delicate, part of some vast pattern of repetition that spreads the inevitable force of desire throughout the world. Girls come in waves to the shore, like Aphrodite, every generation offering to the land the beauty of her symmetry and slender elegance. Her coming of age is greeted by a full moon, and her marriage is celebrated as the dawn of motherhood. But all this is folded into a pocket so small not even an amoeba can fit into it.
We must let such matters evaporate behind the eyes. They are too complicated to understand. Better to clear the mind altogether of the distractions of events, the pulse of reality as it performs its dance on the first leaves of spring. We know nothing and can learn little from our close study. We are orphans of a fragile existence, with parents who have long since set us free from their grip. We watch the freight train struggle over a trestle bridge on its way to a steel mill lugging ore in its huge gondolas. It is driven by the illusion that we can change the world to fit our will and imagination. But in truth, the oxide in the iron girders is already turning the skin into rust and eating away at the rivets that are the glue of our passion. Ivy grows quietly at the foot of a stone pillar and winds itself around the powerful sinews of rock and cement. It’s roots gnaw with tiny teeth at its permanence. The sand drifts in from the desert and begins to inter the pyramids built to last forever. One day the dunes will cover a whole city and hold it securely in the tomb of indifference.
Such musings occupy my entire time shopping for my meager provisions. I come home with a shopping bag half full of produce and jars of pickles, a bottle of blueberry jam, a tin of anchovies. I long to taste a mouthful of tabouleh from when I used to eat with my mother in the bright dining room of our Beirut apartment. That time, lost in the ancient brocade of history, is gone forever. The mortar shells that raked over the balcony I once stood on while I gazed out at the Mediterranean glinting below me have left me with only the thinnest relics of memory. I hardly know what happened to Juliet, our maid, mother of four children, a small-boned earnest Moslem woman, her pious soul aching to know the God of the desert, working to polish the tile floor, making tabouleh in the kitchen, shopping at the souk, getting her hundred dollar payment at the end of each month. Where is she now?
I let the past haunt me because I have nothing else to think about. I drive home slowly, with the other cars weaving around looking for the chance to pass me. They want to rush the future into their eyes, to gobble what is to happen next in order to feel some flimsy element of control in their otherwise wayward lives. I let them pass. I move over to the right shoulder as much as I can. I do not want to preach to them about the futility of taming the universe. Infinity roams to the edges of human wonder and soars beyond, and leaves me in my atomic moment randomly moving among other molecules on their way to some unrealizable dream.
I am not a pessimist, even if my thoughts might suggest it. I merely ponder the extent to which space dwarfs me and leaves me powerless on the rim of some vast unknowable sea of mystery. And when I gaze up over the hood of the car and see the mountains beginning to rise above the horizon, I am reassured that I cannot grasp their immensity in words. One can only hint and suggest and then, quietly, with modest shrugs of my shoulders, admit that I have written volumes of approximations and abstract arguments for what contradicts me the moment I think I am done arguing. This is the great theater of ignorance I perform in daily, delivering my soliloquies to the empty chairs.