When one is alone a lot, as I am, one thinks about things. I mean, I might be reading an article and a word or a thought reminds of something and then that leads to something else and suddenly I find myself mulling something that has nothing to do with what I am ostensibly reading. Yesterday I got my latest New Yorker and, as is my wont, I began reading it from front to back – rereading all the synopses of current Broadway plays and films available at certain esoteric locations around New York City, and the letters to the editor and so forth, and today I started an article on the artistic director or whatever it is of a fashion house of which I have never previously heard. I read these things (the article preceding was on the Vatican Library) because the writers published in the New Yorker are so gifted that everything is interesting when one of them writes about it.
The first mental digression occurred right off the bat because there was a photograph of the subject of the article - a German named Tomas Maier, whose first name is really Thomas, but which he altered for reasons which he justifies one way, but which I suspect really boils down to an attempt to make himself interesting. The article described him as looking like a “hipster monk” (one trick of writing for the New Yorker is to master the art of oxymoronic descriptives), so I was interested to see the actual photo of the man, and, by gosh, he DOES sort of look monkish in a roughly good-looking way. What I noticed particularly, though, is that he has beautiful hands, and it was this that got me off into one of my usual tangential reveries.
When I was younger, I thought of beautiful hands as those which occurred in paintings, rather than the actual appendages of breathing humanity. I refer to those medieval depictions of the Virgin or saints with the gently arched fingers which give no hint of actual musculature within. There is the graceful hand of Michelangelo’s Virgin in his Pietà, or those various depictions of Jesus or of saints with hands having the two first fingers raised and the thumb extended. Sitters for portraitists seemed, before 1880, to drape their hands nervelessly in ‘beautiful’ formations. But some years ago, I began to realize that when I see someone whose hands look attractive to me, the attraction lies in the strength and utility that is exhibited. I like hands that look like they can – and do – perform actual work. Fingers should look strong and capable. Most people think, consciously or not, that their mother’s hands are beautiful; certainly I do. I like looking at my mother’s hands, there is history in them. Even now, I see the fingers that held Kleenex when she commanded me to, “Blow!”, that held the hankies moistened with her own saliva to wipe spots off my face, that sprinkled flour over the greased cookie sheet, that grasped the handle of the kitchen pump to draw water from our cistern; and they look warm and able and beautiful and alive to me. I like men’s hands to look like they can grasp things. People talk of the unpleasantness of a limp handshake, but I don’t much care about the handshake; what is a real turn-off to me are limp hands themselves, and tentative, ineffectual gestures.
I turned the page in my article, and there in a space embraced by the article I was reading was a poem entitled “Crepuscular” by Kimberly Johnson. Now, ‘crepuscular’ is one of those words I have to look up again each time I see it, because I never remember from one time to the next what it means – even in a general sense. It is certainly one of the ugliest words in all of English with its overtones of scabs and pustules and general crustiness, at least in the spelling and pronunciation. I am pretty sure it is nothing of the sort (I pause here to look it up AGAIN). There! I knew it! It means something beautiful: twilight – how did something so lovely as twilight (or the pertinence thereto) get an ugly word like crepuscular, which sounds like it should be applied to urban decay or gangrenous sores?
At any rate, as soon as I came to the end of my current paragraph, I read the poem which I rather liked. But there was a line that again sent me wandering – a tangent within a tangent – that spoke of autumn sunlight:
“…That’s what the sun does
In autumn, slanting southward and brownly
Between the hunched houses of the neighborhood.”
What struck me, besides the fact that I liked the poem, and this fit right in, was that I had been thinking just yesterday very specifically about how the light of winter was different and how the light of early morning is so full of hope and promise, while the light of late afternoon is so different, even though each is hitting the earth at the same angle, only from different directions. Is it because I know one is morning light and the other evening? They seem to look different; evening light seems to have more gold in it, as if a little blood had spilled into the silver gilt of the light that morning brought. Autumn and winter light (like the ‘beautiful’ hands of old paintings) seem to hold no power, no oomph, as though the sun had a headcold and was just going through the motions. In a larger sense, it seems eerie that something I think of one day out of a clear blue sky (so to speak) shows up in my reading or conversation or TV viewing the very next day. It seems to happen all the time.
When I think about things, such as the above, I find myself composing paragraphs about them. I am rather poor at visualizing things I haven’t actually seen, for instance picturing a forest or beach or whatever. (I can never picture my green summer yard when it is winter, or my barren winter yard in summer.) I have to think of a particular beach or forest, and then I wind up all tied up mentally with what happened there or with whom I went there. I think in words and although I see the people and places about which I dream when asleep, there is an element of narrative, of being slightly aloof or at one remove from what is going on. The lead character in my dreams, the “I” person, is frequently not me. I know the thoughts and emotions of the dreamer but he, or sometimes she, is not the me I know when I am awake – we differ in appearance and age, in motive, in our concerns, our remembered histories. I have attributed much of my descriptive or narrative abilities, such as they are, to the need when I was younger to hide, and to pose as someone I am not. In this sense, my past was a gift. Many of the painful periods of any life are gifts in disguise, very costly gifts, it is true, but once the rough stuff is past, there is a wonderful pool of awareness that is left in which to bathe. It seems to be every parent’s aim to shelter his child from the very things that made that parent so spectacular. “I don’t want my kid to suffer like I did,” is a two-edged sword. The desire that one’s child have a better life than one’s own kind of depends on the definition of ‘better’. People do not love chocolate for its sweetness alone. It is that tiny edge of bitterness that makes the sweetness special.
And now, if I am not to add this New Yorker to the guilt stack of those I have not finished, I must return to my reading. See how I never get from A to B without a detour? Now, Mr. Maier, if we may resume…
Oh and one more digression (in case I mysteriously disappear from Blogland). I am, as we speak, drinking coffee lightened by CoffeeMate from a huge can which, when I got it home, appeared to have been previously opened. I thought of all those articles about product tampering, and then I thought about all the hassle of returning this can or the cost of throwing it out, and I did the math. Besides, isn't it as likely that someone hid an emerald ring inside the can as a shot of anthrax? Live for the moment, say I, and the moment doesn't seem to call for a trip back to Sam's Club. So if I am not here tomorrow, it wasn't the emerald ring...