Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Past the Midway

This wind moves slowly, hesitantly. Dry grass whispers. Nothing else moving in all this empty country.

When Dante gets to the very bottom of Hell, there is only one way to go on: he has to climb down the body of Satan, who is locked in the ice there. He climbs down and then suddenly he's climbing up. He's gone through. Now he's in Purgatory, at the base of a great mountain. What was down is up, what was up is down.

It's a powerfully imagined moment. Spoiled for me, the first time I read it, by my superimposition of my own civilization's idea of how gravity works. Of course, I thought, at the center of the Earth, supposing there could be a nicely un-pressurized space down there, you'd simply be weightless; all the gravitational forces would balance out. So I completely missed the incredible vertigo of that conception. I don't know whether it's originally Dante's notion, or somebody else's, but the daring of it rivals Newton's. It's actually very similar to Newton's: it's daring to think, "what if 'up' isn't fixed and universal?"

"Midway in my life's journey," begins Dante. Wherever I am in my own, I'm well past that. In the past ten years I've climbed past the Devil's waist. I'm headed for death now. And I'm climbing up, not down.

You can watch the wind, in empty grassland. It's rising now. It swirls and bends the grass in great sweeps and eddies. Roger Ascham wrote about how falling snow makes it possible to see the wind; grass does the same thing.

Hell is behind me, then. This is a different melancholy, one that doesn't occlude joy. The sadness of wasted time, of the huge weight of mistake and confusion that even this one brief life has accumulated. Memory, the Tibetans say, dies with the body. I'm grateful for that. It doesn't reincarnate. However the Buddha knew about his past lives, it wasn't by memory.

Not exactly raining, but the wind carries a wetness in it. A sting across my face.

Hail to the jewel in the grassland. Fare forward, you who think you are travelling. It's enough.

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