Thursday, February 15, 2007

Ordinary Light

Suddenly a morning of ordinary light and kindly rain. Sheltering clouds, a light-soaked gray coverlet protecting us from the sun. My heart opens to the sky.

No longer the threat of a debilitating flu. I have just a cold, a little comfortable headache and a runny nose.

There are these times, when the clamps of dread loosen -- moments of sanity, little harbors in uncharted islands where a tattered ship can refit. The voyage isn't over, and we don't know where we are or what we face next, but for now it's calm. Everyone agrees that we can find this place again, if need be, of course we can, and everyone sleeps well-satisfied, each confident that somebody else has taken the sun and written down the longitude and latitude.

The candle lights up the battered, indecipherable wooden face of the Buddha. Far, far from home, after years of knocking about the West as a tourist trinket, he came to rest in this house of huge, stocky, pink-faced Caucasians. They reverence him when it occurs to them. He wonders what exactly they mean when they make their three bows. Not what his own people meant, that's for sure.

The draft from the hall stirs the unblessed Chenrezig thanka. Bordered by unravelling fabric, likewise far from home -- an impulse charity buy to benefit a down-on-its-luck community of Tibetan exiles in India. He carries a "jewel," in one of his four hands, that looks very like the sort of smooth, large black beach pebble that massage therapists use for hot stone treatments. I salute him when I come up the stairs, placing the snuff-surface of my hand to my forehead. I don't know where that gesture came from. Possibly it's just a variation on the greeting I picked up from a poster of Lenin when I was a teenager, a jaunty touch of the fingers to the forehead, and which I have used as a greeting and a farewell ever since.

Reading a book about Western advisors in China. An extraordinary bit about Norman Bethune, a doctor who worked himself to death giving medical care to the northern Communist resistance to the Japanese invasion, doing, at one time, some seventy operations in the course of forty hours. There are two photos in that section. One shows Bethune bending over an operating table with his Chinese assistants, a gaunt old man, looking to be in his seventies or eighties. (He was 47.) Within a year he was dead. His journal burns with happiness at being useful, at the mysteries of cutting up bodies, living at the intersections of death and life, the parts of bodies that can be kept alive and the parts that can't. Finally he knew what he was doing with his life. Finally he was expressing all of a lifetime's bound up love. Death was a trifling price to pay.

And then there is the picture of young Mao, his face alight with good humor, lolling somewhere with a friend, clearly also feeling himself useful, alive, and necessary. Nothing farther from the iconic, serene, impassive Mao of the posters could be imagined. This is a shrewd, mischievous young man, radiating vitality, kicking back with his buddies.

Somehow the two pictures go together. They form a set. A set of mutual incomprehension, of tangential love, of cutting and killing to make well, of the overwhelming impulse to have a life-story that makes sense.

Well. My story makes less and less sense, as it goes along, rocking ever more gently on the black water, gliding to some obscure resting place. I have tried fitfully to make some sense of it, but with no success. It is terribly beautiful, terribly incomplete. Love runs through me "like honey through a sieve." I am maudlin, unstable, unsound.

Happy Valentine's. Forgive a rambling love-letter. The gray light, the rain of my childhood, the February roses. You know.

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