Way Through The Darkness
In case you failed to notice, a spectacular moon hung over the Sandhills much of this week.
Unfortunately, I noticed. The moon and I are old friends and occasional adversaries, depending on the state of the world and my workload at the moment.
When she spills her silvery light on this world, I find myself energized, unable to sleep, a little on edge, teeming with thoughts, besieged by gremlins of silly worry. This week's Super Moon and her afterglow amounted to a Super Bowl of such things.
I say "her" because like the ancients of every land, I have no doubt that the moon is a powerful feminine force, the ruler of tides and the sky-bound clock by which our forebears planted their spring corn, the giver of "wise blood" as the ancient Greeks and Romans believed.
Early Christians mocked the pagans who celebrated the moon goddess Luna - the regulator of time and cycles of birth and death - as "lunatics," owing to their moon-struck behavior in her light. Scottish maidens once preferred to marry on days of the full moon, believing this assured them long and prosperous matrimony. The ancient Vedas - the oldest Scriptures of Hinduism - claim all souls return to the moon after death to await rebirth.
"The effects of the moon are similar to the effects of wisdom and reasons," wrote Plutarch, "whereas those of the sun appear to be brought about by physical force and violence."
Anyway, in more modern parlance, the dang thing keeps me up - or, more accurately, wakes me up and won't let me return to sleep without paying some kind of homage. Nothing on TV will suffice. I usually find myself reaching for old favorite books with underlined parts.
Stirred by the light of a sleepless moon, I've learned to go with the flow of the tides, so to speak, to get up and read until sleep reclaims its own.
So Tuesday night, when I popped awake suddenly worrying about everything I had either left undone or forgotten to do, or what unforeseen calamities might befall those I love or the planet at large, I hoisted myself to the vertical. Trailed by a small, moon-struck herd of two dogs and two cats, I went downstairs to make a cup of my wife's new favorite herb tea, something called "Mangosteen and Peach Green Tea."
As the herd and I waited in the kitchen for the kettle to boil, I spotted the latest issue of the new Newsweek magazine lying on the kitchen counter.
This issue - a rebirth of the venerable newsmagazine under Tina Brown - boasted an all-star cast of my favorite writers, including Simon Winchester, Paul Theroux and Stephen King.
To judge by its cover, though, it was hardly ideal reading by the light of a restless moon, depicting a sinister tidal wave headlined with blood-red letters: "Apocalypse Now - Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Nuclear Meltdowns. Revolutions. Economies on the Brink. What the #@%! Is Next?"
Nothing like a little herb tea and light reading to calm the restless mind, I always find, so I dove right in.
Theroux's eerily beautiful essay on Japan's latest nightmare - fine prose carpentered around a moonscape of incomprehensible rubble, images of cars on roofs and grandparents huddled in blankets - charts the psychic toll that the world's largest recorded earthquake and tsunami enacted on Japan's fabled reserve and composure.
Among the gems of insight he offers is writer Haruki Murakami's reflection on the aftereffects of the economic tsunami that struck back in 1991 and 1992, when vast fortunes were lost, followed a short time later by the Kobe earthquake and the Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway.
"Before '95, to get rich was everything," Murakami writes in his book "Underground," "but hard work didn't bring us to a better place. We found that money is not the answer. We had goals. We achieved them, but the achievement didn't bring us happiness. ... But now, in its reaching out, and in the generous way the world has responded, Japan has a human face - a wounded one, much like the rest of humanity in times of crisis. We are never more human than when we are afraid."
'Lifting of a Veil'
While the herd enjoyed a 2 a.m. snack in their assigned bowls, I went on to read Simon Winchester's delightful piece about how the real lost city of Atlantis - described by Plato as having been swallowed whole by the sea 9,000 years ago after some cataclysmic event - may have finally been located off the coast of Spain. The latest theory is that the mythical city suffered a similar fate to that of Japan's Sendai, proving there's really nothing new, disaster-wise, under the sun or moon.
I moved on to Stephen King's review of Kate Winslet's splendid HBO remake of James M. Cain's scheming "Mildred Pierce," for which flinty Joan Crawford won an Oscar in 1946. ("I wouldn't sit on her toilet," Bette Davis reportedly quipped.) Then I plowed on to a pair of cheery accounts of how most of California's nuclear plants are built directly over major fault lines and how there are no sources of energy that don't exact a terrible toll on our planet in some form or another.
I finished my kitchen reading by taking the U.S. Citizenship test (whew, passed with 21 out of 25 question correct), then let the herd out for a moonlit romp in the yard.
Paul Theroux is right, of course. We are never more human than when we're afraid - whether at 2 a.m. with a cup of Green Tea Mangosteen or under the blazing noonday sun.
But doesn't that say something reassuring about humankind's ability to find its way through the darkness to a better world? Theroux finishes his essay on Sendai's nightmare by quoting Bulgarian novelist and Nobel laureate Elias Canetti on fear: "Once [fear] has been overcome, it turns to hope."
These days there's no shortage of modern soothsayers proclaiming or peddling some form of apocalypse now. The word from its original Greek, by the way, does not mean the end of the world - merely the "lifting of a veil" or even human enlightenment.
In the Depths, Hope
When I briefly flipped on the TV to check the weather forecast for this week's splendid Palustris Festival, I found myself watching a bearded imp in a flashy suit selling a "Guide to the Rapture" that came with a special "anointed prayer cloth" assuring the purchaser a citizenship in the New Jerusalem, exactly the kind of thing the Catholic Church was selling to Crusaders on their way to butcher Moslems in the old Jerusalem 900 years ago. How far we've come. Or maybe not.
On a separate channel, two men were discussing how the Sendai earthquake may have knocked the earth off its rotational axis and caused the poles to shift - all predicted by Mayan apocalypse coming in 2012.
I switched off the boob tube and found myself reaching for an old moonlit favorite, Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis," the rambling and bitter and brilliantly extended letter he wrote to a friend from the desolation of a prison cell after he'd been stripped of everything he valued: money, fame and reputation.
At the bottom of life's well, to no surprise, Wilde found God, or at least hope, in the form of Jesus' imaginative power to transform, making sorrow into sacred ground.
"He [Jesus] realized in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of art is the sole secret of creation," Wilde wrote to his friend Lord Douglas. "He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich. How remote were you from what Matthew Arnold calls the 'Secret of Jesus.' Either would have taught you that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at nighttime, for pleasure or for pain, write upon the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, 'Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.'"
A Veil Lifting?
Yawning a bit, I vaguely wondered, not for the first time, whether the world will end in either fire or ice or possibly none of the above. What we imagine, a famous Scottish preacher once said to me, is what we are destined to become.
This in turn reminded me of the short poem "Imagination" by John Davidson, the gifted son of a Rewfrenshire minister who wound up flinging himself into the sea just over 100 years ago this month - one of his age's finest poets and a sad loss, according to an admiring Yeats.
In my moonlit state of mind, Davidson's words struck me as a useful message for Palustris week - and maybe a troubled world where the veil may finally be lifting.
There is a dish to hold the sea,
A brazier to contain the sun,
A compass for the galaxy,
A voice to wake the dead and done!
That minister of ministers,
Imagination, gathers up
The undiscovered universe,
Like jewels in a Jasper cup.
Its flame can mingle north and south;
Its accent with the thunder strive;
The ruddy sentence of its mouth
Can make the ancient dead alive.
The mart of power, the font of will,
The form and mold of every star,
The source and bound of good and ill,
The key of all the things that are.
Imagination, new and strange,
In every age, can turn the year;
Can shift the poles and lightly change
The mood of men, the world's career.
I woke in my armchair to the sound of the bird who thoughtfully begins her song a few minutes before dawn outside our bedroom window each morning from March to November. Maybe she returns from someplace, like winged hope itself.
Oddly rested, I got up to let in the herd patiently waiting by the terrace door for their official breakfasts, greeted by an old world beginning anew, though it may well have been on account of the splendid Mangosteen Green Tea.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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