blog aboutnewsmusicpoetrytypepurchasecontact


Holy Smokes

Sometimes when we think something is really remarkable, we call it holy. We respond to the shock of an astonishing event with ironic phrases like "holy cow," "holy mackerel," "holy shit," and so on. I think "holy smokes" must be an exception to the irony of the phraseology, because smokes can indeed be holy, and often are, as in the sacred smoke of ritual incense. Flying ought to be one of the holiest of remarkable moments. Think of it! Just the thought of looking down on the clouds is enough to take your breath away. My God! Look at all those holy smokes!

My flight was delayed. I think a delayed flight is one of the ultimate exercises in stillness. The thwarted expectation of speed. Instead of hurtling to your destination, being greeted by the strangely static terminal (what a term) all full of motion and frenzy but not itself really going anywhere. It's anathema to travel. The station. The place that stays put. Two hours delayed. I call the director of the symposium I'm attending this week to tell him I'll be late. He seems relatively unfazed. Two hours pass... delayed again. I'll have to spend the night at my next layover. Holy shit, this is going to really still.

We board, finally, and I'm sitting in front of a middle aged man. He's anything but still. He seems excited—talking to his children who barely respond. His topics of public rumination include the usual concerns of a 40-something American man: junk food, drill bits, plumbing, cancer. He seems preoccupied by the fact that airplanes don't have headlights. He mentions this a few times. No response from his children. "I'll be going to sleep now. Nudge me if I snore." He immediately feigns snoring. No laughs. It's almost 11:00PM now. The topic is  twizzlers.

The plane is brand new, with sparkling plastic inlays and soft gradient lighting. The roof of the cabin is arched with whalebone-like structural supports, and is illuminated by soft lighting emanating from bulbs nestled in the molding. It looks like a planetarium at twilight. The boy next to me is quiet as he peruses a magazine. He is trying sudoku without a pencil. He stares for a while. No luck. He'll try the crossword soon, also without luck. As we leave the ground, the lights of cities look like volcanic magma seeping out of fissured earth. The branching patterns of roads and houses appear as rivers, glowing, red-orange.

The ventilation systems are pumping cool air, laden with moisture. It looks like soft fog rolling across the cabin roof, completing the crepuscular simulation. As we ascend, I listen to the sounds of voices around me, an awkward counterpoint of inflection and affectation. I imagine the plane opening up like a flower, breaking apart in a brilliant corolla of splintered metal and plastic. I imagine the strange patterns all our bodies will make in the air, like bits of scattered pollen. I imagine we'd be able to swim around and find one another. They say when you free-fall, it feels like you're weightless. The moments before skydivers activate their parachutes are moments of total stillness, even though they are moving at incredible speed. I imagine the artificial smoke and light of the cabin giving way to the real solar light and earthly smoke of heaven. I imagine the polyphony of our bodies as we fall, suspended midair, almost convinced that we're motionless... the way the lines of the most florid organum interlock and sound like a continuous, homogenous whole.

The man behind me is asleep now.
"Son, help me with this tray table... I can't reach it..."
"Dad, it's right in front of you."
"I can't reach it..."
"Don't do that! My arm will get caught!"
"Dad, I'm not doing anything."
"Ow!! Ouch! My arm!!"
When we land in San Francisco, I will probably sleep. I think I will probably dream about tomorrow, the work of singing and writing, of dressing and eating and meeting. But maybe I'll be especially still tonight because I'm at an airport. Maybe I'll dream of holy smokes.


The Importance of Being Earnest

"Remember those Attic stelae, how amazed you were at the caution
of human gestures; at the way love and parting were
so lightly laid on their shoulders, as if made of other stuff" 
(Rilke, from the Duino Elegies)
I have been meaning to write this for a while. Today it became necessary. The supermoon demanded it! And so also my heart has demanded it (and I'm not entirely convinced that they're not one and the same).

I was talking with a good friend yesterday about the difficulty of the singularity of minds. The idea that you can never really "know" someone because you can never see through their eyes or know their thoughts. This is not a radical concept, we've all thought about it, and a lot of cultural and social behavior is predicated on the addressing this conundrum. Humans, for whatever reason, have a deep desire to communicate their thoughts and ideas to others. We highly value the ability to communicate: the novelist, the artist, the politician, the poet, the musician—all are valued. Their job is to tell us something from inside themselves that we can't see or hear or know for ourself. We see a Platonic cave-shadow of it in their creations and their words. And that comforts us, somehow making us feel less alone... because we have those same thoughts and feelings. We love things because we identify with them.

Recently I have been frustrated with the seeming reticence to share these feelings suddenly and earnestly, and I was struck with a profoundly disturbing thought—maybe even more disturbing than the original solipsistic realization: what is the point of withholding true admissions of experience?

This might sound needlessly philosophical... let me try to put it into more colloquial terms. How many times have you looked at a tree in a certain light and just wanted to cry? How many times have you heard a song and actually cried but told no one? How many times have you wanted to tell someone how much you wanted/liked/loved them but held back because social convention taught you that you shouldn't (and later cried)? Tears are wordless admissions of overwhelming experience. And we systematically hide them.

Two pet peeves come to mind. The first is when people say that they don't "get" poetry or modern art because they don't understand it or it's "over their head." This is a profound fallacy because poetry and art are evocative. They are not, at their core, meant to be dissected in some kind of academic or learned way (if a piece is designed with this in mind, I argue that the artist is doing it wrong, but that's another topic for another day/year/lifetime). The point of E.E. Cummings is to simply wash over you and soak every inch of your soul until you explode/faint/die. The point of Rothko is not to make you understand ratios or colors. Rothko himself said,
"[My interest is] only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. ...[I]f you [...] are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point."
This is not to say that a depth of context cannot or does not enhance the experiential phenomenon of communicative arts. Knowing Bach's religious ideals can certainly enhance the theological appeal of his cantatas, but I am not fully convinced that it enhances their aesthetic value. The point of a poem or a painting or a tree is not to educate you—education, after all, is nothing more than amassing knowledge (i.e. contrived names and descriptions) that make you feel more comfortable about how or why a thing exists. Education doesn't abate the astonishment of existence itself. Instead, the point is to simply be changed by the thing. To interact with it. To be destroyed and remade made by it in an instant. People tend to understand this better with music and less with poems and least of all with people.

Here's the actual thing, and it brings me to my second big pet peeve: why is it that saying "I love you" is such a huge deal? Why do people freak out if someone says it and it's "too soon"? How can it ever be too soon to love? What exactly are you waiting for? Heck, I fell in love with the moon last night. And there's a good chance that I might at any given time be in love with four people that I've never met. And yet, I hardly ever admit it. I keep it to myself and I fault others when they won't say it. On the few occasions when I do decide to share my explosive feelings (a certain episode comes to mind involving birds which may or may not still be happening) I am often greeted with "calm down," or "don't be so bombastic."
Birds are the doom of golden twilight.
Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable.


And how can I not fall in love with you? Have you ever stopped to think about what you are? The need to communicate this is simultaneously overwhelming and stifling... Rilke says,

"Lovers, if they only understood, might speak wondrously
in the night air. For everything, it seems,
seeks to conceal us. Look: the trees exist; the houses
we dwell in stand there stalwartly. Only we
pass it all by, like a rush of air."

And why? Why?? I'm serious, what are we protecting? Our hearts? Protecting them from what? I honestly earnestly can't think of a single thing, not even to sarcastically supplant here. Don't tell me we're guarding it from rejection or pain or sorrow. We will feel that regardless of admission. We're human.

I had a conversation with one of my best friends about a year ago. In it we bemoaned how everyone thinks we're stoic and unfeeling when in fact we are daily overwhelmed by everything small and strange. "If you or I acted the way we felt every day, everyone would think we were insane. We'd be crying on street-corners. We have to hide our feelings because no one would understand us if we didn't." I think, now, that that choice was deeply misguided. Leading my friends to think that I am unsympathetic to emotion because of my deep-seated rational nature only invalidates the many feelings we share. Worse still, it further isolates us from one another. It is denial, and it can't be good for our hearts. I cannot do it anymore.

In her luminous novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, 
"I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm."
Perhaps we are doing great harm by denying ourselves the freedom to honestly disclose when we love or when our ineffable experience leaves us fainthearted and wordless. One last thought from Rilke:
"slowly one becomes unaccustomed to earthly things,
in the gentle way one leaves a mother's breast. But we, who need
such great mysteries, for whom so often blessed progress
springs from grief—: could we exist without them?"
No, I don't believe we could. And why would we want to? Let's not become unaccustomed to earthly things. Let's be continually astonished by their always mystery and never admonish one another when we admit it.