This morning, I am scrubbed as raw as a peeled potato. Life always does that to me. It’s not death that’s the problem, exactly. We all get one of those apiece. It’s being alive, and the awful knowledge that, as Porky Pine once said to Albert Alligator, “It ain’t nowhow permanent.”
And fiction, particularly “serious” fiction, is about as protective as a potato peeler. I have spent the morning with John Cheever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Toni Morrison. They are not, on the whole, the companions one might wish for on a day like this, when the sky itself weeps, and the sun is dark, and I have shattered my own routine because its bars have, like those of a cage, suddenly become visible to me.
In a couple of hours, I will poke my students in the brain, if possible, about “Gimpel the Fool” and the prophet Hosea, and about the surreal, plastic world of “The Swimmer” as Neddy Merrill leaves his past floating behind him in the Lucinda River. We will talk about the nature of reality and truth and possibly somebody will have that moment of insight where he or she will realize that Gimpel is not really a fool and Neddy is not really swimming home.
It just seems a little pointless today. This rain outside is a steady downpour, tapping on the new leaves of the pear tree. In our tiny town, we are awash in broken hearts this morning following the untimely death of one of our own. We do not need to read Sula to understand loss. I wish I could give it all a miss, stay home, play the piano, pray. Poetry comes to my rescue. Here, in violation of any number of laws, is what helps:
The Summer Day Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?