In the poem that inspired the title of this blog, W. S. Merwin describes his computer as the machine that “takes the world away.” We “have forgotten / what is remembered altogether,” he says. We “have eyes but not the seeing.”
I think of Merwin as I see the traces of your passing here. They look like this:
Also the woman I saw yesterday, sitting alone at the Venezuelan restaurant, with her exquisite clothes and perfect cheekbones, slinging her smartphone like some modern-day Annie Oakley. The twenty-somethings clustered at their favorite brunch spots, waiting both for tables to open and, singly, for their social media sites to load. The two young men here at my neighborhood Starbucks this morning, hunched over their table and over their phones, thumbs scrolling and scrolling, foreheads practically touching.
I have this metaphor to which I revert in weak moments: the bottomless well. You lower the bucket to dip from it a cool drink of water. It drops and drops. The handle turns. Nothing.
So you take something from a pocket. Maybe it’s a nondescript stone that you picked up along the Camino de Santiago, memento of a pilgrimage that saved your life. Or a note written in minuscule letters along the margin of Flaubert’s The Sentimental Education, a lover’s secret words that you later ripped carefully from the page and kept for years. Or it’s a small plastic toy, to all appearances a piece of dross, but in fact a token given you by a beloved child on a day when, for a moment or two, you found yourself standing outside your life and marveling at the way it sparkled, at the way this child, reaching for your hand, could make it seem important, even essential.
You take from your pocket one of these “signs of a sole moment of someone’s passage” and cast it into the well. It falls and falls. You wait and wait. Nothing.
I recognize a danger that like blogging, this short stay in New York could take on the aspect of that bottomless well. Bob Dylan is supposed to have said that “New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Will Barrett, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, has this experience:
Breakfast in the diner and back to the turnpike and on their way again. Down and out of the storm and into the pearly light of morning, another beautiful day and augh there it was again: the Bronx all solid and sullen from being the same today as yesterday, full of itself with lumpish Yankee fullness, the bricks coinciding with themselves and braced against all comers. Gravity increased. Down into the booming violet air, of Park Avenue they crept, under the selfsame canopy and into the selfsame lobby and over the sleeping Irishman and into the elevator …
Different and yet the same. The challenge always to wrench from a seemingly indifferent world the determined confidence of the searcher, the immediacy of infinite possibility, the unflagging hope of true reciprocity.
Anyway. Here is the lovely scene across the street from us. It’s The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, chartered in 1817 and built on land that had been an apple orchard! I take it as a good omen, that we’re situated next to a preschool and across from a seminary. Children, as well as people who are committing their lives to what they hope and understand will be a higher purpose. Searchers all, in their own ways. I feel I have landed in good company.