Friday, 21 October 2011

the sea: wave 6


Lulled by the Sea’s roll and curl, its breath synced with mine, I return to my dream of floating far from land, the boat long gone, just me and the Sea and the sky. A me-shaped hole in the vastness of the Sea, two turbulences enmeshed with each other in a nameless place on no known map. The tight breath and anxious splash and oh-my-God of my earlier corkscrewing desire to stand up and out of the water and see where I am, to orient myself, are now released. Soft. My thoughts are fluid, nomadic, provisional: they flutter and drift and unravel in a waking that is brushed by wet sleep, carried on the currents of association, very small, very quiet, a slow swarm, the little by little suddenly. I have the impression the Sea can somehow hear my thoughts.

In the Mandaean sect in the region of the Iran-Iraq border, newly ordained priests marry a cloud, a stand-in for a wife in the other world. The Mandaeans’ holy scriptures tell the story of Dinanukht, half-man, half-book, who sits by the waters between the worlds and reads himself … (1)

Movement and transformation. The resilient persistence of matter, its survival, its memory - and yet the bottom line is that the only constant is mobility, change. It’s all circuits and flows in the mortality of forms, and the unpredictable migrations of their constituent parts. There are the remains of sea creatures in deserts and on mountain tops. Shells on Everest. And a tiny bead of sweat on a forehead might contain something of the exhaled vapour of another person or creature from long ago and far away. A glass of water here now is informed by the past. Perhaps it holds molecules evaporated from a glacier, a tree, tears, mist, snow, fog, ice, a cough, the gurgle of a new-born child ‘trailing clouds of glory’ or someone’s final sigh. Maybe even molecules from Archimedes’ bath water. Countless micro-moments of time, from yesterday or centuries ago on the other side of this blue ball, potentially co-existing in the same small container. The glass itself was once sand. It’s almost promiscuous, this co-mingling, and there’s joy in that thought.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will (2)

Researchers estimate that 12 million tons of Sahara dust drops out of the air onto the Brazilian rainforests of the Amazon basin every year. Great plume-like vortices of aeolian sand that rise from the desert and drift west, only the finest phosphate-rich particles making it across to South America. Shamans too ride on whirlwinds; the way out of the world, or into another world, is through the vortex … (3)

If we could only let go of our compulsion to dress transience in mourning, and instead confer value on impermanence and change, might we not inherit the earth? Why not lament (briefly) the very notion of permanence and move on? ‘God’, ‘Truth’, ‘Progress’ - looks to me like these are all cover stories, formative human delusions. Funny stories to tell ourselves, aren’t they – funny peculiar if not funny ha-ha. Let their heart-break go. Why not? It would be an act of kindness. Of realistic optimism. And an occasion for invention. We’ve been pointing in the wrong direction. Let’s use the fact of transience for our fictions. That’s the way to turn a death story into a life story. If you want to be remembered, give yourself away. La la laaaa la laaaa lalalaaaa, oh yes it will.

The words of Meister Eckhardt: ‘the humble man is he who is watered with grace’ …

Beginnings and endings, all endings in reality new beginnings. Hourglasses eternally emptying out and being turned over again and again. At first the Earth was a smouldering sphere condensed from interstellar gas, its atmosphere a toxic soup of hot vapour. For maybe half a billion years. Then eventually as the Earth began to cool it rained for maybe 12,000 years, and the Sea came into being ... As we fade and die, us humans, the hot-house internal fever of our living bodies begins to cool from its regular 98.6 degrees Farhenheit, and eventually we become food, then soil, then … The spilling of seeds …

In the past, when people died at home, a lighted match was applied to the big toe. The toe would blister whether the person was dead or still alive; but if they were dead, the blister would fill with gas and burst.

After he died, Alexander the Great was shipped back from Babylon in a vat of honey. Nelson came back to England from Trafalgar in a keg of rum. A temporary suspension, of matter and time.

There’s an invisible haze in the air and in the water – the water in that glass, this Sea, that sky-mountain cloud, in all water – a haze of stuff too small for these eyes to see: the dust of anything and everything, the ghostly traces of what is carried in the wind and the rain and the rivers and here, right here in the Sea. Dancing sediment. Ejecta. Dejecta. Rejecta. A kind of soil, life’s compost. Trace elements of Newton’s apple. Or of Darwin’s busy worms, their castings the source of his consolation and inspiration in his final years of life: blind machines for making soil (aren’t we all?); digestion as restoration, the life destruction makes possible. (‘Never say higher or lower’, Darwin once wrote in the margins of a book).  We regularly inhale air-borne fragments of vehicle tires. Possibly dinosaurs. Dodos. Certainly powdered insects’ wings. Powdered people. Debris dispersed and afloat and en route to who knows where. How to read and map and re-member these atomised histories, and our place in their foldings and unfoldings and becomings.  ‘Galloping horses of the departed century, I will consult ashes, stars, and flights of birds’. (4)

‘Air routinely carries intimate fragments of rug, dung, carcasses, leaves and leaf hairs, coral, coal, skin, sweat, soap, silt, pollen, algae, bacteria, spores, soot, ammonia, and spit, as well as salt crystals from ocean white-caps, dust scraped off distant mountains, micro bits of cooled magma from volcanoes and charred micro-fragments from tropical forest fires. These sorts of things can add up. At dusk the particles meet rising water vapour, stick together, and fall: that is when they will bury you. Soil bacteria eat what they can, and the rest of it stays put if there’s no wind. After thirty years, there is a new inch of topsoil … We live on dead people’s heads […] Time: you can’t chock the wheels. We sprout, ripen, fall, and roll under the turf again at a stroke: Surely, the people is grass […]’. (5)

A thousand years ago, in silent-order Benedictine monasteries, monks communicated through hand signals. If you wanted honey, you put your finger on your tongue. If you needed a candle, you blew on your index finger … Where are those breaths now?

It was said of Confucius, and there was no higher praise: He knows where the wind comes from. It was said of Lao-Tzu that he spent 81 years in the womb before being born …

Everything is still, everything moves. Floating here, treading water, pulled down by my body’s weight, buoyed up by a cushion of liquid. Up-down, gravity and lightness. The im/possible dance. Everything that is dances this dance. The structure of a day. Organic life cycles. Weather systems. Social histories. Religions. Civilisations. Mushroom cloud. Smoke from a cigarette. A glance. A memory, bursting to the surface like the fin of a fish, then gone. Every breath is in itself a wave, a weather system, a life cycle of rising up and falling away. The inhalation can be a falling away, the exhalation an effortless rising up. Body weather. The wind in my heart – the dust in my head. Internal oceans, deserts, fronts, cloud formations, floods, droughts, turbulences, seasonal lows and highs. A synoptic chart of the soul, written in and on the body. Upside down, inside out.

The wind in the trees, the oxygenated ocean of air in which we swim or sink; an economy of exchange, inside and outside touching and blurring, like lovers. The tree-like structures of the lungs, of blood vessel and nervous systems, of river deltas and tributaries, of lightning strikes, synaptic connectivities and divisions. The arc of a thought. Like lovers.

Resemblances, analogies, metaphors: ‘like’ does not collapse difference and create the same, for the in-between is unstable, potential, the coexistence of near and far, like and not-like, identity and difference. The Sea is like the sky, the desert like the Sea, only … different. Like is a gap. Everything happens in the gap. Mind the gap, you could fall into it.

It is said that when the philosopher Empedocles (the originator of the concept of the four elements: fire, air, water, earth) dived into the spurting liquid magma of Mt. Etna’s crater, his own ‘Eureka!’ moment at the age of 60 or was it 109, the volcano promptly spat out one of his bronze shoes …

Falling down. Falling sick. Sinking. Coming up for air.  Climbing back up. Standing up. Settling down. Falling in love. Free falling. Rising into love. Defying gravity. Gravity rises, lightness falls.

‘We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present’. (6)

Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on …

Treading water. Leaving no trace. A little dance written on the wind.

Did you know that camels, the great anomalously-shaped, grace-ful ‘ships of the desert’, the two-humped Bactrian model like mobile model mountain ranges, leave oh so delicate lotus pad-prints in the sand for the wind to wipe away? (7)

Everything is still, everything moves. Sea. Sand. Sky. Air. Pulse. Breath.

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will …


(1) Eliot Weinberger, ‘Mandaeans’, An Elemental Thing, New York: New Directions, pp. 100, 103.
(2) Sam Cooke, A Change is Gonna Come, 1964.
(3) Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Vortex’, An Elemental Thing, op. cit., 2007, p. 126.
(4) Czeslaw Milosz, ‘The Unveiling’ (from The Rising of the Sun), in Collected Poems: 1931-1987, London: Penguin, 1988, pp. 124, 153.
(5) Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, New York: Vintage Books, 1999, pp. 124, 153.
(6) Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, op. cit., p. 203.
(7) Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Sahara’, An Elemental Thing, op. cit., p. 186.

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