Then I looked down into the lovely cut of a missing river, something under dusk’s upflooding shadows claiming for itself a clarity of which my eyes were not yet capable: fissures could be footpaths, ancient homes random erosions; pictographs depicting fealties of who knows what hearts, to who knows what gods. To believe is to believe you have been torn from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim. I come back to the world. I come back to the world and would speak of it plainly, with only so much artifice as words themselves require, only so much distance as my own eyes impose. I believe in the slickrock whorls of the real canyon, the yucca’s stricken clench, and, on the other side, the dozen buzzards swirled and buoyed above some terrible intangible fire that must scald the very heart of matter to cast up such miraculous ash.
2. 2047 Grace Street
But the world is more often refuge than evidence, comfort and covert for the flinching will, rather than the sharp particulate instants through which God’s being burns into ours. I say God and mean more than the bright abyss that opens in that word. I say world and mean less than the abstract oblivion of cells out of which every intact thing emerges, into which every intact thing finally goes. I do not know how to come closer to God but by standing where a world is ending for one man. It is still dark, and for an hour I have listened to the breathing of the woman I love beyond my ability to love. Praise to the pain scalding us toward each other, the grief beyond which, please God, she will live and thrive. And praise to the light that is not yet, the dawn in which one bird believes, crying not as if there had been no night but as if there were no night in which it had not been.
Wasn’t it Augustine who said, evil is matter out of place? He kisses his love as he pivots from the brothel gate, his ardent heart already gritty with guilt. I imagine the big A trying to shake sin from himself as I haul our red rug out and shake it. Dear God, what we track in, how sin sifts like fine silt into our deepest grooves! And once inside, the dirt forgets that it’s our backyard. We keep tracking the outside in, sweeping it out again.
Or that’s what I get from The Confessions. How love, like soil, is out of place for, maybe, half its orbit. How sinning and repentance follow one another like all the circles on this fickle earth, rain taken up by clouds, then falling on us again. Maples spinning whiffs that grow to seedlings. Children begetting children. And every insult you bestow whirring like graying underwear in some dryer of regret.
Way back in Christianity’s kindergarten, Augustine had it figured out. He guessed our remorse and longing as he closed the brothel door, seeing a woman gaze at the sooty outline on her white sheet of a tall blacksmith the morning after.
The story of the proud and vital man who has lost his power and nobility is a recurrent theme, especially at the movies. Films have specialized in showing us the washed-up boxer (The Set-Up, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Fat City) and cowboy (Red River, The Gunfighter, Unforgiven).
The feel of awl and augur in his hardened hands, the rough hull rimed with salt, a whittled plug he made himself, so tight he set his teeth! His handiwork behind him, Norway a miniature carved in the distance, he watched the gray Atlantic like a ravenous whale devour everything between.
The story ends, and yet begins again. Here in a foreign port, his touch begins to read each sign, the curves and swellings, splintered keel and patchwork. How his heart quickens when he finds his father’s fishing boat, familiar as his name, the family build, their house nailed fast above the rocky harbor.
And yet begins again. How the found word both fits and startles, an oracle recovered just in time, just when it’s needed, just before faith slips away like my great-grandfather’s wedding coat, ruined in a flooded basement with old books and portraits, speckled sepia like a gull’s egg, water-marked and too far gone to keep.
Nathan Eckstrom teaches English in the Boston Public Schools, one of the most diverse school systems in the country. Its more than 9,000 students come from about 100 countries, and they speak more than 80 languages. Instead of taking a vacation this past summer, Eckstrom went to Haiti to find the places where several of his students live and to visit their extended families. He knows that he will be able to make better connections with his Haitian students after learning about their culture and country. Over the past ten years, Boston teachers have made similar trips to Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and other countries. Fund for Teachers, a Houston-based nonprofit, helps fund these trips (Boston Globe, September 12).