He awakens on February first, stunned again by that odd wonder: how quickly old has come. Of course if his will were done he’d have risen youthful, but age is here, he’ll own it. He thanks God
for its coming without companion pain, without reliance on medicine. As he has since he was younger, he puts on snowshoes and clambers over drifts and up a daunting bluff. As much by determination
as muscle he powers on through the powder. The view from here—a blessing: eastward the white White Mountains all seem to be staring placidly down on ice-dams hunched in the river. He kicks his feet out of leather bindings
to climb a tree. West, a neighbor’s strange herd of alpacas mills, all wool, though mere months back—short-shorn, with feeble reeds for necks— they were fragile creatures, naked, susceptible, silly, same as us all.
He forces air out through his teeth—birdwatcher trick—and imagines a lisping cloud, his sounds small jets of steam. Let kinglets come, he dreams. Did an eagle shriek? Too far to tell. But golden-crowned kinglets are flying
from his south to land all around, on his limb and all the way up to the crown, then are gone so quickly he all but missed the marvel: the kinglets come.
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).
One morning this summer I was basking in the sun With the brother closest to me in age. We had been Brought up almost as twins but then took disparate Roads, as twins do. He was sobbing and I was near Tears and the ocean was muttering. I heard a heron. We had been having the most naked open talk we’d Had in many years. I wanted to tell him how deeply I loved him but words are just so weak and shallow. So I talked about the forsythia bush we used to hide Under together. It was the safest place on the planet. The light was always amazing in there and it wasn’t Ever muddy somehow and you were draped in gold. It was a hut a huddle a tent a canopy a cave a refuge. Sometimes you have to use a thing to say something Else. We do this all the time. We talk sideways, yes? But sidelong is often the only road that gets to where You know you need to go. So much means lots more Than it seems like it could mean. Tears, for example.
John Coleman, who died recently, presided over Haverford College during the tumultuous Vietnam War era. He sympathized with students’ antiwar protests but also tried to channel the antiwar movement in constructive ways. When students considered burning the American flag, Coleman placed a washing machine at the center of the campus and encouraged students to wash the flag instead. He persuaded dozens of college presidents to sign an antiwar statement. On sabbaticals he took blue-collar jobs to explore the gap between academics and workers (Inside Higher Ed, September 12).