On the scaffold twenty meters up tracing her head in the damp plaster, Michelangelo knows it’s going to take more than a breath to make Adam drop his can’t-be-bothered pose, too bored to stand even at God’s charged arrival, held aloft by a crew of hard-working cherubs who struggle to maintain lift long enough for contact to occur: a critical maneuver of the right hand complicated by the added weight of Eve on whom His left arm rests. Drops of paint freckle his face as he wonders how many priests will take offense but concludes that only skin to skin will do. Without it, Adam’s forever grounded. God’s touch is first. Hers is next.
I’ll always remember the sweltering night in Missouri, the pulsing din of the katydids, the prairie grass stretching away on the other side of the trees. In the dark woods across the pond, a lost calf bleats its anguish— six times, then eight, then six again. I sit at the camp table listening, as so many nights before. In the tent, sleeping, the boy, now thirteen, the woman, after twenty-seven years. Moths and greenbugs attack the lantern, flapping crazily. Before I finish tonight they will land in the halo of the hot gas light, diligently search out the lantern’s air vents and incinerate themselves. In the morning I will brush away the fine white ash. This is not a fitting metaphor for any human aspiration. The light we are seeking is not the kind that destroys those who seek it. True, the bright burning gas tempts us sometimes. I know, I know. There are nights when we feel that bad. I turn the valve of the lantern to off and wait for my vision to adjust to the darkness. The almost inaudible breathing from the tent comforts me. I think of us sitting on the shore as the last sunlight seeped from the sky, watching the boy cast his fishing line again and again out into the pond, catching nothing except happiness. The light we are seeking catches all the world in the shooting arc of the outthrown line, never to be lost, not bounded by night, dangerous only to death.
It wasn’t where we wanted to live but you have to put down roots to thrive. Daily we bore the shock of forbearance— our own and our neighbors’: the noise, the smell! Be fruitful! We tried. Soil of lead arsenate, cadmium. We added our detritus, peel and core: redemption. And now our mineral prison blooms in this, the year of our departure: now at last the berries fruit in blue abundance. Which goes to show our acts are not our own; what we make does not belong to us. At best we fade softly as timothy, and leave our harvest to the next people.
Great westerns have always wrestled with moral issues. John Ford’s The Searchers tackles racism; Howard Hawks’s Red River, loyalty; Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, honor; Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, revenge; Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, redemption.
Through lashes, saw the weave of the crocus blowing backwards, and in this motion recognized my life, the full sadness of existence, but wanted it still: the earth and its sugars, these days like a bridge I could cross.
So that things contrary to common sense Seem suddenly truth revealed And some unappealing sight Is clearly Imago Dei, devilishly alight As though lit within at core By the very darkness we abhor And symbols of my soul’s best hope are cast As models of betrayal, despair and death; Then, Eve’s fruit tasted and offered to Adam Becomes Mary’s Gift as First Fruit Of a new covenant of pardon And the abandoned Garden Because of Him Becomes the New Jerusalem;
So, let that mind be also in me, The one that takes in my off-stage acts, You know, Those walk-the-walk naked facts, Even my sneaky judas-pacts And transforms them all Into something nothing short of new, Like being born, Like out of any godforsaken Friday Easter morn.
When Toni Morrison taught creative writing at Princeton University, all her students had been told in previous classes to write about what they knew. She said to forget that advice because first, they didn’t know anything yet, and two, she didn’t want to read about their experiences. She told them to imagine people outside their own experience, such as a Mexican waitress in Rio Grande who could barely speak English. It was amazing what these students came up with, Morrison said, when they were given license to imagine something outside their realm of experience (American Theatre, March 10).