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.
The satirical comedy Art School Confidential features Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) as a student at a prestigious Manhattan art college who discovers that it’s not the paradise he dreamed it would be. His classmates lack taste and imagination, his instructors are competitive and self-involved, and everyone is focused on the promise of a glitzy career rather than on education.
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).