We stamp our feet, say good year
to those we see in woods beside
the silver-plated pond, each one of us
made almost holy by our longing.
By afternoon the passing light
is smoke, and shadows
caves in which we hardly breathe.
Chill-stung leaves shrill as
cellophane. Ground—boot hard.
Under a bright affinity of stars
I wake to hear an owl who-whoing
from the branches of a fir, its call
broadening in the silence that
enfolds us. The dead eavesdrop
from their distant drafty offices, still
curious, still brave, with the humility
of lichen. Each one ablaze with love
they cannot help but bear. The astonishing
already joined, no one left to fear
in the steamy cloistered kitchens
they once danced in. Their gift to us?
This glancing grief, as sharp
and certain as December rain.
— Kathryn Hunt
dreamed up. Maybe such a perspective would have allowed
me to author a new personal mythology, one worthy of Philyra,
beloved goddess of writing and beauty, whom the Greeks said
was the daughter of Oceanus, the titan who ruled the ancient
seas. Maybe the land where I grew up would be infused with as
much magic and legend as the lost kingdom of Atlantis. Maybe
a sense of wonder could be restored without sacrificing truth.
I come from a place that, once upon a time, was lost in the middle
of an ocean, at the bottom of a sea.
for moNths during my stay in South America I rode that wave,
the captain of an unsinkable ship, a celebrant of inexhaustible
marvels. I lived for that tiny explosion of pleasure I’d get from correctly identifying a yellow-bellied kiskadee perched on a coral tree
overhanging the pond. I learned how to identify several birds by
their calls alone. The world appeared more legible than ever before.
Butterfly wings, a three-year-old’s sigh, linden leaves, a breeze,
Thoreau, Ruskin, a goddess of words and beauty — metaphorical
bridges materialized out of thin air, spanning gulfs. Watching
them appear (always composed of at least six shades of white)
filled me with a warm satisfaction that I think could accurately
be labeled happiness. Darkness itself became a trick of perspective. The whole wretched world, if viewed from enough angles,
really did sparkle and shine.
The Germans, I would learn, had come up with a precise word
for what I was doing. Beziehungswahn is the mania for seeing meaningful connections linking almost everything, including oneself,
to almost everything else. It’s a clinical term. A form of madness.
Of course my happiness was all POV. One day, inevitably,
the ability to build metaphorical bridges failed me, and the old
ones collapsed, exposing rotted foundations teeming with larval infestations. People su=ered and died, friendships were
neglected, marriages crumbled, three-year-olds grew tired of
looking at swans. My mind, which I’d trained to stare at all
things intensely and consider them with fine-grained specificity,
was now — involuntarily and uncontrollably — focusing on ugliness and pain with the same rigor.
Trusting that the perspective will change back again is the
trick, and few things remind me of this more e=ectively than
looking closely at the world outside and consciously registering
what’s there, like the line of dancing light that Sofia saw in the
water. For a while I had resigned myself to the idea that the phenomenon — that play of light — couldn’t be named. Maybe some
things defied classification. I told myself I was okay with that.
But it turns out that I simply wasn’t looking in the right places,
and it took me weeks of searching to get the right angle on it,
to discover that the stripe of sparkles actually does have a name.
I found it in an eighty-seven-page article titled Molekuliarnaia
Fizika Moria (“Molecular Physics of the Sea”), by Soviet physicist
Vasilii Vladimirovich Shuleikin. The article was translated into
English by the U.S. Hydrographic O;ce in 1963. According to that
translation, Shuleikin reported that a streak of light visible upon a
breeze-wrinkled surface of water is called “The Road to Happiness.”
The act of pinning a precise label on that phenomenon filled me
with something I’ll call ecstasy. I felt light, buoyant, weightless, as
if I could have stepped out onto the water and set forth upon that
shimmering road, as if the fundamental laws of nature simply did
not apply. A