Violence, savagery, and great beauty: One good paragraph #5

I’ve been reading the Iliad lately. I started it a while ago, then got distracted by other things, and only recently picked it back up again. It’s good stuff. There’s no better way to start your day than by reading about Greek and Trojan warriors slaughtering each other. (Just kidding, but it does make for a change from the daily routine, if nothing else.) Reading about heroism, honor, courage can inspire one in daily life, even if your life isn’t as dramatic as theirs was. One can very definitely tell that the Iliad came from an earlier time in human history — one far less complicated, surface-obsessed, yet still treacherous and amoral. We have perhaps sunk farther down than they, who organized their lives around duty and honor. I know that the Iliad is an epic poem and not real life, but one cannot shake the feeling that people in former times knew more about living — really living — than we do now.

From an artistic standpoint, the Iliad is absolutely necessary reading. Homer is a master of comparison, simile, and metaphor, and the pictures he paints with his words make one stop and just sit and admire at times. His assured mastery of his form is noteworthy, too. He knows just how to get the effect he wants within the conventions of his form. Once you become used to the stylized, conventionalized phrasing he employs, that (to us) unnatural way of speaking fades from attention, and all that’s left is the gripping artistry, the cinematic sweep of the story, the stately grief and grand rage of the combatants and those left behind, and the riveting, gratuitous violence.

The Iliad of course has more than one good paragraph; the whole thing is good! That’s why it’s a stone-cold classic still. This is one of numerous quotes from the Iliad that I keep returning to, but it stands out for me because of the combinations and elaboration of the imagery. This comes from Book 16, lines 455-465 in Robert Fagles’ superlative translation. Enjoy:

And all in an onrush dark as autumn days

when the whole earth flattens black beneath a gale,

when Zeus flings down his pelting, punishing rains –

up in arms, furious, storming against those men

who brawl in the courts and render crooked judgments,

men who throw all rights to the wind with no regard

for the vengeful eyes of the gods – so all their rivers

crest into flooded spate, ravines overflowing cut the hilltops

off into lonely islands, the roaring flood tide rolling down

to the storm-tossed sea, headlong down from the foothills

washes away the good plowed work of men –

Rampaging so,

the gasping Trojan war-teams hurtled on.

Time Stands Grey


It was a grey day, grey like the wool of her coat. 

Small things make me trusting: red hair, 
humming along to an Al Green song. 

Time steps back with a smile as 
we wander woods under bare branches, 
squishing through mud for the experience of it; 
a carpet of leaves for our feet to kick. 

Or stretch out on them, staring up at the sky with shining brown eyes,
as I marvel at small things and the luck of a beautiful, grey day. 

Small things -- a coffee cup empty and warm, 
a comfy chair empty and warm, 
hearts full, and warm. 



Holing up…

Now I’m alone again. The wind howls outside, driving flurries of snow against the windows; the screens of my study flap fitfully in the wind, coated with fine snow. I’d watched the snow blow across the fields until it obscured the treeline, and then darkness began to steal in as it always does in winter, deepening into blue, then indigo, then blue-black the color of the ink in my fountain pen, then finally sank into full darkness, so that even the streetlights must struggle to shine fitfully in the face of the storm. A good night not to go anywhere, not that I have anywhere to go. Time to put my back to the wall and figure some stuff out. Congregation by the Afghan Whigs is the perfect album right now — my wound-tight, antsy brain instantly identifies with the jittery paranoia and scrabbling reaching for the truth, whatever it might be. Need to listen to the silence, decide where this is going; and to watch — always to watch. Eternal vigilance is the price of the fractured mind, but it repays everything it costs, and more. It’s hard to learn how to be alone with yourself, to listen to yourself and really hear and not have your essential voice drowned out by the senseless ephemera of everyday life…I knew the trick once, but it seems I’ve forgotten it, in the hurly-burly of what everyday life has become, and so it must be good for me to sit and listen in an empty house to the wind howling outside, waiting for — what? Need to decide, so that I can move forward. There’s almost a kind of wild joy in being so alone, a feeling that this has to be good because there’s no alternative — now I can finally clear away the cobwebs and really see… I’ll let you know what transpires.

One Good Paragraph #3

This really is true, and if you’ve been there (what man hasn’t), this is probably the best description of the condition I’ve ever run across. Not the most poetic, but the most prosaic and yet carefully worded of all. Many others have referenced the same feelings or experiences in their art or music or writings, but nobody has nailed it (if you’ll forgive the choice of words) like this quote does. (Funny how much of what we say, think, write, do revolves around this one topic, this one feeling or need for a feeling.) This quote doesn’t grasp the feelings all the way, but it describes it better than anything else I’ve ever seen — and, as a special bonus, a song at the end that captures the elusive feeling ever so poetically (and far more sparingly of the gory details than most usually are — which is why it succeeds.) If this is you: hang in there. It does get better. Just be faithful & all will work out.

For most men, this is where the tyranny of sex shows up. When he is not able to ejaculate “on schedule,” he experiences a number of physiological and emotional reactions. The feeling of pressure in his groin area becomes a nagging reminder. He finds himself staring at his wife more as her features intensify in his mind. He longs to be with her as her features look more attractive to him. As time goes by, he then becomes irritable, even unreasonable. He loses sight of much of what is great about life. Music seems dull, sunsets are distractions, conversation is painful, and all other tasks either become boring or overwhelming. The whole time he is saying to himself, “Get a grip. You are stronger than this. It won’t hurt to wait.” But no amount of reasoning with himself reduces the tension he feels in his body.

(Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti, Bill & Pam Farrel, p.96)

Come Away with Me

The rain continues to beat against the windowpanes. I turn down the lamp, and return to my seat by the fireplace. Our cabin is on a hillside, so the rising waters can’t reach us. I picture the brown, foaming waters rushing around the base of our little hill, and am glad I am here, safe and dry with Betty.

As I return to my seat by the fire, she looks up from her sketching. The firelight flickers across her dusky face and dances in her dark eyes. We smile, and I stretch out on the rug with my book in front of me, head to the fire. I look around our little cabin. Spiderwebs adorn the corners and dust lies thick in places, but the floor is clean and there’s a bunch of violets in a glass of water on the table. A couple of Betty’s drawings hang in rough wooden frames I knocked together, adorning the walls. We made a good living here, Betty and I. It’s much better than in the city, which is where we each lived before. But they can’t find us here. I roll back onto my stomach lazily. Staring into the fire and listening to the rain falling on the roof, Betty’s voice cuts softly into my reverie.

“Penny for your thoughts.” I blink, then focus on her face.

“Just listening to the rain.”

“Oh,” she says, but she keeps looking at me. To change the subject, I ask if she would like a back rub. She agrees.

“So how long do you think the rain will last?” she asks as I work the knots out of her back. I pause in pressing on a particularly large knot to consider my reply.

“Not too long I hope. A couple days, a week….” I move my hands higher on her shoulders before finishing. “I kinda like it in this cabin, actually.” The only sign she had heard me was a slight tilting of her head. I finished the back rub and she reclined back into my arms. We stared into the fire, each thinking different thoughts. We have dropped off to sleep, between the fire’s warmth, the soft lullaby of the falling rain, and each other’s company, had not the stupid cat decided to join us and perch on my neck. I moved slowly, trying to shoo the cat away without waking Betty, but without success. She started, then reached for her notebook. I silently cursed the cat and weighed the loss of a good mouser versus a new pair of mittens.

“Stupid cat,” I pronounced to myself. Betty’s head, bent over her drawing, came up. Mischief sparkles in her lively dark eyes. She said something about Emily (that’s the cat’s name), but I didn’t hear a word of it, I was so focused on her eyes…her hair spilling over her shoulders…the curve of her arm as it held the pencil poised over the paper….Emily stalked away and jumped up onto the calico-covered table and arranged herself to survey the room. Her job was done. And as I gently removed the notebook from her hands, and took her in my arms, I realized that I didn’t mind the rain.

(#7, 5/13/99, place#24)

Dispatches

Been super busy lately, so just a few random thoughts:

  • First, I got a French press coffee pot. AMAZING. Holy heck. The best coffee I’ve ever made at home! I don’t think I’m ever going back to the drip machine. More fun and quicker to make, and the coffee tastes miles better. This method gets the most out of even ordinary Folgers. The water around here is really mineraly; drip coffee makers clog within six months, easy. (True story.) I’ve taken to descaling mine with white vinegar monthly, and sometimes more, to keep up. But that’s not a problem with the French press. All the scale, if there is any, stays in the pot or pan where I heat the water. The French press is completely impervious to mineraly water. And I can take the full pot of hot coffee down to my desk, even while it’s brewing, and I can top off while I’m working without having to leave my desk to trek to the kitchen. Love it.
  • Second, dreams. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately, even when I haven’t been having them. Maybe that’s part of it — wishing that I was. I don’t think I get deeply enough asleep to dream most times, or if I do, then I don’t remember it. I wish I could remember more of my dreams. They’re just really fascinating.
  • Third, fall. The leaves are turning & falling off the trees, the weather is getting cooler, and the kids are back in school. I really like fall, and I don’t mind that it reminds me that winter’s coming. Acceptance is key.
  • Fourth, the Deftones are coming out with a new album — ?! Apparently they’ve decided to be a working band again, even without Chi. I hope it’s not too rockist and overly professional, like their last outing, Diamond Eyes, was at times — although I find myself reaching for that one more lately. (Fits the mood I’m in.) Also, Saturday Night Wrist was far underrated by some when it came out, I think. Reports of interband tensions and prima donna antics cutting into the creative relationship may have played unduly on the expectations of some. Strip that away, and put it out of your mind, and SNW is actually a pretty decent album.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more nuggets later.

Another day in paradise

I got to sit on the deck and read my Bible again this morning. What a lovely day…the sunlight was golden and seemed to fill all the air. Not the sky, the air, because all the ground level was blanketed in mist, and the sun shone through the mist. Everything was immersed in soft, liquid gold. A cool morning breeze blew, full of the fragrances of the plants and trees around us (and no smell of hogs, thank goodness.) Bird songs and calls echoed through the air from all over the neighborhood. They were the only sounds to be heard, and quiet and friendly — not at all out of place, as nearly all man-made noise is at that hour. The air was a little cool in a friendly way…not cold, and certainly not uncomfortably hot like it would be in just an hour or two when the sun burned off the mist and its glare beat down full on the deck, causing us to draw the blinds on that side of the house. But right at that moment, none of that had happened yet; the children hadn’t risen up, the day’s work hadn’t started yet. Just me and my Bible, sitting on the deck.

I’ve been to some pretty neat places in the world — Oregon, Jerusalem, Galilee, Maui, Petra (and I hope to be to a lot more) — but for my money, sitting on my deck on a quiet summer’s morning ranks right up there with them. Who cares if there’s a view of corn or soybeans instead of the water? It’s still one of my favorite places in the world. Just to be by myself and soak in the beautiful morning.

Not my view, but still pretty nice.