The Divine Madness

 

 

 

 

 


The great tongue

Dries in the mouth. I told you.

The voiceless throat

Cools Silence. And the sea-granite eyes.

Washed in the sibilant waters

The stretched lips kiss peace.

William Everson, 1964

 

 

I

 

Winter is the season of the oboe. Sullen but peaceful, resolute but patient, the winter has a way of bringing out the best in us, the part we think that no one else sees, the part of us that we admire secretly the most. The oboe explains everything about the winter and brings out a thousand shades of gray always overlooked by a brilliant array of color. It is a shade of gray in a composition of black and white. The oboe restores to us our grayness; our ability to be beautiful without color, without freedom; constrained for a time to fast, to observe ourselves when we have nothing to do, no one to even be alone with. The winter finally gives us space, and lots of it. It is the time we are left to ourselves and draw from the experience a new way of seeing, of not being afraid of what we cannot do, of what we cannot become, of what we may never experience or feel.

No one mistakes the quietly reaching voice of the winter and its favorite music. It talks. It distinguishes our particularities within our circumstances and gives the winter an attractive kind of sadness: a divine sorrow— melancholy without its madness, for now anyway, as the winter just begins to brag, to come skating in on the shirt-tails of an Indian Summer that evaporates the moment we begin to enjoy it. The last day of fall has a peaceful kind of sadness bearing just enough nostalgia to keep away the anxiety and fear of the impending death and insanity that will come to many of us: that outbreak of cabin fever no more comfortable than traction. Winter without its own music will surely eat away every degree of emotional integrity that we think we possess. Cabin fever will come. Its frustration is expected in the winter before the music changes to something more suitable to the environment and we are somehow able to squeeze through the tiniest window to freedom.

 

A reformation takes place in the winter. Even house plants notice it. The ficus dropped its leaves a month ago and I have yet to collect them. But I'd be disturbing the dead; better let them lie as they fell. Perhaps in some houses leaving them on the rug will ensure good luck, maybe not for the plant, but for the caregiver who may believe that something bountiful will result. But truthfully, I'd rather just vacuum the floor. The ivy in the kitchen ignores the change and keeps on wrapping upward along the empty wine rack. But the spider plant in the study, near the bay window, turns yellow and leans more earnestly, more desparately against its basket. The lower leaves of the madagascar yellow too. It looks as though it were poisoned, like the winter was more serious than just a passing season, more ominous than a natural component of the earth's personality and regenerative cycle. Every spring the madagascar comes back, just a little, but always on the threshold of death and life. The winter must really stress it, must do some emotional damage, depress the poor thing, taking away its burgeoning resolve that everything else finds in the spring. Regardless of how I treat it, the plant just barely survives, it lives like a dying relative unaware of its own transcendent pain. Mangan's Sister, when she's frisky with the fever, sneaks up on its willow-like frawns and attacks them dangling in the air-conditioning blowing like a warmfront across the house. I will re-pot it soon and use the old dirt to cover the flowerbed around the mailbox where the soil is somehow regenerated, reformed into its initial vitamin or mineral.

I do more housework in the winter: a reformational high point reached out of boredom and fear of the winter fever. The kitchen is generally cleaner. Dish piles like laundry piles aren't so perversely evident. My clutter is dusted, reorganized into different piles requiring me to reach in different directions, performing a type of winter calisthenics. The furniture will remain where it is; perhaps I'll rearrange it when a piece is replaced in the next millennium. The scenery outside the windows may change, but aside from a little reorganization, a little dusting, a little cleaning, a little plant maintenance, the scenery inside is relatively unchanged, subjected to the shadows reforming to the winter light, a different sunlight taking off and landing in new locations every other day.

There are no pleasant spring breezes to air out the house for me. Most of the time it is too damp. Nothing would be accomplished by a swirling wet wind aside from redistricting mold spores to propagate indoors, to set up camp inside my sinuses where they would live like ancient cave dwellers until the summer comes to dry them up. At least once I will forget to open the damper to the fireplace and smoke up the downstairs. Eventually the cloud will rise up the stairway and settle in the studio until I go up and open the window. But this is good. The house for a while will feel like a campsite in Brazil —fantasies that romanticize the cool humidity. I'll allow a winter warmfront to pass through the house in February, sweeping through the downstairs and into the backyard, blowing away that humid nursing-home staleness. It's like shaking out a dirty rug, purifying it by banging it against the side of the garage.

Yesterday, while sweeping the front porch, I noticed a snail crawling up the door frame. It had been raining the day before, drizzling for a few moments and then subsiding for a few moments more. It never rained hard enough or long enough to thoroughly dampen the porch or for me to even hear it landing on the roof or dripping from the eaves onto the ferns and ivy around the house. But the moisture was there in clouds and fog throughout the day and evening. Obviously the snail got lost in the fog and mistakenly slid up the side of the cement porch and then up the door frame, looking for a meal or for her nest or simply trying to find a lookout point from where she could re-orient herself to her surroundings. She seemed to be climbing up a masthead to the crow's nest, looking for land.

I wished I could have helped her. I tried to use my own humanity and wisdom to guess the snail's objective, to even accomplish it for her if I could. A vestige of slime marked her path behind her and for a moment I wanted to follow its lucid slick back to where her journey started, but I wasn't about to pick her off the door frame and flick her back into the weeds. It looked like a lot of work just getting up the side of the porch and onto the door frame; a journey that must have taken her several hours. For me, it would be like rewriting an entire book because the typeface was too large. Negating a journey perhaps directed by some sublunary instinct for the snail's own good was from my perspective sadistic and beyond my ability to understand why nature's force had lead her to my porch in the first place. But certainly the snail was more aware of her own predicament and its concurrent dangers than I. But surely, I still argued, if she'd have only read the weather reports and prepared for the winter as every other species in the valley, she would have just stayed home this morning and waited like the rest of us for the spring. I couldn't tell if she was hungry, tired, sick, lost or perfectly content. Maybe she was just taking a little stroll in this glorious snail weather.

The crows and grackles are ubiquitous in all types of weather; ugliness is always present, regardless of the season, the holiday, the celebration. But they seem to fit in quite well in gloomy weather in graveyards or ghost towns or abandoned farms and fields. The snail must have caught the winter fever and sent her raving out of her snail village to go climbing up my door frame where the eyes of every crow and grackle in the community could see her.

I stood against the door and examined her more closely than I have any other snail before. I was tempted to pull off her shell. I thought of it as a giant scab that didn't belong there, weighing her down, burdening her while she so vigorously climbed up the door frame. It was hard not to transpose her logic and instincts into my own. I couldn't help seeing myself in the same predicament. She looked like a tiny me carrying thirty bags of groceries up a hundred flights of stairs.

I finished sweeping and went back into the house to look her up in my field guide to western forests. It offered me no solace at all; after reading the first page, the snail became just another bug to me. But then again, I didn't find Human Being in the field guide at all; we must be different, somehow exempt from the rest of nature. After an hour I returned to the porch to check on her, to see if she had changed her mind and returned home where I thought she belonged. But she was still there, a little higher on the door frame. She had advanced another foot or so to about eye level and I could look more closely at her shell, her black slippery body and her hornlike antennae. I could almost see her face, her expression.

For her it was a beautiful day. She may have been equally puzzled or disturbed by my retreating into the house when I ought to have taken advantage of the lovely weather. I ought to have been sliding up some telephone pole along the highway. Perhaps cabin fever, the winter fever, didn't affect her at all. Perhaps she was just enjoying the day, taking advantage of my porch and door frame that offered her a new challenge or opportunity to see a new vision, to rise out of the clouds and the fog, to see, to be seen, to exist undaunted by the perils that everything faces when developing new insights and discovering new perspectives. She took a beautiful day and glorified it by achieving a goal, taking a chance and reaching a new destination. Maybe this is why I spend so much time in the upstairs room, looking through the branches of the mimosa, trying to change my perspective, to gather new data on which new insights can preserve me in the dormant winter when the divine madness comes for me. But when it comes it finds me already well-preserved, contented in what most people may consider an unusual and unexpected way. The divine madness reminds me of that gray part of my personality and character that I trust the most, that brings to mind the sounds of the oboe playing softly in the middle of the day. It brings to me that peace and quiet that most of us cannot find within life's frenetic subtext. The winter's melancholy takes away nature and her friendly beauty. It traps us indoors, but does so that we may develop parts of our character that need to be alone, to develop the attitude of a snail, to enjoy the winter's wonderfully gloomy weather.

 

I sweep the front porch often in the winter since the chinkapin's condition doesn't appear to worsen in the season's official stasis—even death is on holiday. But its messenger is busier than ever leaving announcements to everyone on its mailing list. Perhaps it is this realization that makes porch sweeping an enjoyable winter job. The potted plants on the porch will melt into ash before the new year. I'll ignore them as I do even in the summer. They are perennial, I'm told, and will rebloom by April. I needn't worry, perhaps I'll notice them then. They'll give death's messenger a voucher—maybe they will never die.

Maybe the oboe is death's voice, its singing voice that the perennials praise or tolerate in order to live, to renew their voucher, to buy from death just a little patience and longevity.

 

Valencia is somber in the winter but she is still the ultimate celebrity, a star on a slow morning before getting dressed. The oboe mediates the extremity of the season. It is buoyant, lifting you out of the rut, level with the ground, just high enough above the water to breathe. And what a breath it is. Days and weeks without spotting the sun has a deafening influence over the valley. It can be like hearing a record skipping over the same lyric a thousand times. The winter has a way of putting us in stasis, waiting to be revived when a cure is available for this chronic, but otherwise benign madness the oboe so expertly transcends.

Valencia is in between deaths: two metaphors of the same idea, a parable of dying and coming back to life again. Lazarus had three days, but Valencia has five months. But the oboe keeps her content enough to redress, to powder her brow, brush her hair and return to us smiling. Even though we do not understand her cheer; by pretending to, we are lifted up again, further above the rut that winter cuts. If Valencia is not truly hopeful, she is at least accepting—solitude's most noble attitude.

It is hard not to pray, but harder to believe in what to pray for, what to pray to in the absence of sanity, of light, of growth. The winter begins an overture and with any luck the oboe takes over and hums throughout the long, dark season.

 

 

II

 

Mangan's Sister, the artist and I form a winter coterie in the upstairs studio where we hang out and watch the drizzle through the window and the light diffracting on the glass, trying to distinguish outside the various stickly trees and shrubs holding still in the wind. Sister and I will sit on the radiator near the sink still dripping a drop every two or three seconds. I'll scratch her chin, rub her I-teeth, tease her, trying to get her to nip at my finger. Now and then, she'll win and trap my thumb in her jaw. She knows just how hard to bite, never breaking the skin, but pinching enough for me to scream or laugh depending on her craft and coyness. She never stops purring. She'll rub her face against my hand and tally another point, but never one for the artist who will not play, who always watches amused from the window or across the room by the closet where Sister's kittens were born a year ago.

The artist keeps her distance, her perspective is always from afar. We are her models, she will look but not touch no matter how desperately I stretch toward her. She keeps us as her subjects: clinical and sometimes sensuous assessments of life within her studio. In her dimension she must have a thousand sketches of me and Sister laying about the house, held within our dimension where we are not supposed to see her sitting on the window sill, watching us or the mimosa she may have painted or sketched one morning before breakfast or while the laundry dried or as the mailman came delivering a special package. Everything about her is just beyond my reach. But sometimes when the winter fever threatens, I reach for her anyway. I try crossing that dimensional portal where melancholy remains special, not part of that cloying astigmatism society insists upon throughout the year: that too much sugar in my tea kind of world; a too much teeth in a smile kind of world.

In the winter it is okay to be complacent, to rest up for the spring when one is supposed to be undyingly cheery. But the artist understands. That must be why she never plays with Sister and me. That must be why she'll only sketch us doing our winter things, always keeping her distance, giving us our space, a space I often wish she would enter. If not to stay, at least to say hello, to speak, to confirm my assertion that I am not alone and the weather today is wonderfully gloomy.

 

I can walk over to the window with Sister on my shoulder. She tenses a bit, mustn't trust the way I walk. I'll set her down on the sill where she stands for a few seconds as though she has just stepped out of the tub and then jumps down and lopes back to the radiator, lying down with her paws folded under her. It is colder by the window. And after I clear a spot with my shirt sleeve I can see why Sister retreated. But I doubt she understands why I remain there staring out into the wet and cold backyard that looks as you would expect a dying patient to feel: unable to flourish, unable to leave home or to attract a romantic eye; unsuccessful in pretending to be well or to be cheerful, beaming with pep and optimism. But the winter and my backyard cannot rationally express the peace and satisfaction that comes once dinner is over and the dishes have been cleaned and I can finally climb into bed and sleep.

The seasons preceding the winter were elegant, articulate, burlesque in the beginning and pure in the end. The winter in its own right deserves a little recognition. The winter must outlive itself and those of us who live within it. It must make do without mother nature's tender care. The winter must endure its time being hated, being despised, being misunderstood. The winter is nature's stand-in treated with contempt and mistrust. The winter is nature's only reprieve and performs its duty without praise or mercy. The earth deserves some sick leave. She deserves a vacation. And we must try to make it through the season without her, without complaining, without spiting the winter that fills in the best it can with limited daylight, warmth and appreciation.

But the artist understands. Her disposition shows in the way she brushes her hair every evening. Without smiling or even looking into a mirror she pulls the brush slowly, quietly past her shoulders where each hair straightens, stretches and then relaxes as smooth as a feather. Every lock is the same length and she must make an effort to pull it around her face. I watch her from the radiator, anticipating the moment she finishes and parts her hair, opening her face to me still staring from the other side of her dark brown veil. But she always looks through me, past me as though I were the ghost. Her disposition is catching. I reach again for Sister, roll her onto her back and brush her chin and neck with my fingers parted, passing winter's melancholy on to her.

Meanwhile I recall limitless outlines of the artist drawing, quietly walking around the house, paying a special but foreign attention to her own paintings and to the new mantle clock that plugs into the wall but ticks as though its gears are unspooling. I've observed her reading in the living room. She props her feet upon the coffee table and lays back on the old rug. With a pillow from the armchair under her head she holds a thin book above her—reading as if she were up-side-down. Her hands and arms tire quickly and she rolls onto her side. Unaware of the book, she stares at a wall, into the empty fireplace or at the haze-covered window. I found her sitting at the dining room table which I have converted into a desk for the winter. I have watched her there for indefinite periods examining books and papers I haven't noticed in days. She studies the layout of the table, muses at the computer and the keyboard without touching it. She behaves so often as though she were waiting here for someone and has arrived a few years early.

My outlines reveal her personality, character, charm and youthfulness. But her voice is a mystery to me as is my melancholy is to her. Aphasia has spread throughout the valley. The landscape, the house, the artist and myself are victims of it. A selective forgetfulness has taken hold of us as if we have not yet recovered from a trauma that keeps us speechless.

I notice her more often in these distracted, unfocused occasions when I am not working or engaged in some household chore or other obligation. She seems to be lost here, unable to sense a past that was invariably terse and personal and familiar. It was her home. But she keeps on living in a timeless carelessness. She and the house regard each other as strangers. A room at the Inn for one and an aesthetic accessory for the other.

But maybe it is madness, not catastrophe that afflicts us. I think she cannot speak, therefore she won't. I think she is intriguing, quixotic and real, therefore she is. I can hear her bare feet in the kitchen, tapping across the linoleum and onto the hardwood floor in the living room. The room goes quiet when she crosses the rug. The patter resumes when she reaches the hallway and enters the bedroom. I can hear Mangan's Sister jumping from the window sill and landing on the floor by the telephone stand. I can hear her muffled purr while she stretches, her mouth smack when she wakes from a nap. I can hear the hum of the refrigerator kicking on and off according to its particular cycle. I can hear the passing blades of the ceiling fan slowly circling above the coffee table in the living room. And in between all this silent motion I can hear a sibilant ringing in my head. But I hear no voice. Every mouth is closed. It must be the fever, the winter madness that seduces me between the sounds of the ghost, the refrigerator, the fan and Mangan's Sister.

But it is a peaceful madness that comes in the winter when I am locked away for so long. I am not alarmed by its threatening possibilities. It is like being in a giant city, standing in a building thirty stories high, looking out of a window at the life below walking along the busy streets, climbing in and out of busses and taxis, feeling the maddening sounds through your shoes, rumbling like a hundred trains passing and braking at once. From the hundredth floor of the towering building, the cadence of a living city cannot make a sound. But if you listen hard enough and long enough, through the silence, you can hear the oboe playing something sad but comforting, something incongruent with the busyness outside but nonetheless natural and friendly.

It is my nature, I suppose, to display an air of melancholy, to personify what they call the divine madness. It is an apprehension toward optimism and jubilance but not toward celebration and fantasy that consigns me. When the artist's apparition walks outside in the late afternoon once the mist has burned away, before the sun sets and the clouds change colors, I can see the light shinning behind her, passing through her linen gown, silhouetting her figure.

I have seen how she moves when she turns a corner, when she slides her hand against the wall as she passes. I have seen the way her shoulders roll when she tosses a stone into the creek. I have watched her through windows just inches above her and yet I hear nothing. She sighs, she laughs, she hums, but I cannot hear her, just her feet passing me, always passing.

Somewhere within my notes I have written a seduction. When the summer comes and the light changes and the valley comes to life again I will find the scene while moving my study back to the mission library. But by then, it will be too late: we will all by then have recovered and will speak without hesitation and forethought. Writing will be harder, but speaking will be thoughtlessly remembered. The poet's mouth will stretch and kiss peace before the oboe finishes its last note of the winter. Tomorrow I will go back to work and the artist will wait here for her companion until the end of March, and I can no longer see her.