I was clearing a few things out of a desk drawer and found a yellow sticky note with this phrase written on it:
“Intangible things are the writer’s business.”
I Googled it but I can’t find the source of this quote. It used to be the tagline of this blog, Metaphor, and now Google only points back here. (I switched to the quotation from Keats, above, in April 2010.)
I don’t think I made it up. It’s too brilliantly succinct to be me. I believe it though. We are surrounded by a cloud of the unknowable, unnamable, unspeakable and formless. The artist’s job is to give its particulars form and name, color and voice. The rare willingness and arguable ability to do so is the reason why we creative types get the big money.
Probably the first intangible, nebulous thing that comes to mind is my identity. I don’t mean the identity that a hacker can steal and use to buy stuff. I mean my self image. Who am I? Am I a good man or a self-centered jerk? Can questions of identity be that simple?
I remember studying the pathos of self image in college psych classes. I hope it’s not too wrong to say that your self image is who you believe you are, right or wrong. It’s what gets offended and bruised when someone misjudges you. And if you suddenly discover that the image of yourself that you’ve believed for a long time has been wrong, well that shit is really going to hurt.
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.
If my sense of myself is intangible, isn’t my sense of belonging, of community, even more so? Can we expect our images of self to fit together like Legos? And then how is it even possible to dream, to have dreams, if we know so little about who we are?
“If you want a certain thing, you must first be a certain person. Once you are that certain person, obtaining that certain thing will no longer be a concern of yours.”
~ Zen proverb
I don’t know who I am, except that I go through most days with a vague sense of disappointment and a wariness against pride. I am, as Douglas Adams said of planet Earth, “Mostly Harmless.” I place a high value on Albert Schweitzer’s “Gentle hands and kindly words,” and love the first sentence of the anonymous 19th century Russian book The Way of a Pilgrim:
I am by the Grace of God a Christian man, by my acts a great sinner.
I can tell you more about my fears than about my dreams and desires. I know what and whom I love, that I have loved and been loved, that I am loved for today. But I’m not sure what I want, except that I’m sure I will always want love in my life. No one wants to be lonely.
At this point, you might want to listen to James Taylor sing Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, just because, you know, I rock at blogging.
If I don’t know myself, I certainly don’t know you. I’m still struggling to understand Kyle and everyone I’ve ever known. William Stafford said it best:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
Do you know for sure who you are? Is that a question you like to explore? I imagine you do. Such intangible things are common among us, being tribal creatures. Perhaps the world’s remaining elephants would nod in agreement and commiserate.
I’ve quoted this passage from Stegner’s “All the Little Live Things” before.
“I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of being flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness and the consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer.”
The writer’s job, then, is to walk the common thoroughfare, observe the suffering therein, and take a few notes; to reach out now and then and touch the hand of a fellow pilgrim on the way to infinity. Not a bad gig, right?
The problem, fellow pilgrim, is the fog, isn’t it? The blinding, low-down tule fog of the mind. It obscures everything: the road ahead and behind, the ditches by the side of the road, the trees and hills, the reason why your character can’t sleep, never finished building his boat, or became a long haul trucker.
I don’t know about you, but I write to find my way through that fog. This effort to see, to understand, to try to share the shapes forming in the thickly settled gray, is the path of all poetry. Poets are explorers of the intangible.
I remember one early morning in 1985, coming down the Sacramento Valley at Christmas. The fog was so thick, I had to open my door and look down beside me to see the line painted on the road. I survived.
Here’s a photo of me with my grandparents, taken in 1983. The fog in the background was lifting and I was eager to get on the road, back to college, and on with my exciting and promising life. I just had no idea how long the fog would stay on the ground.