Among the Multitude, 12
From Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth,
I have looked for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.
You vapors, I think I have risen with you, moved away to distant continents, and fallen down there, for reasons,
I think I have blown with you you winds,
You waters I have fingered every shore with you,
I have run through what any river or strait of the globe has run through,
I have taken my stand on the bases of peninsulas and on the high embedded rocks to cry thence:
Salut au monde!
What cities the light or warmth penetrates I penetrate those cities myself,
All islands to which birds wing their way I wing myself.
I received a postcard today from a friend who has travelled abroad this summer. As is my custom, I took several minutes to admire it–to see all the aspects of its thing-ness, such as overall dimension and the image on the card’s front, her black, cursive thoughts lining the back. It is indeed a thing of great beauty, a picture of bright winged hair pins fashioned like dragonflies and fritillaries laid out atop a patterned sheerness of linen. A corner of an inlaid, bound jewel chest fills the upper third of the image–four mother of pearl fish swim, forever lazily beneath the iridescent leaves of a shade tree. But that is only its first layer of loveliness.
Thinking about this postcard, I feel the distance it has traveled to be here, held at arm’s length. Its foreign familiarity is a part of it. So much like communication itself, it comes from a place unknown and distant into a closer and more memorized personal sphere. A city, the streets of which I have not walked myself, thronging with people whose faces I have not and never will see with my own eyes. It is difficult to explain the feeling of secret subtext, almost like a texture my fingertips perceive but for which my brain has no corollary. All those many complex narratives that the world holds in reserve, which cannot be known to me–but I feel them stir against my fingertips, the great ocean of voices giving way to clearer fragments of voice in a language unintelligible, but tinted with emotion.
These moments are invisible hummingbirds of the subtle world that rides just beneath the ready senses. It is always so with letters. They bring with them, trailing behind in bright sensory streamers, impressions of their origins, their journey, the experiences of the inanimate thing that has been handled and marked by conscious brains. This is what, for all the swift and ubiquitous ease of an e-mail, internet communication lacks. There’s no flavor of travel, no sense of journeys or of time passed. And perhaps that is the hallmark of this age–that it has no age, no savor. There is no indication of origin or destination of our thoughts, our feelings and deeply held dreams. There is no privacy in public, and when we share our souls with one another, there is no defined structure of etiquette that governs response, patience, or a sense of decorum. This marks us in every aspect of our cultural lives.
She says that because she isn’t teaching this year she feels an emptiness of purpose. I wish I had her postal address in that far away place. I would like to be able to send her a letter reaffirming that she is exactly where she needs to be, doing precisely what she is meant to be doing. I think she knows this, but it is a disconcerting sensation. When your every waking moment is typically governed and defined by the drive to achieve defined goals, your time is parsed into specific allotments. To spend time in a country where a defined pattern of one’s life is associated with the experience of the country itself and then to have that pattern disrupted or removed might actually change the very experiences we have in a place, what we see and how we see.
Perhaps it is only in the successive retelling that the bones of our stories are brought out in strong relief, portents become clear, the significance of momentary interaction is purified, and paths become apparent. Memory makes us dramatists of our own stories. It renders us into that which we cannot be in the acitive moment–the true Observer. We edit out all the boring bits, the gray stretches of time in which the unseen activity of Becoming and the accretion of events takes pride of place. These things cannot be seen as they occur, perhaps because the motion of their process is on a scale more akin to that of galactic spin than the smallness of traffic accidents and grocery shopping.
But I think the sense of emptiness we experience, that perception that there is no driven focus, is essential to the process, to our own continuous creation. In these moments, distance becomes indistinct and we can instead focus completely upon this moment of being. Sensory information once more takes priority allowing us to root our consciousness, not in the distant horizon line of a goal, but in the soil of the Present. It allows us to fully experience the act of being alive. I think that without such times, we might never fully come to realize the shape and scope of our own narratives. In this space lives the deep comprehension of our flaws, our many beauties, and the open secret of our profound connection to each other in lived experiences yet to be birthed. Without these moments, our stories, our epics, might have a very different shape. That is, of course, assuming we ever learn how or why to tell them.