There is sometimes a good clean feeling of being alive and wet in the rain. Doesn’t matter what age, but if it happens late in life, so much the better. I didn’t think much about being alive in my youth, I was simply alive, simply living, trying to resist some things and experimenting with others, trying to get a sense of what’s good, what’s bad, what’s exciting and stupid, and what’s just stupid. But as an older person, not just older but old, an old person, I think about being alive. Because one, I’m still alive, still doing it, still living and breathing and eating and sleeping and all that good stuff. But two, I’m stuck with all those decisions I made in my youth, and three, there’s not much in the way of destiny at my age.
Destiny is about the future. What happens in old age, what is important in old age, is to stay focused on the immediate, to experience the immediate, squeeze the immediate, hug the immediate, all the while trying to get used to the idea of one’s life coming to an end. The ephemerality of life, its ultimate temporariness, is more acutely felt as we age, and it is both a great sadness and a great liberation. We are brief custodians of a life energy running through us. Our reality is something far greater than the life we encapsulate in blood and bone for X number of years. Not to put to morbid a spin on it, but that’s what’s real at my age. The immediate, the imminent, the actual. The universe at large, of which I am a part, a temporary manifestation of hair and skin, ideas and fingers, daydreams and DNA. “Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,” observes Duke Senior in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “the season’s difference,
………as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
So going out in the afternoon of a day in late October when the air is honing its knife and getting ready for the real cutting cold of December and January and it’s raining and gloomy and gray and there are still people up on Bigelow hunting down chestnut burrs is a luxury of sorts. I can still move, still run, still get wet. The immediate and actual are large and multiple and keenly felt. Each moment is a universe, reads the title of a book by Sōtō Zen roshi Dainin Katagiri.
It’s hard to appreciate just how vast the universe is. I can’t. Can’t do it. Can’t wrap my head around it. For one thing, it’s infinite. I can’t wrap my head around infinity. I know what it is, it’s boundlessness. Infinity is forever. It’s beyond time, beyond space, beyond Google. It’s beyond my ability to imagine what forever is. I’m a drop in the infinity bucket. Drops are easy. I can imagine myself as a drop. I’ve seen drops. I’ve seen them on the windshield of our car and I’ve seen them run down the windows of our apartment. But the space outside of the bucket and the space outside of the space surrounding the bucket surpasses the limits of my bucket.
My brain - the human brain - weighs approximately three pounds. Planet Earth weighs about 1,000 trillion metric pounds. I can’t squeeze a 1,000 trillion metric ton planet into a three-pound brain. I can, however, form an image of Planet Earth which will fit nicely into my brain. It’s round, it’s pretty, it’s blue and white, it’s clearly defined against the black of infinite space. That part is easy. Thank you, language.
Some things I can picture, some things I can’t. I can picture Wyoming. I can picture a helicopter flying over Wyoming. I can picture a helicopter hovering over a herd of wild mustangs up north in the Pryor Mountains of Montana but I can’t picture myself floating forever into space. I can picture myself floating, I can even picture space, but I can’t picture endlessness. Is there anyone who can? What did George Clooney feel like in Gravity when he let go of the parachute strap holding both he and Sandra Bullock to the remains of the International Space Station and went floating to his death as he utters his last words to Bullock about the beauty of the sunrise on the Ganges. I don’t mean Clooney, of course, but the fictitious character he was embodying, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. Suppose it was real, an actual catastrophe, and these events actually occurred: you let go of a strap and go floating for eternity in space. Your air supply will soon be depleted and you will die what I hope would be a peaceful death. How long might your body go traveling through space? Would it go into orbit? Would internal bacteria survive long enough to eat the flesh and leave a skeleton in the suit? Would it soon by hit by a rock? Torn to pieces by debris? You see what happens: the mind begins adding details, tossing them into this fiction and avoiding the central issue: infinity. The horror of eternity.
Endlessness isn’t an image endlessness is endless abstraction. It’s a philosophical concept whose appearance might take the form of infinitesimal calculus, a Taylor series, the mathematics of continuous change. The mind needs limits to form definitions, contours, meanings. Meanings require shapes, purpose, infinity signs. Endlessness has no meaning because it exceeds all boundary and zone and the ghosts of departed quantities. The river never reaches the ocean. The ocean never ceases heaving itself onto land and receding back into the infinite undulation that is the living manifestation of its being. Water is being. It’s why it has waves. It’s why it splashes and swirls. And it’s everywhere. Water is everywhere. It’s in me. It’s in us. It’s all above us, below us, and all around us. It’s in bugs and wolves and scorpions and centipedes. We’re all carriers of water carrying water from one form of water to another, boiling it, pouring it, drinking it. Floating on it, swimming in it, squirting it. The transformations of water are endless. The movement of its ripples on a pond parallel the words in a sentence that remain separate in sound and movement but are a coherence of moving pattern that results in meaning and emotion.
Last night at a reading I heard a writer refer to a Japanese scientist named Masaru Emoto who has discovered that molecules of water are affected by our thoughts, words, and feelings. Water exhibits properties of molecular coherence, and is the main carrier of all the electric signals our bodies generate. Beethoven’s pastoral symphonies, played between two bottles of water, produced beautiful and well-formed crystals. Mozart’s 40th symphony, a graceful prayer to beauty, “created crystals that were delicate and elegant.” “And the crystals formed by Chopin’s Étude in E, Op 10, No. 3, surprised us with their lovely detail.” I’m assuming that the better the crystal the better the signal produced, leading to a happier, more profound sense of well-being.
But what about heavy metal? What about the rages and hammering rhymes of rap? The big brass sounds of John Philip Sousa’s military marches?
What about polka? What does water do under the influence of polka? Does it Hoop-Dee-Doo? Do the crystals form licorice sticks and peanuts?
What if I sing in the shower? Does the water pelting my body alter its crystals in accordance with “Knock, Knock, Kockin’ on Heaven’s Door?” I just hear it as it gurgles down the drain. It is I who feel changed when I leave the shower. Water always has a soothing effect on my body. It’s like music heard by my skin. I feel like I stepped out of Mozart dripping symphonies of water. I dry myself with an étude and get dressed in a bisbigliando.
The best possible place to get wet is in the comedy of your own lilypond.
Infinity hurts the head. It tastes like totems on the Kwakiutl shore. Are mind and body one? This should not be a question. This should be leaves glossed with rain. A name in the mud written with a stick. Trek to the store for butter under a black umbrella. This is the mind in the body in the rain of a soggy day. And this is a piece of infinity discarded by time and secreted by hope.
The slop of water the honeycombs of bees. Halibuts are angels of circumstance. Schools of smelt in the emerald calm of the sound. It’s there, infinity. You know it, you can feel it, it’s what gives life this particular taste, feeling. Because we appear here, we are brought here, through conduits of fluid, and it’s by fluid we go, turn to vapor and cloud, if that, and so what, who wants to hang around forever?