Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Sense of Wonder

This week I'm reading The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash, a novel set in the Appalachian mountains, with trout streams, tobacco fields, rented trailers, and ghosts of the Civil War that rise up to a confluence. This morning I watched as Leonard, a teacher brought low, remembered his mother who used to sit on the front steps of their home and stare at the mountains "rising beyond their pasture." She explained to her son why she did it: "Sometimes a Bible or church isn't enough. That's why there's need for a world in the first place, son."

I know what she means. I don't know what eternity is. I know the theological concept. Can quote you verse (scripture and/or hymn) regarding it. But I don't know what it is. Nothing to hang the idea on, to make it real. Is it an unending round of matching socks? Despair. Is it one long frozen vanilla custard with raspberries and cashews? Delicious, but not all day everyday. Yet, I'm supposed to long for it, to plan my life around it. But to actually know it, to understand, that's another thing entirely.

There are moments though when I feel eternal. I feel space and time swirl around me, through me, and out of me, pouring through the top of my skull which seems to have been split wide open and made me a part of something so much larger than I could ever imagine.

The winter scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, starting, I think, with a mouth organ's mournful notes, counterpointed with the axes hitting the logs. The brothers have become lonesome polecats, and then Caleb rises up on his toes and swings the ax, over his head, cutting down and through, and then pirouettes, and suddenly he's moved from the stream, through the snow, swinging that ax, simultaneously a warrior king and a backwoods farmer. The first time I saw this movie I was about eight years old. That sudden, ax-swinging movement still chills me. I wanted to be the ax, to swing the ax, to move like that in such controlled, straight, powerful lines. I still do. I want to be Sarah McLachlan's voice rising above the bass in Barenaked Ladies' God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, "Star of wonder, star of light. . . " I would like to be able to sing like that yes. But more, I want to actually be that voice, to slide up and over the underlying melody. Like the sun breaking loose of the horizon.

The expression on Jackie Elliot's face, a coal miner from North-eastern England, when his son, Billy, who has chosen to go into "the bally" explodes onto the stage in a flurry of feathers, and the muscled lines of a grand jete. I wept for that fraction of a second which showed a father's disbelief that such a creature, such a beautiful creature, could be his son. That eternal, life-shattering moment when life reveals to the father the vision of a son he hasn't been able to see.

The first seventy seven seconds of Where the Streets Have No Name with the beat that builds and then the most beautiful voice in rock lets loose with the primal moan, "I wanna run." I'm driving my motherly SUV down snowy streets, to futsal practice, to basketball games, to the library, and the organ starts, then the beat that comes from the background, guitar, bass and drums . . . the hair on my arms stand up straight and, if you were watching me across the intersection, you'd see a smile building on my face, my eyes closed, my head bobbing, and then my hands, which don't even know how to drum, trying to become that rythm. To be drum and bass and organ. Happens to me every time I hear it. Like the top of my head just came right off and I've floated out into the universe.

Watching Christian take off from the foul line in a game last week. He was bringing the ball up the court, caught the defense napping, and sensing a moment, he drives past the post player, and takes from off the foul line, like a triple jumper or the Jordan icon on his socks: one, two, into the air, long legs split into a v, up, up, up and down, ball held in his palm and then pushed lightly to bump off the glass, two inches above the rim, through the hoop, while Christian lands in a pounce on the floor. Time slowed, the whole gym watched as this creature, suddenly more animal than fifteen-year old boy, became beautiful. (He told me later, when I asked him about that move, "I thought, 'Woah, I took off really early, I better stretch.''') When he was in the air, in that moment neither coming nor going, just there, I held my breath and sensed eternity.

A post-midnight house, with sleeping bodies in beds, lights off everywhere, except maybe over the sink, a cup of rooibos tea in hand, curled up on the leather couch, book on the arm, listening to the noises of a night house. I've spent so many nights in my life in that exact same position at that same time, that, if I am very still, and all I hear is my breath and the same heart that has beaten inside me since before memory, it is hard to tell whether the breathing coming from the other room is my father or my husband; am I seven, nineteen or forty-two?

Can I be all three? Because, sitting still on the couch in my forty-two-year-old body, I can still feel, say, the hot flush of shame that fills seven-year-old bodies when they realize they are wholly out of step with the majority, that what they thought was normal was, in fact, quite startling. I remember taking my mother's hand to cross the Main Road in Claremont, spacing my fingers to fit between hers, feeling the warmth of her palm cup against mine. Adam holds my hand as we run through the parking lot after the game (not as often as before but sometimes still) and when his little fingers fill the curves at the base of mine, for a moment, I cannot quite tell whose hand is whose. Contemplate the wisdom in having a mother who was also once nine and remembers it in her bones and blood. For I do remember much, and it runs through me like it was yesterday, today and tomorrow at the same time.

Stopping a soccer ball that has been passed to me, centering in a matter of two-tenths of a second, bringing my right leg back on a pendulum and connecting with the solid thwack, top of my foot snug against the center of the ball, head over the ball, to feel it fly in a rising arc into the back of the net. Nine times out of ten, I hit the ball off center, I stop it too soon, my balance is off, I whiff it completely. But sometimes, serendipitously, when balance, timing, pendulum swing and force combine perfectly--magic. I'm not Tessa, not mother, not saggy but getting back into shape. I'm just a perfect pendulum on a perfect course towards the utter center of a motionless ball. I've never resorted yet to stripping off my shirt and showing my black sports bra (underwired, admittedly) to the crowd. But last Friday night, when it happened, I did a little skip on my way back to center field. A small moment of perfection, in the midst a little bit of a pulled hamstring, a large amount of wire, and lining up, after the goal, off-sides.

Standing at the tip of Africa, at Cape Point, watching the ocean currents tumble over each other to crash against the rocks 500 feet below, leaving trails of white foam laced across the horizon. A relentless movement of mass and water, swelling, swelling, swelling, then crashing, in patterns older than time. The same rise and fall, the same movement of mass and water within me, as, pregnant for the first time, I felt Julia move. Across my naked belly stretched taut, she left traces of her tumbling, raised edges, sudden furrows, and deep within, flutterings and bruises of motion that told of things to come.

Always, always, and mostly, only, with my body do I feel eternity. Not in a verse, not in a phrase, but in my bones, and my hair, and my skull. Like Leonard's mother, at the feet of what is is most often when I touch the hem of what might or will be.

(Title: Van Morrison, A Sense of Wonder)

Link to Seven Brides Scene:

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