Saturday, December 12, 2009

Whatever what is is

I watched The Last Picture Show again the other evening, for the first time since it was in the theaters in the early 1970s. Talk about reliving one's past! High school in the south in the early 1950s. All those Hank Williams songs and raging hormones.

I was stuck by something Ellen Burstyn, as Jacy's mom Lois, said toward the end of the film. She is talking about an early fling she had with Sam the Lion, played by Ben Johnson, who has just died. "I guess if it wasn't for Sam, I'd just about have missed it, whatever it is."

Lois knows she had something special with Sam, who is the moral center of the film and the town, but she's not quite sure what it was. She speaks out of that moral center that is in each of us, part of our biological heritage, a fragile seed of protein-mediated goodness that needs to be sheltered and cultivated if it's to blossom and flourish. Lois knows what's right, and wants it for her daughter, but somehow it slips just beyond her grasp. There's a contradictory part of our biological makeup too, selfish and hormonal.

I'm reminded of a little four-line poem by Galway Kinnell, called Prayer:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only
that. But that.
We start with what we are, with whatever "what is" is, some crazy mix of genes and nurture and environment, and we walk that perilous path from cradle to grave. Some folks think they know what "what is" is. That can be a cup of solace for them, I suppose. It can also be a basin of trouble for those who have a different notion of what "what is" is, or for those who have no idea at all.

I'll stick with Lois and Kinnell. With what Howard Nemerov writes about in this little poem called "A Life":
In a sense.
In no sense!

Was that it?
Was that it?
Was that it?

That was it.