Monday, October 21, 2013

The known and the unknowable


Before the blog, before the Globe, before the books, I kept a journal, a new one each semester in black, hard-bound artists' sketch books. There's a shelf of them in a back room upstairs, from the 60s and 70s. I had a look the other day, the first time in many years. It was like entering a time machine.

What most impressed me was the continuity. I find there in embryo all the themes that I spent the rest of my life developing. I've scanned above a sketch from an early volume of my walk to and from college each day, the path that would become "The Path: A One-mile Walk Through the Universe." Even then I realized that any place can be every place, that any thing contains all things. On the first page of another volume I quote John Steinbeck fromLog from the Sea of Cortez:
…And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time.
A one-mile walk through the universe. One might as well say "one step," or "one life." Chain that younger Chet to a tree and give him access to a good library and he'd find ample interests to keep himself occupied. A gnat is made of the stuff of the big bang. A mayfly draws its animation from the center of the sun. Continents drift, ice ages come and go: It's all etched in every particle of earth.

But a human life is long, and the challenge is to stay aware. I flip though my early journals and I wonder where the excitement has gone, when everything was new and fresh, when it was like opening my eyes for the first time. Then, I accomplished more in a day than I do now in a fortnight. The tempo diminishes, the voice repeats itself.

It's not that the complexity of things has been depleted. There is an arc to an individual life that we share with the gnat and the mayfly. Our lives are rounded with a sleep. Life, however, continues unabated, bound to the spinning planets and expanding universe by the elastic string of time.