Souls & Moments Long GoneMonday, October 08, 2012
My ship the Río Aguapey a merchant Victory ship of the now defunct Argentine Merchant Marine Company, ELMA was casting off from the Brazilian port of Santos. It was sometime in October 1966. I was the only passenger. The Argentine Navy after my two years of service was repatriating me to my home in Veracruz, Mexico. The ship was meandering up the Southern Hemisphere, one port at a time.
As we cast off, I felt a lightness that came from the fact that I was an inexperienced 24 year-old whose possessions barely occupied my quarters in the ship. There were three books by my bunk. One was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, another Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man and the third, a book that was impossible to understand even after various readings. It was The Philosophy of Hegel by Carl J. Friedrich. To distract me from the heavy reading I had some back issues of Downbeat Magazine.
My hair was down to my shoulders and for two minutes (perhaps even less) I thought of two different futures. In one I would be an officer on a merchant marine ship, living from a compact ship’s cabin and leaving ports behind, with all those insects and vermin (except for the rats!) on shore. I had soon discovered that in the tropics mosquitoes and flies could not survive in the high seas. But knowing how unhappy my friends, the officers of the Río Aguapey, were and how they told me no matter how many girlfriends they had in the various ports they all longed for the stability of a good home and wife. My other future was to become a Brother of the Holy Cross. I would instantly obey orders from my superior to travel to a mission in Africa. I would pack a Bible, a couple of pairs of shoes,black, and soc, black, a few shirts, white, and toiletries into a suitcase and instantly be ready for the journey. The idea was momentarily most attractive until I thought of my former girlfriend Corinne who now lived in London and the other Susy who was back in Buenos Aires. No, I could never become a priest.
I have been thinking of those choices I did not make as Rosemary consider our eventual moving from our big house on Athlone Street. Arthritis will eventually make gardening impossible for me and our meager funds will not pay for the upkeep of the house. We will become instant millionaires when we sell the house and move with our cats to a smaller place.
What to do with all the stuff that we have collected in our 44-year marriage? Consider the thousands of books and the many four-drawer metal cabinets full of my life’s work in photography.
Not any more practical that thinking about becoming a priest or sailor is my frequent thought on visiting our daughter Ale in Lillooet. I would hire an arsonist to burn down our house. We would come back from our weekend trip to find our house and all our possessions in cinders. What freedom! But I know I would be caught and prison, at my age would not be a pleasant experience.
There are two articles in my NY Times that have given me some relief and a promise that parting from all those possessions will not be as difficult as I imagine it might be.
Both articles involve novelist Mark Helprin. The first, Bumping into Characters appeared on October 3 in the House section of my daily delivered hard copy. The article is about how Helprin brings the memories of the past houses he lived in to describe houses and places in his novels.
And then there is my study, constructed according to my specifications and dominated by a great wall of books, which lent itself to the description of Catherine’s rooms “In Sunlight and in Shadow.” Giving to her the rooms in which I myself was writing gave me a great pleasure. At first I didn’t know why, but then I understood.
The day of the physical book as anything but a curious artifact is fast approaching. Out of continuing affection, I built a library to hold the books that I have read and those I have written. Much like the sweet smell from a century–old chimney, they are a wonderful, life sustaining record with far greater power than their mere physical presence. But soon enough these books and what surrounds them will be scattered to the winds.
Houses, rooms, our designs of all sorts and all material things will eventually vanish. Because they cannot last, their value in the present, in memories that die with us, in things that come unbidden to the eye and in the electric, immaterial, miraculous spark that occurs when by accident and design they jump the gap and, like life itself, are propagated into something else, becoming for a moment pure spirit, thus to become everlasting.
And in the October 7 Book Review of the NY Times there is a review of Helprin’s latest novel In Sunlight and in Shadow by Liesl Shillinger. Shillinger writes:
As for female readers, it may be helpful to ponder the insight Harry shares with his beloved Catherine: “Girls don’t have what boys have, which is a goatlike capacity to bang with the head against heavy objects that will not move.”
If this is so, “boys” may be more apt than girls to savor the repeat impact of Harry’s floodgate cargo, bearing the news that “the whole world is nothing more than what you remember and what you love, things fleeting and indefensible, light and beautiful, that were not supposed to last, echoing forever.”
And further down:
When Harry looks down on Manhattan from a height across the Hudson River, he thinks to himself, “All he had to do was close his eyes and breathe deeply, and the past would glide forward like a warm breeze – plumes of smoke silvered in the sun, ferries sliding gracefully to land, their decks crowded with souls long gone but somehow still there as if nothing were lost or ever would be.”