As the days shorten, I like to walk at four o’clock, when the light turns thick and golden. Everything it touches seems suspended in honey: the waterbird puffing out its feathers to keep warm, the egret gliding by, the tight, lonely clump of sky-blue ceanothus clinging bravely to life, the pile of dog poop a previous walker has left in my path. The democracy of light.
The tide is low, the shorebirds busily plunging their long, curved beaks into the sand in search of supper. What can explain the sweet ache that gathers as, in the middle distance, hundreds of small black birds rise and turn in unison, seeking a more succulent patch of shoreline?
So much of my life has been about making sense, about rational understanding. But whatever responds to that sudden beauty precedes thought, and outlasts it too.
I am in the antechamber between lives. All my worldly goods fit into these three rooms, a satisfying lightness. On one track, I am busy, busy, busy with all kinds of work and other occupations; and on another, mystery sits like an unhatched egg.
I have let go of so much, including the illusion of a predictable future. What remains? This appetite for words, the act of lining them up like beads on a string, the particular aesthetic pleasure of that unending challenge and delight. This longing so deep it must be written in my genetic code, to see and be seen, to know and be known. These questions always tumbling through my mind. This phototropic obsession with light on water.
And this passion for making sense of the world, despite everything I now know about how indifferent the world is to sense, however we may reckon it. Wanting to make sense even of this, I have collected explanations: we try to heal the world to compensate for a broken childhood; out of an inability to comprehend its perfection precisely as it is; to support the illusion of control; to impress it with the shape of our own egos; to be needed; to be of use.
All true, no doubt, but the most satisfying explanation I have been given—poetically satisfying, if not literally plausible—is that my spirit was previously incarnated in another universe where the injustices plaguing humankind no longer exist. Being born into this messed-up world left me permanently amazed and perpetually calling others’ attention to the fact that there is a better way to live. To the extent this makes me annoying, I have to wonder about the prequel that none of the psychics and mystics who’ve told me this has passed on: if things were so great in that other universe, exactly why did I have to leave?
The only sense I can make of it is that this is my essence, I am coded to repair the world, so without brokenness, how can I be? Perhaps I had to leave paradise to be myself. After all, I have been annoying people in this way all my life. In junior high school, I refused to take part in the duck-and-cover air raid drills that were a regular feature of mid-century public school life (when a siren sounded, you had to crouch under your desk, covering your head, until it stopped). When that didn’t get me into hot enough water, I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which seemed to me exactly like one of those displays of coerced patriotism we saw in Red Scare films during social studies. When these and other such infractions landed me in trouble in high school, a kind and sympathetic counselor let me cry in his office. “You just want people to be fair and rational,” he said, shaking his head, and I thought, “What’s wrong with that?”
Now I know what’s wrong with it: it’s one of those noble lost causes, like world government or Esperanto or the hope of people actually abiding by the many variations on the golden rule shared by the world’s religions. I no longer think we can make things happen. If I ever was a utopian, I left that far behind on the day I noticed how much blood had been spilled in the never-ending quest to shape humanity to utopian ideals. Now, it seems to me that all we can do is put our weight on the side of what appears to be an emergent reality, the enlargement of empathy and mutuality. That seems like a lot.
The sun had begun to set as I arrived home. A crew of men painted the railings along the esplanade. I thought it would soon be too dark for them to see. I felt how much I wanted things to make sense, and how unlikely it is that I will get my wish. But some things still ring true. I am privileged to gaze at a large, placid pelican sitting in a puddle of setting sunlight. A boy on a bike rides straight into a clump of velvety gray birds, scattering them like sparks. In the space that opens up, I remember something I read recently, this remark of James Baldwin’s—just a moment in a 1984 interview with Julius Lester, a glimpse of an inner life brave beyond comprehension, suggesting possibility despite limitations:
I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is.