Sunday, December 26, 2004

Getting to know place
   The cosmos at the scale of home

I turn off the lights, open the window in my study, lean on the sill a little into the night, gazing for a long moment out at snow falling through cottonwoods along Mission Creek, and snow falling on my winter garden, now gone. Snowflakes on my cheek feel like pricks of life.

A knowledge has been handed down to me through American culture from Puritans who saw the material world related to the spiritual world in such a way that any moment correctly observed and understood contains all moments.

When, as Puritans, they encountered the New England coast, they did not see stones shaped by geologic forces over millions of years or waves rising and falling according to laws of physics that stretched backward and forward through infinity without change. They saw a stage upon which a cosmic drama of sin and redemption was enacted in every moment. They saw in all of it a provident God whose Plan of Salvation included the story of time from beginning to end, moment by moment, in unimaginably vast reaches of self-similarity.

In learning to see their own lives as types of the unfolding plan, they became skilled metaphorical thinkers, adept at seeing different points in history as revelatory of the underlying truth from which existence unfolded, so their own grand errand to the wilderness was also the Israelites’ journey through wilderness toward freedom. Every event and aspect of nature was at once itself and a remembrancer of more. History was not chronology but an intelligible order in which prophets had discerned and described both past and future. We can see only what we can see, but all of it is before us.

Later, such ones as Thoreau, Emerson, Melville and Hawthorne separated the Puritan’s metaphorical facility from faith in the God of the Bible, but the transcendence lasted for a while. Every time and place remained an instance of every other time and place.

But then, in a moment, it vanished. The cosmos was empty and dead. In “The Snow Man? Wallace Stevens said that to face the meaningless arrangements and rearrangements of patterns that make up modernity, “one must have a mind of winter.” Only then can one behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

But few have minds of winter. Many would rather find sacred paths into dialogue with the universe as living mind. The covers of best sellers are graced with images of Egyptian pyramids or South American temples or Stonehenge. People look beyond cold nothing.

They associate a sense of nothing with the meaninglessness of the spaces they have come to. What does it matter which building in which edge city reached by which highway one goes to through morning gridlock to ride the same elevator to the same hallway to the same room filled with purplish gray fabric-covered cubicles, personalized with photocopied jokes?

I think that the longing for a sense of place we hear so much about has grown from a longing for meaning. A longing for family, as a way of being understood and loved, as a way of being together, among all our grandmothers and grandfathers and all our children and grandchildren, some not yet born. A longing for a sense that all we have been and seen and known does not melt and shatter into vibrating bits.

The longing for a sense of place is, I think, a longing for the cosmos at the scale of home.

Just before I opened the window to look out through silences of falling snow, I had been reading an argument by a theoretical physicist that time is an illusion, as I watched the night, a thick swirl of heavy snowflakes catching the yellow light of the streetlights across the creek, where in the near distance I saw two cars moving, slowly as it seemed to me, through whatever night they were to encounter.

I knew that the empty spaces between protons and electrons were a million billion times larger than the particles themselves, I knew that the solidity of the birch window sill was an illusion created in part by force fields within which electrons and protons danced, and I knew that nobody knew what the forces fields were, and that the electrons themselves were made of even smaller particles, emerging from waves of a not-nothing that was prior to energy and flooding the universe with being.

My grandson toddles to my knee and tugs on my trousers. “Can I see??

I lift him. Yes. Here a little and there a little. Yes.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/26 at 10:57 PM
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© 2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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