I’m going where
I know I’ve been
when I was older
than I am now
I used to chew
on milk cartons
now I chew
on my pens
around my neck
used to be
an umbilical cord
There is a poem by Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass that has resonated for me ever since I read it as a teenager. It’s about the struggle of existence with the transitory nature we have found ourselves in. The turbulent foam we move in. Perhaps even the quantum foam of spacetime itself as John Wheeler hypothesized.
This poem shows the empathy we have for others struggling as Whitman had for this swimmer. I knew such a courageous swimmer of life who died in a tragic accident roughly a year ago. He too was in his middle age. Never did I think when I read this decades ago that it would eventually embody a dear friend I thought would outlive me.
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies of the sea, His brown hair lies close and even to his head....he strikes out with courageous arms...he urges himself with his legs. I see his white body....I see his undaunted eyes; I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him headforemost on the rocks, What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves? Will you kill the courageous giant? Will you kill him in the prime of his middle age? Steady and long he struggles; He is baffled and banged and bruised....he holds out while his strength holds out, The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood....they bear him away....they roll him and swing him and turn him; His beautiful body is borne in this circling eddies....it is continually bruised on rocks, Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse.
And through his empathy, Whitman sees himself as the swimmer and through poetry becomes the swimmer as much as the witness. All of us in the foam. All of us swimming through randomness. Bound by our common struggle. Illuminated by our undaunted courage. Holding out against forces beyond our control.
Once there was an old man who wanted to return to the village where he was born one last time before his passing. He had left his home long ago by following one type of work after another and in so doing lost track of how far he had traveled away from the home of his childhood.
His life appeared to him as the strangest dream from which he had awoken. He was so far away that he was unsure of how to find his way back home. So he retraced his steps and went form place to place where he had worked. But after a few places he got lost. Because he was so old, some of the places where he had worked were abandoned or destroyed.
He asked anyone he could if they had heard of his village and people told him that nobody called it that anymore, not in many years, but they told him the new name. And when he came to the village by a different name, he was sure that it wasn’t his old home at all. There were no familiar or friendly faces and the village didn’t even look the same. So he moved on.
He did indeed come upon the village of his youth eventually. And he spoke with his folk and they smiled and smirked at each other as they heard his stories. He swore that they hadn’t aged a bit. All the sweet faces he had longed for were before him now. They thought him a peculiar old man who told them he came from there, when they knew he never did. They took him in anyways and cared for him. His last days were spent in bliss.
Once there was an old woman who swept the wood shavings from the floor of a young carpenter. She brushed the shavings aside into a pile before scooping the pile into a basket. The floor had not one shaving left on it for the next day.
In the morning, the young carpenter would come in and work all day and not think about the shavings spilling all over the floor because they would disappear by tomorrow. The old woman thought nothing of what the carpenter made because every day new shavings would appear for her to sweep.
The young carpenter saw people as wood for the making, but the old woman had already been made long ago and now saw people as they were: not as the woodwork but the shavings from the woodwork meant to be swept away.
The camera compresses the world into a frame. The transitory becomes fixed in an illusion. Smoke trapped underwater. Cloud textures trapped in rocks. The horizon is a stroke of ink, or a line of difference, drawn by the camera’s position.
As my consciousness defines what I see, have I not become the calm of a still lake for a passing moment? And what is calm but the sustain of some already faded state? An identity already loosened up and breaking down into something else, as I hold on to the fixed reflection of what it briefly was to me.