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'A learning life'

By Steven Ratiner / October 6, 1981



Karen stood on the little dock by the lake. All evening the hills and the sky had been masked by thick cottony clouds, the water blanketed by wisps of ground fog that moved in slow procession out into the blackness. But now as the wind gathered a brisk pace, the clouds unraveled, strand upon strand, and the illimitable array of lights was revealed. As the fog peeled away, a second constellation of stars could be seen rising up from the black water.

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When Karen turned toward me, I detected a bit of worry in her eyes. "I was staring so hard at one star I sort of lost myself. For a moment I was surprised to look down and find mem still standing on this spot." After another minute she said, "It's so lovely . . . and so large! Doesn't it make you feel insignificant compared to it all?" That was Maine, last October, midnight. My answer then was "No" . . . but it's taken me the better part of a year to come up with any sort of a reason why.

I think that feeling of smallness is a misapprehension, an optical illusion. When I take a step back and look again -- when I take a step back and look again -- when I see not just the lake and the stars, but Karen's gaze balancing the night -- the scene assumes a new scale. It seems suddenly clear to me that for us to be able to perceive the great horizon, there must be a comparable landscape within our minds. Think of the many personal visions we come upon that still all distraction and sharpen attention to a spark; for these wonders even to register as "beauty" there needs to be some place for that beauty to reside in one's thoughts.

"A year ago," I remember Karen saying, "I would never have noticed all this. It's strange to admit, but I probably would have been moving too quickly, listening too carelessly. Now it is almost irresistible and I can't help but stand quietly and let it all in."

Yes, and let it in where? To the new terrain cultivated in this last year; to the fresh awareness that relishes both these minute distinctions and monumental designs. In my mind, I imagine the process as being something like an hourglass. The great glass bell directed at the world has its complement aimed at the universe within. As the volume of the one expands (to encompass broader spills of mountains and finer stalks of spring grass, star-spinning musics and hair-splitting shades of silence), the corresponding cone develops as well. Sometimes the immensity, the vibrancy of sensation, seems to stretch us to the bursting point. As a poet once wrote: "Lord, I do fear/Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year." But we are surprised: It is not the limit after all; there is still more.

At the point where the outer and inner bells of the hourglass join in a focus -- this is the eyelet of consciousness, at times excited beyond comprehension by the "news" rushing in and out of its doors. Yes, outm as well as in. Because as the mountains, the wind, the lapping blackness of the lake all flow in, a tide of perception must emerge. Sometimes it takes the form of a sudden laugh, a bit of song, a squall of unprovoked tears. Other times you feel the urge to make your response solid, to sketch a poem or a drawing, a newm arrangement of earth and stars. There is the unsteady instant of release when an overpowering gravity draws you out toward the wet autumn night. You try to reach far past human horizons, to join the world's moment with the finest touches of thought.

But "this pendent world" isn't really grasped by your elation, no matter how precise the expression. The horizon seems to recede and shake loose from your hold, then expand and overwhelm your small stance. In and out in deep breaths, your thoughts develop a rhythm of contact with the world. And then, either exhausted or filled to the brim, you rest. But the next occasion presents a fresh perspective, a vision with new details and tones to consider. And perhaps a bolder poem, a more delicate painting, or just a more finely formed question.

Night after day after night, the interchange continues, always surprising and sounding out new chambers of the sky and the mind. It's what a friend once called "a learning life." Both the bewilderment and the blessing of this are concentrated in that thin bottleneck channel through which it all passes: you; me.

It's my guess that the shaky feeling of "smallness, insignificance" is due to a blockage at that narrow passage, when not enough wonder can get in or out. Clear the eyelet, open the tiny floodgates, and the proper balance of outer and inner universe is regained. Yes, I too remember thinking how awesome and far was the world at that moment. But then I saw the night, liquid and shining, rising from the bottom of Karen's eyes. No, indeed, it was not the limit after all; still more. . . .