Friday, September 30, 2011

Lights from Distant Stars

Some nights, when there is no cloud cover, or when the marine layer does not hover like a descended nictating membrane, the sky is clear, the view pellucid.  You can and often do marvel at the arrival of light on your eyes, light that has traveled millions of miles at the incredible speeds of which it is capable. As though the light show were not enough, it is enhanced by your understanding that some of the lights you are seeing are not only from distant stars but, in some cases, dead stars.

These lights are, among other things, pulses of energy, coming to you across the skies of time and distance.  With a nod of recognition to the enormity of the process of which you are a part, you move inside for a beverage of choice.  Depending on your mood, the beverage can be a bottle of ale, a cup of herb tea, or a latte made with your stovetop Bialetti espresso maker.

Then, on to one of your bookshelves, where you confront the equivalent of energy from across the skies of time and distance.  Perhaps a new translation of The Iliad, maybe instead something from your meager collection of the Loeb Classical Library, rescued last minute from your precipitous move from Hot Springs Road to this smaller place.  Of equal possibility, one of your Big Little Books, those chunky, pulp paper bricks of pure adventure and entertainment from the 1930s and ‘40s.  If the mood is of a particular nostalgia, the book you were given for your thirteenth birthday, a $2.95 doorstopper, and a collection of novels, stories, essays, and speeches by one Samuel L. Clemens, who has led you through the shoals and reefs of your youth and beyond.

Many of the books you have brought with you and some of the many that seem to have appeared in stacks along your walls and bedside, fall into the Desert Island category, the books you would want close to hand were you to be transported to a desert island, your companions as you coped with the urgencies of survival.

In the same way you are almost mystically connected to the past by the simple delight of looking up above you at a sky full of stars, you are connected to more specific past times through books written by men and women who lived in other times, other cultures, other societies.  In some ways, you are able to identify the literary sense of time and place from the manner and style of the narrative.  This is a similar kind of identity you are able to make when you hear a particular work of music, its melodic patterns and other characteristics, possibly even its lyrics if they are present, serving as temporal bookmarks.  You are able to do this while an almost complete illiterate in musical terms, merely from having listened with care to music for as long as you can remember.

Thomas Hardy, whose works line the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, invariably begins his novels with one or more persons walking along a pathway in the Devonshire countryside, wherein he describes shrubbery, cottages, vehicles, dray animals, and individuals before thinking to introduce story elements.  He introduces these elements as though he were relating them to you rather than allowing them to evoke themselves in the manner of twenty-first century novels. The reader of Hardy’s time had come to expect such introductory, descriptive matter as a matter of course.  Even though contemporary conventions suggest the hint or intent of story on the first page, today’s reader is in effect showing a visa to the past by giving a close reading to the opening pages of, say, Tess or Jude.

 What at first may seem a desolate or lonely path is often illuminated by the past and present-day light emitting from the distant stars, books, and memorabilia from others who have trod them in the past or who are, like you, setting forth on a journey of discovery.  Each time you set out, you are emitting some form of energy—light, if you will—that can illuminate the way for another.  This is one way we can take from our expanding universe and give something to it in return.

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