“LOOK AT THE CRYSTALS!”

I suddenly find myself, only an hour advanced from the night’s sleep on this late October morning, thinking of a fine and innocent moment with a childhood friend, long lost, named Lorraine. It had snowed….we were walking. There were — crystals.

Meanwhile, each moment is nudging me further away from memory of those crystals into this new day; I sit here, exterior darkness only slowly lifting on the street with the falsely evocative name Caribbean Way, as I hear of a great, raging Nor’easter sweeping into New England. It is full of rain, not snow.

But I have known these damp autumnal Nor’easters, have seen them batter the window pane, had them lash my face, seep into my shoes. They can do harm, but like all weather, they can cleanse, rupture, gray over and necessarily, in nature’s way, sweep away the humdrum routines and securities of the average sunny day. Oh, if only that were all they flood and blow down and sweep away!

To paraphrase Tolstoy: all fair and sunny days are alike, but stormy days are stormy in their own way.

In the darkness without, I hear the bleating of the truck backing into the ugly utility area one door down. It is trash day. I must put out the trash.

In exactly one moment, the little hockey puck-size automatic voice machine in the dining area will send the pleasant, comforting disembodied, faux-human voice of a faux-human named Alexa — send it throughout this tin and vinyl space announcing the weather for this Florida day

There, I hear it…..

Right now in Largo, it is 54 degrees. Today’s forecast calls for mostly sunny weather, with a high of 84 and a low of 62 degrees.

So, at last, it is cooling here in the subtropics. The dank, relentless, unchanging heat of the five-month summer may at last be breaking, for the moment.

Another sunny day.

As for the lingering darkness — darkness, like cool weather, can be a comfort in Florida, for it sometimes seems a clime in which, like the prison cells of savage miscreants, the lights are always left on so the guards can keep an eye on them. But that is only my perception. There is a fair amount of ragged, private beauty here, too, between the macadam and utility areas. And who doesn’t like a sunny day?

The fact is, people, like raindrops, are raining down on this ‘paradise.’ Or, escaping to it. I did. Or I tried to. To escape, that is.

Good grief!

I had not meant to write so much. I had meant only simply to write of that moment with little Lorraine, my friend.

Her name was Lorraine Peters. Her older sister, friend to my teenage sister, was Anne. Both girls were red-headed with freckles, like my sister. On that winter’s day, we both would have been wearing winter coats. We were, perhaps, nine-years-old, maybe ten. I don’t recall how we happened to be together on a winter’s evening walking down steep, snow-covered Pope’s Hill Street to the corner of what had once been a dirt road named Sewell Street but was now a paved street named Salina Road. ( A far cry from Caribbean Way.) I lived a half block to west on Neponset Avenue. Lorraine lived perhaps two hundred yards to the southeast across an empty field on Freeport Street.

If the field was still there and not yet built over with a supermarket, or perhaps a supermarket under construction, then it was perhaps winter, 1957. I can’t be sure. Can’t pinpoint it.

It was time for both Lorraine and me to be home for supper, I’m sure.

The snow was fresh, the air clear and cold. The new snowfall — it had only been a moderate snowstorm, perhaps four or five inches — would soon be soiled with city grime, sand and dog urine. But now, it was pure and blue in the new darkness. And there had been enough of it, and apparently enough wind, to form little banks on street corners.

Lorraine would have been wearing a stocking cap. She was not pretty. No, rather plain, but very nice.

Had we been sledding on Pope’s Hill? Did we have our sleds with us? Was it before or after Christmas? I don’t recall. Lorraine was an intelligent little girl. Mature, good company. But I was not often in her company.

Suddenly, at the corner of Selina and Pope’s Hill (a short street likely named for some long-ago Yankee merchant long before we Irish moved to the neighborhood), Lorraine and I paused to admire a little bank of the new snow. It glowed — was there a dim street light nearby or was it after dinner already and a full moon was illuminating this bank of whiteness?

Or did that snow bank just seem to glow of its own cold magical inner essence? The fragile glow of the beautiful.

And suddenly I heard Lorraine in her high, buoyant voice say, “look at the crystals!”

She was talking of those pinpoints of light, like a starry firmament, that are the property of all freshly fallen snow.

And the pure essence of being civilized, springing up among people even so young as we were, is the capacity to discern beauty in nature, and to note it to another human.

Had I been with one of my young male friends, would he have pointed out that sparkle imbedded in the new-fallen snow? Were we young boys quite that “civilized” yet? Wasn’t it in the feminine nature to see it and, more especially, to note it? Am I permitted to speculate in these contentious times that the feminine spirit might well be the vanguard of civilization? For a snowbank should never just be — a snowbank.

“Look at the crystals!”

Even for Lorraine to see that glow and to name it “crystals” was to leave a crystalline impression on my nine (or ten) year old imagination.

I believe we parted soon thereafter. Perhaps we were pulling our sleds.

Over the next few years, Lorraine and Anne Peters from Freeport Street would be a presence in my young world, though I did not see that much of either of them and Lorraine was not among my immediate friends.

Then one day, well before I became an adult, the Peters family moved away.

But my sister Anne was one who, throughout her life — especially after the advent of the internet age — seemed to strive to re-connect with lost, almost forgotten neighbors. And while she was closer in age to Anne Peters, and knew her better, she received one day — I forget how or why — an internet correspondence from Lorraine Peters who was now living somewhere like Connecticut.

An exchange continued for a period between them. I know I mentioned to my sister that vivid moment of the snowy crystals and, as I sit here (with the sun up now behind the blinds, the day advancing), I hope she somehow passed that observation on to Lorraine, though I doubt she would have recalled that shared moment that made such an impression on me.

Then one day my sister informed me that she’d learned from Lorraine that she was mortally ill, probably with cancer. She would have been in her sixties, not that terribly old, probably married with children, even grandchildren. News of her death followed soon thereafter. The girl who’d seen the crystals was gone.

Five Septembers ago, my sister also fell mortally ill (with cancer) and left us. Therefore any further details about how she came to be in contact with Lorraine Peters is gone. So much left the world with my sister.

But that crystalline childhood moment remains, fleeting as that vanished snowbank, imbedded in memory. A young girl’s sensitive awareness, leading to an instant of shared perception. A civilizing bond in the early hours of two lives.

God rest you, Lorraine. Thank you for the crystals. Though I am in Florida, I will always long to see the winter’s first snow. I must see it again, with all its hazards. I must not forget you, my little neighbor, as, at this hour, in the year 2021, rain and wind assault the bare corner of Selena and Pope’s Hill Street, and washes the odd candy wrapper down the gutters in the gray light.

By the way, it’s not trash day. That’s tomorrow.

CONRAD’S MANIFESTO

This is found in the writer’s preface to a work whose title, perhaps even whose content — in the manner in which it makes of a West Indian sailor aboard a Bombay to London merchant ship a sometimes odious and undeniably complex metaphor — poses problems for modern shibboleths and sensibilities. And, though I aspire always to challenge “political correctness” I deem it unfortunate that Conrad didn’t stay with either of the original titles, i.e., A Tale of the Sea, or Children of the Sea.

The work ultimately became kn0wn as , The N****r of the Narcissus. It is a profound work, and a great “tale of the sea.”

What follows, as noted, are the introductory paragraphs of the novel’s preface, Conrad’s famous artistic manifesto of what some have characterized as “literary impressionism.”

I’m fond of it. It follows here:

A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe ( emphasis added), by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential — their one illuminating and convincing quality — the very truth of their existence. The artists then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts — whence, presently, emerging they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living. They speak authoritively to our common sense, to our intelligence, to our desire of peace or to our desire of unrest; not seldom it our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism — but always to credulity. And their words are heard with reverence, for their concern is with weighty matters: the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies, with the attainment with the attainment of our ambitions, with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims.

It is otherwise with the artist.

Confronted with the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate,he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities — like the vulnerable body within a steel armor. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring — and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever….

He (the artist) speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation – and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hopes, in fears, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn….

Conrad refers to music as “the art of arts.” But in striving to achieve the musicality of which language is capable, or the visual properties and qualities of painting or sculpture, he writes…

…it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color,and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.

I find myself wondering, given these sentiments and convictions of Conrad, if he ever tried his hand a poetry, for it is in that genre more than any other, arguably, that words are supreme. Flannery O’Connor, a great fan of Conrad’s, though, like him never a poet, and a very different writer stylistically, told a correspondent that when she spoke of the moral basis of poetry being ” the accurate naming of the things of God,” she meant ” about the same that Conrad meant when he said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe. For me the visible universe is a reflection of the invisible universe.

Here’s to Joseph and Flannery — who with their words try to make us see what is most worthy of seeing.

WOKE STUFF AT MY OLD PLACE

I’m a Suffolk University alumni. I got the alumni magazine today and learned about a Suffolk PHD student in something called “applied developmental psychology” who is working in something called the Youth Equity and Sexuality Lab to explore “the impact of far-right ideologies on Black women college students.” She notes that feminist scholar Moya Bailey coined a term for this. It’s “misogynoir”, defined as “racist misogyny directed toward Black women.”

This PHD student attended a small liberal arts college where she majored in dance and psychology. “I wrote an article called ‘Dancing Around White Supremacy” about (inclusion) issues in my program.”

Ah! Now I have seen bullshit dancing.

JOE “RED” O’HARA

Today is his birthday.

The doorbell rang one spring evening at 210 Neponset Avenue. It was — 1957? I think so. Or was it 1956?

I was in the kitchen. I was ten. Or, was I nine?

I was probably just putting something away, a dish or something. I don’t know. I’ll never remember how I happened to be standing in view of the front door at that moment. But when the bell rang I had a clear view the twenty feet to the open front door. On the other side of the storm door stood a red-headed young man, athletic looking in a short-sleeve shirt. My memory makes it plaid or red. He was glancing back toward the street. My sister was upstairs getting ready for her date. My parents were not around for some reason, nor were my three brothers.

I opened the door for him. He’d come for my sister. We went into our small living room and I sat down on the couch with him. He talked to me, showed genuine interest in me. I was a little shy, but I liked this guy, this new date of my 18-year-old sister.

He would have been 85 today. He had been in decline since my sister’s death, September 23, 2016. They had been living just south of where I’ve put myself now in Florida. I expected to see a good deal of him after moving her two years ago. I saw him only twice. The pandemic saw to that. He was not the strong, vigorous, vital man we all had known, mostly wheelchair bound.

I prayed for him exclusively today at Mass. I miss him. His children miss him the most.

And if I dwell on that long-ago moment in that little house, I think sadly of how very, very long ago it was, and how much has gone and how many have gone and how little lies ahead.

He was a stranger until that moment. I have many very special sisters-in-law. But Joe O’Hara was the first new member of the family — am I right?

Memories.

On that very day, somewhere, maybe houses away, or just blocks away, memories and personal epochs were ending for someone. Just moments and perhaps block from here now, people who will be together for fifty years into this century, long after I’m gone, are just meeting. New stories are beginning. On and on and over and over it goes. Time.

I should stop here…..all so prosaic. Another time.

Happy birthday, Joe.

Time….

A TUESDAY RHAPSODY

In the afternoon they came unto a land

In which it seemed always afternoon.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lotus-Eaters

Man looking into the sea,

taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to yourself,

it is human nature to stand in the middle of things,

but you cannot stand in the middle of this;

the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.

–Marianne Moore

A Grave

Twilight. Quiet. Good. This was yesterday.

I stood in the small yard behind the modular dwelling that has been home now for two years. Not the sea, not a grave. I stand, content more or less, at the top of a gently tilting coarse, small patch of bahia grass where the dogs can probe. It is good. I am fortunate. There are no dogs now, just me. I prefer the soft lawns of the north. But this is Florida, longed for and embraced by thousands monthly; escapees. It has been colonized; it has organized our discontent.

I should be feeling at home by now. But, I’m still a visitor. That’s my choice. Let’s face it. Where to now?

Somewhere.

When?

If?

Why?

Don’t move!

Stand here!

A Tuesday evening, Florida October. Two years. Some peace here, in this quiet moment.

Those two years dissolved rather than passed. The pandemic worked to blunt the rejoining of old human connections and block new ones. It was the same for all.

As for the years, the same with the two before. Gone quickly. In that, the years were like, not the sea, but like standing water in a gutter. Here, then gone. Evaporated.

I think of Sanibel, the beaches. There is wild, coarse beauty here among the steel projectiles and concrete jutting up.

You can stand in the middle of nothing. Make a sea of it.

I have been north recently; cool air, leaves dry and ready to turn. Another world. It’s not better or worse. It just is, like this world. Okay, better while you longed for the return of the moment you chose, for whatever reason, to try Florida again, fearing it was the geographic cure — again. Thinking maybe you’d reconsider.

It’s all — the world.

But it felt better up there. A little more permanent, more real. It felt closer to home, wherever….It felt familiar, but almost too familiar. I realized, with a sinking heart, what it is that made it so easy to flee to the south; to believe it would be different, even better. That it need not be forever.

But forever has drawn closer, like a serpent in the grass.

Here I am.

The air, finally, was once again, as happens eventually this time of year in Florida, cooler. Less humid. Not the scorching and sodden semi-tropical miasma that envelops the peninsula beginning in mid-May. I’d never noticed it so much in the past. But there was more of a future ahead, more time to think this was only temporary. I must still think that. Sorry, but I must. Yet I’m in no hurry…why? Where is it that much better? It could be worse.

Autumn, such as it is, is upon the southern world. With its autumn thoughts. I usually run through these thoughts in September. Late onset this year.

Things, actually, seem to be standing still.

It was the early onset of twilight and the western glow brightened, high up, even the breast of the west-facing mockingbird sitting silent and solitary on the overhead wire that runs the length of the yards behind these vinyl and metal homes. I loved it that that bird was there. Usually, the mockingbirds chorus unceasingly and wildly, talking almost. This one was silent.

Maybe,come to think if it, it was a dove. A young dove,.

The Brazilian pepper, green and full, has risen up and begun once again to push heavily against the tilting , weathered stockade fence. They obscure the chain link fences and the warehouses and garages and blacktop beyond. Yes, they are invasive and unruly but on this evening, they masked those ugly roadside realities, leaving, just beyond them, the sunset gold., just barely visible. Far, far overhead, large mauve-tainted scattered clouds were floating, brushed pink underneath, catching the setting sun. They were beautiful. It were as if rain clouds had broken up.

Gone, at least on this Tuesday, were the mountainous clouds that often bring sudden, violent storms during late Florida summer afternoons. I actually love those clouds, too. It’s just the heat….that heat. And fear of violence.

But it’s going. The year is going.

I was by the grill, cooking chicken. There I was, and here I am.

NATION DESCENDING A STAIRCASE

Marcel Duchamp was a French painter and sculptor. He is associated with many of the 20th Century’s most consequential and controversial avant-garde artistic movements, such as Cubism, Dada and “conceptual art”. He once painted a replica of the Mona Lisa with a moustache. I, for one, took this to be a joke, as if a vandalizing teenage Warhol had broken into the Louvre with his black Sharpie.

Duchamp died on October 2nd, 1968 in Neuily-sur-Seine, France at the age of 81. Among his most famous paintings is, Nude Descending a Staircase. It is abstract; or let me revise that and say that it is representational (and here I’m attempting critical analysist somewhat beyond my competence) only in that it shows the fragmented, mechanized movements one might see on a strip of film, back when film came in strips. Maybe Duchamp was imagining our digitized 21st Century future. Good for him. It was time better spent in his studio than messing up a Da Vinci.

In any event, the average person looking for a nude descending a staircase in that painting will see only a kind of bouquet of twisted tin. It would have been jarringly new to the eyes and artistic sensibilities of the average person in 1912, just as Stravinsky’s Sacre du Prentemp (The Rite of Spring) would shock the ears of many the following year. I happen to like the Stravinsky; I’m not all that fond of the Duchamp — or any Duchamp. Maybe my eyes need to catch up with my ears. Or, maybe I should trust my eyes and declare Duchamp worth only of a glance or two.

But the journal The New Criterion has offered a transcultural anecdote from the last days of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It involves, however obliquely, the artistic vision of Marcel Duchamp and belies America’s “woke” cultural blindness when it came to dealing with Afghanistan’s dominant Muslim culture. I submit it may well have confused and disenchanted Afghans to the point of softening their resistance to re-domination by the violent and zealous philistines known as the Taliban. You might say they were looking for cultural bread from America, and we handed them a funny-looking stone.

It seems that, before our cataclysmic withdrawal from the country, as part of a cultural outreach program we sponsored some art education programs. A video from one of those classes has surfaced and shows an American academic instructing a small group of Afghan men and women about the wonders of conceptual art. A slide pops up on a screen in the darkened room and the group finds itself looking at a Duchamp work called The Fountain. It is, in fact, an unadorned urinal. Duchamp impishly sprang this little novelty on the art world in 1917.

“Anyone know what this is?” asks the instructor.

“A toilet,” answers one Afghan gentleman very tentatively, as if he can’t believe he’s being asked this question or being shown this object in the name of art. The camera reportedly captures the expression on the faces of some of the women in the room. My reporter relates that it was “priceless” in its degree of bemused puzzlement. The instructor assures one and all that Duchamp is a very important figure in Western Art and that The Fountain found its way into an art gallery, flushing away (pun intended) age-old conceptions (this being conceptual art) of what did or did not constitute art. He declared that this was a huge artistic “revolution”, elevating the mundane above works meant merely, in Duchamp’s estimate, to please the eye.

I happen to believe in revolutions in art. They shake up and unexpectedly augment our vision of the world. But I suspect the mortals gathered for this little art class in Afghanistan, while doubtless eager to learn about Western art, were also painfully familiar with the destructive possibilities of any revolution. They could not fail to be conscious, while this docent was working to raise their art consciousness, that they faced the strong possibility of being swept out of that classroom and into yet another violent revolutionary maelstrom brewing on the streets. Beyond the serene luxury of that moment, they knew their fragile, preciously-bought freedom and their homeland might once again be descending civilization’s staircase.

And here they were, as if as a preview of coming attractions, being asked to admire a pisser.

Now there is some irony here. It is that Dechamp himself would comment years later that, “I threw the urinal (and other objects) into their (the commissars of the art world’s) faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their artistic beauty.”

Was his “challenge” therefore actually intended as a kind of joke? Well, artists do like to have fun with us. I told you my opinion of his mustachioed Mona Lisa.

Duchamp may have been a bit of a clown. But, as a matter of fact, I see no problem with offering up objects, no matter how functional, pedestrian or seemingly unworthy of celebration, as appropriate for our aesthetic attention and appreciation. I once toured the museum contained within the Wisconsin headquarters of Kohler, the famous makers of toilets. Among other things, it featured a huge, attractively lighted pyramid of porcelain Kohler privies. It was a surprisingly lovely display, suggesting, too, an antic Duchampian streak in Kohler’s corporate museum designers. And who’d have thought….well, you know, that a mound of toilets could be so visually edifying? I, for one, welcome the elevation of the lowliest of ordinary objects above, in this case, their urinary purposes. True, Duchamp’s “fountain” seemed more in the order of what you’d find in rows in a squalid, malodorous city bus terminal. That was probably his point. Ever stop to look at them while you were using one of them? The point of Kohler’s privy pyramid was undoubtedly advertising. And, of course, advertising has often been offered up as art.

But I’m afraid I see this pre-Afghan collapse art class as belonging to an order of purblind modern (again, “woke”) pedagogy. It reveals the transcultural priorities of much of the West’s and U.S.’s cultural and educational elite when it came to Afghanistan. I submit that they were in the toilet.

For instance, it has been reported that the United States, as part of its twenty-year, multi-trillion dollar Afghan adventure, spent $787 million on “gender programs” — a real challenge, since a writer for the journal The Spectator noted that neither the Dari nor Pasho languages of that nation contain any words for gender, per se. (I cannot confirm this, nor the companion assertion that the distinction between “sex” and “gender” was only invented by a sexually abusive child psychiatrist in the 1960s. I’ll be anxious to check out that incendiary claim, which, in light of the more dubious manifestations of the Sexual Revolution, seems not altogether implausible.)

I’ve also read that Dr. Bahar Jalali, putative founder of the first Gender Studies program in Afghanistan, noted sadly on August 30th that after teaching eight-and-a-half years at the American University in that nation, all his work was being “snatched away so needlessly.”

To which I’d say — all the while thinking it needless to say it — that Gender Studies Programs were the least of what we lost and the Taliban destroyed or rejected when that nation fell back into their hands.

I suspect the ancient, long-suffering Muslims, Christians and masses of abandoned, free-thinking, freedom-loving folks in Afghanistan could have done without the mother lode of “woke” modern cultural twaddle some of us set about heaping on them. But I’m sure the Taliban will make good use – which is to say evil use — of our heaps of left-behind weaponry and our fleet of Black Hawks. Too bad we didn’t snatch them away.

How might the waggish Marcel Duchamp have conceptualized Afghanistan’s horrible fate? Well, in dust, wire, glue and varnish he created something called, A Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors. It was broken into pieces during shipment to its final permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Every Afghan is familiar with broken thing. They might discern a universal statement in a shattered heap of glue, varnish, dust and wire. It might resemble the current state of their homes.

They’d get after it with a broom.