From time to time, friends have suggested I write an autobiography. This is usually when they learn that I am one of those rare, lucky individuals who took to heart Rimbaud’s advice concerning “un long,immense et raisonné dereglement des tous les sens” and managed to live to tell about it.
Only there really isn’t much to tell. Une Saison en Enfer says it all. And if I learned anything from my years as a newspaper book review editor, it is that the last thing the world’s bookshelves need is another memoir about substance abuse. As it happens, to whatever extent my life may be said to have a narrative arc, it can be recounted in a matter of pages. If there is a book in my life, it would take the form of a suite of essays.
Actually, when I reflect upon my life, I tend to think of it, not as a linear chronicle, but rather in terms of what Wordsworth called “spots of time” —“There are in our existence spots of time, / That with distinct preeminence retain/A renovating virtue. . . .” I like to think of them myself as “time crystals” because there is something hard and fixed and patterned about them. Only certain details, as precisely arranged as a still life, remain. The rest has evaporated.
Several such memories, taken together, seem to me to practically define, like a set of leitmotifs, who I am. All are of events that took place when I was young — the earliest when I was still sleeping in a crib, the last when I was fifteen. There is nothing extraordinary about any of them.
The first is of my mother —who was working nights at the time — looking in on me when she got home. It is the earliest memory I have, and it glows steady in my mind like an interior by Vuillard. The light coming through the doorway from the hall was muted, soft, warm, more bronze than gold. To this day, for whatever reason, that shade of light arouses in me a sense that there is indeed, in the very nature of things, “something far more deeply interfused” (to borrow again from Wordsworth) than we are usually aware of.
My mother is present in the second memory also. My guess is that it was the summer before my fourth birthday. Had it been later I would be able to date it more precisely, since it was on my fourth birthday that I began to be able to reckon time and date events. (On the morning of my fourth birthday, my Aunt Alice came by and gave me a toy submachine gun that fired sparks. That was at nine a.m. I know that, because she also explained to me that when the little hand is pointed at the nine and the big hand at the twelve it is nine o’clock.)
For some reason I do remember that this second memory is of a Sunday afternoon and that the sunlight was very bright. I was helping my mother plant flowers in the tiny garden attached to our house —a corner row house in a working-class neighborhood in North Philadelphia. I remember standing beside her while she planted what I have since learned were blue ageratum and French marigolds. The ageratum in particular have a lasting impression. Whenever I see blue ageratum, I think of that day. In fact, last year, when I was planting some in the tiny city garden I now have, the memory of that afternoon more than sixty years ago returned so powerfully that it was as if my mother’s spirit had come to join me as I planted them.
In all of these time crystals of mine it is the light —either the warm, muted light of the first or the bright, blaring sunlight of the second — that seems to be the decisive factor, the unifying principle. I suppose it could be argued that the effect such light has subsequently had on me derives from the emotional bond with my mother that these earliest memories record. I do not see it that way myself, even though I remember very well the feeling of gladness I had when my mother looked in on me and how happy I was to be helping her with the garden.
I have other, equally vivid memories of my mother from around the same time, but none affects me the same way. I can remember, for instance, being with her at Mass on Sundays, but the memory is brown and cracked and indistinct. It does bring to mind the sense of contentment I had sitting in the pew beside her but not much else. There were paintings on the ceiling of the church, I believe, but I have no idea now what they were paintings of. I can remember the pastor, an old man in a pulpit, droning on about something or other. Maybe his words settled down to become part of the sediment of my unconscious, and maybe from there they’ve exercised some influence on me. If so, the influence remains as unconscious as the words are unremembered.
On the other hand I should acknowledge that my sense of my mother’s love for me was probably the single most important factor in the formation of my personality and character. To know from the start of your life’s journey, as I did, that your mother deeply and truly loves you will prove talismanic against most of the slings and arrows outrageous fortune will aim at you in years to come.
I realized — too late, of course — that I had not requited my mother’s love to anywhere near the degree it deserved, but I also learned that genuine love — and my mother’s love for me was unconditional — does not demand requital and endures despite its lack. It is a lesson I have had ample opportunity to put to use in my life and so have come to understand how much and for how long my ingratitude must have pained my mother.
So my mother’s part in these early memories, while not decisive, is nonetheless essential. For the light alone does not account for their emotional impact. Brilliant sunlight fills the memory of the first baseball game I attended —though the dazzling green of the diamond is what I remember best — and I can recall all sorts of details: The A’s won in the ninth on an improbable home run by Pete Suder, who was playing shortstop that day; Connie Mack was still managing the A’s; and the man who took us to the game was Joe Ferko, founder of the Ferko String Band, one of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade’s most famous and enduring. The wealth of detail notwithstanding, it is for me just another memory from childhood, of an entirely different — and lesser — order from my time crystals.
When I was eight, my family moved to Torresdale, the city’s northeastern-most section, which at the time was still semi-rural. The house we moved into was at the end of a gravel road and surrounded by woods, with a stream running in back. We moved there in December. I remember walking off by myself into the woods and coming to where, some feet below, the stream continued its way. The branches of the trees were bare and the ground was covered with dead, brown leaves. I remember that I cried because I missed our old house.
But I grew immensely fond of those woods, and they play the starring role in my next two memories, which complement each other.
One took place in spring, the other in winter. Which happened first I don’t recall. Both had in common a cloudless, unusually deep blue sky. Both took place on Saturdays.
The woods were the usual Pennsylvania mix: beech trees, yellow poplar, white oak, maple, sweet gum, and ash. Ordinarily, in spring, the leaves would open in spurts: Buds would grow fatter, a few trees’ leaves would open, followed by a few more. On this particular day, though, they all seemed to have opened at once overnight. Practically none had opened the day before. But the next morning, when I raised the shade in my bedroom, lo and behold, the beech tree in our backyard had opened all its leaves. So had all the other trees.
Now, when leaves first open, they are bright green, with a distinctly yellowish tinge. When I went outside, the mass of foliage set against that clear, deep blue sky was breathtaking; inside the woods, the green muted the light into a visual chord of bronze. Years later, when I first read Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” I knew exactly what he meant:
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first spinning place . . .
In the other memory, the light is cold and sharp as a knife blade. Snow fell one Friday night and I was the first one outside the next morning. The storm had passed and the sky was absolutely clear and fathomlessly blue. It had grown very cold, as it usually does when the clouds pass after a snowstorm, and the surface of the snow had become icy, with bird and animal tracks etched into its surface. It was all snow and sky and gray, bare trunks and branches. And silence. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and no birds sang.
I walked to school and back through those woods. One afternoon, when I came home, they were gone. The city had bulldozed them away, so sewer lines and water lines and gas lines could be laid and streets paved and houses built. Seeing the woods gone was one of the saddest moments in my life, not least because there was really no one I could talk to about it.
Mine was a fairly solitary childhood. I spent large chunks of my time alone in those woods. I knew them better than anyone. They were my best childhood friend. And suddenly they were gone. I was desolate, and I cried as I had on the first day I entered them. I am sure I cried as much for myself as for the woods. The sheer irreversibility of what had happened was inescapable. It could never be undone. The woods were gone. And so was my childhood.
About a twenty-minute walk south of where we lived was Pennypack Park, which at the time was still pretty wild. One Sunday in May, in my sophomore year of high school, when I was fifteen, I walked almost the entire length of it —about ten miles each way. I think it was around four when I started back. I was walking the high trail, a couple of hundred feet or more above the creek. At one point I paused and looked across to the other side. Once again the late afternoon sun, filtered through the trees, took on a warm, golden glow.
I have found, when I take a long walk and have just started back, that I get this strangely delicious sense of aloneness and apartness, coupled with what in German is called Sehnsucht. The word is commonly translated as “longing,” but that’s literally only half of it — the Sehn half. Das Sehnen by itself means “longing.” Die Sucht means “addiction.” So feeling Sehnsucht could be thought of as being addicted to longing, or at least as having a craving for it.
C.S. Lewis called it an “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what,” some “unnameable something”:
You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what
you have been looking for all your life . . . All the things that have
deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalizing
glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just
as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest —if
there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the
sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt
you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”
That afternoon, as I looked across the creek into the trees on the other side, I experienced an overwhelming sense of self. If I was anyone, I was the person standing there staring across the valley of the creek into the golden light amid the trees. I felt I wasn’t looking into space so much as into time, into the future, and that if I could see just a little more clearly, I could see what life held in store for me.
One night a couple of years ago — fully half a century later — I was standing in my garden and the memory of that afternoon returned with peculiar force. It was almost as if I were again standing on that ridge above the creek, and the garden I was standing in was what I could not quite see that day.
Upon reflection, I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it was rather that, even after all those years, I was still being drawn by what Lewis calls an “incommunicable and unappeasable want,” which he says is “the secret signature of each soul.” All of these memory-tableaus that I have called time crystals triggered something within me, sounded an essential chord of my being, culminating in that profound sense of self I had that afternoon in Pennypack Park.
I cannot begin to say who I am in so many words. No one can. But, as I suggested at the beginning, these time crystals reveal something essential about me that no mere chronicle of my life could approach. I also said at the outset that a soft, golden light always gives me a sense of a presence within being. In addition to the heightened sense of self that occurred during the experiences they record, there was always as well a sense of knowing presence, of someone watching what was going on and intimately involved in it.
Most people are not familiar with the term haecceity. It means thisness and was coined by the medieval scholastic philosopher Duns Scotus. The scholastics defined the essence of a thing as that which makes it what it is. Usually, the scholastics confined themselves to discussing specific essences —what makes this boxer and that schnauzer similar to each other but different from the cat they just chased up a tree.
But there’s a further difference: Each schnauzer and each boxer is also different from every other. As it happens, what makes a particular thing what it is in particular is precisely what it does not have in common with anything else, including other individuals within its species. That makes thisness pretty inexpressible.
Those of us who believe in God also believe we have been made in His image. But what can that mean? One can form an image of God only by analogy. The essence of God, as the Hindus say, is that He is neti, neti — “not this, not that.” The traditional explanation is that we are made in the image of God because what animates us is an immaterial soul. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it remains a specific characteristic. It doesn’t address the mystery of the individual, why Dick is essentially not Jane and why neither is anybody else.
God’s immateriality is also perhaps not his most salient quality. That would be His unimaginable uniqueness. After all, “I Am Who Am.” We are most like God — made in His image — by virtue of our thisness, our uniqueness, the extent to which we are unlike anything —or anyone —else.
As I said earlier, the light was the unifying principle in all of these time crystals. The soft, bronze light was intimate. It suffused the scene and seemed to enter into me. It was immanent.
The clear, bright light, on the other hand, was transcendent. It was somehow outside the scene and embraced it, in order that something within the scene could be more clearly discerned. That something, I think, was the color blue. The blue of the sky on the morning after the snowfall was the blue of the ageratum raised to a higher power and made vast and fathomless. Blue — at least that shade of blue — has always been for me the color of mystery and joy. It exerts an almost hypnotic effect over me.
About twenty years ago I had a freak accident during which I experienced a combination of these two kinds of light. I was living at the time in a three-story house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Over the weekend we had had a party and a rickety old chair in the second-floor sitting room had given way and broken. The following Tuesday morning, as I was getting ready to head out to work, I could hear the trash men making their way down the street. So I looked at the chair, decided it wasn’t worth fixing, and gathered up the pieces and started to run toward the stairs and get them out the front door before the trash men passed. Unfortunately, as I was racing out between the double doors of the sitting room, part of the chair caught on one of the doorknobs. I was spun around against the bookcase in the hall. By then I had dropped the pieces of the chair, but it was too late. My momentum was such that I went hurtling over the banister toward the landing at the foot of the stairs.
The speed of free fall is thirty-two feet per second per second. This fall was maybe fifteen feet. So the whole incident couldn’t have taken even a second. But I experienced it in slow motion. I had time to quip to myself — honestly — that “I’m going to die a ridiculous death.” And I had time to remind myself to relax and just roll when I hit the landing. But before that happened the living room was filled — obliterated, actually — by an intensely bright light that was not clear but deeply, blindingly yellow. And that light seemed to me to be a presence, a someone. In fact, what I was doing just before I hit the landing was trying to figure out what I was going to say a moment later on my behalf.
So, you see, these time crystals of mine are a better indication of who I am than anything I have done, or that has happened to me, or that I have thought or said or written, because they are emblematic of my sense of self, the sense that I exist in relation to a living, knowing presence that is both within the world and transcends it. I may not be able to say exactly who I am, but I feel pretty certain I’m being watched —and watched over. ￼