Sunday, January 30, 2011

Turning Point 1975

When I was 15 I lived in Western Kansas. It was a fascinating place, and I think of it often. During the Paleolithic period, this region was covered by an ocean. Standing on the flat plain, I can imagine a mile of salt water overhead, only now the ocean is a soaring sky. 

That vast, uncluttered space awakened my mind. My little town had a fine library and good public schools. The town was bounded on every side by farms. Farming requires an enormous mental effort, to be successful. After working on a farm, I will always respect the abilities of farmers. 

During a hot, silent summer, I walked to a grocery store and gas station and bought a paper-back book, Klingsor's Last Summer, by Herman Hesse. The story is about a painter named Klingsor who spends his summer painting in Italy, then dies unexpectedly in the fall. In Italy, Klingsor goes on a picnic with friends:

My friends, let’s not start becoming sensible so late in life.

What it all meant is: this day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity. The sun will never shine as it does today; it is in a constellation in the sky, a conjunction with Jupiter, with me, with Agosto and Ersilia and all of us, a conjunction that will never come again, not in a thousand years. And therefore I want to walk on your left side for a while, because that brings luck, and carry your emerald parasol—under its light my head will look like an opal. But you must play your part and sing a song, one of your best.

They climbed the narrow mountain path in the sun-splashed shadows of the chestnuts. When Klingsor looked up he saw before his face the slender calves of Martha, the artist, showing pink through her transparent stockings. If he looked back, the green of the parasol arched above Ersilia curly black hair. Underneath she was silken violet, the only dark patch among all these figures. 

At a blue and orange farmhouse fallen summer apples lay in the meadow, cool and sour. They tasted them. Martha spoke enthusiastically about an outing on the Seine, in Paris, before the war. Ah yes, Paris, and the bliss of those days.

“That will never come again. Never again.”

“Nor ought it to,” the painter exclaimed vehemently, shaking his sparrow-hawk’s head fiercely. “Nothing ought to come again. Why should it? What childish wishes! The war has glossed over everything in the past, turning it all into a paradise, even the most idiotic things, the things we could well do without. Very well, it was lovely in Paris and lovely in Rome and lovely in Arles. But is it any less lovely today, right here? Paradise isn’t Paris and peacetime, Paradise is here. It lives up there on the mountain and in an hour we’ll be in the midst of it and will be he the thieves to whom it was said: This day you will be with me in Paradise.”

The idea that this present, temporary life was precious was a shock to me. I’d been brought up to think of this life as merely a prep school for the main event in Heaven. All human civilization would come crashing down. God would end the world in the giant, final Going Out of Business Sale. In the view of my people, this event and the supposed eternity following gave our lives meaning. 

Hesse's story pointed out a problem with this reasoning, which had been invisible to me. If this present life was meaningless without a Judgment and a future life in Heaven, what would we do in Heaven? If this life is meaningless without a future life, might not the future life suffer the same absence of meaning? Sooner or later, we'd be cornered. We might need to appreciate the life we had, the life we knew.

This love for the imperfect present got into me and grew. It didn’t overwhelm me, but it never stopped growing. Imperceptibly, I grew more grounded in this life on this earth.

The Non-Fiction Klingsor

Twenty-five years later, in December, 2000, I received a poster for an art show for my friend, artist Paul Stempen. I hadn't seen him in some time, so I phoned him at his house on Potrero Hill. Paul sounded giddy. He told me he'd gone to Italy the previous summer to paint with some art students from San Francisco. 

“It was the best time in my life,” he said. “We painted every day and drank every night. I didn’t have a care in the world. I met a girl there and fell in love with her. I just fell in love with her almost overnight.”

We exchanged friendly wishes for the new year and hung up. A few days later Paul died of a heart-attack. He was forty-three.

What it all meant is: this day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to him again in all eternity.

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