Saturday, April 19, 2008

Pilgrim at Rodney Street

Waking up Saturday morning, it's begun to get warm; the heat through the open window is warming the left side of my face as I type. Last night I had some books returned to me: For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard, and The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. He (Apsley) is one of my heroes; the book, which I'd loaned to a co-worker nearly a year ago, is just a monument. Apsley—or "Cherry," as he was known to friends—was a member of Robert Falcon Scott's last Antarctic expedition, during which Scott and a small group of men reached the South Pole for the second time in history (they were beaten to the prize by about a month by the Norwegians under Roald Amundsen) and, on the return journey, died.

Today, on the top of Ross Island's Observation Hill, there is a cross commemorating the five men—Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans—who made the Polar Journey and died on the way back, inscribed with a quote from Tennyson's Ulysses: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." You're goddamn right.

Also on my desk is another book by Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I first read Dillard back in college, when I reviewed her then-new release For the Time Being for my college newspaper. In For the Time Being, Dillard attempts to answer the following questions, in the roundabout, impressionistic, enchanting linked-essay style that has become her hallmark: "Does God cause natural calamity?"; "What might be the relationship of the Absolute to a lost schoolgirl in a plaid skirt?"; and, "Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?" It is a stunning book, one that I've returned to over and again in the close to ten years since I first read it.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, however, I've only had for three years, and have never fully read (until now). On the back of my copy is a price tag that says Scorpio Books and $29.95. This is because I purchased it in New Zealand, on the one free day I had back in that country after I got fired from my dishwashing job at Antarctica's McMurdo Station, in late-January of 2005—about 93 years to the day after Captain Scott achieved his greatest victory, I achieved my greatest defeat.

But I bought Pilgrim and I flew back across the Pacific to L.A. and I had no fucking idea what to do; it was so weird to get off the plane into LAX and have nowhere to go, no one to meet, nowhere to be. I wandered to a hostel in Venice Beach and I went out to the boardwalk and I sat at a cafe with my newly purchased copy of Tinker Creek—I'd gone from great dreams of Worst Journeys, my lodestar before my Antarctic folly began, to meek, supplicant Pilgrims, seeking stupidly on a beach in the warm (everything is relative) L.A. winter.

I started the book then but I never finished it. But I wrote two things in the book three years ago, on blank pages in the front and back. Now they live in the book, and, as of late, they have been going with me where I go. They are unfinished, like Captain Scott's final entries, which Cherry includes in The Worst Journey in the World. Scott wrote:
"Thursday, March 29. Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more."
And his last entry: "For God's sake, look after our people."

My entries are equally (if unjustifiably) dramatic. But everything is relative, and in my world the journey I'd just experienced was My Personal Worst. So, gentle reader, be kind. I wrote:
I'm thinking of a fish I never saw, sitting here at the Sidewalk Cafe in Venice Beach, the very end of America. The smell of patchouli is on the air and across the way is this painting of a fish that's mottled orange and white, with whiskers and feathery fins and a purple lotus blossom floating on the water behind him. The sun is going down behind clouds to the west, and in a few hours' time will sizzle out orangely into the Pacific. It's January and everywhere are people, but no one I know. The fish I'm thinking of which I never saw (but you did, in the ocean) is what Art studied, the Antarctic toothfish, an ugly, though ethereal, creature. They had"
Like Scott's, it, too, ends abruptly.

And then there is this:
"Antarctica was, in the end, like a dream. Which is not to say dreamy, or magical, but rather dreamlike, along with all that a dream can be: unreal, beautiful, disturbing, exultant, comforting, dull. I fell into this dream for six months and awoke suddenly, stupidly blinking at the bright Christchurch light, a Kiwi summer of babies and skirts and birds and bars and foodsmells. Ducks in the water, diving their heads in for food, seemed to me like pictures of ducks come to life, surprisingly duck-like."
So, now: I've picked up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek again. It's time. The book, which was published in 1975, Dillard's second (the first was a collection of poetry), won the Pulitzer Prize, and for good reason: It is literally changing the way I'm looking at the world. She writes about how blind people who have operations to restore their sight, in the first days or weeks after their surgery experience the seeing world as patches of bright and dark color, without depth. I've been trying, as she was trying when she wrote the book, to see in this way: The other day I got a bagel at work and smeared some strawberry jam on it; the color kind of stopped me in my tracks, and I put my eyes close to the rich red splotch. Walking home three nights ago in Brooklyn, to my apartment on Rodney Street, I passed a small tree on the street, flowering with pink flowers. I put my nose right in the flowers, and saw the little gold and black stems coming out of the middle of the flowers, and the pink petals. I both inhaled and saw deeply.

Try it sometime: Put your eyes really close to things. Just look at them, I mean really look. You'll be surprised at how it can affect you. After all, as Dillard writes in Pilgrim,
"It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get."
And again I say: You're goddamn right.


ClatieK said...

For the Time Being is one of the works of art that got me through 9/11. I keep purchasing it for myself because I keep giving my copies away. Currently I need to buy myself a new one; don't remember where I lent it.

Joe said...

amazing, my friend

AK47 said...

I just read this, and somehow I feel like it's a secret shout out to me.

That's right, I am the returner who prompted the wonderful above post. Sorry about the accidental fake copy. I'm still working on it.


Ross said...

I received that same book from my mom as a birthday gift before leaving for the ice. But I still haven't read it. Sounds like it's time to try again.

Excellent stuff, Hunter.