The light, today, this late afternoon before I set off, is a wonderful fabric that comes up periodically over the western tip. One must be prepared to inhabit it.
Every October, I leave Point Lace, where I’ve lived alone for years, to visit my friend Kurt at his family camp in New Hampshire for a three-day retreat. He brings his woodworking and I bring my paints and a few canvases. We work all day, separated by the thin walls, taking time out for a swim or a walk or a smoke break.
We catch a fish and cook it for dinner with a few beers. At night, we sit on the side porch and I read bits from the odd collection of books Kurt’s family has acquired at the camp over the years (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Guide to Terra del Fuego, Born to Kvetch) and Kurt reads Proust.
He is almost finished with the second book, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (Viking 2002). Kurt, for most of his life, was never much of a reader, but for reasons even he can’t explain, he loves Proust. It’s like sleeping with a quilt your grandmother made, he says. It took him two years to finish Swann’s Way and it has taken him almost three with this volume. He doesn’t even know how many volumes remain, though he knows there’s at least one more.
Kurt chuckles to himself at a line he’s just read. “This guy is good,” he says, then a few moments later, after looking to see how much more of the book he has left, “I’m never going to finish this god damn thing.”
I go to bed and think I hear the ocean in my ears, though I know it’s only the pines.
Kurt sent me a postcard. On the front was a kitsch photo of the Portland Headlight. On the back, he wrote, “Finished Guermantes Way. No need to continue.”
At the beginning of that afternoon, three things existed: Kurt’s postcard (representing Kurt himself); Proust (who existed only vaguely in my memory); and my body.
I’ve never grown old before, I tell myself over and over again. I have to do this because there’s a part of me that is certain I have.
Without pause, the clock continued in some unfamiliar cadence that I felt to be haphazard, herky jerky, speeding up unexpectedly, adding extra beats like an irregular heart. But I knew this to be untrue.
I’d read Proust almost thirty-five years ago in my mid thirties. I’d gotten through the first volume, thought it good, vowed to continue to the next volume, but never did. This does not seem uncommon. The experience for me was like driving my pick-up through dense autumnal fog late at night, listening to a voice, slow and melodious, on the radio. Even after I’d turned off the radio, the voice continued, inexplicably, though I wasn’t surprised. I tried to listen to it but had to pay so much attention to the process of driving through the fogged night that the experience eventually became too tiring to continue. I have long since forgotten anything about the actual text and Kurt’s postcard brought its scent to mind, but as soon as I identified the presence, it vanished.
I came inside after a walk before lunch. A Fedexed letter from Kurt’s daughter, Rebecca, was wedged into the crack of my door. I opened it. Kurt had died yesterday of sudden liver failure, a rare condition doctors hadn’t seen on his horizon. The funeral was tomorrow. “Would you be willing to say a few words at the service?”
In the Celestial Empire, when an elder died unexpectedly, there was a reckoning on the site where he left his last pile of clothes. If the positioning was favorable, the soul went to Paradise. If not, the soul became a ghost whose task was to usher the living to its own reckoning, and the reckonings of one thousand others. After a thousand reckonings, the ghost was released.
My body has weathered so many aspersions, knowing they would come to an end. It has been an extremely capable vessel, shuttling me through many shells and facilitating the small but impossibly important pictures that sustain me.
Later tonight, I will set off, and drive all night. I’ll reach my destination, with a little help, by morning.