Anne Carson


She visits others. Before they're up, dawn, she walks to the lake, listening to Bach, the first clavichord exercise, which she plans to have played at her funeral someday, has had this plan since she first heard the music and, thinking of it, she weeps lightly. The lake is whipped by wind and tides (big lake) doing what tides do, she never knows in or out. There is a man standing on shore and a big dog swimming back to him with stick in mouth. This repeats. The dog does not tire. She peels a swim cap onto her head, goggles, enters the water, which is cold but not shocking. Swims. High waves in one direction. The dog is gone. Now she is alone. There is a pressure to swim well and to use this water correctly. People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet. Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.

After a while, she climbs out over stones, puts on small flippers, re├źnters the water. The difference is like the difference between glimpsing a beautiful thing and staring at it. Now she can stream into the way of the water and stay there. She stays. She is one of the most selfish people she has ever known, she thinks about this while swimming and after, on the beach, in her towel, shivering. It is an aspect of personality, hard to change. Generous gestures, when she attempts them, seem to swipe through the lives of others like a random bear paw, often making matters worse. And she finds no momentum in sharing, in benevolence, in charity, no interaction with another person ever brought her a bolt of pure aliveness like entering the water on a still morning with the world empty in every direction to the sky. That first entry. Crossing the border of consciousness into, into what?

And then the (she searches for the right word) instruction of balancing along in the water, the ten thousand adjustments of vivid action, the staining together of mind and time so that she is no longer miles and miles apart from her life, watching it differently unfold, but in it, as it, it. Not at all like meditation - an analogy often thoughtlessly adduced - but, rather, almost forensic, as an application of attention, while at the same time, to some degree, autonomic. These modes do not exclude each other, so swimming instructs. There is a stoniness. Water is as different from air as from stones, and you must find your way through its structures, its ancientness, the history of an entity without response to you and yet complicit in your obstinate intrusion. You have no personhood there, and water is uninterested in itself, stones don't care if you tell their story nicely. Your bowels, your miraculously lucky life, your love of your mother, your well-crafted similes, all are lost in the slide from depth to depth, pure, impure, compassionless. There is no renunciation in this (cf. meditation), no striving to detach, all these things, all the things you can name, being simply gone. Meaning, gone.

Her visit ends. Back at home, the newspapers, front-page photos of a train car in Europe jammed floor to door with escaped victims of a war zone farther south, people denied transit. Filthy families and souls in despair pressed flat against one another in the grip to survive, uncountable arms and legs, torn-open eyes, locked in the train all night waiting for dawn, a scene so much the antithesis of her own morning she cannot enter it. What sense it makes for these two mornings to exist side by side in the world where we live, should this be framed as a question, would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance or by the shallows or the deeps of her own mind, she fears. Words like "rationale" become, well, laughable. Rationales have to do with composite things - migrants, swimmers, the selfish, the damned, the plural - but existence and sense belong to singularity. You can make sentences about a composite thing, you can't ask it to look back at you. Sentences are strategic. They let you off.

She goes downstairs and out to the stoop, hoping it's cooler there. Traffic crashes past. Chandler on the sidewalk making a chalk drawing. Comrade Chandler, she says. He doesn't look up. What's the drawing? He goes on chalking. His gaze is ahead and within. He lives in the back of the house somewhere, speaks not much, draws a lot. She calls him Comrade because she'd been reading Russian books the summer she met him and she thought him secretive. This was an error. Secrecy implies a concern for one's own personality. You hardly ever see Chandler enter a room, he's just there, or leave a room, he seeps away, small tide of person, noticed as a retraction.

She stands nearer. The drawing is a pear tree. She can see the pears all over it, small, perfect green chalk globes with yellow-cream-white highlights. She wants to lean down and bite them. You've hit the nail on the head here, Comrade, she says. He doesn't answer. Once they had a conversation, extending over many months, in broken bits, about mushrooms. He'd said the thing he hated about being in prison was the mushrooms. For several days, she wondered if he meant the food, but it didn't make sense they served mushrooms in prison often enough to be a problem, or if he had a damp cell with fungus sprouting in the corners, but this, too, seemed extreme, and gradually she understood him to mean he had been able to see a patch of mushrooms, boletus, from his window and he used to go hunting for those in the woods with his mother when he was a kid and it made him sad. Not a mushroom fancier herself, she didn't have anything subjective to say at the time, so she told him John Cage was a mushroom hunter, too, and wrote a book about it, a sort of mushroom guide, that she could lend him. Chandler didn't answer. She wasn't sure he read books or knew who John Cage was. Conversation is precarious. Now, as she looks at the very round, chalky pale pears, mushrooms come to mind again, and she says, One day, as I remember it, John Cage was out mushrooming with his mother, after an hour or so she turns to him and says, We can always go to the store and buy some real ones.

Silence from Chandler. He is adding touches of red to the pear array, here and there. Then suddenly all his five teeth laugh. The laugh slams out of him and is gone. He returns to chalking. Quickenough quickenough, muttering to himself, and something she can't quite hear, had a kidscad buttended, it sounds like. She returns to the stoop and stands on the bottom step. Evening now. Still hot. Long day, Chandler, she says to the back of his head. He's moving down the sidewalk to mark out a new drawing, red chalk in hand. It will be a fox. He likes a fox at the end of the day.

Upstairs, she finds herself thinking again about the failure to swim. It can be quantitative as well as qualitative. Imagine how many pools, ponds, lakes, bays, streams, stretches of swimmable shore there are in the world right now, probably half of them empty of swimmers, by reason of night or negligence. Empty, still, perfect. What a waste, what an extravagance - why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them? One by one or all at once, geographically or conceptually, putting aside gleaming Burt Lancaster, someone should be using all that water. Across the level ocean of her mind come floating certain refugees in a makeshift plastic boat so crowded with passengers they are stacked in layers and dropping over the sides. She has seen this picture. She has read that larger ships might sail very near, that they might stop to consider the woe and the odds, then keep going. Sometimes bottles of water or biscuits were tossed from the larger ships before they started their engines again. What could she put against the desolation of that moment, watching the ship start its engines again. What is the price of desolation, and who pays. Some questions don't warrant a question mark.

Passengers. To pass. To pass muster. To pass over. To be passed over. To pass the buck. To pass the butter. To pass out. To pass to one's reward. She is eating yogurt when the doorbell rings. Didn't know that bell worked, she says, wiping her mouth with her sleeve, as she gets to the door. Comrade Chandler doesn't answer. He gestures with his head toward the street. They descend. Yogurt on your eyebrow, he says over his shoulder as they go down. Oh, she says, thanks. The finished fox drawing is under a streetlamp. It glows. He has used some sort of phosphorescent chalk, and the fox, swimming in a lucent blue-green jelly, has a look on its face of escaping all possible explanations. She stares at the blue-green. It has clearness, wetness, coolness, the deep-lit self-immersedness of water. You made a lake, she says, turning to him, but he is gone, now it is night, off to wherever he goes when he is absolved. She stands awhile, watching the fox swim, looking back on the day, its images too strong, and yet the soul - how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive. To be alive is just this pouring in and out. Find, lose, demand, obsess, move head slightly closer. Try to swim without thinking how strong it looks. Try to do what you do without mockery of our heartbroken little era. To mock is easy. She feels a breeze on her forehead, night wind. The fox is stroking splashlessly forward. The fox does not fail.

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