Sublime Fires

A shining, whirling cut that caught the light of the universe.

“They manifest a nature’s sublimity.”

— Saint John Chrysostum, on the significance of angels’ wings.

Even as a child I understood the consequences of wishing for certain things, understood that having those wishes granted could turn on me. What does it say about us that this is a lesson we learn from infancy — that getting what we want, just by asking for it, almost never turns out right? The monkey’s paw brings back the past as it was — mute, true, and mutilated — and not the past that we remember. The oil lamp turns us into anything we want to be, and so destroys who we were to begin with — a person made whole with pauses and mistakes and poverty, a person frail enough to love. The answer in the end is to wish away whatever we wished for in the first place.

I wouldn’t want to know everything there is to know, I told my friend once, after he chased me into his backyard and, breathless, told me that his wish would be for infinite knowledge. Life would get boring. You would know everything that happened to you before it happened. There would be no surprises.

God knows everything, he replied, and it was meant to be a defense. But it stopped us, right there, in a yard green with the humid heavy light of afternoon and littered with acorns and wind-felled limbs from the previous evening’s thunderstorm.

God must be bored, we realized, though neither of us spoke it. And eternally without wonder.

I would wish for strength, I countered at the time, to better my friend’s wish and to end the terrible silence. To be the strongest man in the world.

I was thinking about muscles at the time, about the power to lift cars and save lives and win the favor of any girl I wanted — not seeing how that wish, too, could go horribly wrong, and that even a flawless, unfailing strength is, in its heart, a weakness.

I have never since wished to know everything, but I have wished to know some things. I realize as I am writing this how numerous those things are, and how heavy the wishing to know them has been at times. I have wished to know with certainty whether I could possibly be a good parent to a son or daughter that I’ve yet to conceive. I have wished to understand a certain piece of literature or work of art better than anyone else — Faulkner’s Light in August, say, or Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, and to carry that understanding with me as a kind of secret whose sheer intimacy precluded even an attempt at sharing.

I have wished to know the life story of the Ukranian waitress who served me blueberry pancakes instead of the chocolate chip that I asked for. I have wished to be the amateur physicist who proves the unified field theory. I have wished many times to know the end of something at its beginning, how it will all play out — a relationship, a piece of writing, a lesson that I am planning, a slide into the periodic episodes of depression that have plagued me since childhood. I have wished for brilliance in any number of subjects when the limits of my knowledge push up against the unknown. This wish is strongest when I see that others have gone farther in their understanding or see something that I have failed to see in a subject I thought I loved. How can passing strangers be more intimate with Raymond Carver than I am? How can a professor inspire jealousy with a single question about the Xhosa cattle killings?

Then along comes this Ukranian waitress, who gives me what I didn’t even know I wanted.

La Bahia de Cienfuegos. To the east is a full, tropical moon wavering in a clear sky. To the west is a storm roiling out over the Caribbean, seafaring and silent. In-between there is water, dappled with lunar-white and lightning-white — the one reliable and unabashed, the other here and gone in stuttered pale pulsings. Behind me is the island of Cuba, its cathedrals and hunches of mountain, all its balconies inhabited by sweaty arrangements of extended families whispering over Radio Habana like living portraits of an age that is staining sepia at the edges.

The Bay of a Hundred Fires. Appropriate, on this night. Except maybe not a hundred; ten thousand fires, born and extinguished every minute in combinations of light and water that will never come again.

Why are we here? Because this is the first place I thought of when I thought of brilliance. Strange, because I hadn’t thought of it in years. It was one of those memories on the verge of going under forever, and then — here it is: the feeling of the rock against my back, the palm trees tasting the edges of the wind. Being alone in a foreign country. An illegal country. I had either just turned 20 or was about to turn 20. A little drunk.

Up till then my idea of brilliance was a lot like what I was witnessing — flashes accessible only to rare folks who walked around with lightstrokes in their heads, their minds as spinning rock-tumblers full of sparks and stars. I had met a few of them, and have met a few since. The intervening 10 years have helped to tip the balance of jealousy and appreciation in favor of the latter, but there is always the lingering question, which is the old wish reworded: Why can’t I be like that? What am I missing about life because I can’t see things the way those people see things?

The answer, a simple one, was present on that night in Cienfuegos. After a week or two of witnessing the island as it was, and dealing with the frustrations of my vision of an ideal society unraveling in spools of subtlety and disenchantment, I discovered that there was a brilliance beyond knowledge, and it was accessible to everyone. It was the brilliance for which the word was coined, a shining, whirling cut that caught the light of the universe.

The moments come in flickers we could never wish for: strangers, strings of good and back luck, shopkeepers, accents, songs, wrong turns, stray cats, bartenders, handshakes, photographs; stormlight and moonlight colliding in an empty bay. Years after Cienfuegos, I would think of it as an angel who reaches down, right down into the center of our living lives, and places something immaculate in front of us.

For those of us inclined to write, the angel’s echo resounds in countless unwritten poems and stories, lines or paragraphs we carry around in our heads for an hour or a day or a week. We turn them over and rearrange the lettering like the lyrics of a favorite song posted on an old marquee in the side-alleys of our minds. There is the one about the crossing guard hit by a city bus while jaywalking across Dixwell Avenue. The injured sparrow that you held in your hand for a full minute and then set down in the lawn knowing it would not make it through the day. The stranger who sat next to you at The Anchor and told the story of how he lost his virginity to a boarding-house maid when he was 16 and living in The Seychelles with his father and older sister. The mattress salesman who took you out to lunch to seal the deal and in the middle of it wept because his fiancée had left him the previous evening. For that one, you imagined Hurt coming into the warehouse, underslept and lanky, trying out mattress after mattress until the salesman (was his name David?) threw the perfect pitch and sold the bed that put Hurt to sleep. Because after lunch the salesman had apologized and smiled and said, I’m 44 and I’ve lived this life and have nothing to show for it. This is totally the beginning. Anything can happen. And if he didn’t see the angel right then, you did.

Anything, you agreed.

I don’t know how it works for artists of other inclinations. I can’t say if musicians hear a certain measure in the meeting of strangers or in the wind that whistles through the cellular phone towers. If for painters and sculptors everything freezes for that fraction of a second when the angel descends and the image burns into place or else is rendered a moment too soon or too late. And what of dressmakers or architects? Choreographers, cooks? We need to talk to each other about this angel — about what we do when she comes around, the tricks we use to not scare her away.

Every letter for Marc was like building a house of cards, each line balanced against another — capital M’s and N’s the easiest, R’s and G’s requiring a certain amount of bending, a slight transgression of the laws of physics permitted within the 8½-by-11-inch universe of lined letter paper. For kids with autism it seemed to go either way — this dogged obsession with meticulousness, or a reckless run of slashes and hard turns where one word rear-ended another just so the original idea itself could be identified amongst the wreckage. Even as Marc sat at one end of the table, each pencil stroke an enunciation to be erased and repeated until perfect, his similarly-diagnosed colleague sat at the other end, burning graphite swaths through helpless margins.

When Marc came to our middle school at the beginning of the year, he was mostly sullen. Sour-faced and tired in the morning, reticent or overly indignant after lunch, he was quickly identified as a student who needed extra attention. His absences were frequent enough to require calls home to his mother, reminding her that the Department of Children and Families could get involved if his truancy continued. These calls had to be made in Spanish because Marc’s mother did not speak English — a notable fact because Marc himself spoke nothing but English. What was it like for an autistic child growing up fatherless in a household where his mother spoke a language he could not understand? As Marc’s teachers, it was our job to imagine the repercussions of an unimaginable tableau of speechless dinners and incomprehensible bedtime prayers with Marc lying under his covers projecting God into his mother’s sibylline invocations.

Slowly, Marc opened up. He settled into the routine of his fifth-grade classroom and began to put more effort into his work. He made jokes and talked to the other kids. He had fewer bad days, and more good ones. A few times he was nominated to be “scholar of the week” and won the right to sit in the cushioned swivel-backed chair and monitor bathroom breaks during snack time. At one point he presented me with four pieces of loose-leaf paper filled with his painstaking script. I copied this for you, he said, handing me a flawless reproduction of his favorite story at the time, The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto. Every comma and apostrophe was perfectly placed. Despite this, his mother told us that she would be transferring Marc to another school for sixth grade. We wondered how much of what we had accomplished — of what he had accomplished — would last.

The final unit in Marc’s writing class was a poetry unit. Marc took to the structure of it immediately — the orderliness of cinquain and diamante verses, the provocations of the “I Wonder” poems. His favorite, however, were the acrostic poems, in which the first letter of every line forms a word that runs vertically down the stanzas. He wrote a number of them, mostly silly, until he used his first name as the basis for a poem. He worked and reworked each line, handed me the paper, took it back, and added a dash after the first line:

Magician magically appears —
apples are green and red,
rocks are harder than steel,
cats are fluffy.

I read it a few times. I looked back at Marc, who was smiling broadly, his eyes crinkled and bright.

You call it a magician? I asked. I think of it as an angel.

He hesitated. Frowned. But my name starts with an ‘M.’

I know, its okay, I answered. I think I like magician better, anyway.

Magicians wear funny hats, he said.

They do, I said. You’re right. And that matters.

He smiled again, completely — the only way he knew how.

Article © 2009 by Dennis Wilson