“The path to paradise begins in hell.” — Dante Alighieri
When I entered the world — backwards, as I’ve always done everything the hard way — it was a world in the midst of a great war, World War II, but the Marines had landed and the situation was well in hand. Our “Greatest Generation” was in the process of saving the world from itself, so I became aware during a time of great joy, uplift, sorrow, angst, and most of all promise.
There was also Joe McCarthy peering out from under the bed, and that goddam A-bomb drawn by Herblock of the Washington Post.
We were poor. My parents and I lived with my apocalyptic granny in an apartment over a store on a side street that was in a down-cycle at the time, a little narrow urban heat sink where even snow couldn’t find a landing place, usually melting before it hit the ground. A living room with a skylight but no windows (probably a blessing, considering what was routinely going on outside), just off one of the main drags in DC.
It was paradise.
Thomas Traherne described my situation nearly to perfection in his “Centuries,” aka” “Centuries of Meditations”:
All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason. My very ignorance was advantageous. I seemed as one brought into the Estate of Innocence. All things were spotless and pure and glorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious, I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. Everything was at rest, free and immortal. I knew nothing of sickness or death or rents or exaction, either for tribute or bread. In the absence of these I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendour. and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator’s praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me: All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be heir of the whole World, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?
Or as my later dear and now departed friend John Fahey, wrote in “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life,” of his world view at age five:
“I could not see that any purposeful activity was going on. I was still quite dumb and backwards. It looked to me like everything looked to me. People were just wandering around talking about things I couldn’t understand and doing things I couldn’t understand. I had no understanding of ‘purpose’ yet. Or ‘sequence.’ The way I saw things, it seemed that everything happened at random. And you could never tell what was going to happen next. I had a very primitive understanding of cause and effect.
“But I felt things.”
And as cause and effect slowly burned into my tabula rasa of a brain, I began to not only feel things but to know them.
I did not understand, however, that we were poor. My parents were both victims of the Great Depression, so neither ever got past the 8th grade, but both were brilliant, well read, and taken out of their hiding place in my crazy grandmother’s apartment they appeared to the world as worldly, well-educated, celebrity-caliber people of great material success, style and, yes, “class.”
Talk about silk purses.
And the daily riot in the street was my viewing screen from the three windows across the front of the bedroom facing the street, the room I shared for almost eight years with my parents:
Knife-fighting women rolling in the street halting traffic, a little girl falling three stories to the sidewalk when the screen in her parents’ apartment gave way. Hindus and screaming Italians and fugitive Negroes rushing through from their menial jobs to the safety of the east side of 14th Street, and everywhere hillbillies, from which I was descended.
My mother’s soft, loving, instructive and often loonily humorous voice sometimes raised in sarcasm above my father’s Cajun version of Foghorn Leghorn, something that served him well in bar fights and Masonic lodges, but not so much so in the long hall that led to the kitchen where we ate brains and eggs for breakfast (calve’s brains) and dear old dad stored in the refrigerator the gutted squirrels he had shot in Rock Creek Park.
I am thankful for the gift of poverty, that gave me dreams of wonder and greatness and the assumption that everyone else lived in the same paradise that existed in my mind.
Christmas ornaments, the Nat Cole Trio, “The Wreck of the Old 97” on 78 RPM, books books and more books, reading “Tobacco Road” at age six alongside the “Babar” series., my mother’s singing the American Songbook all day, “Amos ’n’ Andy,” the Tivoli Theater and watching hundreds of movies from the balcony designated “Colored,” because my mother was a radical of sorts, and besides it was more fun up there; my father’s drunken revelations of Masonic secrets and mysteries to me, which in the fullness of time would come not only to make sense but to make the world make sense…
And illness. I was sickly from the time I was little, then again all through high school, yet somehow driven to complete high school despite dysautonomia and connective tissue disease and a sometimes broken immune system, till, years later at age 49, a coronary artery came apart and all that illness culminated in one life changing moment that I would not trade for anything. I am grateful for sickness and near-death and resurrection, which would later be re-enacted in a darkened Masonic lodge hall, raised again from the dead into New Light.
Thankful for mistakes, each one the result of a dream wilder than the one preceding it, for the heart breakings and the learnings that came out of them even when I thought I might die from feelings alone.
For my never-ending college education, which perhaps is only a journey with no defined destination, because, after all, I am blessed by ignorance of everything I do not know, alongside the pitiful little I have learned, no matter how much that may be. Stacked up against eternity it is a nothing. But it is what I have.
And what do I have after all this, three marriages and three divorces, three children, some cross-country journeys that were misguided yet necessary so that I might do it all over again and rejoice in discovering how good it feels to do it right at last?
I have promise. I have whatever lies ahead. I have a future overflowing with love and goodness and some probably horrible things, all beyond my wildest dreams, and I will take and keep the best of those and live in them as I move forward into the unknown, as I hunt once again for work in the field I was born to occupy, that one where we “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils,” and, on occasion, comfort those who wind up left behind when we somehow fail to successfully call Lazarus forth.
The call will come, I will answer it, and once again, well beyond the standard retirement age, I will work with some of the finest people in the world, stopping the bleeding, drawing the blood, comforting the dying or just calming the terrified, wiping away shit, seeking the surviving sanity in someone who has slipped his tether for a while…
And I will plan the next voyage, the next adventure, the next birth or rebirth, the next move in this crazy, truly random yet absolutely purposive universe into which I fell some time ago, and I will fall asleep and dream wild dreams, but the future, I already know, holds for me blessings, gifts and compensations far beyond anything I could ever have imagined, because I live constantly on the threshold of a dream, out on the blue horizon, ever following the sun from its rising place in the east to where it sets in the west with an ecstatic, momentary and almost illusory green flash.
Paradise lost. Paradise regained. How many of us get to survive Morgan le Faye and, in the most mixed literary metaphor I can create, at last find Beatrice, who we now know was not the stranger in our bed all those other times, just as every Lost Word becomes just a step towards the True Lost Word, not lost at all, but simply hidden in plain sight, given to us when we have been through sufficient aggravation to appreciate what we are being given. Beatrice, Pandora, oh yes, she has many names, but so do I. No wonder it took so long.
The next moment, the next hour, the rest of my life, I am blessed by what brought me here, to this moment of the most profound gratitude for a life that continues to unfold, like a triumphant Gaudeamus Igitur, absolutely and unfailingly, beyond my wildest dreams.