For years now, I’ve wanted to take one of those Viking River Cruises advertised at the beginning of Downton Abbey, Wolf Hall, and other Masterpiece programs on PBS. So it felt good to find myself finally peering at a ribbon of blue-green water from my own stateroom window. The sun shone upon the glittering current like a Greek medallion, and I drifted into its light with the kind of elation that usually comes only while writing.
Imagine my surprise to find upon waking that so vivid an experience was a dream. The master bedroom felt chilly and damp. I reached for the phone and asked Siri for the temperature. Mid-forties, she chirped.
On Cinco de Mayo? Was she kidding?
I could tell before opening the blinds that it was also raining. The weather reminded me of my arrival in New York back in March—the cold clear drops slanting across the wind as I made my way from the airport terminal to the modest SUV owned by an old college friend I hadn’t seen in decades. The weather remained dank and vaguely threatening all weekend. But I was nourished by the warmth and generosity of my college buddy and his wife. A feeling of well-being, buttressed in part by the Brunello they brought back from Italy, stayed with me for weeks as I moved from one East Coast city to the next and finally back home to the bridge-collapsed nightmare of Atlanta’s four-mile-an-hour traffic.
That same feeling of reassurance was with me this morning—even after I woke to find I was not aboard the Viking River Cruise of my dreams but tucked in a quiet corner of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, where I have lived for the past 15 years, and whose nationally noticed political showdown did not dilute my inexplicable joy in any way.
I got a fire going on the hearth and took my first sip of coffee. It seemed to me then that this unearned, unanticipated good feeling is what makes life worthwhile. Like the climax of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue whose notes I wait for every time. After a period of uncertainty and anxiety, the piano soloist finds himself carried aloft by the full orchestra, which has been there for him all along though perhaps he hadn’t noticed it. This is different from Beethoven’s individual versus the collective. This is the individual finding himself in the whole. More American than an American in Paris, maybe this rhapsody—or rapture if you will—is what love is. And maybe, just maybe, external circumstances do not have the final say on one's reality.
For that reason, instead of commenting on the news of the day as I often do in this blog, let me share with you five nice things that made me feel good recently in the hope that you might find something pleasant in them too.
1. Derek Walcott’s beautiful poem, "Love after Love," delectably read by Tom Hiddleston.
2. Jimmy Kimmel’s heartfelt offerings of gratitude to everyone who helped save the life of his newborn child.
3. The opening 3:42 minutes of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, which echo Wim Wenders’ film version of Goethe’s novel, the Wrong Move. I came across this while Googling something entirely different. It's brilliant.
4. This documentary about Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the bestselling jazz album of all time, which I found surfing Twitter.
5. Mr. Bean at the Swimming Pool, which popped up by accident on Facebook. It cracks me up every time.
I hope these snippets made you feel good, if not rhapsodized, in some way. Brought you a smile? A bit of joy perhaps? Surely we could all do with a bit more joy these days. Joy is where it's at. That's what I believe.
I also believe most of what we really need to know is embedded in the nursery rhymes and fairy tales of childhood. Which some say are really coded messages to help us navigate the deep mysteries of life--if only we could pay attention long enough to decipher their meaning.
As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
“The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift in emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest–as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as to the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible. Thus the two are the terms of a single mythological theme and experience which includes them both and which they bound: the down-going and the up-coming (kathodos and anodos), which together constitute the totality of the revelation that is life, and which the individual must know and love if he is to be purged (katharsis = purgatorio) of the contagion of sin (disobedience to the divine will) and death (identification with the mortal form).
“It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs. Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds of victory are rendered, not in lifelike, but in dreamlike figurations; for the point is not that such-and-such could be done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams. The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward–into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power. Something of the light that blazes invisible within the abysses of its normally opaque materiality breaks forth with an increasing uproar. The dreadful mutilations are then seen as shadows, only, of an immanent, imperishable eternity…”
(Joseph Campbell, “Tragedy and Comedy,” The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp 28-29, 1968, 2nd ed., quoted here via this WordPress site.)
With all this in mind, consider this final tidbit, delightfully sung by two giants from the very top of the beanstalk, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald performing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Shakespeare himself understood the truth of this one. Whether it be a Viking River Cruise or your own individual vessel, life is but a dream.
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