Woke up at 2:30 or so and read Annie Proulx’s People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water. “ . . . the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.” On which note I went outside with the dogs. Yesterday’s long snow yielded little accumulation – a few inches of frosty sand already being blown into ridges and furrows by the hissing wind. I shoveled the lower part of the driveway, clearing the berm left by midnight snowplows, then tossed the shovel under a tree and went walking. Few lights in the houses at that hour, the streets quiet and empty.
And fewer still once we left the road for the blowy field below the old homestead, making our way between stalks of old hay jutting up like quills through the ragged blanket of snow. The southeast sky was oddly bright, thin banks of cloud layered across one another, each glowing as if filled with candles. The many stars were blurry, and a faint trail of jet exhaust floated overhead like a shadow, a ghostly seam that might at any moment burst.
What is happiness? Was it that moment, the mind unable to do anything but stare in widening circles, amazed at the world, entertaining itself by searching for perfect words? I wasn’t often happy as a child, nor for many years after, though I understand this now to be a failure of recognition more than anything else. I woke early one morning and sat on a fence watching a pheasant cock courting a hen, and later got a detention for falling asleep in class. What was algebra compared to wild love? Happy was mostly family members and neighbors lit up with booze, raucous and loud like embodied exclamation points. Not until my early twenties or so, reading Thoreau closely for the first time, through a lens provided by the poet Jack Gilbert, and later Wendell Berry, did I begin to see that there was such a state as natural, serious joy which, rather than call attention to itself, simply burned low and fierce in an interior way, always illuminating if not the face of Christ then at least the next step along the way.
Out near the middle of the field both dogs drew up short, staring intently into the windy darkness. As happens these days, I heard voices out there – high ones this time, out where the bracken begins to slope down towards the contaminated feeder pond. Unhappy ghosts singing to whoever will hear their woe. It wasn’t fear that turned me back, so much as the desire to return the dogs’ loyalty and heed their own apprehension. They would barrel into hell if I gave the order. It seemed a small gift indeed to spare them forward motion in that moment.
You who are the chosen one of Christ must hear and see, with ears and eyes not of the body! The winds seemed to enlarge themselves as we came back to the house, the shovel blown back into the driveway as if to signal a job unfinished. Hours later, writing it all down, I feel foolish and uncertain, as if joy of any kind were someone else’s inheritance. And yet I can hear it all still – the high lonesome voices, the howling wind, the hard breathing of the dogs as they raced before me, and the ancient song that underlies it all, binds it up in melody, as it always has. These sentences bear awkward witness: I am happy, against all odds.