James Tissot, 19th century
The simple answer to the question is: I’ve read enough great books to just know. But this isn’t about that answer. It’s too simple anyway—and carelessly arrogant—however satisfactory it is. Instead this is about the question I found myself contemplating after reading the opening salvo of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and knowing this would be the best book I’ve ever read.
The whole restless mob of us spread on blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.
Why all this talk of the Beloved,
Music and dancing,
Liquid ruby-light we can lift in a cup?
Because it is low tide,
A very low tide in this age
And around most hearts.
We are exquisite coral reefs,
Dying when exposed to strange
God is the wine-ocean we crave—
Flowing in and out of our
The tide is low around our hearts—deadly low. Things haven’t changed much from the fourteenth century when the Persian poet Hafiz penned his poem, “Why All This Talk?” The craftiest thieves of our souls are safety and mediocrity, spiriting away the cup of ruby-light that is our birthright before we’ve had a chance to take a sip. Yet how to access the high tide that buoys us into the arms of the Beloved, that wine-ocean we crave? Tides can kill. They purge and roar and threaten to drown. Sort of like God. So we live the spiritual equivalent of children of five or six who still wear helmets to ride their scooters down the sidewalk. Dang we’re good at getting through life without sustaining a single head injury.
I found the skin of a snake in my backyard last summer while I was crawling on my hands and knees pulling weeds. Sandwiched between stalks of crocosmia was an entire body case, white and transparent, stamped with tiny squares, like thin patterned tissue paper. Resting there whole, without the snake itself, I thought of the disciples finding Jesus’ grave clothes in the empty tomb. Where had he gone?
“Do you ever get used to such a place?’
She laughs then, a short bitter laugh I recognize and comprehend at once.
“Do you get used to life?” she says.
—Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel
Last summer a friend and I pooled together some resources to cross half an ocean and take an elderly friend of the family on a day long excursion to a tourist attraction (we did other stuff when we were there too, so don’t esteem my altruism too highly). Not adept at planning, we took great care in organizing transportation, meals, operation hours, admission costs/requirements, mobility aids etc. On the way home from our pleasant outing, my friend asked the dozing but cognitively sharp octogenarian what was one of the most important things to living a worthwhile life.
Read Part I here
“It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.”
What effect are these new gestures having on Don Draper? Does he feel more like himself again? Would that be a good thing? Or are the gestures leading to something better, something blended of the Dick Whitman he was and the Don Draper he had become? On his trip west, after giving his car away to the young man who reminded him a lot of himself, Draper sits alone at a bus stop. He looks like a drifter, except for the bag of money in his lap. He ends up at the Bonneville Salt Flats and puts his money and mechanical talents behind two guys trying to break the land speed record. These last episodes are filled with generous gestures, so different from the selfish gestures that had been the pathway to creating Don Draper. They show him not in command, but helping others take command. He looks up Stephanie, to find a way to help her, because he feels like he has a responsibility toward her, for Anna’s sake.