Monday, June 21, 2010

A cake out in the rain

No, I'm not alluding to the immortal Donna Summer / Richard Harris hit "MacArthur Park." Well, I am, sort of.

Lots and lots of rain has fallen in Omaha lately. The Elkhorn River has jumped its banks repeatedly during the last two weeks, causing pretty widespread flooding outside of town. Portions of the channelized Papio creek system that forms the bulwark of Omaha's hike/bike trail system have been flooded:
photo courtesy of Omaha Bikes

Blank's training for our summer trip to Crested Butte has taken a pretty serious hit from the eight straight days of rain he's endured in St. Paul.

And I've been think about W.H. Auden.

Yeah, more poetry.  But wait--there's a method to my madness. And I'll make it tangentially about cycling, I promise.

Auden once said, "My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain." I'm going to the Outer Banks of North Carolina this weekend (and missing the Cornhusker State Games Time Trial!) to read a poem at the wedding of my beloved friend Ginny Robinson. Weddings? Rain? Obviously, I delve into Auden in response to the confluence of these two events.

This photo is from a collection of Richard Avedon portraits I saw last year at the SF MOMA:

That was a banner day, the day I saw this. I miss San Francisco and all of Northern California. But this portrait has followed me back to Nebraska. It captures Auden's 60 years of poetic suffering and presages a lonely sinking into old age that my impending birthday has made me fear.

In an eerily prescient gesture, my daughters bought me a copy of Auden's Collected Works for Father's Day. And other recent events have centered my thinking around one of his most famous openings:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
Suffering is a frequently invoked word in the cycling vernacular; we often describe a bad day on the bike or a hard interval as "suffering." But while one rider is "suffering," another can be coasting along and feeling great. 

One year ago today, I flew back to Omaha from Davis because my grandmother had walked into the hospital with a mild pneumonia and immediately degenerated into active dying. I sat up all night with her for eight straight days. As my grandmother lay in her hospital bed, slowly suffocating and struggling to find the strength to plead for death, somebody's child was being born downstairs, and a janitor stood in the hospital cafeteria and tried to choose between baked and regular Lays potato chips.

That loss still haunts me. It provided the last straw of compulsion to move back here: to help look after my mom after her own mother's death, to let my children know her while they still could.

I wrote a few weeks ago about relationships and careers imploding. I'm still quite worried about loved ones both near and far. While Ginny's getting married, others are grieving and coping. To the lonely, the lost, and myself, I offer this reminder, courtesy of Auden:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

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