In case of fire

Yesterday and today have been bright and sunny here in Keene. Yesterday I taught all day; today I’m stuck at my computer commenting on online drafts. On days like today when I’d rather be outside walking, I grow oddly aware of my own mortality, the opening lines of Milton’s Sonnet XIX ringing in my head:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

In Milton’s case, he laments the gradual onset of blindness: how can he effectively use his God-given gift of poetic vision while that same God deprives him of physical sight? Would God be so cruel, Milton wonders, as to judge the productivity of a “day-labourer” crippled by an affliction beyond his control?

Window sill

Although I’m not plagued with gradual blindness, I’ve always resonated with Milton’s Sonnet XIX. It seems to me to describe the human condition: blessed with so much promise, our time and light are nevertheless limited. We want to serve God, perhaps–we look for ways to express our humble talents–but we feel incapable or misguided, not knowing what to do or where to start. And in the meantime, time passes without ceasing, the seconds on our mortal shot-clock ticking down, down, down while we consider whether to shoot or to pass.

Yesterday afternoon while walking the dog, I took the usual assortment of random photos: a fire-alarm, a dusty windowsill framed with red brick, the angular lines of dingy and decrepit siding on an old factory. Why take photos of ordinary, unlovely things? Well, to me they are strangely lovely: there’s something about the shine of light on brick, wood, and even old alumnimun that is precious and even heart-stopping. Someday when I’m old with failing sight, will I remember these random sights and wish I could see them one last time? Do the makers of these aging, overlooked objects, themselves long dead, long for the days when they and their handiwork were young and new?

No smoking

My favorite scene in the film American Beauty shows a bit of footage shot by Ricky Fitts, the protagonist’s drug-dealing, video-obsessed teenage neighbor. The tape shows what Ricky describes as being the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen: a plastic grocery bag blowing in the wind. “Video’s a poor excuse,” Ricky explains, “But it helps me remember…Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” That sentiment is precisely why I take random photos of brick walls and windowsills: our mortal lives feel very much like random trash tossed by an unseen hand, but there’s a sense of beauty in the breeze if we surrender ourselves to it. “And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things,” Ricky said of the day he watched that random bag dance, “this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.”

Time is fleeting; our days are short and our light even shorter. Bandied about like a bag in the wind, it’s difficult to find our way, and easy to think that we should have one. But we aren’t the masters of our destiny: we install fire alarms and paint windowsills and put up sensible siding, but ultimately we don’t control our fates. An invisible wind, an unseen light, transmutes the fabric of our days, filling them to overflowing with beauty but not with time. Considering how my light is spent, I dare not waste it, for once it’s gone, our mortal dance will be relegated to the dustheap of Time.