Margaret and I crammed our suitcases into a small rental car, squeezed my innumerable paintings above and in between the suitcases, and headed out from Florence. Margaret was six months pregnant, and we had decided that we wanted to return home to have our baby in New York. We were unable to take a flight, as she was already past the safe date for air travel. And so, we were driving across Europe, to England, to take the Queen Mary II home.
We arrived at Menton in the evening, and found rooms on the third floor of a historic villa overlooking the Mediterranean. I sat on the porch, book draped over my knee, and stared out at the sea. The loud song from the stone fountains emphasized the stillness of the air. Through the wrought iron bars, I looked down on neat rows of pruned citrus trees, and graceful,full palm trees. Not a leaf was moving. The air was clean and mild, and I understood why this town was called the pearl of France. Margaret was only a few feet from me, on the bed, and through the doors I could hear from the steady rhythm of her breathing that she had fallen asleep.
The sky above the sea was a deep blue, touched with purple. It had become too dark to read, and so I just stared out on the water. After an hour or so, I saw a light in the distance. It left as quickly as it came. A minute went by, and another light flashed, this one tinging the distant sky with a faint orange. After a few more flickers, I realized that there was a storm, way out at sea. It was miles away, and yet, the distant lightning was strong enough to temporarily illuminate the lower arc of the sky. The bolts became more visible, and soon I could make out their forked patterns, racing across the sky, left to right, top to bottom. In the dark, the sky looked starless and empty. But over the next half hour, flashes of lightning illuminated parts of an immense cloud front taking up the half of the sky. The clouds looked like enormous cauliflower, constantly growing, constantly moving, its parts turning electric blue and white. The sea foamed and surged beneath the cracks of lightning, the white caps raging in brilliant incandescence. Reluctant to be roused from its sleep, the calm garden slowly began to whisper. The tops of the palms announced the coming storm, the citrus trees swayed in agreement, and the grass rolled in waves. Deep grumbles of thunder sent ripples across the water in my glass.
As the lightning drew nearer and the thunder began to shake the building, I grew a bit uneasy. I had never seen a storm like this before. I thought to myself “This is just a thunderstorm. It’s a hot front, and a cold front, and they mix. And, the friction that comes from these opposing bodies of air results in great amounts of energy being released. Yes, that’s it. Hot, moist air rising, cold air falling, umm, cumulonimbus, rain drops combining with other rain drops, their downward force of falling rain creating wind, through displacement. That’s all this is.”
A crack of lightning went clear across the harbor, and struck some buildings nearby. The trees suddenly doubled over, a wall of wind slammed into my face, and rain began to pelt the porch sideways. I jumped up to sprint inside, but paused before I entered. I thought. I closed the doors, turned, and placed myself beneath the covered porch. The sky was filled with rakes of frantic electricity, the landscape suddenly a shocking white, now blue, now white. In the clouds, I could see unusual colors of green, sometimes deep, wine red.. The sky, now itself a sea, swirled in currents above my head, a tremendous roiling pot of atmosphere, the sea foaming white, the trees screaming, the lightning striking again and again, the thunder trembling the porch I sat on. And I thought to myself, “This isn’t a cold front, a warm front, friction. This isn’t. This isn’t explainable. This is,” and I paused, searching for words. And I knew this was beyond words. Beyond understanding. As the lightning cracked above my head, innumerable thoughts raced through my mind. I was created, and am now standing before creation. When I say that I understand a thunderstorm, I just mean that I can describe some illustration in my sixth grade text book. I can’t understand a thunderstorm anymore than the word “gravity” gives meaning to an object falling, anymore than I can understand how I tell my hand to move, anymore than I can understand how my brain thinks and I feel. When Adam was in the garden, he gave names to all of the animals. But, that doesn’t mean that he understood.
And as I stood beneath the sky, I allowed myself to become a mystic. It was a conscious decision. I stood beneath the fury of the storm, I felt the grumbling earth, the violent wind that lashed with rain. Modernity had robbed me of awe, and gave me, in its place, the audacious misconception that life was able to be fit into a test tube, or a calculator, or an artist’s canvas. And as I surrendered, I accepted the elation of being overwhelmed by the world within my wife, the teeming life that kicked and breathed and sucked its thumb, within her womb.
Five years later, in a small studio in Islip, I am in awe of the Creator who created the human back. Swirling masses of muscle and bone, the trapezius originating in the vertebral column and inserting in the scapula, nerves sensing, the spine firing with electric charges, courier neurotransmitters racing to the brain and back, veins coursing with blood in forked paths, skin revealing, concealing, lungs inhaling- every moment of the human frame a convexity, the force of life forever expanding outwards. And a human soul that inhabits this frame. Even as I seek to understand each moment, I am a mystic before these things.
“Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”
-King Lear, IV, vi, 55