There has not been much novel happening, unless you count the ideas in the novel I’m reading… So this letter hasn’t much new to describe, just lingering impressions of the area. It is small here, and I’ve decided to move straight on to Florence, to spend seven weeks there instead of one month. I have a contact who will introduce me to the Bahá’í community, so there will be many more people to see – for which having more time than a few weeks will be nice.
It’s been rewarding to slowly accumulate knowledge of a place, and contacts with the people in it. There are several here now who greet me in the streets, or converse with me in their free moments. And so far, none of it in English. It has made language feel like a tool, with which to catch a glimpse of the inner world of another soul. I suppose it’s always that way – just easier to take for granted when it doesn’t require as much conscious thought.
Only one day of rain so far. The weather is surprisingly regular.
Coffee skin; eyes, chocolate -- a dollop of cream between the lips.
Much of the week has been spent trying to write a few good lines of Haiku. The formula is simple: It follows a similar philosophy to the Chinese paintings of the Ming(?) dynasty. The goal is to paint a picture of what’s missing, so that the unsaid element is perceived more directly than the words. So, imagine something you want to describe, then remove the main element you wish to convey. Then, find a combination of words which makes this omission glaring. That “glaring” quality will provoke the sense of astonishing beauty that we feel from good haiku.
I am finding there is a difference between merely “short poems” and “haiku”. If we define haiku as provoking that startling element of sudden understanding, like standing in a room and realizing of a sudden that no one is male. I think this is the reason why Zen loves it, in fact since koan and zazen are aimed at the same experience. Good haiku is a good experience.
Not all of the following poems count in those terms; some just strive for a whiff of feeling.
Gossamer skirts that trail in the breeze... attendant ghosts. A giant dipped his hand in the sun, leaving a white thumbprint between the stars. A silver fish leaps; a grey cat watches... and nothing more.
The town of Sitges
In the quiet moments, the buildings of Sitges reach to the sky like so many hands in prayer. They endure the peaceful calm, the soothing breeze that wafts in from the south. If only this, it would remain a mute testament to the nature of man, to prefer such contemplative vistas to the raw utility of the interior.
Filling the space between are the thronging hordes, on weekends a stream of humanity discharging to the sea and returning. They flow like arterial blood, restoring the city’s organism by pausing a moment in the various shops and exchanging services for currency.
There is both an inward and an outward breathing: the salt air and the travelers who come for it: a constant fluctuation despite the unchanging, ancient character of the place itself. Among these flows are various things to be seen: The rows of browning chickens in the rotisería; fine pastries and cakes, of chocolate and raspberry and vanilla; the many chairs and benches lining the outside of the “restaurant bars”, mostly filled with people smoking and watching the passing crowd; gelaterías selling ice creams and sorbets; shops with shoes, watches, clothing, bags, swimsuits and every other beach accessory. Each article has its own shop, and each shop is the size of a large living room, displaying in its own unique category of items.
The wares pass from rack to hand to bag, the swarms of the tourists gathering their pollen like dutiful bees; in a moment of pause one can almost distinguish the hum from the general background of the place itself. And the shops, like variously colored flowers so attractive to these flitting, buzzing figures, lay out their petals to the sun, and gradually close as twilight brings on dark.
Today I cast about on the flow, a tiny raft braving the rapids. Down the Carrer ed las Parelladas, down, down, until Gumá, where a short turn leads me into a mini-casino, El Prado. Here leagues of retired men – los ancianos – play cards, checkers, chess, dominoes. I ask for a chessboard and set it up, leaving the chair opposite conspicuously open for a challenger.
Soon a young man sits down, by coincidence also named John – Juan – and also a student of Philosophy at his University. We take turns pushing plastic armies at each other, with an occasional nod of the head to signal appreciation.
This Juan is in his early twenties, studying Hüsserl, a precursor to the philosopher of my own current study, Sartre. So we share a knowledge of the difficulties of existentialism – a bit of anguish to lend flavor to the contest.
Juan’s superior skill wins out, time and again, while I start losing touch with the Quality of the game. As I do, I stop caring, faltering in the responsibility even to lose well. A sloppiness ensues that makes it hardly worth continuing. I only notice this parallel to the idea of Quality afterwards. Now I am ready to return tomorrow, and to lose well.
Meanwhile, the characters of Atlas Shrugged have been my only English-speaking companions. The prose is so well done that at times I have to close the book after each sentence, savoring it. That she is writing about Quality is obvious: the first few pages are pictorial references to nothing but. The theme seems to be, “What kind of world would be left if ruled by those who care only about themselves, and not about what they do or how well they do it?”
The sun overhead looks on all this with a dry amusement, its beaming regard for humanity unchanging. For me, a pocket of shade at my favorite cross-street, with seven tall trees standing proud and receiving the sun with open arms.
To describe all this and fail to mention the water would be unacceptable. Out there, where no clouds intrude today, there is nothing to see but the purest blue. The whole earth is like a giant sapphire with this little town suspended in the middle. Blue above, below, reaching out to hug the limits of the horizon together. There is a calm, steady blue, and a dark, undulating blue; the blue of hidden depths and of revealed expanse. It makes the white of the buildings seem harsh and intruding.
As if starved for this one color, chromatic lord of the seaside realm, crowds flock to the sandy borders alongside and stretch out in mute admiration, pilgrims to a temple grander and more ancient than hands will ever build.
And beyond the legs and hands and backs and chests, beyond the fading lines of foam constantly absorbed into the sand, and beyond the swimmers splashing like clumsy fish, one can see the stately, tall gentlemen of the sea, pacing east and west in crisp attention, the sails of their uniforms starched and pressed, and puffed with pride in the afternoon breeze.
This is the tableau of Sitges on a Saturday like most, while the roasting chickens turn on their poles, and the birds above twirl like drunken dervishes without care or purpose, and people amble below in slow imitation of the same.
The birds in lazy, looping circles. The clouds have gone. Not a sound. The wet sand remembers where my feet go, but easily forgets. Inhale the salt air... one of those times you taste with your nose. Beneath the pale of mid-day, birds are weaving but forget their thread. The night, the moon lonely; a still, reflective silence, the waves murmuring below. Trees upthrust from the soil reach for the sun and do not look back. A conference among the clouds, the flash of argument; tears of reconciliation. Blurred images of speed, plummeting, racing -- a small, quiet splash.
Rand’s ideas of Quality and humility
Rand’s idea (in Atlas Shrugged) is that life should be lived with quality, and not coddled to compensate for any deficiency of will to do so. Such tends to perpetuate a world of grown-up children, who, rather than acting to realize their dreams, inveigh against the inadequacy of life to realize them on their behalf. Rand gives us a definition of maturity: to act, rather than hope and wait to be acted upon. She wants people to wake up to who they are, and understand that dignity lies entirely in how we face life. Live life for its Quality, and accept no substitutes or platitudes in place of reality.
She also points out the false meaning of “humility” in popular culture. It has come to imply: not making others feel badly for not achieving excellence. The bright lights must hide, lest they blind others in the dark.
The real meaning of humility is that light is the same no matter which lamp it shines from. Greatness is universally available – can assume a myriad specific forms; there is no cause for one person to believe themselves uniquely deserving of it, or special. If they shine, it is because they have chosen to shine. If others do not, that is also their choice. That is, the matter of shining relates to will, not privilege. Humility is to recognize this fact; that the light from one lamp is the same as the light from another. And so, being humble has nothing to do with restraining one’s self out of respect for the timidity of others, while it has everything to do with realizing that they are equally capable of shining – whether they chose to exercise that birthright or not.
From this, Rand also opposes systems of charity that encourage an unwillingness to direct our lives. As children we start life entirely dependent, crying when we need or want something. As older children we still cry, but as we start finding this to be disgraceful, we modify it to a whine. When even whining it too undignified, it becomes complaint: the idle expression of a wish for life to do as we please.
Throughout these stages it is the same impulse, though it continues to change form while we elude the obvious lack of dignity in doing so. The form changes, but not the intent.
Real maturation is not about becoming a more clever or subtle whiner, but stopping the behavior entirely: Ceasing to regard life as something which must conform to our wishes, and instead acting to bring about our desires.
Life is like an easel with many different paints. As a child we complained when we did not like the picture; as an adult we should take up the brush and make real the exalted visions of our heart. Then the real beauty of which humanity is capable will become manifest. This is the kind of activity that reveals Quality. Otherwise, we are like lost souls wondering why we have such a great capacity to feel.
I do not want hand-outs, mercy, or free answers to the hard questions. I was born with resources to test how I will use them, not to escape the responsibilities of such a gift. Having has nothing to do with it. How I face life must be done by myself alone. If I suggest that others live in my stead, or compensate for my choices, where is learning, or nobility, or the reason for being here in the first place?
Those who blaze
There must be, somewhere, people who feel the brightness of each passing moment as if a spark of irrepressible joy were blazing in their gut. Then they cannot but jump, or smile, or laugh, or write simple paragraphs about such a feeling.
There is not much more to write about Sitges, but for more poems about sand and sun. I have met some of the people here; in essence like people everywhere, though in form with a character all their own.
After these three weeks have ended here I’ve decided to proceed directly to Florence, in order to spend more time in that city. And this weekend I’ll get a chance to see another town outside of Barcelona, since my friend Ares has invited me to stay a night with her family and see the beach, and learn to drive a motorcycle, and visit the foothills of the mountains around the city.
There can be no real spirituality if based on removing the option to choose otherwise.