“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smells of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.”
-John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Top of Temple IV at sunset: I am King Turtle, surveying my kingdom that stretches out in a rolling jungle below. I am ancient, thousands of years ago, over lush teeming green. It’s quiet except for the presumed roar of life below the green, quiet except for the stone statues that jut out of the rolling landscape. The shades of the temple grow long as the sun sets behind us. The moon pops out pale between Temple III and V in the distance and it’s as if they planned it all along. The Mayans arranged a day, a week around these moving, slowly shifting shadows; a year around seasons and cycles, maybe the wind, and the rise and fall of moonlight, a waxing and waning moon. At the summer solstice, the shadow from this 229 foot giant falls directly on a smaller pyramid that rests below on a left diagonal; the shadow reaches another pyramid directly ahead on each equinox; and yet another pyramid, distant to the left, on a the winter solstice. And this does the year progress: the shadow jumps, slides, from right, center, left, center, right, and it’s another year in the life.
Four hours later, my guard friend, a young British bloke and I are standing alone in the grand plaza. Do you want to climb it?, the guard asks me in a soft voice. I translate for the Brit. Thirteen years ago, two tourists died because they fell, the guide quietly mentions, so you can’t climb it normally. It looms over us, yellow in the light. It’s quiet. My British friend, who I met mere hours ago and roped him into this tour so as not to be alone with a Guatemala guard carrying a semi-automatic rifle, says, why not? And so we climb, stair by stair, careful and deliberate, the front of this ancient pyramid. We sit, survey, and imagine a bustling world, what it would have been. Our perch, above it all, was the exclusive territory of priests and kings. It feels holy, but holy doesn’t mean the same, has a different notion, as it does in the western(Christian) conception of the word. Here we sit, in running shoes and sweat shorts, and breath dense air under a full moon, and then spider our way back down, step by step, slowly.
Earlier this week, in a used bookstore in La Canada called ‘Around the World’, I found a Central America world factbook written by Life—published in 1964. I splurged the five dollars for it because it fell open in my hands directly to a picture of a towering temple in Tikal: the very one I climbed under the moon and yelled to hear my perfect echo reverberate, clapping, around the grand plaza.
I keep returning to this day, this feeling of being, of logic and balance in time and place, as I re-enter my life in the States. I said in my last blog that life moves you exactly as it’s supposed to; and indeed, how. Two days after I arrived home, I got back on a plane to fly to Detroit, Michigan, as was reunited with my entire extended family.
But that balance, the simplicity of 12 hour days, slips away easily here, or hides itself in evening shadows on the side of the Bank of America building, hides in airports and plasma tv screens announcing news and… stuff, for lack of a better word. Sunsets hide in tints of red light and the air turning a little crisp, a little golden, as I try to remember which way is west. I remember loving summer because it gets dark so late, and afternoons stretch until 7 and dusk until 8:30, but my—it’s throwing off my internal clock, set for a year for it to get dark at 6. My dad mocks me every day when I exclaim, ‘It’s still light out!’ around 8 or so, but it’s really quite unnerving and I feel unbalanced.
Being back in the first world—and a very prosperous corner of that world—is lovely, things work and the power stays on (and wow is the internet fast!), it’s functional and developed, but my, there’s a lot of concrete and inside space. I appreciate the prosperity in a sort of ironic way, in culture shock and ‘ha’ sort of comparisons to where I was, but now more than ever, I really do just appreciate it. I went for a run around the Rose Bowl and rejoiced to be back among a population of active people, people doing things, to not be the sole runner in a sea of surfers, to be where such running is normal. The weather is mild, and spring-like, and, I repeat, I was outside, in the light, past 7 p.m.!
I’m sitting in a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and I’m absolutely freezing. It’s summer here, the flowers bloom and the sun shines, but it’s artificially frigid inside this establishment. It feels unnatural, unhealthy, sterile. I use free wi-fi and watch all the Americans stride in and buy coffee and leave. I’m sipping on my 4 dollar iced vanilla latte, still reeling at how expensive everything is. I went to a bar to watch the Lakers/Nuggets playoff game, and paid five dollars (100 cordobas!) for a diet coke, including tax and tip. While waiting for my coffee just now, I stared at a small wall calendar (the very same calendar the Mayans invented…although I suppose not the very same, with a coffee bean logo emblazoned on poor May) and oogled at it’s tiny little months and day numbers. 2009 looks so small, the way they print it: four months is just inches, little numbers count off days and weeks and according to this little calendar, I was just here, in this place, and now I’m back.
I’m supposed to be ‘figuring my life out’: what next? I guess I’ll hop to that. I sort of just want to do this… (write). Or finding, making glories, according to the great Mr. Steinbeck.
Here’s to a man who made a more than a few.
RIP Benedict Smith June 3,1919-May 11, 2009.