Welcome to day 18 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted
I mentioned yesterday Spalding Gray’s monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, his story about being in Thailand for the filming of The Killing Fields (1984), in which he had a minor role. Gray’s grim commentary on the Khmer Rouge’s slaughter of two million fellow Cambodians (“Who needs metaphors and poetry for hell, this happened, kids torn apart like fresh bread in front of their mothers, on this earth?”) and the abandonment of Cambodian people to their fate by the U.S. is inter-cut with funny, touching, engrossing discussion of an Amtrak encounter with a crass naval officer, raunchy acts performed in Thai massage parlors and nightclubs, the perks of filming in Thailand, a bad experience with local marijuana, his memories of learning his lines and acting in the film, dealing with a noisy neighbour in New York City, and, importantly, his search during this two-month trip for the “perfect moment:”
“He comes back to the idea often, in fights with his girlfriend and trips to the beach, hoping, forcing, wondering when it will come. It’s on one of these beaches that he finally gets his Perfect Moment, that single instance of transcendence he desperately needs to have before he leaves” (source).
But before that, he almost had a perfect moment, “about a number nine on my scale of ten for Perfect Moments,” and if he had, he says he “would have had to go home that afternoon,” his quest for perfection fulfilled:
“In interviews, Gray realizes the illusoriness of such a goal, ‘the search for paradise and perfect moments and the mistaken idea of paradise being a place outside of the mind.’ … The achievement of the perfect moment is to be both sought and avoided.” — Gay Brewer, “Talking His Way Back to Life: Spalding Gray and the Embodied Voice”
Here’s Gray describing the actual perfect moment in the Indian Ocean off Karon Beach, Phuket Island, Thailand:
Gray’s experience of perfection is of a loss of boundaries between himself and the natural world, a loss of self, a loss of awareness of self, a baptismal or primal return-to-birth merging of self with salt-water. He has no fear in this moment because his anxiety about his money being stolen from the beach is absorbing it all, leaving no room for shark-fear. He is not even a “body to bite,” so at-one with the ocean is he, so absent is he, which is how it has felt to me when I really surrender to the embracing ocean, especially a body-temperature ocean (or, as I recall from an experience in Spain, a very salty Mediterranean Sea that supports you, floats you, keeps you from drowning). I could say that it’s ironic that Gray killed himself in Jan. 2004 by jumping from the Staten Island Ferry into the New York Harbor, off the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s probably not ironic.
Gray’s description reminds me of the times when I feel most connected to God, to a vast, supportive, no-fear place of merging with all things. It’s an expansive feeling, not because I feel greater but because I feel securely lost, absorbed, absent.
We walked at the edge of the sea, the dog,
still young then, running ahead of us.
Few people. Gulls. A flock of pelicans
circled beyond the swells, then closed
their wings and dropped head-long
into the dazzle of light and sea. You clapped
your hands; the day grew brilliant.
Later we sat at a small table
with wine and food that tasted of the sea.
A perfect day, we said to one another,
so that even when the day ended
and the lights of houses among the hills
came on like a scattering of embers,
we watched it leave without regret.
That night, easing myself toward sleep,
I thought how blindly we stumble ahead
with such hope, a light flares briefly — Ah, Happiness!
then we turn and go on our way again.
But happiness, too, goes on its way,
and years from where we were, I lie awake
in the dark and suddenly it returns —
that day by the sea, that happiness,
though it is not the same happiness,
not the same darkness.
Peter Everwine, from “The Day,” Listening Long and Late (2013)
Featured image: Atlantic Ocean from Morris Island Trail, Chatham, MA (Cape Cod), Oct. 2016