Yesterday Heather and I went to Santa Cruz and walked on the cliff overlooking the sea. It was a sunny day with big billowy clouds passing slowly over head. It reminded me of those lazy spring days as a child when my friends and I would look at the clouds and image what they were. There was a mouse, a cat, cotton balls, and sometimes cheese.
Looking down at the shore I could see the waves crashing. They were slowly breaking the rocks of the cliff, and millimeter by millimeter reclaiming the land. There is power in the sea and nothing we humans can do will stop it. Look closely and you’ll see where a parking lot use to be and see it’s ruins on the sand. How many more years before no trace of it is left?
Look closely and you’ll see where the waves are slowly undercutting the sandstone cliff. How long would I have to stand here watching before the cliff collapses and the fence it holds up falls into the sea. How many more times will that drama be repeated before the sidewalk I am on is washed into the Pacific? 20 years? 50? How long until the mighty Pacific claims all of Santa Cruz as its own.
It is a strange mental habit of mine – looking at the world not only as it is, but also as it was and as it may be. My world has four dimensions. It always has had. I am not sure where I got it from but I know that the book, “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart is a large part of it. It was first published in 1949 and I first read it when I as 14.
“Earth Abides” was the first ‘grown up’ book I ever read. I selected it myself and paid for it out of my own money – money I had earned doing yard work for a neighbor. As I recall I think the book cost me $1.25 – nearly two hours work (during the summer months I’d often earn as much as eight dollars in a day).
One day as a high school freshman I decided I had outgrown children’s books and books I could get at the school library and with money fresh in my pocket, money I had earned all on my own, money that I alone had the right to decide how to spend, I set off for the drug store on my bicycle to find a book I could own. I’m reasonably sure that I didn’t even tell my parents that I was going - in ’74 kids could do that with little fear.
The store had a whole isle dedicated to paper back books. I decided I wanted a science fiction book. I carefully looked a the selection, space ships, alternate worlds, gadgits of a far distant future and then one caught my eye. On the cover was a large moon over the ruin of a city and the silhouette of a man. The title was, of course, “Earth Abides.”
I read the back cover. Then the first page. Then a page at random. I can’t explain why but I knew it was, “The book” I was looking for.
I read that book everywhere – before class, after class, during class and at home. I’ve read it a number of times since and have bought it a few times as I lose copies of it when I move, or think I’ve moved beyond it.
The story is an post-apocalyptic science fiction story. The main character is Isherwood Williams. Ish, as he is known, is a young graduate student studying geology and environmental science at UC Berkeley. While on a solitary field study, Ish is bitten by a rattle snake and then becomes gravely ill. After recovering he returns to the city only to find that while he was away, almost all of humanity was killed by some disease.
He now has to face the world alone and in time finds others and has a number of adventures.
Great stuff for a 14 year old. And I still find it a fascinating subject.
Stewart did something else in this book that still influences me today – he had these long descriptions of things and how they would change over weeks, days, years and centuries. One example is of a culvert that is slowly blocked with leaves and debris. Over time it is blocked and then the ground erodes and a new stream is formed.
It impressed me at 14 and set me up for a life of thinking like that.
Now you’re likely to think this odd but when I first learned that I had prostate cancer it was the first book I reached for. Honest.
Why? Well, first I had finished the last book I was reading, I was emotionaly upset and wanted some, “comfort” reading. At the time I needed to read something that I knew would take me away for awhile. Something that would give me a few hours peace. Something that would transport me to another world with different problems.
I hadn’t read it in years and at first I was struck how much I had in common with Ish – his tendency to observe rather than act, his shyness, his intellect, and his inability to achieve the more lofty goals in his mind.
While reading, I began to feel a bit like the drowning man who sees his life flash before him (by the way I did nearly drown once and you do think of your life in that moment of panic but that’s another post) – and I began to think about all the books and movies and stories that have influenced my life. I made a list of the important ones.
I decided to revisit some of those texts and reread them. Partly as a self examination to see how I’ve shaped my life and partly to bring things full circle before I start in a new direction. I’ve also decided to make it part of my Lent activities.
One of the things believers are called to do during Lent is self reflection, so I am going to use these texts of my past as a mirror to look into who I am and how I got to here. From there a new course can be charted and something new undertaken.
In literary criticism looking at the texts that influence or are referred to by a source text to find meaning or understand is called an intertexual reading. So using the intertexual method I intend to look a little deeper into me to understand me better. I am the text. The books I’ve read are the influencing texts.
Lent started last Wednesday but my body wasn’t up to the task and I did very little. It still isn’t fully well but now that I’ve ended treatments it is getting better and as my body heals it is time to heal my mind and my soul. I can’t say for sure that this revisiting some of my past is the right way but it feels right and from time to time I hear the voice that says, “you can’t tell where you’re going until you know where you have been.”
I invite you to follow along. At the top of my blog is a tab labeled “Intertexual Andrew.” This page has the list of life influences I mentioned above. It is a bit rough and not complete. As the season of Lent progresses I’ll flesh out the page with more detailed notes and information. I might add items or remove items. The list will change over time.
I invite you to take some time, recall your past and remember what has influenced your thoughts and dreams and helped to shape your life.