Thursday, November 20, 2008

Best of: "Beach Glass and Glass Beach"

From March 12, 2006

I forgot to mention a very disturbing dream I had last night, which I attributes to eating a Uno bar before sleep. Chocolate has psychedelic properties, I’m convinced, and I think it raised my dopamine levels, which are low in Parkinson’s patients but high in schizophrenics.

For starters, Kathleen, Kenyon and I had visited Glass Beach the day before. Glass Beach used to be a dump before 1970, on the coast at the north end of Fort Bragg. Since its closing it has been transformed into a cove of shingle, pebbles and sand with a higher proportion of sea-smoothed glass than any other beach in California.

I collected beach glass in San Clemente for a decade, and after becoming choosey—that is to say, I came only to accept beach glass for my collection whose rough edges had been sufficiently sculpted into dull gems—I was able to fill over half of a medium-sized fish bowl with specimens. These included one yellow piece, one red piece, and two blue fragments I assumed were from Milk of Magnesia bottles. I was proud of my collection,

Then we visited Glass Beach, whose smoothed glass fragments were so plentiful the guide book said, “Be sure to visit it in full sun to see the glitter of the glass and ceramic on shore.” Imagine my surprise, even wild joy, when after years of collecting I could fill the same fish bowl in one day if I tried.

This experience reminded me of the principle of diminishing pleasure in unexpected returns. After the rare and unpredictable joy of finding one or two worthy specimens a day in San Clemente, to find such a plethora of specimens in Fort Bragg devalued my earlier exertions with the sweep of a magic wand. I found three blue specimens at Glass Beach in one afternoon, even a specimen of reinforced glass with the wires visible within, something I’d never encountered before. And I didn’t even look very hard; I was half-hearted about the effort. At first happy, my happiness had been diminished by an unprecedented abundance, as if the glory of my former finds, purchased with great effort, was now too easily attained--like climbing Mt. Everest via a helicopter. The value of these easily found specimens caused a great inflation in my spiritual economy, much like Twain deriding heaven as a boring vacation destination where harps and clouds and saints were all too commonplace.

I cannot help but think that the shock of the ease of collecting my previously hard-won trophies put me in an unconscious spin, which may have been the cause of my dream (combined with the late dose of chocolate).

In my dream I was seeking heaven or some sign of heaven on earth. Through secret communications I was directed to a group of people in a spacious, rustic house of great proportions. There the goodness was overwhelming. The presumption of eternal life and the ultimate triumph of goodness in this world was a given; people were confident in their faith and full of good humor, though also cognizant that they were an anomaly in this world of evil, which required of them a strict secrecy.

Amazed, overjoyed, I socialized with these souls who seemed to live in a glorious eternity most would never attain, much less suspect as a mode of being obtainable on earth. This vale of tears was completely subsumed by the generous smiles, glowing miens and forgiving natures of the secret conclave—all attractive, gracious, well-spoken, and guiltless while enjoying caviar and drinks.

Yet as I listened to their conversations, it occurred to me that they seemed somewhat bored, and that their concern for genocide in Darfur and Rwanda and the destruction of the Amazon Rain Forest had been superceded by their supreme and well-justified confidence in the future, knowing how it would all turn out. Gradually my joy at having discovered these spiritual giants was dampened by my disappointment, not in their self-satisfaction, but their seeming unconcern with the world’s current needs. To find my more spiritually advanced brethren unable to share the desperate compassion I felt for those on this dark planet still suffering, however blind, made for a guilty disillusionment on my part. Not that I found this company of saints evil, or proud, or condescending, or unconcerned, simply above the fray and thus slightly bored. However much I wanted to stay in their company I began to feel uncomfortable, as if I didn’t deserve to be in their company, while at the same time my sinful resentment surfaced in the suspicion that they might be “too heavenly minded for any earthly good.”

Like the unexpected and easy harvest of beach glass, these beings’ angelic, joyful insularity became too easy to countenance. Mournfully I realized I could not stay in their number, that I must return to the struggle of those still suffering on earth, however blind they might be to the all-conquering faith of the spiritual cognoscenti. They did not need to nurse AIDS patients because, as in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, they knew that “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Their company struck me a little like an inauguration gala just waiting for the second coming. In contrast I felt like a spiritual Neanderthal who wanted to return to the playing ground when the victory was already assured. In my heart I felt it was too early to celebrate the triumph of goodness, however much I ultimately believe in that outcome. We parted amicably and though I sensed no pity on their part, I considered the price they paid for their assurance and easy grace: they were no longer in the fight. There was no point anymore, in their view (though never directly stated), to get their hands dirty as Mother Teresa had.

I woke from the dream with a sense of regret; I felt I belonged with them; I was grateful to have discovered their secret society; at the same time I was not content to rest on the promise of faith when so much still hung in the balance.

The whole dream was like an acid flashback; twice before as a teenager I had similar visions on LSD, visions of humanity united in a loving, telepathic unity of eternal spiritual bodies (“How does it feel to be / one of the beautiful people?”) But it was not for me; even wigged out on acid such a blessing seemed premature. As lucky as I was to encounter them, I knew I could not continue among them without the eventual tug of a spiritual lack, and this grieved me to no end, as their attitude toward the ongoing spiritual battle confirmed my best hopes for humanity. So I left each time discouraged but resigned to my lesser fate of trying to love my neighbor in this fallen world despite my many defects.

Sometime ago I wrote a love poem to Kathleen wherein I theorized a similar phenomenon. Here’s an excerpt from “About the Bracelet”:

“What if all the righteous faded
by subtle increments to stark transparency
until no one could see them but themselves?
Left to our sordid board games,
would we even notice their absence?
In this scenario, you'd have disappeared
before we met.”

This stanza plays off the cabalistic notion that if only a few righteous men remain on earth, like Abraham arguing for Lot, they retain the power to extend God’s compassion before the inevitable day of judgment.

A strange dream, no? Yet the scriptures encourage me against any such premature fulfillment: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, for we walk by faith, not sight.” “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

The parallel to the disappointment of Glass Beach is obvious, though I don’t know if it’s fair to blame the chocolate.

I’d like to close this account with a poem I wrote about beach glass before I knew about Glass Beach.

Beach Glass

and soft to thumb
down in a palm
like a familiar coin
but heavier,
its once jagged face
has suffered the sea
and no longer fractures light
in glints and glares.

Ground to dull edges
by sand,
it welcomes light evenly
and glows
luminously green
beside the dark,
wet pebbles.

I do not know if nature’s transforming magic (in the face of man’s irresponsible litter) would have inspired me to pen this encomium if I had encountered Glass Beach before beach glass.

C. E. Chaffin


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