If you are me, you can’t throw a rock without hitting Heraclitus. He’s one of those foundational principles upon which so much else is built; opposable thumbs are similarly important, as are vowel sounds, and floors. Heraclitus was from the city of Ephesus, where the school of philosophy was born, which is as strange and convenient as the fact that an orange is the color orange. He seems to have lived in the late 6th century, which means nothing because how can it, and he said a lot of things I love or else they have somehow snuck into my thought processes so thoroughly that what he says and what I experience are the same thing. He called the Big Thing, which I’ll get to in a moment, the Logos, which HELLO, means the Word, and I also call it that and so did John in the Bible, all of us. How disastrous for me if he had instead called it Calculus or Jogging. Nothing would make sense to me and also I would be out of a job.
He is the Philosopher of Change. Before him had been the Philosophies of Stuff, which posed questions like, “What is this?” and “Fire fire: dirtfire.” To go from Stuff to Change was a monumental leap, in my opinion, because the issues of does some Stuff be everything and does some Stuff all of a sudden be different when you aren’t looking can never be answered. There is Stuff we can’t even find, for heaven’s sake. To look around and declare that everything is in a constant state of flux – it is the essence of existence – that was sassy. He is most often quoted as having said no one can step in the same river twice – a flawless statement. It’s so perfect one can never tire of it, one being this one, and it remains crystalline and sound, century after century. Would he but have said it! The translation is more accurately, “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” So. But it doesn’t matter because you CAN’T step into the same river twice, there is no same river.
But what is this? He was also the Philosopher of Unity of Opposites, and without this part we would have no humor. Everything is in a state of flux, that’s a) but also b) things that are opposite are identical = c) everything is and is not all at once. You know who else said this? Monty Python. A benign mentally ill young man I knew in college. Jewel. This part of his philosophy is summarized as The upward and the downward way are the same way. THAT is a flawless statement, also mysterious and puzzling. When I looked up the literal translation I found, “The road up and down is one and the same.” To which one can only say, indeed it is. Otherwise I would only be able to travel in one direction, and where would the road behind me go, I ask you? All sorts of tricks and chicanery, like making the road roll up as I traveled (would get very big and obstruct rear view) or causing it to disappear entirely (that seems possible so I’m going to pretend I didn’t say it) would have to be used for the world to NOT be as Heraclitus described it.
There was only one thing outside his system, an everlastingness that was not flux or opposition: the Logos.
When I was in graduate school (the second time) (something I really like? graduate school) I read a poem so good I remember thinking the poet must have felt that he had done it, had pulled a star out of his pocket. To get something so right: for a moment, one’s mortality must be subsumed. See what that is? Logos. Because one’s mortality is never subsumed, and it was a perfect poem and even if the poet was granted a moment’s thrill it was gone before he realized he’d felt it at all, and he was overwhelmed instead by the knowledge that he must find the next poem, or perhaps that he would never write anything beautiful again. But the Words are divine.
My friend Aaron showed it to me. I remember it was at the back of a thick anthology. The poem was called In The Heraclitian Living Room, and I knew the moment I read the title what would happen in it – I wasn’t sure how – and I also knew something was now impossible for me. I would never have this idea first, because you can’t be the first to write the poem twice.
As I recall, in the Heraclitian living room you rise from your chair to pick up your glasses and when you turn around the chair is gone. The table where your glasses rested is in a completely different place. In a sort of time-terror you try to gather up what you can hold, but as you do everything starts to flow past you. The carpet becomes a river and you are standing on the edge of it. The poem was dense, compact, irreducible. Aaron was extraordinarily bright, by which I mean he was intelligent far outside the boundaries of normal. I say this about very few people; there are very few such people. We were in the same poetry workshop and as the semester progressed his poems became more and more difficult to comprehend. They had absolutely no story in them, and it was impossible to connect anything to anything else. It was not the human condition he was addressing. In academia this is lauded. In Quakerism it is not tolerated. When I was in seminary, my second year, an incoming student very like Aaron arrived and I knew just by looking at him that he was one of them: that tiny subset of humanity whose intelligence is so great it causes physical pain. I never saw him at ease in the time I knew him, not even for a moment. We had one class together and when he made comments they were so erudite and far-reaching even his voice was pain-shaded. He was already writing his thesis, a huge project, and he was a perfect student. Meeting for Worship was held every day and he was never late; he was in class before anyone else, had read 64 times what was required. He was in the ministerial track, and the first time we were invited to hear a sermon of his the subject was a very fine point in a very obscure passage written by the historian Origen, and how it had been misinterpreted over time.
Shortly after the sermon, a professor came to me privately and asked if I would read one of the young man’s papers and tell him what I thought. I sat in his office and read the twelve pages. I said they were incomprehensible, and the professor nodded. The young man had already been Eldered – taken in hand by an Elder in the Meeting who gently explained to him how he had violated the Gospel Order. I knew this because the young man himself told me what she said. I can recall the sentiment if not the exact words: it is not in keeping with the Spirit to speak in a way that no one understands. Such ministry is not merely of no use, it is false, and she suggested that he work harder on discerning what is of God and what is not. A true leading to speak out of the silence would be one clear and simple, so that it reached the condition of as many in the Meeting as possible. As he told me this story he was so confused he was flushed: how could his genius be anything but God-given? I suggested that his genius was not the issue; a spoken ministry is either true or it is not, and his were not true according to Quaker faith and practice, not then, and consistently not, all the way back to 1653. He looked pained.
Sitting in the professor’s office I asked what was being led toward and it was as I suspected. There was no division between students and faculty in matters pertaining to the group as a whole; the only time decisions were made without the consensus of the students was over budgetary issues and I don’t believe anyone complained, as coming to consensus over an institutional budget is similar to being slapped repeatedly about the head and ears with a dead chicken. Now, in the matter of the young man, we sat in silence and considered the question: could the imprimatur of George Fox and Margaret Fell be given to him? Was there clarity on the issue? Of course there was. It was unfortunate and obvious at once. You belong to the Religious Society of Friends when you behave as one. In his office the professor had said to me, “We wouldn’t allow Wittgenstein a ministerial degree,” to which I had replied, “God, I would hope not.”
No one in the graduate program in English, graduate school two, would have dreamed of expelling Aaron because his poems spoke to no one, which was fine by me. I liked him very much. He had found a poem he knew I would love and it was a bullseye. That is kindness and friendship. He went on to the Iowa Workshop and was given the equivalent of the Barbie Dream Scholarship, and by the time he graduated from there he was the Something Or Other Title Holder (it wasn’t the shot-put, of that I’m fairly sure). The title was the Big Poet’s way of saying Aaron was good enough to have her name attached to his. I now own three of his books. With all my heart I wish him success and happiness, and if those books are in English you couldn’t prove it by me.
I was trying to find In The Heraclitian Living Room the night the clocks changed. I grew up in Indiana: The State Where Time Stood Still. We had no such thing as daylight savings (in my family we had no savings), because dawn is dawn and dark is dark. I found the whole concept one big gobstopper, and now that everyone does it, including Hoosiers, I am still confused. When I say confused I mean this is not good for me, in the mental health way. I cannot, cannot understand what I am to do twice a year. People have said to me “We gain an hour” or “We lose an hour” hundreds of times, and it sounds like madness. Everyone is told to do this thing with clocks and so they do, and I find it a violation. John said, when the October panic began, “You have no concept of what time it is anyway. You don’t know what day it is or sometimes what month.” You can bet I did NOT just leap in and say, “That’s nothing – I actually don’t understand what year it is,” because that would be too much information and nothing he needs to know. I was searching for the poem online using various terms and patterns when John e-mailed me from inside the house to say, “Remember: tonight there will be an hour you get to have twice.” I had to close my eyes to stop prevent vertigo, or vertifaux, maybe, as it isn’t a vestibular problem that makes me dizzy – it’s things like wild violations of common sense, and pretending to tinker with time and space. As I searched one database after another I had the idea that maybe I would try to replicate the hour exactly when it began again, doing the same things I had done before. That failed for two reasons: I am always doing the same things I did before, in some fashion, and I don’t know when this mystery hour began or when it ended or what the Logos of the Tempus is, to have the same hour twice. The truth is I’ve been trying to find that poem for ten years now. I just check periodically to see if it will appear somewhere, anywhere, as my room in the barn flows past me like a river. I’ve known all along – although I hate to admit it – I simply may not be able to read those words twice.