These delightful pieces combine humor and sensuality with surrealism and an oblique spirituality, and each becomes an opportunity of gentle instruction, invention, and entertainment. The book describes a spiritual pilgrimage, beautifully written, a unique offering from this wonderful writer.
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I once fell in love with a woman I met while she was trying to burgle my house. I lived at the time in a ramshackle old wooden house near the top of the Berkeley Hills, not far from the university.
This is her story. It may be the world's shortest biography.
I miss her still.
* * *
THE CAT GIVER
Once upon a time there was a cat burglar who worked assiduously to improve her technique of robbing houses and apartments. There are, for example, many ways to pick a lock, and our criminal friend invented new, more efficient, more durable tools before which even the most savage locks became pliant. She developed as well the ability to cut artfully, almost surgically, through the most ornamental window glass, so that there would be no breakage, and so that no house need suffer the offense of fragments or splinters. Often she would, after stealing what she pleased, considerately replace the cut windowpane with fresh glass she had prepared specially for the purpose. Before too long, she began to redesign whole windows, and install them furtively, so that the inhabitants of the burgled house might observe the world through a more beautiful aperture.
So delightful to her were these tricks that she began to invent more of them; and she became so entranced by the effort that she often neglected to sell in the underworld the goods she had so improperly acquired.
One time she posed as a florist and sold potted plants and trees to people whose goods interested her. Her studies in biology and horticulture had enabled her, after painstaking genetic experiments, to cultivate flowers so iridescent that tropical rainbows began to study their colors. These blooms became everywhere prized, though they had one noteworthy weakness: they perished quickly unless exposed to a flow of fresh night air. Coincidentally, the windows left open to give the splendid plants life also gave entry to a certain notorious and scholarly burglar.
Now, as she burgled, she was extremely selective. She would examine fastidiously the goods in a house and take only those which met her standards, as to integrity of design, harmony of proportion, delicacy of color, and durability of materials. Sometimes she took nothing at all. Sometimes she would leave one of her newly bred, rare plants, one that would infuse a room with a finery of color and luscious fragrance and complement the flora she found already in place.
Another ruse of hers was to design and manufacture her own locks — superb ones that made a house well-nigh impenetrable. Impenetrable to everyone, of course, except the lock designer. Now these locks were so ingenious and intransigent that advanced versions came to be used on safes, on big vaults at important banks, on the security doors at the great compounds where national treasuries were kept. In fact, so respected were these instruments that our cat burglar was summoned urgently hither and yon, to distant lands and curious nations, to sell and install her locks. So busy was she making the world safe from assaults upon treasures public and private, that she hardly had time to threaten us with her fine and enthusiastic criminality.
All of this was just as well, for her stock of stolen goods had, over all this time, grown immensely; and she next determined she would use her felonious and impeccable talents to distribute them where they did the most good. So did she become a cat giver: people who had once lost things to her would find in their house other goods, chosen to be more useful to the cause of strange living. And other people, strange already but lacking in some truly necessary item, would come home to find a new chair in their apartment, a cooking stove, a basket of food, a computer, a shelf of carefully chosen books, an uncanny watercolor on the wall; or even a medicine to take, so as to arrest an illness they did not yet know they had.
There were other duties: sometimes, when a bank was defrauded and threatened with default, our burglar would go to their vaults and replenish their funds. Occasionally, also, the problems with the international balance of payments were so intractable and wearisome that she was obliged to travel wildly around to redistribute money among countries.
One day the forces of law and order caught our cat giver in a house not her own, installing a safety latch. She was doing so because, without this certain door latch, the little girl who lived there would, the next day, have wandered outside and drowned in a nearby ditch. The authorities did not, of course, believe her story; and she was tried, convicted, and sent to prison. On the way to her cell she stole the guard's keys; and so was able, over the years, to visit all her fellow prisoners at the facility and teach them her arts. The prison became notorious as the breeding ground of most of the cat givers now at large in society.
And so our dear world, that once so feared crime, now must confront an even more desperate and perilous situation: that in spite of all its efforts, it will not be able to prevent good from being done.CHAPTER 2
I had asked a woman in Seattle (she worked in the Elliott Bay bookstore) why it had come to be that I was living in what felt to be a crossfire of stories. She laughed at me, and then told me this story. Then she looked at me and wished me the best, and then laughed again, I suppose at having to deal with such a simple beast.
* * *
STORY OF THE STORY
Once there was a story that never got told, and because of this she was lonely and sad. The only thing she could think to do was to go out and ask someone to tell her, even just once, in hopes that she might be remembered, and told later by someone else. So our story put on some old clothes and set off down the road.
The first house she came to, she walked right up to the front door and knocked. Now, in this particular house there lived people who were suspicious of strangers — especially those who had no certified occupation. So when they called through the door to ask what she wanted, and when she began shyly to answer — well, I am a story and I'm confused about the future and was wondering if maybe you could help me figure out how it is that I might be told, and The occupants of the house opened the door and drove her away with cudgels.
And so she went to the countryside, where it was safer for stories, and there decided to go to a farm and ask for work, so as to get to know the people there before she revealed her true identity and asked them to tell her. And sure enough, the farm family gave her work — milking cows, shoeing horses, eating apples off the tree, pruning orchards, drinking hard liquor, and raising hell in town. All this was so much fun that our story never did get around to telling her employers that she was not a person at all, and only wanted to be told by someone, and to give people joy. And when time came to move on, she found herself much altered; that is, the story she was had changed.
Our friend went to many houses, worked many jobs, and generally tramped around and had a fine time. She even told a few stories herself, so that she could gain a sense of what made some stories worth telling. Doing all this, she changed a lot, and wanted more desperately than ever to be told, for she was getting to be such a long, complicated story she could hardly keep track of herself.
In fact, as she made herself a life, as she gathered into herself from the events of every day the commonplace, powerful workings of the world, the story that she was came to be in ferment, remaking itself continually, gaining new contour and detail, taking on a vitality of its own — until she saw that only by the life that she lived could the story that she was be told.
So it was she learned that stories turn into the world. It was not true that stories are part of the world; rather, the world is composed of just those stories we are, the ones we use and honor and learn. That is, the world is composed of what these stories mean; and we, the story people, as we live, are saying how we think everything is arranged — what might happen, the way hope might be recovered, whether our promises count, how heaven is hidden or comes forth; whether we can understand our origin, amusement, sorrow, and deliverance.
Thus is the life we choose more disconcerting and extraordinary than many would wish: for it turns out that, whatever we do, day by day and in every minute too, by our every thought and every action, whether we want to or not, we are telling each other the truth.CHAPTER 3
A story told to me in a brusque way by a classical scholar, an Englishwoman living in the town of Cortona, near the border of Tuscany and Umbria. The town has in its small museum a spectacular, golden Annunciation by Fra Angelico. I wondered if the painting gave some of its spiritual luminosity to the story.
My learned friend related the whole tale with great surety and rapidity, as if it held the most obvious explanation in the world.
* * *
WHY CERTAIN WOMEN SPURN MIRRORS
Once there lived a people whose knowledge of the world surpassed anything we know of today. They had come to this knowledge by their ability to change the most basic ideas about themselves. They changed them even to the point of altering their bodily form, which transformation was possible because, as everyone knows, we are composed of gifts, capacities, possibilities, energies, all arranged in a temporary form called flesh.
By such changes, our citizens could turn into anything in the world, anything in all this world. They might be able to exist for a spell of time as different plants, different animals; as different kinds of weather (like a cyclone or soft rain); even as different people, so that the breadth and astonishment of their experience could take on the framework of different hearts.
In this way there was a free exchange of life between all the participants in life; a concerted movement of unity and devotion — the very movement, we might say, of learning.
One day, however, amid these fabulous improvisations, one of these people invented the mirror. The function of mirrors, of course, was to show everyone just as they appear — that is, as they have created themselves — at that precise moment. Unfortunately, many people were persuaded by this marvelous invention that they really did always look like that. Because of this horrific and obsessive error, with its selfish disobedience to light, the radiant circulation of learning became less and less visible and conscious. And eventually, for most of us, the continual transformation stopped, and the natural unity of creation seemed to split into many sovereign lives. In fact, today, in our times, few of the original race survive.
These few still contrive to rid the world of mirrors. It is very odd, they say, that so many think when they look into a mirror that they see themselves, rather than merely one of the experiments of light, a luminous gift, a guess, a proposition, a work-in-progress. It is as if each person (though it is shocking to have to write such a thing) — each person felt that his image was in fact himself, that the possibilities of life ended at the boundaries of that picture, that all her vision and understanding and love had their source in that one form, her very own.
It is as if when people walked, they never felt the earth, just their feet; as if when they looked, they did not see the world, just their eyes; as if when they loved, they could love no one but themselves.CHAPTER 4
Sierra Valley, California, is a paradise for birds, and in general reminiscent of heaven. An extraordinary woman there has designed and built her own house with wood from trees she selected, cut, and trimmed herself. She told me this story when I asked her why she thought that working in construction was so important.
* * *
WHAT THE WOMEN BUILT
Once there was a woman who, with certain of her compatriots, had her own construction company. In the houses they built, there were always more stairs than were necessary. In a one-story house, the inhabitants would find a stairway leading to the second floor, which did not exist. In a larger, two-story house, stairs would be built at the back of closets, or at the side of the attic. All the extra stairs seemed to go nowhere. This confused many people. But these inconceivable steps were seldom spoken of, since all of us would rather talk about what we presume we understand.
The stairs were artfully constructed, with a curious patterning of inlay, suggestive curves and angles, uncanny proportions. It was hard to know what to do with them. They were thought to be some recondite structural component of the house, or an idiosyncratic touch of an anonymous craftsman, or the decorative adventure of an unknown architect. Of course, people in such a house would get accustomed to using only those ways of ascent useful in their lives, and so the unused ones were relegated to the twilight of improbability and neglect; until it was just as if they didn't exist.
Every now and then someone in a rare state of mind, someone whose understanding had begun to respond to daily, homely fact, would come to notice these extra stairs. After the required study and preparation, one day that person would ascend them. If anyone saw her go, no special attention was excited, because it is hard to think there is any danger in climbing stairs that do not exist.
By such climbs something was created: at the top of the stairs, in the wall or ceiling, a door would appear; and through it our climbers would go. They found, as they had hoped privately and for so long, that these secret stairs led to a room in another house. In fact, all the secret stairs in the world led to one or another room in this special house. This being so, during their visit our climbers met people from distant lands, who, by a natural development of commonsense skills of living, had done the central, necessary thing — they had rid themselves of themselves. In doing so, they had thrown off the melancholy and bitterness that in our day pass for marks of a serious mind. So were they able to have new lives of impeccable kindness, easygoing clairvoyance, and powerful account. Some of these people, it is said, were librarians who could read your mind when they shook your hand, and then would know how, mischievously, to be most helpful to you. Some traveled along with the wind because there are ideas we can earn only if we are invisible and farrambling. Some of them, called upon to live for a spell of time in deep space, had learned how to garden among the stars. Others who worked as marine biologists might carry all the oceans in the pockets of an old coat.
In this house, all these people shared just such common capacities and taught one another a way of gift-giving that was bound up with blessings and adventure.
Now from the many doors of this meeting-house (which was nowhere, since it could only be entered by means of stairways that led nowhere) a person could leave and find herself in many different parts of the world, following almost any occupation. And some would do so, and in that way of traveling take up new lives of secret purposes. The rest would return down the old stairs to their old houses and resume a life that was apparently the same, but was never the same.
As for the original builders, they prospered greatly and secretly, and all of them are now retired. Some of the climbers of the special stairways have taken up the work the builders are now too old to do. There are now, for example, in many cities, streets you will not find on any map, which lead to other interesting and habitable planets; and factories that do not seem to produce a visible product, because they produce winks, tricks, dances, and metaphors. We should mention, as well, a house on a superbly hidden street, where a woman is writing a sacred text that will be used to correct and update, at long last, all the sacred texts we presently have.
And there have been some special projects: in the sealed basement of an old house it once became necessary to construct a chain of tropical islands set in a luminous and merciful sea. One descendant of the original builder, it is said, has even constructed an entire university between two petals of a flower.
Of course, many people, especially the men who own rival construction firms, claim that such things do not exist because, just like the magical stairs, they are not useful to everyone. The female contractors, though, just carry on with their indispensable, hidden work. And they express certain doubts about the virtues of self-evident usefulness.
For example, the hearts of men, are they useful? And if they are not useful, do they exist? And if they do exist, where are they all?CHAPTER 5
The Book of Genesis, of course, exists in many versions; and creation stories in the Near East, and worldwide, have now been much studied. In New Orleans I attended some talks at a gathering of theologians, who seem to have, as a group, an abiding affection for gumbo and rum drinks.
I asked a scholar of the Bible what understanding she had developed of the actions of Eve; and she told me this story.
* * *
EVE: WHY WE LOVE HER SO MUCH
She was mostly alone in the world, which was not a bad thing, because of the intricate and tranquil detonation of beauty everywhere around her. She studied the flora in all the minutiae of its divinity — she loved the garden. And in order to show that love, she asked the help of the animals.
She asked Adam, but he was not always curious. He was, in fact, rather satisfied with himself and his own conceptions, and sometimes had no particular inclination to engage with the garden; or, in fact, to explore what kind of outlandish collaborations of mind he might have with his companion. Eve, as someone who could conceive and bring forth life, knew what he could never know — she knew that risking your life is necessary and obvious. She knew that they should study their home grounds, that beauty is conceived and sustained by adventures in love, that perfection of place is a natural complement and outcome of the completion of soul.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hot Climate of Promises and Grace"
Copyright © 2016 Steven Nightingale.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Cat Giver,
2. Story of the Story,
3. Why Certain Women Spurn Mirrors,
4. What the Women Built,
5. Eve: Why We Love Her So Much,
6. The Windswept Morning of Juliana,
7. Where Are You Going?,
8. What She Meant,
9. Household Affairs,
10. Man, Woman, Dog: A Love Story,
11. Thunder: Perfect Mind,
12. In Order to Obey the Law,
13. From One Day's Chat with a Beloved Woman,
14. The Comfort,
15. The Specialist in Truth,
16. The Letters Every Day,
2. The Problem with Commodities,
3. The Engineering of Fate,
5. Original Grace and the Glory of History,
6. The Way She Labored,
7. Graffiti Carved in Bartops by a Traveling Girl,
8. The Compass,
10. Who Needs a Lover,
11. She Revised Her Stories Until They Became Proverbs,
12. Beautiful Doctor of Faith Meets the Janitor,
13. The Jackal and the Butterfly,
14. A Business Life, a Social Life,
15. In Praise of Female Bartenders,
16. The Thank-you Notes,
1. Where in the World Is Your World,
2. Work May Be Good for Something,
3. The Castle in the Air,
4. The Astrophysics of Children,
5. What We Mean by Bread; and by Sacrament,
6. The Bank of Days,
7. One Little Record of One Little Death,
9. She Claims That Even Tidal Waves Mean Something,
10. She Is Impertinent About Tragedy,
11. The Good Doctor Turns Loose a Tirade About Evil,
12. The Grandmother,
13. A Country Girl in the City Canyons,
14. The Books Were So Bad, She Set Out to Make the World from Scratch,
15. Proposition for Nancy,
16. The Panhandler,
1. The Silent Woman,
2. A Nun and Her Loving,
3. The Hunt,
4. Statements She Planted That Grew Up to Be Stories,
5. The Fashionable Lady and Her Jewels,
6. If She Once Had the Ghost of a Chance at Understanding,
7. The Painter of Light in the Canyon of Light,
8. The Sweetness of Life Gives a Gal Odd Habits,
9. A Woman Coming for Love,
10. She Writes About the King She Loves,
11. A Visitation of Comets,
12. A Luminous Newspaper,
13. Soul, Words, God: Sheâ&8364;s Got Issues,
14. The Carpenter of the Heart,
15. What She Told Me About Why She Writes,
16. In the Hot Climate of Promises and Grace,