The Simple Self

“It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self,” or so thought poet Stanley Kunitz. And how can we doubt a poet’s insight into profundity, particularly the author of “The Long Boat,” that homage to the Viking funeral that telescopes exquisitely into a universal glimpse of the departed departing. Here it is:

The Long Boat 

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

But here dailiness is left behind and the deepest recesses of the self are revealed as longing to return to it rather than drift in the infinite. One logical question is whether our deeper recesses ultimately consist of little but the repetitive humdrum of the ordinary or a longing for it? Or is the ordinary a repository of yet unextracted revelations, to be recognized only in extraordinary moments when the glimpse suddenly and unexpectedly widens into the vision?

Someone once said that “living is like licking honey off a thorn.” I doubt that person was a Buddhist, or at least probably did not know he was. Despite the thorns, most of us will continue to lick the honey. Maybe we learn to temper our enthusiasm, to be careful while still pursuing our pleasures. Maybe the honey is so delicious that we plunge our tongues and thorns be damned.

Sweetness is not always simple except when it is. Dailiness breeds clarity when it is complicated. Struggling with such conundrums is like crusading through the greyish noir world of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Before their cynicism is briefly burnished into purpose, there is always the dismantling of pretension, the eradication of complexity just before the case curls into dangerous contortions. Consider this Dashiell Hammett line: “Her eyes were blue, her mouth red, her teeth white, and she had a nose. Without getting steamed up over the details, she was nice.” What a relief!