It’s easy to get into a rut during the Covid-19 pandemic, captive at home, apart from most family, friends and work acquaintances, unable to engage in virtually all of our favorite activities. Many describe our current situation as stagnant, stale, boring. But the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, reminds us that even during the statis of self-quarantine, the world is changing and we are all of us becoming different people. And I don’t just mean growing longer, unruly hair and packing a few pounds of blubber around the beltline.
Heraclitus believed that all of existence was changing at every instant. His metaphor for the universe was to imagine a river. If you stick your hand in the river, then do it again a minute later, that part of the river will have changed entirely. He didn’t spell it out, but he was right: new water, new set of insects, different bits of plant life floating along the current, different wind causing a slightly different wave pattern, a different angle to the sun. For us during the pandemic, the apparent sameness of each day conceals our various internal changes—aging, growing spiritually, learning, maturing, overcoming mental obstacles, but sometimes also declining physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Implicit in Heraclitus’s emphasis on change is the idea that we can’t capture a moment—that all experience is transitory, a melancholy thought that gives a sad tinge to all experience. During the pandemic, happy times that pass immediately (and therefore too soon) may include a shared moment with a parent on Zoom or the burst of oregano that explodes in your mouth as you take a first bite into a piping hot piece of pizza that has just been delivered. Or the realization, once again, of how much you love a foible of your significant other—her habit of cleaning up while she cooks, his frequent outbursts of angry sarcasm at television commercials.
In today’s poem, “Heraclitus at the Water’s Edge,” I transform the outing of a man terminally ill with cancer into one more drop in that ever-changing river that Heraclitus said was the world of experience. The poem was originally published in Peralta in 2002. I then revised it for a chapter in my novel The Brothers Silver, which Owl Canyon Press is releasing on June 15th.
HERACLITUS AT THE WATER’S EDGE
Days after doctors pruned his time,
six months of life support,
we split a plate of oysters
and spoke of grains he loved:
kasha with noodles, barley in soup.
His hands, once precision tools,
now flapped like aimless claws.
His eyes, once sparkling mouths
that swallowed things whole,
now pursed in languor.
Outside, the Chesapeake sun
crawled along the brick walkway
toward cooing waves.
And I thought of Heraclitus
at the edge of another water:
His eyes pursue a head of spume
as it skirrs by in circular path
and dissipates to bubbles
one of which he tracks along the streamline,
gliding past rocks, between floating twigs,
around a leaf and disappearing.
Peralta Vol. 1 #2 (2002)