In October, thinking of December and this project of forgiving, I thought maybe I might write a post about an empty shell, harking back to the snail shell I began with. I was thinking it might be something exquisite and spare.
I was replaying in my mind a poem a friend had sent me before we lost touch. My lost friend, with whom I used to engage in small contests of taste which we disguised as gift-giving. She had the advantage on me: ten years older, European relatives, an East Coast education, money. But I had fun trying. The candy tin in a dusty secondhand shop of a blond flapper deploying her dapper squadron of mustachioed marionettes with a careless gesture. A necklace of colored Indian corn. Obscure books (see Out-of-Printness).
We are lost to each other now, but her gifts and quotes keep showing up in forgotten corners and falling out of long-unopened books. This summer a poem fluttered out printed up in her idiosyncratic hand.
If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — "This is not dead," —
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — "This is enow
Unto itself — 'Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."
By Sir Thomas Browne, my once-friend had printed at the bottom, Sir Thomas Browne whom I have often felt I ought to read. After all, Borges loved Sir Thomas Browne, translated him into Spanish, patterned his own writing on the "complexity of his labyrinthine thought." Julian of Norwich and Sir Thomas Browne had this and that in common.
But that quote above? It's also to be found on a Googled site that says my friend was wrong in her attribution, as perhaps in other things.
The Brown who wrote my lost friend's poem is the author of such whimsies as the late Victorian "A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!" Not the Renaissance Browne who is "widely considered one of the most original writers in the English language . . . 'an instance of scientific reason lit up by mysticism'", who rubs shoulders now in Literary Heaven with Borges and Julian.
And maybe, too, the girl I was is not so shallow and surfacey, as she finally told me that I was, once my too-ready applause paused and my emulation turned mulish. Maybe it was not even a friendship, so admiring on one side, so exquisite on the other.
Or maybe it was and maybe I am: still admiring, still shallow, still surfacey. Like water, reflecting.
We can't all be deep. God wot.