Nantucket Essays

The Call of Order

by Robert P. Barsanti

Too many years ago, I saw the Beethoven frieze when it reappeared in Vienna. The painting is a remarkable work; Gustav Klimt depicted each of four movements of the Beethoven’s Ninth symphony along the top of four walls, climaxing with a chorus of angels singing the “Ode to Joy” atop the final wall. Young as I was, I understood that I was in front of something that I did not understand. The work ascends beyond beautiful to an awful sublime, especially if Beethoven’s work still shakes in your bones. We spent an hour there, and moved on.

The way that way leads onto way, I haven’t been back. Money, time, children, and clouds have all drawn me into different places and different times. But I remember that incredible work and the kinks of time and luck and good fortune that led me to an exhibition in Vienna. The Beethoven frieze remains there, if I want my life to harmonize, perhaps I will visit it again and find my youth standing still.

As I get older, I suspect that I want my life to repeat and rhyme for me in a boring little pattern. I want to return to familiar places and find them unchanged. Then, perhaps better prepared, I can open myself to the same experience once again and get that same rush. Inspiration, which blew into and out of me, might finally catch fire.

Every return visitor comes to this island to feel that same fire. The sand shifts under her feet once again, as if it has never changed. Honeymooners become homeowners if time and fortune permit, and the circle closes with a full moon in June. They visit the same beaches, walk the same moors, and travel the same roads. The clouds march for them; they get to watch them, anchored with a white wine spritzer on the beach at Cisco. Time washes the rest of us along with the tide…

Much more recently, I have been lucky enough to travel to Salt Lake City. I was plucked out of the school of teachers and dropped into the high desert to grade papers. Up in the high air, the streets are eight lanes wide, the air is dry, and the still snowy Wasatch laugh slowly at the buildings of man. In spite of my solemn duty to the Board of Directors, I found some time to visit the Mormon Tabernacle for an organ recital, attend a country and western show, and risk my life on a hike up to the “Living Room.”

I am not a hiker. I can pretend to be one if we are close to sea level, when the oxygen is rich, the ground is firm, and the oaks stand centuries (or at last decades) high. But all pretense slips away in the sunny, thin air and on the bare hills of Utah. When time presents you with an opportunity, you reluctantly take it (with a selfie), so, I went hiking up the trail.

The Road Taken went up. It went over broken and crumbling rock, red packed mud, and deer poop. At one point, following the devilish whispers of my Y chromosome, I found a “short cut” that took me up an even steeper path to a boulder that required tied shoes, some tough scrub oak, and firm push from Fate to get over it. The Road Taken rose to a startling view point, and then to another, and then to another. Each one going further up and further away from that sweet sea level oxygen. My age came in gasps.

At the top of one hill, not the biggest, the valley lay below us, with the Great Salt Lake glinting underneath an imminent sunset, the snowy peaks holding onto the reddening light, and a few miles to the south, a rain storm. We hugged each other, took pictures, sat in the “Living Room” stone furniture, then made our way down beneath the clouds. On the way down, the path crumbled and rolled with us. Young couples and at least one youth group took to the fading light to head up to our goal and beyond. We wished them well. Twenty-four hours later, we disappeared into cyberspace, with e-mails, phone numbers, and Facebook friends.

We won’t be back. So much depends on fortune. The great Solons that had plucked me from the school of teachers may not pluck me again, or they may put me in Kansas City, or Tampa, or Indianapolis. Or I may no longer swim in those schools, one way or the other. The moment passes like a comet, not to return in this lifetime. My life is too disordered to rhyme.

So many things just happen once. I will only hike that path once (absolutely), I will only be with those people once, I will only be this age once. Once is enough.

As I get older, I want to succumb to the call of order and repetition. Old people, like me, return to religion because it promises an unchanging and unending ritual. I sit in Quaker Meeting with the same gray heads, (nodding off perhaps), and we wait for the time. My days, guided by the ritual of exercise and ice cream, repeat in a friendly and fallacious hymn. I long to a return to the familiar chorus Beethoven frieze and the Wasatch and the Madaquecham Jam. May it never happen.

Instead, I hope I can still be charmed by the noise. All of those things that violate that harmony of repetition bring the crashing crescendoes that shock, overpower and change. The first trip to Nantucket shocks, be it on the beach, in the moors, or under the ancient clockwork of the Milky Way. Two feet, and a dive into the June Atlantic will shock anyone out of harmony and into a cold Yawp.

Articles by Date from 2012