September 3, 2013

HUDSON: Through the Rearview Mirror

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I had a moment to myself in a Spanish grove of Norway Maples, when even the birds and crickets seemed to leave me alone, a foreigner passing through unfamiliar woods. The fog against my face was like a forest of silk curtains, and the world was heavy, damp and silent. Since the start of my hike through Spain from southern France some three weeks prior, I had never felt so naked, so coldly scrutinized. Even the leaf-strewn ground seemed hesitant to answer my footsteps, and as if that quietness somehow twisted a dimmer switch, I began to miss everything. Reruns of Family Matters in the midday television slump, those red pagodas on Chinese takeout boxes, the cicada chorus rehearsing nightly in the shrinking marsh beyond my backyard; I saw tiny fragments of home, like objects vanishing in a rearview mirror. And now I see, with a gentle nudge from a Polish poet, how wise the auto manufacturers were in always printing that subtle phrase: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Adam Zagajewski wrote a rather Spartan four-line poem on the closeness of faraway things, entitled “Auto Mirror.” It came to me mid-speech at my brother’s wedding a couple of weeks ago, and it keeps coming back to me on occasion for reasons I do not know. It follows:

I saw in the rearview mirror suddenly,

The bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral.

Great things dwell in small ones

For a moment.

Chances are slim that Zagajewski was secretly referring to Steve Urkel and cartons of Lo Mein, but here’s the point, as I choose to see it: The things we seem to leave behind are, much like the poem itself, larger, deeper and closer than they appear.

Maybe antique bazaars and nicknack shops have it right. “Trinkets to treasures” is a genuinely awful slogan, but it seems to approach a sort of masked truth that belies the whole business of buying artifacts. Chipped matryoshka dolls and cobwebbed Miles Davis vinyls sit dormant and collecting dust, but even when abandoned they still boast a small hand in having shaped and cultured their owners. Memory gives them traces of meaning, their significance following long after being left behind, perhaps even outliving us. And that’s just it: We’re all impossible calculations of the moments and things we’ve had and known. Add Dragonball Z to the power of cranapple juice, divide by cushion fort, multiply by parenthesized stargazing and Scooby Doo slippers, ad infinitum. But who can possibly account for the importance of each of those tiny nothings? It takes a larger picture, a view of the end product. A glimpse in a mirror. The stone and glass used in Beauvais were inconsequential before the architects and laborers brought them together, but their sum became a wonder. And in belonging to a great something, each pane and chiseled block became, in a strange way, a treasure.

The surface area of the human spirit is measured in wars and handpicked blueberries, in things incredibly vast and atomically small. That moment in the Spanish forest was one of incompleteness; separation from those little things left me feeling dry and withering like a tree stripped of its roots. In essence, I am nothing without the unseen things. “Nature” and “nurture” suffer from overuse in the human development lexicon, but the latter is, as I see it now, almost entirely made up of scraps of fluff and standalone nonsense. Am I really the black-sheep lovechild of Grover and a jar of peanut butter? Not entirely, but I’d hardly be the same without them. Relevantly, the central conflict of Franklin Schaffner’s 1978 sci-fi film, “The Boys from Brazil,” involves a secret test tube army of Hitler clones engineered by Auschwitz physician and SS officer Joseph Mengele. Each replica is a child raised in conditions identical to the original (a coddling mother, an abusive father who dies when the boy is fourteen). The premise is shakier than a house of cards caught in a windstorm, and that is precisely because it is impossible to recreate someone’s entire existence. There are simply too many intangibles, too many brief and influential moments. Individuality cannot exist without them.

Following that vein further, we find something a bit broader. The supreme importance of a day to a lifetime is, however oddly, analogous to a single proton in an atom. It is incalculably small, but its absence changes everything. And just as the world rests on the shoulders of the subatomic, so too does humanity rest on its stories and small moments. Standing at maybe five or six feet tall, people are dwarfed by the scope and scale of the world around them. Yet from those tiny frames have come designs and masterworks grand enough to drop jaws and color the sky. Did you know that light pollution has made the moon shine brighter than history has ever known? Great things dwell in us, and so do small things, mortar and marble for these rearview cathedrals.

Matt Hudson is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mhudson@cornellsun.com. Red in the Face runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Matt Hudson