This is an excerpt from my collection, Borg Like Me. If you’re interested, you can order the book here.
I had an event in my life, a plain and unexpected epiphany, that’s become a high watermark to my happiness. Of course, celebrations of big milestones, things like my marriage, the birth of my son, were seismic, life-altering events. But this was something entirely different. Those are engineered moments of happiness, 21-gun salutes to joy; the sorts of experiences that sketch the bold outlines of a life. This was a quiet, gracious little moment in which I felt like I had peered under creation’s skirt and caught a glimpse of the underlying beauty of all things. Over the years, this experience has taken on almost sacred dimensions to me. It has even become part of my mythopoetic lexicon, what I now refer to as “white goddess moments.” This never-before-published piece is my attempt at defining what this term means to me.
It was soon after my wife, son, and I had moved into our new home. Buying a house, packing up and moving to it and fully into it—spreading the collected contents of our lives onto its shelves, into its empty corners, onto its walls—was something none of us had ever experienced. We’d certainly moved, first from a hippie commune in the country (where my wife and I had met) to a group house in the city. Then the whole group had moved to a new house together, and then, from the group we’d moved into our first rental – just our little nuclear family. But this journey had been bigger, and far more perilous. We’d bought this place. It was ours. And as trite as it sounds, it really does feel categorically different when you own it (even if that ownership is an illusion cast by the bank).
A few months after we’d moved in, DC had one of its rare serious storms. I don’t remember how much, but I remember it being that level of snowfall where the house is completely encased in it, with drifts piled up against outside walls and doors, where the roof becomes heavy and exaggerated with thick slabs of white water crystals. But, despite the intimidating weather, we felt cozy inside. Safe. We’d even lit a fire in our “new” gas-powered fireplace, which was anything but new and was a perilous, fire-breathing bitch to light. You had to get your head down below the level of the fiery gas-ball that VOOMED! out dramatically after minutes of it bleeding explosive gases into the room while you tried to light it. We only fired it up four or five times and then got too spooked to try again. Lighting it felt like trying to defuse a bomb. But we didn’t know all that at the time – we still had that new homeowner smell — and so, a natural gas fire of ceramic faux-log glowed away in all of its Rockwellian charm in our new living room.
The contentment I felt in those days was indescribable. That basic, honest feeling of hearth and home, mother and child. I loved my wife. I loved my son. I loved my work. And now, I had a home I was falling in love with, too; a home that was currently being surrounded by an uninvited superorganism of a bazillion snowflakes. But the warmth inside that house felt like it could heroically melt away any and all alien invaders.
Late in the evening, before bed, I took my nightly shower. I made the shower extra hot to help soothe the stiffness in my body. After a long day of working, fixing, and unpacking, the hot water felt outrageous on my tired frame. As I stood there in the shower, stretching and groaning like a savanna cat in the sunshine, I looked at the frosted-glass bathroom window. I could make out little drifts of snow against the windowsill and snowflakes hitting and vaporizing against the warmed, milky glass. I wondered if the window could actually open. Probably painted shut, I thought. On a whim, I decided to find out. I unlocked it and pushed hard against the frame. Nothing. Stuck. I banged against the bottom and along the edges to free up where it might be glued tight with paint. I tried again. With some earnest pushing, it finally squeaked to life and cracked opened. Cold air and snowflakes blasted inside, mixing with the steam.
Along with the cold, something else streamed in and overtook me. Silence. It was as deathly-silent in our backyard as it was frozen. A nearly full, waxing moon made the Earth glow. Everything had been rendered bright-white, smoothed to ambiguousness, and blanketed with a silence so perfect, so pervasive, it had as much dramatic presence as any conceivable sound.
I raised the window as high as it would go and stuck the entire top half of my nakedness outside. The feeling was strange and delectable. My body didn’t know what to make of a bottom half that was baking in seriously hot water and a top half that was rapidly venting its heat into a freezing moonlit night. I could see steam pouring off of my skin in dramatic swirls. Icicles rapidly formed on my beard. The feeling was glorious and enchanting, I became giddy and might as well have had Tinker Bell fairies fluttering around me.
When I finally settled into this strange situation, it was the silence that stunned me, a stillness that rapidly quieted my insides. The experience of that deep quiet made me instantly flash back to another time I’d experienced a profound silence in a similar snow-muffled world.
When Blake was maybe three, there had been a similar storm. Pam, myself, and our housemates, Patch and Linda, had dressed our two boys, Blake and Lars, in snowsuits late at night (naughty parents!). We’d all traipsed out into a new snow with not a soul awake, not a flake disturbed. The feeling of softly crunching our way into this magical landscape, with two bewildered little boys, waddling wide-eyed and awkwardly in their puffed-up snowsuits, is something I will never forget. We all struggled to stifle laughter and giggled conversation, lest we disturb a sleeping world around us. At the time, that experience became its own high-happiness watermark. I felt like I had witnessed unspeakable beauty that night, and such familial contentment in experiencing something so “non-ordinary” with my child and our extended family.
Years later, I was reminded that the poet Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess, ascribes the image of the white goddess, the moon goddess, to such profound and fundamental moments that stir and humble with their inspired beauty.
He believed these “goddess moments” to be the underlying inspiration of all poetry (at least what he called “muse poetry,” which he thought was the inspired kind). In his poetic mythos (boiled out from many pagan religions), she is the white goddess because she is the seductive, reflected white light of the moon, and that feeling you get in inspired situations is you catching a glimpse of her otherworldly beauty, the beauty and mystery that underlie all created things. Such inspiration lives within any experience of poetry (in any form) where “the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls, and a shiver runs down the spine,” as Graves put it.
When I re-read of Graves’ white goddess, I immediately remembered that night in the shower, and the earlier adventure with the kids in the snow. I started calling these “white goddess moments,” anytime I am brought to my knees by an experience, especially if “apparently unpeopled and eventless,” where the “elements themselves bespeak her unseen presence” and I feel like I’ve had a poetically authentic moment. I’m happy to say I feel my life has been blessed by many such moments, but none have rivaled the time I leaked into my snow-covered backyard from my bathroom window.
And if truth be told, in thinking back on this, my greatest “white goddess” moment, I realize that the watermark is not that moment in and of itself. It has such significance to me because my relationship with my wife, with our family, probably hit its high watermark that night. That window had never been opened before and it has not been opened since. It’s become something of my metaphorical “window onto Eden” (as William Blake called it), my window onto paradise.
It may sound silly to want to mark such a peak moment with a ritual gesture –shouldn’t such a moment be its own celebration? But I have a plan for how I want to ritually acknowledge such a future high watermark of joy and contentment in my life, should I be fortunate enough to reach one. I will wait until there’s a full moon, maybe it will again be winter, with new-fallen snow on the ground. In the dead of a gloriously black and still night, I will climb back into my shower and I will once again open my paint-sticky window onto Eden. I will then unfold my nakedness out, up, and into the stars, and there I will once again kiss our Blessed Lady…
The White Goddess.