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The Pleasure Principle

January 21, 2013

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
                                               --Robert Hass  


I sat in candlelight at my kitchen island eating dinner tonight, awash with guilt and pleasure. Guilt because of all the "shouldn'ts" I was violating by the very act of eating: I was consuming too many calories, meat was involved (more on that in a moment), wine was involed, carbs were ingested. Never mind the fact that I had just come from a vigorous yoga class where I had held side crane for longer than ever (still not very long, by the by). But in fact it was because I was coming from a yoga class that I felt even worse about the meat (not that I eat much  of it at all).

The pleasure part? Well, I'd made tiny, succulent lamb keftas and tucked them carefully into pita bread with a nice yogurt, garlic and mint sauce. With ample greens to absorb and hold the sauce and a Saint-saens piano concerto in the background I felt a distinct sense of pleasure. Make that a capital "P."

Pleasure, I thought? Is this the whole of it for the evening? Eating something wildly tasty is, indeed, a great pleasure.

But no, I thought, I do get satisfaction from other things, as do other people, though I'm not sure our pleasures are predictable. Or reliable. So often we return to the singular pleasures when love or sex or family life disappoints us or abandons us and we are thrown back on our own meager, self-generated satisfactions. I have to admit I enjoy knowing I have paid my monthly bills, even if the process (I've forgotten the damn online password for the umpteenth time) is galling. I'm still a techno-peasant so every successful new blog post is a tiny, mental chocolate-covered cherry. And even the endless re-editing of the two completed manuscripts I have as yet failed to publish gives me a sense of having got something done.

(I remember, back when I used to sew, having to rip out poorly-put-together seams. That was nothing but anguish and self-condemnation. When I edit my prose I tend to feel a smug sense that I haven't simply corrected it, but even improved it, as if it hadn't been so faulty to begin with, unlike my sewing. After all, maybe the agent or agent's assistant reading it had simply been blind to its salutary qualities. Or maybe just blind. And now, of course, it shines!)  

I don't know. Pleasure is hard to track but hard to live without. In the United States I think we've been without a collective sense of pleasure since before the 2012 campaign. Newtown went a long way toward bankrupting our pleasure-caches.

Maybe we need those private moments--a pita filled with lamb-kefta, an hour in the study, tampering with syntax--to remind us that someday it will all come together with each other, or another person, once again. And that even if it doesn't, some kind of strange and solitary pleasure may abide. As we see, below, in Robert Hass' poem: (All hail blackberries!)

Meditation at Lagunitas

 

All the new thinking is about loss.

In this it resembles all the old thinking.

The idea, for example, that each particular erases

the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-

faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk

of that black birch is, by his presence,

some tragic falling off from a first world

of undivided light. Or the other notion that,

because there is in this world no one thing

to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,

a word is elegy to what it signifies.

We talked about it late last night and in the voice

of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone

almost querulous. After a while I understood that,

talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,

 

pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman

I made love to and I remembered how, holding

her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,

I felt a violent wonder at her presence

like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river

with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,

muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish

called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.

Longing, we say, because desire is full

of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.

But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,

the thing her father said that hurt her, what

she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous

as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,

saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.