The curious little phrase was on my mind at 3:30 when I woke: “Tempering the Sublime.”
Perhaps the remnant of a dream, it danced in and out of my consciousness, then stubbornly stuck there.
I got up, stretched, and got a drink of water, hoping to return to sleep, but still, the phrase resonated. Nothing is coincidence, so I wondered what it wanted.
The only connection to the words I could bring to mind was “Tempering the Manic with the Sublime,” an old John Abercrombie album, but it had no significance for me; I didn’t remember the music.
I got up again and tripped on the foot of the wooden dictionary stand, made wobbly over years supporting Webster’s New World Dictionary, Deluxe Edition, weighing almost seven pounds. It’s my favorite book, the one I never finish, but from which I have been reading all my life.
A dictionary enthralls me. I love to run my hands across the thin pages, the words on each, gathered together not for their similarity of meaning but by their consequence of letters — a curious, seemingly random solidarity.
To be in the company of all the words in my language is endlessly fascinating. I rarely consult the meaning or spelling of a single word; I give attention to all its neighbors.
I turned on the light. There were four definitions for “temper” as a verb, two for “sublime” as a noun; both words served as other parts of speech as well. I settled on “An agent added to something to alter or modify it (tempering)” and, “the ultimate example; perfection” (sublime). Now I was fully awake.
I made coffee, poured myself two mugs, and carried one in each hand up to the deck. The moon was full, and I anticipated sharing with it, the quiet night. Sublime.
When I moon-watch, I like to do so first with my naked eyes, then with my glasses on, and then with binoculars. Every Christmas, I mean to give my husband a telescope, but never remember such plan until I’m examining the heavens on a hot summer night. Note to self.
The moon in any phase is a dazzling spectacle, but a full moon captivates me like nothing else. Through my binoculars, visible on the lower right surface were faint bluish smudges, like bruises. My eyes shifted from the moon into the blackness. The longer I stared, the more stars came into view.
I drank the coffees, one after the other, then felt a mosquito drill his proboscis into the back of my thigh. I swatted absentmindedly, but the damage was done.
The bite began to itch and swell as my fingernails clawed at my leg. I couldn’t see them, but I knew from their high-pitched hums that more of the hellish little Tinker Bells were floating through the darkness, gloating at their good fortune to find this vulnerable target. They meant to temper my sublime.
I saw the metaphor. I tried again to recall the dream that woke me up, but I could not. At least, though, it gave me this: you must temper your own sublime. Nobody’s going to leave your sublime alone in this life.
If sublime is indeed perfection, then it has a shelf life. But experience tells me you might, if you are lucky, count on it to revisit.
When your sublime is tempered and life falls back into its familiar patterns of daily concerns, maybe that’s when you get really grounded, when you’re forced to figure things out.
Susan Emerson lives in Rockport and is a regular Times columnist.