Returning to the drey

I’m out on the porch with my coffee a little later than usual this morning. It’s about 6:30 and almost fully light, though still overcast and threatening snow or rain. I’m watching a gray squirrel at the edge of the woods with increasing interest. When I first notice her, she’s in the top of a tulip (a.k.a yellow poplar) tree, gathering a great wad of something long and stringy and stuffing it into her cheek pouches. I don’t have my binoculars with me, but I can see that the small, nearly horizontal branch she’s on has stuff dangling from it, and she’s grabbing strips of it – presumably the soft, inner bark of the tree. I’m guessing that it was recently exposed by the porcupine that lives in the crawl space under my house, though I don’t see its tracks in the snow.

The squirrel races back to her nest near the top of a slender black cherry tree about seventy-five feet from the tulip, quickly empties the contents of cheek pouches into it, and returns for another load. What with going up and down tree trunks to reach suitable lateral branches, it looks as if she travels about 150 feet for every fifty feet of straight-line distance. It’s at this point that I start getting really interested, thinking rather self-reflexively about the way my own mind works. I’ve often thought that, for North Americans, the Buddhist phrase “monkey-mind” should instead be translated as “squirrel-mind.” This morning, I see that while the branches are a given, the route is not.

I watch her make four trips before I get too cold and have to go inside. Each time she takes a slightly different route through the mid-level branches, and once she returns from nest to tulip by a completely different route, higher and farther back from the wood’s edge. In typical gray squirrel fashion she often uses her own weight to bridge a gap, small branches bending down to the point where she can leap the last couple feet to the twig-ends of the next branch. Since it’s not quite fully light, some of these smaller branches are invisible to me, which makes her progress appear even more death-defying and miraculous. However, I’ve watched enough squirrels to know that this spirit of experimentation and play seems to infect much of what they do. I don’t think that’s simply the affective fallacy on my part. If playfulness makes one avoid doing the same thing the same way twice, one is less likely to end up as someone else’s lunch. Predators are, by and large, a fairly single-minded lot.

Each time she returns to the same, small branch in the tulip tree and strips off more of the long, dangly stuff. She takes so much, she can’t even close her mouth. I figure she must be a female with babies on the way. What else could be so urgent as to require the gathering of new bedding material first thing in the morning, before breakfast?

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I often warn people about my normal style of discourse: even my digressions have digressions. Watching this squirrel thus feels strangely validating. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but who says that’s the best way to go? Much as we may envy and admire the single-mindedness of a hawk or an eagle, most of us are more like squirrels. The sooner we recognize this, it seems to me, the easier time we’ll have identifying and isolating the true predators among us.

Chris Clarke of Creek Running North shares a truly harrowing tale from his past, describing the serial killer his mother dated one summer when he was a young man. As always with Chris, the writing is exceptional – not one word too many or too few. His mother and a brother, both bloggers themselves, weigh in with their own recollections in the comments.

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I think it’s safe to say that the government of the United States of America now constitutes the largest and most dangerous predator the world has ever seen. In addition to launching unprovoked invasions of largely defenseless countries for the express purpose of stealing their oil, it has built a worldwide gulag archipelago of secret prisons where its enemies disappear without a trace. (Thanks to Newsdesk.org’s “News You Might Have Missed” e-newsletter for these links.) From a realpolitik perspective, indefinite detentions and systematic torture of suspects make little sense. The questionable value of intelligence gained under torture is surely not worth the strains with allies or the surge in Al Qaeda recruitment that such flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention tend to promote. Some have argued that it’s all about lowering the bar, so that in the future, similar or even more heinous actions will be tolerated by American voters. But I believe it’s mainly about power – reinforcing that strange feedback loop that links pleasure with oblivion. Why drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge when the ecological and political costs are so steep and the likely rewards so negligible that even the big oil companies don’t think it’s worth it? Why antagonize countries like Iran and North Korea when it’s O.K. to buy off Libya and Pakistan? Why pursue what even the GOP refers to as the “nuclear option” in the U.S. Senate? To those of us who mainly think squirrel thoughts, these sorts of things will always remain darn near incomprehensible.

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In a comment to my post about the American flag, British blogger Dick Jones of Patteran Pages writes,

I can’t help thinking ‘only in the States…’! I recall (dimly, as with an old man’s fading vision) there being something of fuss when The Who went national with the mod fashion of clothing made out of the Union Jack. But it was no more than a sort of choral clearing of throats from the retired colonel brigade. After that the symbol of Britain’s imperial pride was up for sartorial grabs & has been ever since.

So this sanctification of the Stars & Bars is fascinating & only partially explained by Mr Turner’s characterisation of symbols as both ‘social & normative’ & ‘sensory & affective’ (I bet THAT explanation went down like a cup of cold sick with the second big guy). Further reflections on the cult of the flag from commenters would be illuminating.

I responded by admitting that the U.S.A. is “one of the few countries where one sees the national flag flying everywhere – kind of like the ubiquity of portraits of the Great Leader in places like N. Korea and Turkmenistan.” But I was clueless about the origin of U.S. flagolatry.

So if you have any ideas about how to explain this to a non- or un-American, please leave a comment in the string attached to this post (less confusing than going back to the original flag-burning essay, which is a ways down the page now). Thanks.

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Over at the vernacular body, Elck raises some interesting questions of his own, which directly relate to (and are perhaps partly responsible for) my concern with circuitousness this morning. “Our home, our city, our world, our life is now a supermarket for the satisfaction of the senses,” he writes.

We could binge on Peking Opera if we wished, or read nothing but Uruguayan poets, or fill up our Netflix queues with films from Japan and Japan alone. And, in addition to the available range, there’s also the issue of portability (paperbacks, mp3s, fast downloads), the convenience of mail-order, and the existence of blogs making transglobal stimulating discussion of these interests possible.

This situation creates a number of dilemmas, among them:

We risk finding out the hard way that things too cheaply obtained are poorly attended to. We don’t necessarily take the time to immerse ourselves in the best that culture offers us. For example, how does having a stack of DVDs (or a Netflix queue) affect our experience of a film like Andrei Rublov or Fanny and Alexander? Would we watch the film with different eyes if it were the only thing we had seen on the screen in several months, if the viewing of it were a sacred, set-apart experience, rather than something to be gotten through before popping the next disc in? Is the surfeit of product (even of good product) dulling our senses?

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Even as a plan for satisfying the senses, I think the typically American, consumption-oriented approach falls short. We are taught to be direct and goal-oriented, and not coincidentally, I think, many people complain of being unsatisfied, sexually and otherwise. As K. of A Happening wrote last month in a post called the last taboo,

[W]e live in a culture that … does not know how to appreciate physical beauty unless it’s seen on a playing field. As Americans, we don’t know how to enjoy the naked human form for what it is. Our fear of sex has made it impossible for us to understand the possibilities for variety in sensual experience and in the experience of eros. In our linear thinking, goal-oriented society, if it’s naked we have no idea what [to] do but fuck it. And because most of the time the object laid before our eyes is not really available, we feel compelled to satisfy this desire in some other way. Usually by buying something.

Quite apart from the question of who has the time to sketch, make music, read and write poetry, or what have you, I wonder how many even retain the ability to appreciate the subtler wonders that surround us every day? One of my favorite quotes – and one of the very first things I ever posted on this blog – suggests that this crisis is neither new nor distinctly American. The Baal Shem Tov, 18th-century founder of the Eastern European Hasidic movement, is said to have exclaimed, Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand!

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In her latest post, Andi of Ditch the Raft announces, “I’ve decided to become a seeker after Mysteries.” On a recent family visit to Finland, she watched a Lenten mass in Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral.

Once again, I noticed the prostrations. Not so different from a Tibetan half-prostration, the “grand metanoia” came after each congregant had crossed him- or herself. The word “metanoia” means “to turn,” as if turning away from something, such as sin and evil. I like to keep this in mind when I do my own prostrations. I like it, in part because it implies a circular movement within the self, rather than a linear one. We do not progress out of sin, toward sinless-ness. Instead, we are constantly turning within ourselves, seeking the light which guides not necessarily on a straight path, but simply around, like the Zen circle, to our true selves.

For those unfamiliar with Ditch the Raft, it may help to know that Andi is a committed Buddhist (of the Korean Zen variety) and is preparing to enter the monastic life in May. I encourage everyone with an interest in the ostensible focus of this blog, the via negativa, to go read the rest of her post, which includes an illuminating interview with a Greek Orthodox deacon back in the States. I can’t improve on her conclusion.

One other quote from Andi brings us full circle, back to squirrel-mind. This comes from a comment she left in response to a recent post of Dale’s, over at mole. In Today’s catch, Dale shares “some of the weirdly false thoughts I’ve captured on the wing, today… Answering these thoughts is not exactly rocket science,” he writes. “They’re infantile, mostly. Fatuous. My life is being run by thoughts that would do no credit to a six-year-old.” Andi responds:

[It’s] funny how we want to say that the most basic part of us is infantile, or small in some way, when it’s actually the common denominator, the glue of the mind, the mundane fears and worries that underpin so many of our actions. Seeing them as basic is wonderful! – we stumble upon the unhidden truth, that we’re simple at heart, run by things that, the longer we look at them, appear more and more like exaggerated shadows than mountainous objects. Simple fears also mean simple joys, wonderful love over the small things of life, nothing grand: just a beautiful day, a smile from our lovers, the laughter of our children…

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Squirrel-mind excels in the construction of circular nests, or dreys. Winter dreys are more elaborate than those built for summer use. Though they often appear fairly messy from below, they are in fact quite compact and, from all reports, rather cozy. According to The Natural History of Squirrels (John Gurnell, Facts on File Publications, 1987),

They are waterproof and made of an outer coarse layer of interwoven twigs, which the squirrels usually remove from the tree in which the drey is built (often with leaves still attached). There is a softer inner lining consisting of moss, bark, leaves, fur, feathers, lichens and similar material, and dreys which are used by females to rear young tend to be very well-padded…. A squirrel takes from one to several days to construct a drey, and they will maintain it and add to it as and when required.

So this morning was I watching normal nest maintenance, special refurbishment, or something else entirely? The same source refers to the inner bark of several tree species as a food item for squirrels, not just a nesting material, so it’s possible the individual I was watching was simply doing her grocery shopping. In any case, the weather was threatening; it’s now begun to snow. A good time to snuggle deeper into the nest, tail curled over head, and dream of spring. For busy as they may seem, most of what squirrels do during the long, lean months is sleep.

Digger

Reading a poem by Jean Follain this morning, I remember my dream about a garden. Or should I say the garden? Because I feel as if I have dreamt countless variations of it throughout my life. A virtually forgotten act of casual gardening months earlier has taken root, it seems: I find the fallen-down exclosure in the middle of the field and there, miraculously weed-free, the dark, loose soil is stippled with rhubarb and the pale yellow flowers of what might be salsify, the root that tastes like oysters. It all comes back to me, now. Those radish and carrot seeds I found in a bottom drawer – what happened to them, I wonder? A neglected row of broccoli has gone to blossom. Tomato and squash vines snake off into the tall grass, a tangle of exposed veins for a love child’s grotesque and amorphous body.

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Lately I feel as if I’ve been saving my best thoughts for the comment threads of other people’s blogs. Which is fine, of course, except that it doesn’t leave me much energy to write here. But then, reading itself should be an active, first-thing-in-the-morning activity; I cheat myself of considerable food for thought by using that time to do my own writing. How much more do I really have to discover about my own thoughts? After almost fourteen months of intensive blogging, I feel as if I’ve said pretty much all I have to say. But it’s like keeping a garden, isn’t it? Once you start cultivating, you can’t stop or the weeds will take over. Though perhaps that image would be more appropriate for folks who battle comment spam…

Back when I used to garden for real, I got to the point where I rarely turned the soil at all, just kept everything heavily mulched. It was a great time-saver. The only problem was, I liked to dig.

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Here’s one of my oldest poems still remaining in the “keepers” pile. It was already in existence in some form by the fall of 1983, because I remember doing a prose version of it for a Freshman English assignment. The speaker is female. I’m not sure about the geographical setting – somewhere in the Andes, I guess, judging by the emphasis on potatoes.

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PARIAH

It’s true, i was careless,
that one i was always shadowing–that
little light of mine–it gave me
the slip one night.
I’d thought i could allow myself
one unguarded dream, woke
to the baying of dogs & the beating
of a hundred pairs of wings–pigeons
with their automatic laughter.
I had to go live among the graves,
where no one looks for a wife.

It’s been months now.
Years, even. Time again
when night turns the crests
of the mountains white
like the hands of God on the horizon,
his bared knuckles.

One morning the vines lie limp & dark
six months after setting the one-eyed
lumps in the furrow. And just
now, my long-fingered rake
lifting a clump of dirt
has uncovered a miniature cry,
a voice coming out of the ground
right at my feet.
Do earthworms or beetle grubs speak?

On my knees, plucking
the stones from their beds
i’ve unearthed a half-size infant’s foot
& grasping it around the ankle with
a gentle tug, look–
i’ve rescued a tiny naked girl
the very color of clay.
She lies in the crook of my arm
& returns my gaze
like the cistern where i draw water.

I’ll take her back to my charnel house.
She will grow fat on boiled potatoes
& teach me how to interpret
this ceaseless buzzing of the dead
who are said to sleep.

The bloggers


The universe
(tiandi) doesn’t play favorites;
it treats all phenomena as if they were straw dogs.
The sage doesn’t play favorites;
he treats the people as if they were straw dogs.

– Daodejing Chapter 5 (my version). According to the Zhuangzi, straw dogs were sacrificial artifacts, treated with the utmost deference before they were used in the offering, and discarded afterwards.

*

The found object: how did it come to be born here, in the hand & in the eye? What does it ask of us? What might it become?

It passes slowly from hand to hand. We speak for it, taking turns. “I fell from the sky.” “I was thrown.” “I was dropped.” “I was laid down.” “I formed here, like dew.” “I sprouted.” “I popped out.” (What a bunch of jokers!)

We still think we’re the only ones here. Our word people means “human beings only.” Animal, mineral, or vegetable, we chant at the start of every game of Twenty Questions. There’s a campfire, of course. We’re singing, A, b, c, double x, y, z. Cat’s in the cupboard & he can’t see me. (Schrödinger never really cared about that poor cat, but we do!)

Well, let’s say someone gets up and tosses it on the fire. Yes. She drops it in the hottest part of the fire. “Now we’ll see!” (Will it burn? Will it burst?)

“Charcoal!”

“Cinders!”

“Ash!”

“Slag!”

(We pass the bottle, now. We fall asleep.)

After words

Es war Erde in ihnen, und
sie gruben. . . .

Es kam eine Stille, es kam auch ein Sturm,
es kamen die Meere alle.
Ich grabe, du grí¤bst, und es grí¤bt auch der Wurm,
und das Singende dort sagt: Sie graben.

O einer, o keiner, o niemand, o du:
Wohin gings, da’s nirgendhin ging?
O du grí¤bst und ich grab, und ich grab mich dir zu,
und am Finger erwacht uns der Ring.

(Paul Celan)

There was earth inside them, and
they dug. . . .

There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too,
and that singing out there says: They dig.

O one, o none, o no one, o you:
Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?
O you dig and I dig, and I dig towards you,
and on our finger the ring awakes.

(Michael Hamburger, tr., Poems of Paul Celan)

*

Say the near past and the far past if you want, picturing a journey there on foot, or excavations of varying depth and complexity. But in our technological civilization, travel has become so fast, so easy, so painless, and our contacts with the dead so infrequent and unreal, it’s easy to forget the perils. “What charming folklore!” exclaims the modern reader of Amos Tutuola’s strange stories. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, he warns: “DO NOT FOLLOW UNKNOWN MAN’S BEAUTY”:

But when they had travelled about twelve miles away from that market, they left the road on which they were traveling and started to travel inside an endless forest in which only all the terrible creatures were living….

[T]hen the complete gentleman in the market that the lady was following, began to return the hired parts of his body to the owners…

– and by then it was too late to turn back.

Recent news reports describe former fishermen in Sri Lanka not only putting as much distance between themselves and the ocean as possible, but refusing to eat seafood. The president of Sri Lanka is being urged to help revitalize the fishing industry by publicly consuming one, symbolic fish. It’s not hard to imagine the viceral revulsion survivors must feel, their antipathy toward the ocean that had been like a nurturing parent.

A strangely prescient meditation by Sarah Hinkley Wilson in the Christian Century, published on December 28 but doubtless written well before, reflects on Psalm 29 (“The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters….The LORD sitteth upon the flood.”) Wilson reminds us that, in the world of the Hebrew Scriptures, the waters are associated with the forces of chaos and destruction from the Creation story, through the Flood, through the Exodus myth where the waters of the Red Sea destroy the Egyptian army, and the waters of the Jordan present an inviolable barrier for an entire generation, condemned to die in the wilderness for their lack of faith.

In the Bible, wild nature is not something to be trifled with. Wilson concludes:

[W]hatever the voice of the Lord is saying under the circumstances detailed in the psalm, no one can hear it and live. If this is the voice that produced the succession of devastating hurricanes in the Gulf last fall, the only sensible solution is not to worship, but to evacuate. You can’t ride this storm. You must, as Luther said, “flee from God to God,” from the God who drives you out to the same God who welcomes you home.

This God, who is over many waters and sits enthroned over the flood, has himself been swept overboard, immersed and engulfed in the river Jordan [Matthew 3:13-17]. Baptism with water is not enough, for God also flashes forth flames of fire: he baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. Water and fire on their own are words of God that are encoded and indecipherable. To worship God in unmediated nature is to risk ruination. But to drown in the waters of baptism in which the Lord himself was drowned, to receive the pentecostal fire of the Spirit which the Lord himself sent – in this way we creatures of nature can worship our God in nature, and live. [Italics added.]

Fierce as this seems, it strikes me as possibly a little too timid, a little too pat in its implied moral that, after all, it’s best to worship indoors. Are Christians not called upon to imitate Christ, and Jews to imitate Elijah, Moses and Miriam, all of whom were severly tested in the wilderness? I am aware, however, that many readers of this passage are likely to have the exact opposite reaction, recoiling in horror from the thought of having to partake of such a strange fish as this God or Christ who appears so capricious – who may even seem to derive telluric power from feeding on the untimely dead. How can a God who is supposed to be [insert favorite adjective here] perpetrate or permit [insert name of catastrophe]?

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The problem with trying to worship God “outside protective church walls, in the wilds of Creation,” notes Wilson, is that “you might not like what you hear.” The implication is that many believers choose to confine their religiosity to pleasant-sounding things, half-truths that make them feel safe and snug as they warm their hands in front of the burnt offerings. It would be nice to imagine that such narrow-mindedness is the special provenance of fanatics and fundamentalists, like the woman Susan of A line cast, a hope followed sat next to recently on a plane:

At the point where she tried to draw some connection between the earthquake and tidal wave and some divine vengeance God wanted to wreak on all Muslims for following a faith that celebrating killing, I cut her off in anger, then buried myself in a book. I could have explained to her that there were many thousands of non-Muslims in those areas, patiently dealt with her massive misperceptions like I had with the other statements of prejudice, but it was obvious that this woman was permanently lost in a sea of ignorance.

But the way I see it, we are almost all swimming in similar waters. Isn’t it human nature to believe things that are comforting and easy, and to reject whatever challenges us? Rabbi Michael Lerner’s response to this age-old problem of theodicy (“to justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it) started out strong.

Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year!! The difference between the almost non-existent coverage of this on-going human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.

Say it, Rabbi! He was a guest on a call-in radio program shortly after the disaster took place, he writes, and he marveled

how many people responded to the question [“Where was God During the Tsunami?”]…by calling in to give messages that were roughly of the following sort: I am really angry at God, and this is precisely why I don’t believe in Him.

I don’t know any other non-existing being who gets such a bad rap. It’s as if people need to invent God in order to blame Him for something about which they are justifiably in despair.

He goes on to remind readers that the notion of God as Prime Mover (or totalitarian ruler, for that matter) comes from the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, and is not an original or even a desirable component of Judeo-Christian thinking.

Instead, understand God as THE FORCE OF HEALING AND TRANSFORMATION IN THE UNIVERSE, the aspect of the universe that is the source of love, kindness, generosity, social justice, peace and evolving consciousness, and that this aspect of the universe permeates every ounce of being, every cell, and unifies all being as it moves the being of the universe toward greater and greater levels of love and connection and consciousness, and makes possible the transcending of that which is toward that which ought to be. Seen this way, God is not the all-powerful being that determines every moment of creation, but rather the part of creation aspiring toward love, kindness, generosity, peace, and social justice which is evolving toward greater power to shape our common destiny to the extent that we choose to embody it more fully. Or in more traditional theological language, God is a Creator, and the creation is still taking place as the God energy of the universe develops and manifests more and more through the universe, shaping it to be more fully in accord with God’s aspiration for a world of love, compassion, justice, peace and generosity.

This sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Especially since it allows human beings of their own free will to participate in the work of world-healing. I’m down with that, I guess. Except that already this notion of evolving and developing makes me nervous; both usages are popular distortions of what I consider to be the true meanings of these words. (“Evolution” is simply change; no progress is implied. And “develop,” etymologically, means not to build up but to strip down, to uncover the essence of something.) Trying to think of God – any god – as “a force” makes me queasy. And the essay goes downhill from there, with a consideration of a strand of thinking Lerner calls “The Ethical Biosphere”: that “the living planet, the gaia energy of our planet, cannot reach a state of being settled and calm until the moral and spiritual realms are more centered and connected with the universe’s ultimate moral design.”

In this view, the physical world will be unable to function in a peaceful and gentle way until the moral/spiritual dimension manifest in the behavior of God’s creatures coheres with God’s will: that is, is filled with justice, peace, generosity, love and kindness. Till then, gaia will be restless, its tectonic plates shifting, its weathers unpredictable, its diseases finding new ways to reproduce.

Imagine having to share a plane ride with someone who thought like that!

This is an example of the Grand Narrative theory of human or planetary history, and there’s no denying that various versions of it have played a central role in the shaping of most Jewish and Christian worldviews. To this day, most of us find it hard to think of history apart from the modern myth of progress, which is a direct descendent of Biblical eschatology. The ancient inhabitants of the tiny kingdom of Judah, beset by one national disaster after another, invented the Grand Narrative theory of historiography, which says: “My little life makes sense, because it is all part of a huge, almost unimaginable Plan – which will eventually end happily ever after.”

In other words, life makes sense because someday it will all end.

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The poet Rodger Kammenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus and Stalking Elijah, also has an essay on the Tikkun website. Disasters don’t have to make sense, he maintains.

There is no explanation and I do not accept the answer suggested by the Buddhist idea of group karma, that whatever happens to a group is somehow the result of a previous action of that group. In this life or a previous life. You can believe that if you wish, but I don’t believe it in this case. I don’t believe it because this happened to children. They didn’t have enough time in this life to deserve this death. And in a previous life? No, that is too abstract for me. The explanation lacks specificity and I already lack too much specificity when I am dealing with a number of deaths so huge, and at such a great distance. I need to feel more, not less. One time I asked the Dalai Lama how he would respond to a parent who had lost a child. And he said – these aren’t his exact words – that when you lose a child you are constantly thinking of that child in your imagination. He called the child a “dear one.” And he said, “You must know that your ‘dear one’ does not want you to suffer, to feel so much grief.” It was a meditation I found wholly beautiful. He added that for a Buddhist, suffering is in the nature of things and so he would try to remind a Buddhist to reflect on that. But he said, for a Westerner, there would arise the question of meaning, which boils down to the question of Job, why would a just God allow the innocent to suffer? The question is just as profound for an individual loss as for a mass disaster: it doesn’t get more profound, just more inescapable. I don’t believe that a mass disaster, in and of itself, tells us anything about God. I don’t believe in a God who punishes through disaster. The disaster is. That is exactly the way I would understand it, without adding my own interpretation, without supplying a meaning or completing the sentence. The disaster is. The tragedy is. And I need to abide with it, and feel it, instead of seeking an answer, because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the children on the beach, and the father with the dead child in his arms.

As the psycholinguist Walter J. Ong observed (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word), the invention of writing systems causes a sea-change in human consciousness. “Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface.” A story unfolds as a scroll that we can return to at any point, with an end we can always skip ahead to, ignoring or perhaps skimming quickly through the many devil-haunted details that come before. The spoken word, along with the silences that surround it, is gradually devalued. It takes events of great horror and magnitude to stun us into silence, and to make us feel the weight of each word in our hearts.

We dig, we dig, we dig. We journey into the past so easily in a literate civilization, taking our pick of this history or that memoir, living perhaps with the works of long-dead authors in a kind of cohabitation so intimate that we are liable to forget entirely that these are the words of the dead. We practice very few of the numerous precautions – call them taboos if you like – that people in oral societies tend to observe in the telling or embellishing of stories. For example, for native peoples in a huge swath of North America, ordinary stories – stories told outside a ritual context – traditionally could never be recounted during the half of the year between the spring and autumn equinoxes. The (to us) puzzling explanation for this is that summer is when the snakes are active, and snakes have complete intolerance for narrative embroidery! Only when the ground is hard and frozen, here in the north, can tales be told. (Though in fact this prohibition extended far south, into lands where frosts are unknown).

In the Bible, too, the serpent is the cleverest of creatures. In the original telling of the Garden of Eden story – before centuries of interpretations changed the way we read it – the serpent is not at all evil, much less a stand-in for Satan. He is simply a smooth talker. Here in the “Laupe” portion of the blogosphere, I think most of us are quite adept at second-guessing ourselves and questioning our motives for always wanting to explain, to embroider, to talk smoothly and draw meaning from every event. Thus the past two weeks have seen a number of quite compelling pleas for silence or extreme circumspection, for example at Nomen est Numen, alembic, The Middlewesterner and Hoarded Ordinaries.

But humans are storytelling creatures perhaps above all else. The vernacular body presented “A story” based on elck’s own experiences in India these past few weeks.

Civic disorder seems a natural state for a country whose philosophy is more ethereal than that of those Greeks who sought to impose rational design on the world’s fearsome Kaos. Here, chaos is embraced for the elemental truth that it is.

The main action unfolds on the plane ride home.

In my seat, I catch up on the news. The Times of the India gives the latest death toll from the earthquake as a hundred and twenty thousand. A smaller front page article says “352 thousand babies will be born today”; the article discusses the daily birth rate, and the daily death rate (150,000). An attempt to set the horror of catastrophic death in context. Inside, there is a quotation from the Vedas about tranquility in the midst of sorrow. The grand arithmetic and the spiritual verities are helpful, but it is weird and discomfiting to confront the photographs of the watery disaster, to read some of the human stories behind the news. Flying away from the region of the catastrophe, the story begins to become real. Or rather: the story was real before, but it now becomes tainted by sentimentality (this problem worsens after I return to the US).

I fold away the newspapers and begin reading a book I picked up in a bookshop in Bandra the previous day, The Undiscovered Country by Eknath Easwaran. It is a book about death, about “exploring the promise of death.”

The old man in the blue sweater finally gets up from his seat, three rows in front of mine, and shuffles past us and goes to the bathroom to take his leak.

I won’t spoil the ending, for those who haven’t read it yet. Suffice it to say that this is a model of the storytelling art, and that the ending takes one completely by surprise with its wrongness, which at the same time seems somehow right – or at least unavoidable – and thus tragic. For tragedy is, above all, a human construct.

“Death should never be faceless,” elck intones; “death is always personal.”

*

“What is the possible response,” asks Beth at the cassandra pages, “other than tears, and an attempt to help?” (I like it that she says “possible” instead of the expected “proper.”)

But, of course, help can take many different forms: gifts of money or labor, concrete efforts toward preventing a repetition of the disaster, or more intangible gestures aimed at world healing and transformation (tikkun). My favorite response to this disaster so far comes from Beth W. and her husband Buck, as recounted in Switched at Birth. A couple hundred trees at a time, they are replanting their forest, devastated last fall by Hurricane Ivan. Only the day before, Beth had written that

The hurricane rearranged my own personal walking woods, and I’ve been damn put out about it. That’s the blind, self-seeking, pride-filled truth of it. My meditation walks became distracted ramblings which I had begun to eschew for the bland indoor treadmill.

But this morning, it’s as though some fog of depression or grief had lifted, bouyed by nature’s insistence on reasserting itself.

“The joy is back,” she writes, but significantly, for her, that’s just the beginning – not an end in itself.

Setting a line, I plant a seedling, walk four steps, look around for volunteer plants, dodge thick prickly briars, and plant another one. The late afternoon mix of glare and shadow makes it difficult to distinguish brown from green.

I think of the children, the mothers, the fathers, and how their ocean swallowed or crushed them. Pausing over my orange metal dibble, one foot resting on its metal edge, I draw my left hand across my eyes and wonder for a moment if I can complete the task.

Continuing, I whisper a name as each seedling goes into the damp soil. . . “for you, Jayanga. . . for you, Raj . . . for you, Harmiel. . . . for you, Rasheed. . . for you, Sunil. . . for you, Mahindra. . . for you, Sando . . . for you, Crishan. . . for you, Jaseem” — for you all, for you all, and water them with tears, with love.

Love: an age-old answer, perhaps the finest our civilization has to offer. Or is it really just another question, raised to a higher pitch? As the piece at The Middlewesterner says (rearranging Tom’s originally italicized words into the poem that they refused to be):

Which is the dancer,
which the dance?
Who is eater,
who gets eaten?
Who takes?
Who gives back?

And on our finger the ring awakes.

Three Days That Shook the Blogging World

It took me at least until Friday to fully absorb the impact of Bush’s “win” on Tuesday, and I was hardly alone. I’ll leave it to others to compile links from the better-known, political portion of the blogosphere. Bloggers of a cultural, spiritual and literary bent have reacted to last week’s election with no less passion. And I think it’s of vital importance that we not leave politics to the political. The price of distancing ourselves from politics and politicians cannot fail to be, as it has always been, an endless procession of snake-oil salesmen and psychopaths occupying the halls of power.

If we want a government that is truly “of the people,” we have to start acting as if we ARE the government. This would mean a huge sea change in our thinking, away from fear and paranoia and toward – yes – faith and values. It would mean engaging in honest and open dialogue with our friends and neighbors about our authentic hopes, dreams and fears – as opposed to the wet-dreams of money, power and alienated so-called freedom peddled by those who seek to keep us forever divided and thus easy to rule. It would mean taking responsibility for our own and each other’s well being. It would mean, above all, slowing down and re-learning how to live.

I don’t want to limit myself to links alone here, because how many people would take the time to click on them all? But by settling for longish quotes, obviously I won’t be able to include more than a small fraction of what’s out there. Please feel free to e-mail me (bontasaurus at yahoo) with suggestions of possible additions to this anthology. And please keep in mind that these quotes, suggestive as they are, represent in most cases just one facet of one argument selected from among several related posts, and that many are followed (and some prompted) by readers’ comments fully as interesting.

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Looking at today’s front page, I was drawn into an AP photo of a young campaign volunteer sitting, head in hands, on the steps of a rally stage in Des Moines, an “Iowans for Kerry” sign hanging behind her dejected form. She’s not from Keene, this Iowan campaign worker, but in my imagination she could be, an idealistic co-ed in faded, fringe-tattered jeans, sneakers, and a white linen jacket, a curious mix of little-girl dreams and grown-up disillusions. “Nervous Wait,” the caption reads: there’s an entire story in those two words, isn’t there? All that picture and all that caption needs is a storyteller, even a Fucked Up one, to step out of the shadows and get her hands moving. The first 5,000-some words might have been Total Bullshit, but the beauty of writing lies in the next line, the next word, where there’s always a chance to change and start entirely anew.

Hoarded Ordinaries

My America is liberal, tolerant, interested in globalism; in my America religion is post-triumphalist and universalist and coexists happily with science; in my America all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship, marriage among them. But my America is a marginal America, and the bulk of the nation feels differently. The chasm which divides us is deep and I don’t know how, or whether, it can be bridged.

I’m giving myself the day to grieve, and I’ve been moving steadily through those five stages everybody talks about. I know that despair is neither responsible nor tenable longterm; action and faith are called-for. I hope that by tomorrow, or by next week, I’ll be able to take a deep breath, look at the situation clearly, and figure out what I can do and which stone most needs my shoulder.

Velveteen Rabbi

It’s tempting to indulge in unconstructive name-calling. Lord knows I’ve done far more than my share. But it is statistically rather unlikely that half the electorate in the US is composed of either the feebleminded or sociopaths. There are millions of good, honest, sincere people in the US who voted for Bush because as far as they could tell, he best reflected their beliefs about right and wrong.

At least a few of these people will have their worldviews shattered due to the actions of the man they voted for in the next four years. They will need us. If there is an opposition to articulate a cogent, humane alternative to the lying and looting that will characterize official US policy for at least the next four years, the screwed-over will have a constructive place to channel their outrage.

Creek Running North

There are nice things about this little historical moment, this pause between disasters. On the residential streets of the Castro, strangers usually don’t greet each other, often avert eyes. This is partly an aspect of “cruising” behavior, partly an adaptation by ordinary residents to other people “cruising;” I’ve accepted that it’s not a rude habit, just a big-city inevitability.

But last night, everyone I passed gave a nod. In a subculture often defined by posturing and distancing, everyone was allowed to be lonely, frightened even, just for one night …

Creature of the Shade

Thursday, November 4

I don’t accept a lot of how this looks. It is true that many people in this country voted for Bush. It is true that when you look at the big red states and surrounding clusters of blue we look like a country full of dopes in the middle and the south. But I think that’s too simple. If you look at the numbers on a state by state basis the numbers are close. I don’t accept the idea of a conservative mandate.

There is no doubt that the next four years will be difficult. There is no doubt that this dubious notion of morality exists and that there is a vigourous conservative Christian coalition. But I want to keep resisting ideas that divide things into simple and alienated terms. And I don’t want to be in such a hurry to feel better.

I found myself working pretty hard to keep my emotions from becoming overwhelming all day yesterday. I am too often overwhelmed by my emotions. But I’m certainly not interested in not feeling. There are reasons to be sad. There are reasons to be angry.

The electoral college map is an example of how ideas can be sold. People aren’t that easy to color code.

I never feel fully competent when writing about things like this. I often feel like I’m not being clear. And that may be because I don’t like to take the big stand too often. I like to keep the notion of complexity in play. Part of complexity is that there are moments when things get simple and I have and will take a big stand now and then. I often feel like I’m jumping from the macro view to the micro view and trying to stop and every point in between.

What I can say with confidence is that there are a lot of great people doing a lot of great work. I think a bit of despair is inevitable and not such a terrible thing and I like the idea of us all gathered for a plaintive wail. If you’re wailing, I’m wailing with you. And then we can make a joke and have a giggle and make some plans.

Fatshadow

It’s not like Larissa really understood what was at stake in the election…but she’d worked so hard for Dunbar, she’d come to believe in whatever it was that he stood for and sincerely believed it was better and more well-intended than whatever it was that the other guy stood for. Larissa had been raised to believe in causes for the sake of belief itself: her father often quoted to her the lyrics of a country song that advised “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Molly, Larissa believed, hadn’t really stood for something: her desire to become a paralegal was motivated by her desire to find a man and start a family, so she’d somehow gotten sidetracked into achieving the latter without any of the former. One day after Dana had stopped working for the campaign, Larissa had sat quietly stuffing envelopes after the other campaign workers had gone home. In the quiet of an empty campaign office, illuminated by a single bare light bulb hanging over the long folding table where she worked, Larissa vowed to Do Something with her life, to somehow Make a Difference.

Hoarded Ordinaries

. . . There are fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
People I’d like to condense down into one box,
Down into some three ingredient recipe some
Simple formula for this vote that separates me
From you
Good
From bad
Make it small enough to describe, control, dismiss
Language of a sixth grader, language of an election
Language of a soundbite.
As if a page of words can explain the feelings, motives
Histories, beliefs of fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
Individuals who are not me.

But what are the chances that one of the fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
Is more like me than I dare to believe?

Division. There is page after page of problems in the homework packet
He spends hours putting one number into another, finding remainders
Subtracting until there is nothing left, neatly solved.
We say division is the wake of this election
But this is nothing like the methodical effort of
Dividing one hundred into fiftyone percent and fortynine percent,
Dividing the map into twohundredseventynine red and twohundredfiftytwo blue
Dividing my neighborhood into Bush signs or Kerry signs
The signs no one has taken down because
This is who “I AM” this is who “YOU ARE” this is how we disagree
This is the gulf we have to cross . . .

A line cast, a hope followed

It’s kinda heartening, though, ain’t it? On the morning after this political disaster, there are people out there searching for beefcake and boobs. It reminds me of that Larsen cartoon where there’s a city in flames and people running and cars jamming the streets and then there’s this dog with his nose to some spot on the ground, with the caption, “And then Ralph found something interesting.”

3rd House Party

Friday, November 5

I happen to believe that the liberal choice framework and some form of secularist culture are the better options. I’m cautiously optimistic that secularism is too widespread for any move toward Falwelltopia to ultimately succeed. But the cultural revivals among Native American tribes suggest that all may not be lost for cultural conservatives. What’s necessary is for them to focus on a reconstructed conservative culture that is compatible with and appealing under the liberal framework, rather than seeking to reverse that framework or forcibly eliminate their competitors under it. To do that would require offering an alternative to the weaknesses of secularism (such as the alienation created by consumerism) rather than attempting to imitate secularism’s successes (such as with self-consciously “trendy” pop evangelicalism).

debitage

I have far more in common with those evangelical Christians than I have in common with my parents, with most of the professors who taught me, or with most of my political allies. I don’t believe that life is about maximizing wordly pleasure. I don’t believe that this world can be fixed (though I believe, maybe inconsistently, that it’s our duty to try to fix it)….

But there is a way in which I think they are wrong. I don’t think the hollowness is out there, in some parcel of wicked politicians or biased journalists or rancorous academics. It’s in almost all of us, and it won’t be fixed by just voting in people who stand tall and say that they pray a lot. The problem is not — particularly — that our leaders are hollow. It’s that we are.

mole

Ship of State

The red Valdez breaks through the shipping lanes
advancing towards Bligh Reef while Hazelwood
vacations on his ranch. His crude oil drains
the wilderness of soul and livelihood,
past Rocky majesty, from western sea
to bright blue liberal Massachusetts’ coast.
We question constitutionality
of missions not accomplished in this most
protected ecosystem, question spills
of cargo–not just business enterprise,
but hearts and minds, endangered blood, free wills,
and meant for more than suits to televise.
Remember cutthroat trout, the common loon–
you can’t impeach this fucking mess too soon!

grapez

Since about Halloween, I have been on a sugar binge. Then, today, the bread was definitely like adding insult to injury. Already lethargic from the sugar, I now also feel achy in the joints … and I won’t even go into the other symptoms … from the bread.

I also feel dulled, as if I had lost a few IQ points myself in the process. And yet, I haven’t been able to stop eating. That, and reading blogs all afternoon and evening.

All this gluten and glucose … I think this might be the secret recipe to get with the program, to join that majority in front of the TV set.

alembic [ellipses original]

I am horrified and frightened by the emotions I have raging inside myself, emotions that I have clearly been caging in my heart for years. I am profoundly disturbed that my writing flows most smoothly when I write as a screaming, bloody raven instead of a peaceful, happy frog. The frog was boring, but pleasant. The frog was safe. The frog was being boiled alive in her own complacency, but she was happy and she had friends and safe, easy friendships. She posted silly quizzes and pictures of kitties and chirruped happily about the lovely world she lived in. Her sorrows on the whole were small ones, or her own personal burdens to bear. Occasionally she would stamp her little frog feet in anger, but this entertained her friends and charmed them.

Now I am a black, bloody raven, beak dripping with gore. And I wonder if that gentle green frog will ever return. Somehow, I doubt it.

Frogs and Ravens

The game was called “five good things.” The object was to come up with five good things about George W. Bush. It was harder than I thought it would be! I recommend it to any Kerry-supporter, or anyone inclined to think of Bush as “pure evil.” He isn’t. No one is.

the vernacular body

One reason I stopped blogging at the end of the summer was in great part because of this sense of something in myself dissipating into the light of the screen and my muscles forgetting the stop-motion of walking and immersing myself in the arms of other living things. I had found myself following one contention to another through the cerebral world of blogs and the internet, arguing and sitting alone fuming and gradually darkening my mind with clouds of imagined wrongs. I wasn’t dealing with real people or learning more about living in the real world of nature. The very purpose of my feet and fingers, eyes and ears escaped my notice.

So I must stop myself here before I dive back into the water; I do not want to live my life fighting ghosts and demons. I want to learn to engage them and talk. I want to discover what it is that binds us all together and actuates language. Bush preaches hate and warmongering and revenge and absolutes. He refutes the mystery. And so many have fallen in step behind him, taking up his chants and marching to the beat. That is not how I want to live my life. That is not how I see the living things around me or how I want to greet other people. Not in the language of defeat and bloodletting.

Laughing~Knees

I don’t want to think any more about the election. I’m grateful for the disaster, insofar as it disrupted me, and put my own small life into perspective. It temporarily threw me into a state of confusion and anger and fear. It made me want to rage against the decision, to do something huge, to scream and rant and fight and cry.

I’m feeling more settled now. It’s not apathy, or despair, or resignation: rather, I’m remembering what I’ve written here before. The most radical thing one can do is to stay present. There is nothing so important as remaining grounded in oneself, in being compassionate, and understanding, and wise. This does not mean doing nothing. It means doing everything. It means being human.

Nomen est Numen

Finally, one of the most eloquent reactions is completely wordless, just fifteen stark photographs gathered under one title, Into the Night, from Paula’s House of Toast. Check it out.

Blogging color, dreaming blogs

Some of the bloggists I read regularly have been writing about color in pretty striking ways. In a post last Friday – complete with a full-color sketch – Blaugustine described a man and his sons who boarded her car on the London subway:

To say that they were black says nothing. Their skin was African midnight blueblack, the colour of a starry desert sky and polished as the stones in a clear stream. There was not a hair on their heads or brows. Their smooth hairlessness and the extraordinary intensity and innocence of their eyes made them seem like beings from another planet. The man was dressed in a light-coloured tracksuit but the boys, under their black casual jackets, wore formal white shirts and white trousers. My sketch from memory does not do them justice. If I had brought my camera I would have asked permission to photograph them. Sometimes life generously offers you a brief encounter with absolute beauty to remind you that all is not lost and ugliness can never entirely take over the world.

On Tuesday, Fragments from Floyd reported on an encounter with unexpected, otherworldly beauty even closer to home:

A rounded mound that the rake could not clear away proved to be a flat rock under the leaves, thrown beside the shed for no good reason. I harrumphed as I bent over carefully to prize it up on end to lift and toss it to some other pointless place out of the way. And out of that mundane chore of autumn, in this world of orange and ochre, in that cool, safe space under the flat roof of rock where it would have spent its anonymous days fattening on spiders before winter, a newly-hatched Smooth Green Snake lay coiled in an emerald knot.

This time, there is a photo. The green snake against the autumn leaves looks every bit as stunning as Fred says it was.

At Vernacular Body yesterday, I was charmed by

the sight of a pile of yellow leaves on the sidewalk. They are suddenly carried on a gust: it is a precise and unified motion, exactly like that of a school of fish.

And at Ditch the Raft, Andi is in northern India, on the first leg of a Buddhist pilgrimage with her father. Along with vivid descriptions of the people, the temples, the filth and squalor of the cities and the experience of being stared at everywhere she goes – and of learning to return that stare – she writes:

I’ve never seen such colors. The Rajasthani women wear lime greens, pine greens, saffron and tangerine oranges, lemon yellows and tumeric yellows, pomegranate and blood reds–and these colors mixed in with the incredible array of saris makes my eyes swim. I feel drunk on the color: it’s edible, tangible, colors I could walk on. If the colors in Malaysia were like wings, this is like flocks, waves, oceans of color.

In her latest post, she describes a visit to the cloth market at Udaipur:

Sometimes mirrors are sewn in, sometimes sequins, giving the cloth an extra glitter. On the really fine stuff, gold and silver thread is worked in. But what catches me again and again is the unmitigated sensuality of the cloth and the clothing. Colors to make poets die–they cannot be written–and live again–hope springs eternal. Colors to make women want to be beautiful or to feel beautiful, or at least this woman. You start imagining your home decked out in these colors. A room for reds, a room for blues, a room for greens, and a room for whites. Who knew white came in a rainbow of shades, hues, subtleties? A creamy white cotton relaxes next to the sharp shiny silk white; a matte hand-woven white envelopes where a filmy woolen white pulls one along like a breeze.

This is travel blogging at its best. Who needs photos?

*

Reading blogs before bed may or may not be a good idea. In my last dream before waking, I had been invited to a costume party at Elck’s flat in New York City, which he jokingly refers to as Long Hall. It was enormous. We sat awkwardly across from each other on overstuffed, Victorian chairs, Elck and I, and realized we had absolutely nothing to say to one another, having long ago exhausted our eloquence in our blogs. Then other people began flowing in. They were all wearing gorgeous saris and matching headscarves, even the men.

Suddenly, I realized I was similarly outfitted, Lord knows how. The six meters of cloth were striking, Andi, but they were suffocating! I stripped back down to my usual jeans and quilted plaid shirt.

Before I knew it, however, I was wrapped in a sari again! How was this happening? Clearly, someone must be slipping something into my drink – or else those two wily magicians Elck wrote about the other day were hiding somewhere about and using me for an impromptu demonstration of their powers. For the second time, I divested myself of the exotic cloth, folded it and placed it on the chair. My usual cocktail party paranoia set in. Why was nobody talking to me? Were they really all snickering at me, or was it just my imagination?

Well, you know how these kinds of insecurity dreams go: once you get into an imaginative rut, it’s hard to change course. The third time, I found myself outfitted in a heavy, gray monk’s habit. In addition, they had strapped one of those backpacks for carrying small children on my back. What did this mean? I had no idea. But I knew this much: they weren’t going to get away with it!

I tore off the backpack and the habit and carried them into an empty storeroom. There was only one thing to do, I realized as I stood there listening to the clinking of wineglasses, high-pitched laughter and fragments of witty repartee. I would take off all my clothes! That’ll teach ’em to make fun of the hillbilly!

I remembered the last time I had been naked at a party, a late-night affair with a backyard hot tub on a quiet back street in Tyrone. Everyone else was naked, so I figured it was cool. Only months later did someone leak the truth: they’d all been staring at me! No one had seen that much body hair on a human being before, my friend Chris informed me. “We weren’t making fun of you!” he assured me. “We were just, you know, amazed! I mean, you even have hair on your butt!

So fifteen people – including one fairly attractive, hetero female and a couple bisexuals – had been staring at my naked butt. Great.

But that was years ago – long before I discovered blogging. Now, after ten months on the Via Negativa, I said to myself, being naked at a costume party seems pretty much par for the course. I can do this!

Unfortunately for the sake of this retelling, that’s when I woke up. So I guess you’ll have to supply your own endings. And I’m afraid that, since I have put the image of my hairy, naked body unbidden into your heads, your dreams too may take a disturbing turn, like a pile of yellow leaves on the sidewalk. They are suddenly carried on a gust . . .

Heart exam

I’ve been re-reading The Seven Ages, Louise Glück’s ninth and “strangest” book, according to the copy on the bookflap (typically written by the author). The following lines (from “Eros”) struck me this morning:

I needed nothing more; I was utterly sated.
My heart had become small; it took very little to fill it.

This made me wince with recognition.

Then in the blogs I found some equally memorable phrases, as if continuations of the same thought. At Creek Running North I found this:

Out came the fortune cookies, invented, doncha know, not half a mile from where I sit here in my office. Mine read something like “If your desires are not extravagant, they will be granted.”

Very Chinese. And yet for a moment I read it as one of those wonderful old Paris Enrages slogans, thinking it read something like “If your desires are not granted, they were not extravagant enough.”

Then just now I click on Lekshe’s Mistake and find this:

Fading breaths say less than silence. A heart unlocked is not necessarily open.

Lost & found

Amidst last winter’s restless, unswept ash,
behind the cinder-laden grate, she found
a bird’s nest, tumbledown and skeletal.
It fit exactly in one upturned palm,
its hollow in her hollow. This is mine. . . .

– “Empty Nest,” Paula’s House of Toast

*

How is money made? Money is made through advertising. And how does advertising work? Well, to quote a movie I saw not long ago, advertising entails “thinking up ways to make people feel bad” so that you can sell them something to make them feel better. Advertising depends on the notion that we feel there’s something deeply wrong with us, something lacking, something flawed. We grow up in a society in which we’re taught from day one that we’re not good enough, and will never be good enough, and that we’re empty at our cores.

This is a lie. It’s cruel and deep and dangerous, and it’s a lie. A pervasive one. This lie gets down deep in our core notions of self. Living with this understanding is intolerable. It’s painful. It fucking hurts. And some of us starve to suppress this hurt. Starvation – a constant obsession with food – is far preferable to feeling that aching, howling emptiness. Some of us try to fill the lack in other ways. We eat. We eat. We eat. Some of do both: we start out starving, set on whittling ourselves down to nothing, hell-bent on demonstrating to the world the nothing inside us, but in desperately needing to fill this emptiness, we gorge. And then reempty ourselves.

– Nomen est Numen

*

Now, it is said that a Buddha “generates no karma,” which might sound like it means essentially free of cause and effect (since that’s what karma really means.) But I’m not sure it means that. I think it may only mean that a Buddha’s actions, unlike an ordinary person’s actions, lay him under no future compulsion. A Buddha, you might say, is a person who forms no habits.

If there is a space of freedom — and I’m by no means sure that there is, that the word “freedom” has any real referent — it is not a “freedom of the individual,” but the freedom of understanding that the narrow subset of reality that I usually call “Dale” is in fact not a self-standing limited thing at all, but rather a piece of something infinitely spacious, changing, interconnected, & interwoven. The desperation I feel when “having no freedom” seems like an awful thing is actually the desperation I feel at the prospect of being trapped as my own self-conception forever — which is indeed a terrifying thought. But a delusory one. I can’t be trapped into being “Dale” forever. I’m not even “Dale” now :-)

Dale, in a must-read comment box at the cassandra pages

*

The more I read about this case, the more I am struck by this sense of identity being experiential rather than intrinsic – that it is not our bodies, but what is done to them, not our teeth, but the cement used to fix them, that will identify us. I also feel sadness that dental cement is more unique than the tooth – that I could dig through a whole pile of bones and never recognize them, were it not for a crack or fissure or scar, the chemical composition of an adhesive, the sheer dumb luck that such an adhesive could be new or rare.

That we have to be broken to be restored.

– evidentiary: alchemy

*

When asked the wherabouts of a lost item, my husband’s grandmother would often say it’s probably down in the cellar behind the ax.
I think translated it meant don’t bother me with that, go look for it yourself.

I like that saying. I don’t actually have an ax in my basement but I love the thought that all the things I’m searching for just might be behind one.

behindtheax

*

If you want to know a place, to really know the place, you have to live there and die there and give your elements back to the soil there and let the stink of your decomposition lift to the sky there.

We are just tourists, that National Geographic writer and I – and we should be a little more courteous. Because we can write, because we can write about this place, that gives us no proprietary rights. In fact, all we are doing is borrowing, and what we are borrowing we ought to treat well.

The Middlewesterner

A Franciscan Travel Blessing

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half truths and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice,
oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may wish for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

– Ditch the Raft

Quiddity

Suddenly, the little tab in the top center of my Yahoo inbox that used to say “Powered by hp,” is fire-engine red and fires a new slogan one word at a time, Burma Shave style.

YOU (with a target for the O)
ARE
YOUR
PLAYLIST.
you + hp

There’s a thought! Interesting timing, too: I hadn’t noticed it until a couple days ago. Right on the eve of the GOP convention, which is described as the most scripted and theatrical ever.

I gather that on Sunday afternoon, as several hundred thousand of the unwashed mashes acted out their own playlists in the streets, the illuminati of the Republican Party were in the theatres enjoying special Republican Party-approved Broadway musicals, such as “The Lion King” and “Wonderful Town.” “No one will be sent to see Mark Medoff’s play ‘Prymate,’ . . . a show that confronts racial sensitivities and has a black actor playing a gorilla. They will not be sent to Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” a serious musical about civil rights. In fact, they will not be sent to anything that touches on contemporary issues,” the New York Times reported.

In other words,

YOU
ARE
OUR
PLAYLIST.
you + GOP

Give my regards to Broadway.

Chasing shadows

Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
                                                  or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.

Charles Wright, Appalachia (FSG, 1998)

For some time I’ve been chewing on an old bone of contention between artists and critics: is the image older than the symbol? I think yes. I remember Borges, not too long before his death, folded into his very tweedy jacket and staring sightlessly out at the fawning audience. The auditorium was packed for his evening lecture, which, he had said earlier in the day, he wished to be a discussion – but who was kidding whom? – about metaphor. Funny how an image stick in one’s head, the Chinese graduate student wrote in his spiral-bound notebook. (Penn State got them from the mainland even then; they stood out from other East Asian students with the bathroom slippers they wore everywhere.) Speaking through his interpreter, our honored guest discussed his favorite contention, that Life is a Dream. “But isn’t that itself a metaphor?” one of our more alert members of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts wanted to know. “No,” Borges intoned to the delight of many, who found said faculty member a little hard to take. “It is the truth!”

This would have been a scandalous notion had it come from anyone but the Great Writer. There was a bit of murmuring, to be sure. I remember murmuring something myself; I’m not sure what. “Freud have mercy!” perhaps, or “Pinch me!” But up spoke another of our champions to ask for an example of a poetic image with no metaphorical function. “Consider Japanese haiku,” said Borges. “‘The ancient pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water.’ Where’s the metaphor?” “Couldn’t you say the entire poem functions as a metaphor?” “You could, but it isn’t necessary. The poem doesn’t have to mean anything.” Japanese – ancient pond, mean nothing, wrote the Chinese grad student in the seat beside me.

I am oversimplifying as usual; you don’t have to tell me that. Symbols and metaphors aren’t exactly the same. But I find it interesting to try and imagine how the brain of an intelligent, social, non-human animal such as a dog or raven actually works, how it might see the world. Because of course the one big difference between us and the others is their lack of a symbolic language. No abstractions! But dreams, memory, emotion, anticipation, basic reasoning power – they have all that.

Well, the image that sticks in my head is of Fred First’s one year-old dog Tsuga chasing – or perhaps attempting to herd – the shadows of butterflies. He also bobs for rocks. There’s something awfully darn metaphorical about a blogger’s dog chasing the shadows of butterflies. Is he a literalist, I wonder, or a skeptic? It is equally easy to imagine him saying: “The Butterfly listeth where it will,” or: “I don’t believe in Butterfly. I know what I see.”

But I’m just being clever, as humans are wont to do. There’s enough meat there already without any help from me.

*

The retriever pup
chases butterfly shadows
even in his sleep.

*

Butterfly’s shadow:
the dog’s nose goes wild
at the lack of odor.

*

Muzzle to ground,
his legs get ahead of him:
herding shadows.

*

Butterfly shadow
on the lawn shrinks, vanishes.
The dog digs for it.

*

Head under water
the golden retriever
keeps his eyes open.

*

On the creek bottom
every pale stone’s alive with shadows.
Delicious!