Cibola 70

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This entry is part 69 of 119 in the series Cibola


Shiwanna (3) (cont’d)

–It can be anyone, a member
of any priestly order.
Live long enough, they say, &
you’ll see the most upright elder
whom no one would ever suspect
become suddenly unbalanced
with hatred, try & take a life . . .

–Sometimes the very one
whose unaccountable luck threatens
to split the People with envy
is himself a witch. Even
a member of the clan of witches
that some say still survives,
still meets in secret.
Whose founder appeared at the Emergence,
so the storytellers recount . . .

–But that First Witch, they say–that thing
helped civilize us, back when
we still had tails & webbed toes,
webbed fingers, extra sets of genitals
on top of our heads . . .

–It gave us yellow corn
with one hand
& death with the other, taught
the trick of turning grain
into food, food into life,
life into other life, presto!

–Crossing back & forth
between beast & human . . .

–The chasm that divides
those holy persons
who devour their food raw
from those who need to cook it
like the refined creatures we have
now become.

Beating the futon

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In Japanese, futon has three syllables: fu + to + n. It refers to a combination of two items: a thin mat – the shikibuton – and a thick quilt, or kakebuton. No foldable wooden frame is involved or implied. The only connection between the Japanese futon and American futons is that the former are also foldable. During the day, futon are stored in a closet and the sleeping room becomes a living/dining room.

You can learn a lot about a people by studying where and how they sleep. Although the futon is commonly stored out of sight, there’s nothing shameful or even especially private about it. By contrast, until fairly recently Japanese tended to regard Western-style beds as inescapably sexual in their purpose. When I was in Japan twenty years ago, we foreigners used to snigger at the proliferation of “love hotels” (labu hoteru). But they seemed to be patronized more by married couples wanting to sleep in a bed for a night than by unmarried or illicit couples. The neighbors would gossip if the husband came home too early, but if the wife slipped out to meet him in a labu hoteru, none were the wiser.

Not that a futon isn’t big enough for two – barely. But being spread directly on a tatami (rice mat) floor, it doesn’t provide any special cushioning effect for bodies engaged in vigorous exercise. Plus, the shikibuton is hard to clean, and any unsightly stains would be visible to the neighbors during its regular, back-yard airing. This involves draping the futon over a clothesline and beating the bejeezus out of it with a special stick or a plastic baseball bat. I can’t remember how often we did this – maybe only once a month during the winter – but I do recall it as a somehow deeply satisfying activity on a sunny, breezy day. The stated purpose of beating the futon was to get the lumps out, but it always felt as if it had an apotropaic aspect as well: Begone, foul phantoms of the night! And afterwards that nice, clean, outdoorsy smell permeated one’s bedding. I don’t know what people who live in dense urban areas do.

It always seemed to me that all futon were the same size – I don’t recall seeing child-sized futon, though they must exist. The way sheets were folded around and between top quilt and bottom mat gave the whole arrangement a distinctly marsupial, even womb-like ambiance. The traditional Japanese household is (or was) a female realm. The inner room where the family ate and slept is described with the same word, oku, that’s used to refer to another man’s wife, okusan. Not unlike harim in Arabic, oku in this context is a protected place where female primacy is unchallenged.

Japanese men used to come in for considerable censure if they returned home too soon after work; perhaps they still do. The explanation I always heard for this was that it would look as if they weren’t dedicated to their job if they didn’t go out drinking with their colleagues every day after work, and no doubt that perception did exist. But I think it also made them look like henpecked wimps. Japan was – and probably still is – a very macho society, where uxoriousness was regarded with contempt. The supposed business meetings after work had little to do with business and much to do with male fantasies of power and control – or relinquishing control.

Once under the influence of alcohol, a Japanese man can get away with virtually anything, including telling off his boss. The after-work drinkers thus participate in a ritual inversion of the strict rules and hierarchies that govern their workaday world. Attention-getting performances, discouraged under normal circumstances, are actually rewarded in a bar or nightclub – hence the invention of karaoke. If women are present, they tend to be the unmarried, hyper-feminine entertainers employed by the fancier nightclubs to light men’s cigarettes, pour their drinks, and listen. When I was in Japan, I knew a fellow American exchange student who worked as a nightclub entertainer despite a very limited understanding of the language. “They all say pretty much the same things, and besides, all they expect you to do is look sympathetic and say So de gozaimasu ka? [‘Is that right?’] once in a while,” she told me. I didn’t get the impression that extra-curricular activities, e.g. in a labu hoteru, were a part of her job description.

In 1985, Western-style feminist ideas hadn’t made much of an inroad yet. Few women worked beyond marriage. But they ruled the roost at home, as I’ve mentioned, exercising complete control over finances. Once the first child was born, couples stopped using intimate pronouns for each other in favor of papa and mama. This is less traumatic a transition in Japanese than it would be in English, however. Whereas for us, pronouns connote some measure of permanence and essentiality, Japanese pronouns function more as positional markers. There are multiple ways of saying “you” and “I” depending on the relative status of the speakers.

Japanese pronouns also degrade and fall out of use far more quickly than ours do. A hundred years ago, for example, ware was a commonly used first-person pronoun among social equals; now, one would only refer to oneself as ware when addressing a dog or an enemy. By contrast, over the last five hundred years English has seen just one set of pronouns – thou, thee, thy, thine – fall into disuse, and by an opposite process: what had once been a more familiar form of address gradually came to seem more and more formal, presumably because the translators of the King James Bible used it for conversations between human and deity. As science elbowed in and God came to seem increasingly remote from the day-to-day workings of a clockwork universe, the old familiar second-person pronouns acquired an air of archaic sacrality. In a somewhat analogous manner, once-cozy Japanese vernacular practices such as sleeping in a futon and nestling around a kerosene heater for warmth may come to seem stiff and old-fashioned, fit for preservation mainly as reminders of quasi-mystical Japaneseness.

I came across the results of a non-scientific poll online that suggest that up to 60 percent of Japanese under the age of thirty may sleep in a bed rather than in a futon. This is surprising because students and other young people, being poorer and more peripatetic, would be less likely to use beds than would those with stable households. In addition,

a quite large difference between the genders can be observed, with women preferring Western beds more strongly than men: Among women, as many as 67 percent responded [sic] to sleep in Western style beds, while only 51 percent of men did so. In case of male company workers, the Japanese futon is with 52 percent even more popular than the Western style bed (48%).

The Japanese futon may not be as well suited for nocturnal exercise as a Western bed, but it does have the family values-promoting advantage of being quiet. Despite Japan’s prosperity, it remains a crowded country, and I gather it’s still not uncommon for families to sleep together in the same room – as families do throughout much of the world. Only a bed requires its own room. Even many families wealthy enough to afford houses or apartments with separate bedrooms may still keep several futon for the use of guests. My first homestay family in 1985 gave me a futon and the use of the one Japanese-style room, which they no longer needed because they each had separate bedrooms, and in any case were never home much. The wife worked, and the two teenage boys were always off taking lessons of one sort or another.

I’m sure there’s a strong argument to be made for the health benefits of futon versus too-soft beds. In fact, I remember more than one older Japanese telling me they scorned the comforts of the shikibuton to sleep directly on the floor. Much better for the back, they assured me. Then again, a certain degree of pain and self-deprivation has always been regarded as salubrious in Japan. That’s why the samurai were so taken with Rinzai Zen: only a fierce Zen monk could dish out the beatings they needed. I imagine that a wooden stick brought down hard across thinly clothed shoulders makes the same kind of sound, meets the same soft-but-not-too-soft resistance as a futon hanging from the line.

In fact, isn’t that what beating the futon is really all about? Anything so closely associated with our innermost selves as the bedding we sleep in cannot fail to become almost a shadow-self. In dreams our bodies gain all sorts of intoxicating powers and terrifying vulnerabilities, and even in half-awake fantasies we may give ourselves greater license than in true daydreams. As countless nursery rhymes remind us, beds are like boats, or magic carpets. The greatest mysteries of life – birth, death and sex – transpire in or on them.

Making the bed or folding up the futon is the first and most vital step in our daily accommodation to the exigencies of a diminished world where machines and abstractions rule. That accommodation no longer seems as automatic as it once might have been, however. Many of my friends tell me they also spend a great deal of their waking time in bed, reading, writing, blogging, watching movies. It’s no wonder the hyper-modern Japanese increasingly crave beds and privacy, as they, like us, seek more permanent refuges from an ever-more-disembodied world.

Cibola 69

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 68 of 119 in the series Cibola


Shiwanna (3) (cont’d)

Slowly the town
returns to motion
on a lower key. The boys
have forgotten their vigils
& the girls have lowered
their jars to the ground to talk,
forming clusters big & small
throughout the town,
chewing over the news.

–A witch can be anyone,
anyone with a double heart,
muses one young woman
to her circle of companions.

–Someone prospers
in crops, in clothing,
in the knowledge of secrets,
gets bigger & bigger
until a neighbor notices
& without thinking starts to feed
an extra heart with envy . . .

–The same way the priests feed
their icons, another cuts in.

–It makes that second heart
with more and more malicious intent.
Wrapped in corn husks, daubed
with black mud from the Beginning,
tended lovingly in some bowl
in the back room . . .

–You can spot a witch
when it plants prayer sticks at
the wrong times, with
the wrong kinds of feathers–
or none at all.
The medicine societies must always
keep their guard up: how strange it seems,
that a witch should practice medicine!
But that’s just part of
their double-dealing.

Lao Tzu’s Funeral

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When Lao Dan died, Jin-I went to his funeral. He gave three shouts and walked out.

A disciple accosted him. “I thought you were the Master’s friend!”

“I was.”

“Then do you really think it’s proper to mourn him this way?”

“I do. I used to think of him as a great man, but no more. Just now when I went in to pay my respects, I saw old people crying as if they had just lost a son, and young people crying as if they’d lost their mother.

“In bringing them all together like this, surely he has led some people to say things they don’t really mean, and others to cry when they don’t really feel like crying. People who act like that are hiding from Heaven, turning away from their true nature. Ungrateful bastards! In the old days, they would have seen this kind of betrayal as its own punishment.

“In coming when he did, the Master was right on time. In leaving when he did, he was simply following the current. If you can wait calmly for the right moment and hold fast to the current, neither joy nor sorrow will ever unsettle your mind. The old-timers called this ‘being cut loose by God.’

“Do you cling to the firewood? When the fire passes from one piece to the next, do we not accept that ‘firewood’ has turned to ‘cinders’?”

Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu), Chapter 3

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This is my own version. Translations consulted include: Lin Yutang, Thomas Merton, Martin Palmer, Derek Lin and the Tao Study Group, Burton Watson, and A. C. Graham.

Infallibility blues

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Error, my love, stay close. Without you, I’d never find the exit from this hell of mirrors. Look – another dawn stains the lunatic fringes of my sky in tints of crimson. Washable. Ready to wear. The monitor at my bedside shows my heartbeat skipping like a scapegoat. Who was that mitered man, and what was he doing in my chambers? Get back, you paperweights! I brandish my scepter like Aaron’s rod. My staff is stiff. It comforts me.

Error, you were the first and best of all my teachers. Once I found I could not leave my office for a pilgrim’s road, you drew dark nights on the insides of both my eyelids. With Him there is no left and right, I told my faithful. Bull or no bull, your matador’s cape goes to heel with the horns of any dilemma. Sweet Teresa may have been pierced, riven. A true saint. But it’s you I love.

Errors mount, they say. Mount of Horeb, Sinai, Zion, Olives. Mound, as it were, of Venus. Crowned with the shining head of a life, blind eye precious in His sight. Life and more life, life, life! A priest who can’t get it up is no priest. Shorn of foreskin, the holy hill must never again come under the shadow of so-called sacred groves. The mark of Cain printed in a baptismal font.

Solitude is a luxury denied the truly righteous, if they exist. Alone on my side of the net, I serve. My life is a service. However much my mind may go errant, this stubborn donkey knows to head straight for the oats. No sins without blessings, no blessings without sins. And everything made perfect in His sight. His all-seizing eye. I feel myself watched by the hour and the gargoyle minute, by night and by day. They grow and shrink through the seasons like all living things, thinking they’ll endure forever.

Is it about endurance then, my love? Ha! Give me nine months of contemplation and I too might bear some unimaginable offspring. Try me! But He knows best. I could wear a hairshirt, practice auto-flagellation, but the agony of childbirth is a blessing reserved for women. We priests are called to imitate Christ, giving birth from the tomb instead of the womb, yawning portal under the altar where we perform our redundant magic, food into flesh. Open, like this straw they’ve stuck where the breath goes in: extreme suction. One more river to cross.

Or am I in error again?

Or is she – at last – in me?

Cibola 68

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 67 of 119 in the series Cibola


Shiwanna (3)

By the path to the spring
in Kyakima the young
men are loitering, each
in the shadow of some
unprecedented desire.
Ah sweet dusk, thin tissue
between home & harm!
On the path to the spring
in Kyakima the young
women go laughing together,
virtuosi of the sidelong
glance, the ambiguous
word given shape
by half-mocking lips.
Over this current

the Word Priest’s nasal voice:
an instant hush.

–We have news of the Apacha,
or other enemies. Nothing is sure
except a new force gathers
in the south. We hear
of other nations struck
by powerful sorcerers, often
in secret alliance with some
of their own. Please be careful
tomorrow when you go
to your fields & gardens.
Beware of anyone who leaves
in the middle of the night
without a cause. Report
anything suspicious, but please
go about your business as before.
Sleep well.

(To be continued.)

Miracle man

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in the words of Bill Tierney, street protestor and professional interrogator

Terri is not dead
until she’s dead. I tried
to be nuanced and culturally aware
but the suspects didn’t break.
They did not break! I’m here
so our civilization beats theirs. Now
what are you willing to do to win?
We’re not going to go home.

You are the interrogators, you
are the ones who have to get
the information from the Iraqis.
What do you do?
That word torture.
I’m here to win.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

You immediately think, That’s not me.
But are we litigating this war or fighting it?
If I’m leaning a little to my left side, it’s
because I left my right mind at home.
I’ve seen miracles.

There’s always a mental lever
to get them to do
what you want them to do.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

The Brits came up with
an expression – wog.
Wily Oriental Gentleman.
There’s a lot of wiliness in that part of the world.
We’re not going to go home.

It’s the amateur who resorts to violence.
Smarts over smack. I’m here to win.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

There was a 19-year-old with me
in Baghdad. What’s going on in her head
is what kind of fingernail polish
she’s going to wear.
And she’s sitting across from
a guy from Yemen.
I’ve seen miracles.

Sadism is always right over the hill.
Don’t fool yourself.
There is a part of you that will say, ‘This is fun.’
You have to admit it.

I was burned all the way from my waist up.
You can hardly see it anymore.
By the laws of physics, I should be dead.
So I’ve seen miracles.

I’m here to win.
We’re not going to go home.
Terri is not dead until she’s dead.

Sources: All phrases are from quotes by Bill Tierney, a spook-for-hire who worked most recently as an interrogator for the U.S. Army in Iraq. I have done nothing to alter the substance of his words, other than to juxtapose statements made as a Terri Schiavo supporter with the more extensive quotes from a public forum on interrogation techniques a month earlier. In both cases, reporters described his testimony as highly emotional.

Schiavo Protesters Have Hearts on Sleeves and Anger on Signs, by Rick Lyman, New York Times, March 28, 2005

Spy World, by Patrick Radden Keefe, Boston Globe, February 13

I am indebted to Bill Mon for connecting the dots (see Christian Soldier).

And yes, I “borrowed” the title from an old Ozzy Osbourne song.

May Terri Schiavo rest in peace. May all the prisoners who have died in U.S. custody rest in peace.