What Augurs Well…..

February 14, 2009

Back in my salad days, to be precise, my vegetarian chili days, I would lunch at the Maple Valley Café, in Plainfield, and roam from table to table, friend to unsuspecting friend and engage in utencilmancy, or, as I called it at the time, silverology. I believe I invented it.

I would grasp the patron’s knife, fork, and spoon in my right hand, tips pointing up, and hold them about 5 inches above the table surface; ask him or her to concentrate silently on a particular question or issue he or she was facing; and then, when the time was right, release the silverware, letting it crash, bounce, and fall into a randon tangle on the table.
I would stare silently, meaningfully at the pile and ‘read’ it.

“Does the fork cross the knife? Hmm…Where, and at what angle? Is the spoon spoon-side down? Is it spilling? Or holding? Which way is the knife cutting? Right? Left? Again, at what angle? Is it under the spoon? Below the fork? Did it fall off the table?” Each utencil up or down, facing left or right, and infinite gradations between, crossing, not crossing, touching, alone. No two configurations were ever the same; the possibilities were immeasureable; the interpretations as well. The spoon, I would say, represents what you hold dear, what is important, who you are, the present ; the knife is decision, choice, the future, the edge, both literally and figuratively; the fork — I never could figure out what the fork represented, something to do with will? fear? but it didn’t matter because by the time I got to the fork I had usually run out of drivel and been exposed as a fraud.
I tried to read dropped chopsticks once. It was difficult. You need to be a true and subtle ‘sensitive’ to make anything out of identical bamboo sticks crossing each other (or not) on a lunch table.

In ancient Rome there were ‘sensitives,’ people with powers to read ‘signs.’ Called augurs, they practiced, yes, augury, meaning, originally, birdwatching, from avis, Latin for bird. Flight pattern watchers actually, flock watchers. They would observe the birds of Rome as they schooled across the sky, broke apart, spiralled, dove, massed, departed, arrrived, and important matters of state would be decided. Do we wage this war? When does it begin? What day shall we choose to crown the emperor, convene the Senate? And so on. Timing, as we still believe, was everything. It was on special days, augured days, that important events must occur, great ventures begin. Crusades, campaigns, regimes must inaugurate on the right day, the auspicious day, to ensure success, a success that inevitably leads to, is defined by, increase, augmentation, of power, wealth, prosperity. Such a successful emperor might even be nicknamed Augustus, and such a personage might even name a month for himself.

All these words with a birdy root. Even author, creator, person of power who enlarges our world, creating worlds within worlds. One around whom birds fly beautifully, words fly beautifully. Authorized. Empowered and empowering. Author of salvation. “Author, author!” Behind the scenes, creator of seeing.

All from the Latin word for the flocking birds who twisted and spiralled over the hills of Rome and, no doubt, still do; and those who sat and watched them and imagined that all things are signs, birds, stars, planets, entrails, monstrous births (births that de-monstrate something, monster, from a root meaning ‘to show or indicate”). Augurs who sat with minds filled with drivel perhaps, but interesting drivel that is embedded in our language, worlds within words, and thought — in our present hopes and fears as we prepare for a new US president, a new regime, in a time of decrease and anxiety about our future,  our national identity, even our planet as its bird migration patterns shift. We are all watching for signs, reading them, the polls, the numbers, the birds, the frogs, the tiny microclimates at the tops of mountains, the canaries in the coal mines, the cost of chili at our favorite cafe, the cost of the food that we cut and ladle and hold in place, wishing this new man well, hoping against hope for many new and good things, for a good increase, for an increase of good, pondering what role each of us might play in this new and, as some say, overdue venture.

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