December 21, 2012
This was my first ‘In a Word’ column for The Montpelier Bridge, published several years ago.
We are walking down a jungle path, in the Yucatan, on our honeymoon, with Marcellino and the children from his village. He has just shown us a cave, the cueva that they show to visitors. Taken me into it, while Jo sat outside singing to the children. Feet first through a small black hole, into the dark with a broken piece of candle and an ember from a cookfire. The cave was small, one room with a sandy floor, an arched rock ceiling and a sliver of water against one wall. We have knelt down together and with cupped hands drunk the cold water, “mi pueblo,” he said slowly, knowing I spoke no Spanish, “prehispanica, agua.” My people, before the Spanish, water.”
He is Mayan, speaks it, and Spanish, and wants to learn some English words, so he can be a better guide to the next pair of wandering gringo honeymooners who stumble down this path. “Cave” he repeated, several times. “Stalagtite, stalagmite…” these were more difficult, hard to say, hard to distinguish, and since I could not remember which hung down and which stood up, the attempt at precision seemed pointless. In Mayan there is one word for both (I can’t recall it) and his cave had one of each, and one giant brown bat that flapped its wings like a gull as it guarded the entrance.
“Maya,” I say, as we walk along the footpath, “what does Maya mean?” “No meany,” he responds. No meany, I repeat it to myself, no meany…. “No meaning?” I ask, this time out loud. “Si,” he responds, but a little unsure, “no meany.” No meaning, possible, I think, unlikely though. I repeat it again, silently, and then, out loud,“Not many?” “Si, si,” he responds, this time emphatically, “not meany.” Not many. “Few?” I venture. “Si, si, few.” Few, few… my mind is flying now, associations rippling out in streams, in filaments searching for words to land on.“Chosen?” I ask. “Si, si,” Marcellino is as excited as I am now, “si, the chosen.” From “no meaning” to “the chosen ones” in the course of thirty seconds, a nice bit of semantic speed-skating.
My mind jumps to the Inca, another pre-hispanic empire, and to the word, “Inca.” I already knew what it “meant,”what its root was, ruler, king, emperor. “Incan Empire” is really a redundancy, the imperial empire, the kingly kingdom, like “Indus River” (Indus means “the river”) or “Milky Way galaxy”(the Greek root of galaxy means “milky path”).
I wondered if “Maya” had followed a similar wordway. Why would such a vast empire, with such a huge population, call itself “the few,” “the chosen few,” unless it is taking on the name of its ruling class, its elites? The “Maya elite,” another redundancy which casts a mindwire forward to my front step where I am listening to my brother wax poetic about his teachers, his spiritual mentors and guides, and how advanced and enlightened they are, how much above the common folk. “That sounds elitist,” I grumble, to which he counters, quickly, “Well, Dan, you do know what “elite” means don’t know?” “No, enlighten me.” “Elect, you know, chosen. Elite and elect are basically the same word.”
So now I think of John Calvin with his “Elect,” those chosen from before time to live forever with God and the unhappy “Preterite” a kind of pre-past tense, pre-post, predoomed, outcast from the getgo. And I think of pick-up games, of getting picked, or not, of standing there while the captains choose kids on either side of you. And of the Marines, those “few” those “proud.”
I think of “election”, our upcoming, facing choices and a variety of dooms, and, by Jeezum, “the people,” you know, us’ns, get to choose, not God, not the elites. Democracy, “people-rule” the great heresy that is now orthodox, the gift of liberty that we are waging a war to force onto Iraq, the scandal of the age, Leviathan, the great unwashed, the idealists, and suckers. We, the people, get to choose from among the chosen ones, those prechosen by the party elites, and each one of them no doubt believing, as Marcellino does of his Maya, that the United States, is the chosen, the destined, most wonderfulest nation on earth.
April 25, 2011
September 13, 1980
the first night – getting there
cold gray sidewalk
under warm evening glare
of cool brown street lights
shadows of leaves
brown on hard blue
gray at night
knowing not where to turn
shadows searching for darkness
April 24, 2011
a cabin in outer space
–midnight rave #26
it isn’t really as cold as outer space,
but that’s why it’s cold, the snow.
it’s colder than the earth
because it starts out so much closer to outer space,
and it’s cold there.
and you know,
as green and shadowy and warm as sometimes it is here,
we really are just in outer space.
a hot spot island maybe
(if you’re lucky or it’s summertime)
the sun is there,
the sky is blue,
but it’s in outer space too,
even the clouds,
they’re just near.
nighttime is outer space.
daytime may be “looking in the face of your mother”
but nighttime is seeing only one thing
and knowing that you’re not it.
nighttime is naked sky
it isn’t empty
but there is so much space between everything
and everything is just what it is
at least most of the time
especially (in our lifetime)
and you too
are as there and as real as a star
and just as lonely
April 23, 2011
freedom is the gift to be alive though dead
rumors of dead burying undead
reach me here
but do not touch,
the flags still wave
the signposts stand,
words of welcome
and love’s strange silence
hang in the air
like the puppet acrobats and clowns
in his study
again I say rejoice
e.e. keeps damning everything but the circus,
and the parades of life and death
keep clashing in ever larger
ever smaller circles
death to life
life to death
silence, accommodation, mediocrity
love’s passion and longsuffering
the onceness of our passing and being
the taking up and laying down
of our lives
for the world
he was always passing
from death to life
life to death
many times a day
I feel so little sadness
at this latest passing
one more glory
there is so little
that needs to be said
February 12, 2011
at the end of every train of thought…
a homeless man, a broken person
someone wounded, unfixable —
and me, standing there, loving
but this is yet to be proven
and thoughts don’t run on trains
and you fear your power and glory
as much as your weakness and shame
they are there — they were and they are
and yet there is more
and you will not discover it (uncover it)
until you discover it (uncover it)
call it a train or a tree or a
branching matrix of pain — yet
it is not all pain and even the
the pain is a part of it —
it comes with the territory
but does not define it.
June 4, 2010
The soft-serve stand streaks by in a parallel universe as you power your aluminum alloy eighteen-speed bike or glide over the pavement with your firm new running shoes. You can feel the fitness building, in real time, the oxygen streaming into your blood, your blood forming new capillaries to serve new muscle, fat cells shriveling in quiet desperation as their contents are consumed to feed the cleansing, invigorating fire…. while the stationary soft-serve eaters move in the opposite direction, or don’t move, but stand in chubby clumps, leaning on cars, and pushing mounds of cold sugar-fat into their faces. It makes you feel so good, so righteous, so confident that you are performing the true self-service.
And yet, here you are, in street clothes, on a hot May evening, with Jo and our new friend Monika, shifting your feet in a clumpy line, buying Monika her first ever Creemee. She is from Bombay, with a recent Master’s Degree in Computer Science from Louisiana State University and a one year contract with the Department of Motor Vehicles as they reconfigure their state-wide database.
She has adopted us as her American uncle and aunt. We are accustomed to adoption, both formal and informal, with our own two children from Calcutta and the scores of others who have passed in and out of our doors over the years. But she has turned the tables; she is the visitor, the one far from home, yet she is the one who chose us, identified us as the ones she wished to welcome into her heart and life. She comes on Sundays and shows Jo how to make dal (lentils) and raita (yogurt and cucumber) and talks to me about things Indian, Hindu worship, and belief. It is one of those Sundays and we’re driving her back to her home-share with Cindy when we make a detour to that ever popular American shrine, the Creemee stand.
We get our ice cream and find a seat on the bench that looks down, through a space in the trees, on the muddy Winooski. I tell her that Winooski means ‘wild leek’ in an old local language and I ask about rivers. “Are they all holy? rivers?” “Yes.” “The Ganges, it’s special right?” “Yes. But all the rivers….” Jo has been to India, seen pictures of the Ganges, “It’s so dirty,” Jo says, “I couldn’t step into the Ganges, could you?” “No,” says Monika, “it is, and polluted.” “The Indus River,” I ask, “Indus actually means ‘river’ right? in Hindi, the River River?” “Yes,” Monika confirms. Indus, Hindi, Hindu, India, indigo, all from the same Sanskrit root. A river runs through them, in them, is them.
“But it isn’t the rivers really, that are holy,” she explains, “it’s the water, in all the rivers. We worship the water, because it gives life, it feeds the food that feeds us. It isn’t idol worship, we worship the life in it, the goodness it gives us. We worship trees too, but not because trees are gods, but because of the fruit, the fuel, the shade they give us.”
As my stomach slowly turns, filling with chocolate I-don’t-know-what Monika speaks of Calcutta and its great festival, Dusshera, that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, of Rama over the demon Ravana. “It’s my favorite,” she says, “because we honor it by worshipping the tools of our trade, our profession. My father, he is an electrical engineer, so he brings home some switch boxes and places them on his altar and worships them.” “Really?” “Yes, it is how he earns his living. He depends on them. I work with computers so I place my laptop on my altar. When my brother and I were young we worshipped our textbooks. We placed them on the altars and prayed to them and sprinkled kumkum and haldi (bright red and yellow spices) on them. Being a student was our job and the books were the means to our personal improvement, to a good future. One year my brother worshipped his new bicycle, because it gave him freedom and made him happy. During Dusshera you see taxi drivers sprinkling the powders on their taxis and worshipping them. The taxis enable them to feed their children.”
“So a carpenter would place his hammer and saw on his altar?” “Yes, of course.” I thought of the old hammerhead that sits in a special place on my desk. I had used it way back when to build my first workbench. I reached for my favorite fountain pen that I usually clip into the neck on my t-shirt, near my heart, and always warm when I touch it. “A writer worships her pen?” “Yes, and her ink.”
But worship, why worship? I’m too much an iconoclast (picture-breaker) and cranky protestant to not break that word apart, so later that evening I gathered my revered alphabet books together and discovered that until the 13th century the English word worship was spelled worthship and meant worthiness, the state of value of something. To worship is to value, to value things that have value, provide value. To recognize and celebrate worthiness.
One problem with this hopefully worthwhile discussion is that from my viewpoint Rama didn’t really conquer Ravana, or at least not once and for all, and that “worthiness” too often appears to be a zero-sum game where the valuing of one thing leads to the degradation of some other equally or more worthy thing. I think of the oil streaming into and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico and the shrimp beds and the wildlife nurseries and am aware that our anger can not merely be directed at greedy oil companies or inept government bureaucracies, but at our very deep (idolatrous?) attachment to mobility, to our beloved automobiles, to getting fresh strawberries in November trucked in from who-knows-where (who-cares-where), to finding every spice in the world in every supermarket. I think of the light-weight alloys in my bike and don’t really want to know which beautiful mountain in Jamaica was strip-mined or which tribal people in Vietnam was relocated in order to extract the aluminum. Is there a hierarchy of worth that we as species can address? Some deep criteria we can begin to agree to? Can the discussion include the rest of life, the rivers, oceans, trees, our fellow living things? Can we perhaps learn together new meanings, worthy meanings of fitness and sacrifice?
May 20, 2010
You don’t need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Don’t even listen, simply wait.
Don’t even wait, be quite still and alone.
The world will come to you and let you
take off its mask.
It has no other choice.
These words, and the name Kafka were typed neatly on the back side of an index card and pinned to the wall in Herb’s kitchen. Herb lived “off the grid” in a borrowed house beyond a dead end road in a brush overgrown section of Block Island Rhode Island, in a place that no day-tripping moped rider or tax-assessor would ever find. He would leave his home every day, to go to Ernie’s Diner or the airport restaurant, the harbor, the post office, and once a week or so, the dump.
His house, which really belonged to an old time islander who owned the marina down at New Harbor, a man who hired him to do design work from time to time, was filled with furniture of all sorts, books, and all manner of interesting objects. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, engineering and reference books, books on art, history, biography, philosophy; old toys, strange tools, and well-oiled implements.
He had a large room filled with dressers and shelves all covered and filled with tools. Before I left the island he took me there to give me a hammer head as a parting gift. Every drawer of every dresser was filled with clean, oiled metal objects; one with files, one with rasps, another with screwdrivers, the old kind, a single spike of heavy iron with smooth rounded wood pieces fitted on either side for a handle.
“People throw these away,” he would say. “I find them at the dump. They are perfectly good. They just need a little filing to clean up the edge, and new wood pieces for the handle. I clean them and oil them. I’m not sure why.” One of the dressers was filled, every drawer, with assorted hammers and hammer heads; metal working, leatherworking, woodworking. He reached into a drawer filled with 16 ounce finishing hammer heads and handed one to me. “You might find this useful. You’ll need to make a handle for it. And put a little oil on it once in a while. It will keep it from rusting.”
Almost everything in his house came from the dump, even his fuel for the winter which was mostly construction debris. He was an engineer and designer and had built a beautiful and original windmill using sails and wood and nylon and bearings and car batteries — all from the dump. It was a work of art and turned smoothly, elegantly in the air above his workshop. The only thing it lacked was the inverter that would turn the spinning motion into electricity and charge the batteries. He knew where the inverter was, on the floor behind the desk at the car mechanic’s shop. His windmill waited patiently, for years, weathering in the sun and rain, its sails neatly coiled. “It will show up,” he said, “eventually, everything goes to the dump.”
One day Herb and I were visiting a mutual friend. We walked into his well-appointed living room, filled with matching, expensive furniture, shelves of sophisticated books, and artwork on the walls. Herb moved into the center and surveyed the room silently for a few moments and then announced, with almost sorrowful irony, “Someday this will all be mine.”
He found a letter from the Harpers Ferry insurrectionist John Brown at the dump. The Reverend Vail, an abolitionist minister who lived on the island in the 1800’s had corresponded with Brown while he was in prison awaiting execution. When the Vail homestead was finally torn down in the 1960’s the new owners sent boxes of old papers and items to the dump, consigned to its weekly bonfire. Herb found the letter before the fire did. “It was one of the last things John Brown wrote. I sold it to a collector for $300. I have always regretted that.”
Before he came to the island Herb had helped design the first shopping mall in the US, in Michigan I think, built in the ‘50’s He still had the blueprints and laid them out for me one day. He designed a toy, called it the Ubi, for ubiquitous, but the company that bought his idea changed it to Oobi, “more friendly,” they said. It was a “note in a bottle adrift in a sea of people,” made of hollow plastic, the size of an egg, only flattened somewhat, with a narrow slit for the insertion of a note, and a blank flat space where the sender would write the name and city or town of the intended recipient, ideally someone who lived far away, on an opposite coast or on a different continent — not the address, just the town, and country or general area. The sender would give the Oobi to someone who was headed in the direction of the recipient, who would then pass it on to the next person who was traveling farther, and so on, hand to hand, hitchhiking. “It’s not about the note,” he said, “but about the conversations, the connections, the long string of strangers that would meet and pass the Oobi along.” They paid him $7000 for the idea and spent another $10,000 developing it, but they didn’t produce it. At the end, if the Oobi ever reaches its destination, the recipient will need to break it to get the note out. The marketing people couldn’t swallow that. They didn’t think anyone would buy something that had to be broken in order to be used. He showed me the mock magazine ads he made to sell the idea. a little Oobi hiding behind a rock on a photo of the moon’s surface, on a VW dashboard, poking out of a hip pocket. “They didn’t get it,” he said, “they never understood the idea.” He showed me his prototypes, a few in wood, one in plastic. They were international orange with two big white eyes outlined in black. He put them back on table, next to a collection of antique toys and puzzles he had found at the dump.
He virtually never left the island, except I think, to die. He never got the inverter. He used to point at his kitchen table and chair and radio. “I’ve sat in that chair for over 25 years, Dan. The same chair. Same table. The same radio. The entire Viet Nam war, happened while I sat there listening to it, on the radio.
Herb was an Ubi who didn’t travel, a bottle who washed up on Block Island and never left. His messages, from Kafka and others, were pinned to the kitchen wall and read only by the small handful of guests ever invited in. The world did come to him, through the radio, the dump, in the broken seminarian who trapsed through his rooms. Whether it really let him take off any masks is debatable. He found things and used them and was good at salvage. He was largely alone. He cared about the world and could get very indignant about venality and stupidity and waste. He was an artist and a thinker. He gave me one more thing before I ended my two year retreat and moved to Vermont. An index card with a quote from Machiavelli, the Prince. He was worried about me, thought me too idealistic, too earnest, too sensitive (too much like himself). This is what it said:
the gap is often great between how one does live and how one ought to live
and the person who neglects what is done
for the sake of what ought to be done
learns the path to destruction, rather than preservation;
for a person who wishes to act virtuously at all times
necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.
That quote, and Kafka’s, and a 16 ounce hammer head (which I did make a handle for) have stayed with me and served me well. Thank you Herb.