Maya — no meany

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.

Eat, Pray, Drive

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?

Friends of Franz

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.

Mother May Flower

May 4, 2010

So here I am winding down Route 100 wondering what I’ll write today when the huge rear end of an eighteen wheeled moving van looms directly in front of and above me. All I can see is the great rectangle of its back, a field of yellow with wide forest green stripes above and below and a wide red stripe just above the lower green. Centered perfectly in the yellow is an image of an old sailing ship. Five broadly curved shapes of the same forest green, the hull and four iconic sails, and three small triangular flags. The prow of the ship is facing right or west given that the truck and I are traveling south. There are no words printed, nothing to read save the license plate. If the icon could speak it would say: “old sailing ship” or “original old sailing ship from the age of discovery.” The ship of Columbus and Cabot, Cortez and Raleigh, of explorers and adventurers, colonizers and conquerors. The ship of risk, of courage and hope, of plunder, rape, and disease. The ship of the traveller that plies the boundless horizon, going somewhere, beginning again, and bringing itself, in all of its glory and all of its shame. And to those of us who know, those descended from old New Englanders, and those who can get a glimpse of the huge red lettering on the side of this moving moving van the ship is, of course, the Mayflower. I can’t get a glimpse. I’m too close to the back, I’m trying to pass but Route 100 is too narrow and curvy. From time to time I see enough of the side to see the size of the lettering and that it extends along the entire length of the container. All capitals, broad, tall, not at all flower- or may-like.


I’m one of the very many people (millions it turns out) who can truthfully say that he or she has an ancestor who travelled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. But that is not my first or most important association with the ship. Before the Pilgrims, before Bradford and Standish, before the first deadly winter and the first thanksgiving (whatever it was really like) came the packers, three, four or five, I’m not sure now, middle-aged women with fast hands and melodic Southern Black speech and perhaps one young man, the son, I think, of one of the women, moving from room to room, wrapping our possessions in clean newspaper-like paper, placing them in large brown cardboard boxes, brand new and made for this purpose, balling up paper for padding and taping and double-taping each box as it was filled. And then the movers, who arrived on moving day, to carry everything out of the house, down the sidewalk and up the ramp into the giant moving van with the ship and the big letters. (Looking back on it now I see that the movers were also packers, but of a higher order for they were packing the truck which was itself a kind of large box. Containers within a larger container, made all the more interesting since so many of our possessions, the things inside the boxes, were themselves containers: clothing that contains our bodies, dressers that contain the clothing, shelves that hold our books, and books that hold words, words that contain ideas, and then shoes, and cups, and saucers). No pilgrims, just boxes of stuff and stuffing, and a driver in the cab. We, pilgrims after a fashion, hatless, hot and unenthusiastic, piled into the green and white Chevrolet station wagon, my father at the wheel driving behind or within sight of the van most of the way, the shape of that ship and those huge letters being imprinted into my young mind. Charleston, South Carolina to Portsmouth, Virginia, not a long trip but one from which we would not return. Years later we would do it again, from Portsmouth to New York City, and again it was packers and movers and Mayflower and the stylized ship. And by that time, despite the fact that I had grown up in the South, in a state that called itself the Father of Presidents, in a house which was situated less than twenty miles from Jamestown, “the first permanent English settlement in the New World,” I had learned of that other settlement, the one in Massachusetts, of the Pilgrims, those Johnny-come-latelys, and their Mayflower. My Mayflower, however, was a moving van and, I suspect, will always be, and every moving van is a Mayflower or a Mayflower wannabe. It is the arche-moving-van of my original mind.
But what of ‘Mayflower’? not the ship, nor the van, nor the random thoughts that course through my peregrine mind, but the word itself, the name, what is packed in that? Flower is from a root that also yielded bloom, blossom, a root meaning to swell, swollen, for the enlarging, expanding buds of spring; and May is from the month of Maia, the Roman goddess of growth, of fertility, of mothering, whose root in fact means grow, more, greatness, increase. Maia, the great goddess, the goddess of greatness, of the earth great with child, swollen, springing into life around us, blooming, bursting, more and more, as we, (some of us) strangers in a beautiful land, perpetual pilgrims, pursue our stormy, shadowed, memory laden, heaven absorbed, God the Father absorbed, paths.


March 30, 2010

(The word this week was supposed to be symbol. But the story got in the way. So many words, so little space. Perhaps next month.)

I’m late, or will be soon, and my mind is racing, ticking off mental lists, while hands dig in pockets for physical lists. 1 by 10’s. 1 by 8’s. Pressure treated. Yes. And nails, Dave’s bringing the nails, I think. I reach the bottom stair and the front door, my right hand grabs the handle, thumb poised to press the latch and swing it in, and I stop. I’ve never stopped before. I usually grab, press, and pull. And the door budges about a sixteenth of an inch, enough for the dead bolt to engage and my pulling motion propels me headfirst into the frame, my hand twisted by its own jerk and the sudden resistance.

And I remember, and I swear under my breath, at my beloved son, who has once again slipped down in the night to lock the door. “I don’t want to live in a locked house,” I fume. “It’s a nonnegotiable. A matter of principle. Identity. I will not live in a locked house. Damn it. Why does he do that?” I keep hoping, unconsciously, that he will become like me, and choose not to lock it, see the superiority of my ways. But he doesn’t. And every night, before he goes to bed, after Jo and I are in for the evening, he slips downstairs, turns off the lights and bolts the door.

This time is different. I stand with a foot on the stair, one on the floor, my mind full of dimensions, empty and calling for caffeine, and instead of yanking, I take the splittest of seconds and glance at the latch. The door is locked. Pulling on it will not change that fact. I will have to unlock it either way. I don’t want to hit my head again. I don’t want to swear again. I can just reach up and turn the handle. And I do. No fussing about identity or nonnegotiables. I unlock it and go on my way.

The locked door is evidence, a sign of my son’s presence, his instincts and inclinations, instincts that are understandable, reasonable. He is a strapping 21 year old now, but he was once a fragile baby who barely survived an underweight infancy in the streets of Calcutta. And as a tee-ball player on the rec. fields of Montpelier he was shocked and terrified by the horrific news from Barre of the girl who was struck and killed by lightning as she was out on the ball fields there. For years after his eyes would automatically scan the skies as he stepped out the front door, checking for signs of rain. He was the first off the field, the first in the car. Clouds, thunder, lightning, rain, death — all one threatening mix. “I’ll stay inside… Dad, you’re crazy, don’t go out there.”

And he’s had to endure, his entire life, his parents’ fixation on hospitality. Housemates, friends, strangers, candle-burning women’s groups, teens from troubled families — we don’t know the actual number of teens, but it must be well over a hundred, who have shared our home for short or long periods of time, kids who have used his stuff, his video games, and now want to borrow his laptop, kids who want to hang out with him in his room… and we continue do this, take in young people, one might show up this week, or tomorrow. And Vermont State legislators, and Mountaineers baseball players, and Pakistani refugees. Not to mention the “banjo geeks,” as he calls them, my musical friends who show up every week to jam in the living room. He’s put up with a lot, and has been gracious and generous. So I guess if wants to lock the door at night he can. It’s not a sign of moral failure, or spite. It’s just a locked door. And besides, his mother approves. She wonders more about me and why I rail at keys and locks. Clearly, we practice hospitality. Why the fuss?

For one reason. One year. One very long year at the very beginning of the explosion of homelessness in our nation’s big cities (the early ‘80’s) I worked on the streets of New York. The deeper I descended into the world of the homeless, of random evictions, and rampant gentrification, the heavier my door key hung in my pocket. It would burn against my thigh. It became the difference between “them” and me, between “them” and “us,” those of us with doors and rooms behind them, beds and bathrooms, sinks and kitchens; apartments, houses, places of work. We had keys. To the homeless the world is literally locked, a vast array of closed, locked doors.

Jaimen may have his terror of the outside world, of sudden death from the sky and perhaps some deep memory of his danger-ridden beginning. I had my rage against inhumanity, our inhospitality to the elderly and vulnerable, to the slow death by exposure and neglect.

I came to hate keys. And locks. To despise them. I may not be able to save the world but at least I can live in an unlocked house, that I can do. But I can’t. Because my lovely son (and wife!) wants to feel safe at night, and the latch makes him feel safe, even if it is only a feeling, even if the world is still full of danger and risk, of lightning strikes and earthquakes and social policies and attitudes that continue to marginalize and oppress certain people. Sometimes a lock is just a lock. He locks it. I unlock it. It ‘s a dance, a lock dance. I’m not saving the world. I’m not saving anybody. I’m just buying lumber and fixing porches and making bookshelves; and taking in teens from time to time. And Jaimen isn’t locking out the world. He’s engaged, on the verge of his own manhood, preparing to walk out that same door, clouds or not, lightning or not, to forge his own path and make his own way.

the truth about trees

March 2, 2010

Words are found objects, flying objects, sent your way, filling your crib, by mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, sounds that swirl and echo in your skull and bones, charged but unidentified, meaning only what you feel when you hear them, safety, warmth, fear, alarm, okayness, “I’m okay,” or, “it’s okay” since babies don’t have a proper I for a while (or so they say). Mama, baby. Do you need a new diaper? Yes. Yes. Cooing and nonsense syllables. Are you a happy baby? Are you ready for a nap? Do you need some milk? Sounds, noise, to the infant while all that matters is the milk, the touch, the quiet, the warmth, not metaphorical warmth but body-body warmth, not the word warmth, or the idea, but the heat of the holder, mama, sister, father. The thing itself, the act, the gesture, not the word, or the thought, nor thoughts about the words. No I, not yet, only presence, and the gifts of presence, vibration, smell, pure abstract shifting sounds and light, and the nipple, the feel of it in the mouth, and what comes out of it, the warm flow of milk, of life itself.

But the words keep swirling, keep coming at you, those shifting sounds drop and thud around the crib, the blanket, the floor, your ears, until you find one in your mouth, in your lips, your throat, vibrating in your skull, this sound, mama, or dada, and so it goes, year in year out, finding more, making more, finding them in your mind (and finding your mind) your heart (and finding your heart), finding lips and hands and tree and spoon and house. Finding meaning, relation, correlation, connection: the thing and its label, the feeling and the word for the feeling, the idea and its name. The flying unidentified objects finding, creating, identity, enter and merge and emerge, become inseparable, essential, indelible, the handles by which we grasp the turning world, the lenses through which we see, the tools with which we find ourselves, name ourselves, name each other and every thing.

The words become flesh. They become us. We become them. Inextricable, essential, undoable. Truth. Justice. The American way. The earth. Superman. Underdog. Grapes of wrath. The novel. The play. The poem. The sermon. The rabble and the rousing demagogue. The rabbi. Love. Self. Other. Words define us as we define them. Control and limit us even as we push them, squeeze them, use them to describe the indescribable, imagine the unimaginable. These syllables. These things we find in our mouths, our heads, our ears. Sounds that have been hovering, recycling for thousands or tens of thousands of years, passed from person to person, parent to child, changed, inflected, infected, flipped and reversed, chopped, and recombined, new words formed from pieces of old ones.

New words for new realities. New realities. Are they new because we can say they are? Is newness itself a figment of the word “new”? Are we inventing things or merely discovering them? What is reality, really? How can there be a word for what simply is? Or a word for what isn’t? Words that have no thing attached, labels for which there is no object, except hope, or yearning, or longing? Infinity. For example. Or God. Words that merely point, like fingers to a moon that is not there, and yet galvanize and organize and shape entire worlds. The devil, the demon, the god in the fire, in the sky, in the rain. The god in the grove of trees.

Now there’s a word/sound that’s traveled, tree. An ancient word with an ancient meaning, yes, tree, that firm hard woody thing that grows out of the ground. Firm and strong, unyielding. And then the word shifts, becomes the idea of unyielding, of perfect reliability, of permanence, of promise-keeping. Tree shifts to trust, to troth, to betroth, to making a lasting commitment, and then becomes truth itself, the deep values and principles we consider to be essential to our very nature. All from a random syllable describing an ancient oak, or pine, in old Europe somewhere, before it was called Europe. Tree, truth, trust, the beloved betrothed. One reality or several?

And is there some new appropriation we can effect? Some new truth to grasp, to commit to? About ourselves and the world and the trees, which despite our ideas are not really unyielding, not permanent at all, but crashing to the ground throughout the world, denuding the planet, changing the equation, forcing on us frightening words that nonetheless refer to real things. Extinction. Catastrophe (Greek, meaning literally down-stroke, as with a sword). Warming. A warming that kills. Can we face the possibility of our own impermanence? Of our own stupidity, venality? Can we clean up our language? Make some new commitments, new betrothals? Use these syllables in a way that will heal and rescue and ground us, words that will inspire and galvanize us to find a new way of existing, of co-existing, on this beautiful but estranged, increasingly estranged, planet?

Human beings can adapt to almost anything, a wonderful attribute, and frightening. The strange, even the repulsive, becomes normal, acceptable, appealing even. Take the rat in my compost pile. I’d never seen a rat in Vermont. In New York City, yes. But Vermont was all about deer, and woodchucks, hunting season and gentle hippies with their Have-a-Heart traps. Rats were dirty, dangerous, subversive, carriers of disease and worse — not like woodchucks, not real Vermonters. Yet there she (or he?) was in my capital city compost pile, happy as a pig in … well, happy as a rat in a compost pile. Well-fed, warm, solitary, not hurting anyone or anything. No problem. Taking the kitchen waste out to the pile became a pleasant feeding ritual. He (she?) would always have dug new burrows since the last dumping, fresh dirt would be piled up in new corners, everything neat and tidy but always in some new configuration. I had composed (compost, composition- to put with, pose together, arrange) a little ecosystem in my backyard and it had beckoned to the rat, and it was all the more complex and satisfying for it.

But I didn’t tell Jo, or my rodent phobic daughter, or the nearby neighbors – of which I have several. They might not have been so sympathetic, to me or the rat. But to me she/he was just fine, and I enjoyed glimpsing her/him fulfilling his/her rat dharma and making good use of our refuse. I remembered that an old friend had had a rat for a pet, a fugitive white lab rat, named Sigmund. “They make good pets,” she had said. “They are very smart, and loyal. They bond.”

One day, not long into the summer, while dumping the compost, I lifted the green plastic hood and saw a tight little bundle of tails and tiny rats. My rat was a she-rat, it turned out, and her dharma, of course, included swarming little blind baby rats. What to do? My little ecosystem was suddenly exceeding expectations and transforming itself, in my panicking mind, into a seedbed for a citywide infestation. As my Southern friends would say, “there was nothing for it.” My social conditioning kicked in, my own species instincts took over. They must die. All of them. Quickly. Before shame and approbation was heaped upon my head, before neighbors and wife shunned me.
Before the babies were weaned, before their eyes opened. But how? Poison was too ghastly, slow, painful, uncertain. I found a hatchet amongst the gardening tools, old and rusted, and returned to the pile. This would be the method, swift and sure. There was nothing for it. It had to be done. I had to adapt, to change, quickly, to a new attitude, an opposite attitude, and kill the entire family. And I did. The first stroke was difficult, and felt contrary to some deep and loving instinct within me. The second was easier, the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth were almost (frighteningly) enjoyable. How quickly we adapt. I had crossed over. No longer the feeder, but now the killer, of rats, and keeper of social norms, protector of cities and sleeping children.

This was years ago (neighbors take note) and I have never shared this story with anyone, until now, and it is because of the cover of this month’s National Geographic which features a photograph of a polygamous Mormon patriarch, his five wives, forty-five children, and uncounted scores of grand and great-grandchildren stretching deep and wide into the background. All I could think of were those rats, swarming fertile rats. It was made all the worse when I read the article and came across this quote from one of the well rutted Mormon males: “The foundation of this life is your belief in a life after this. Where are we going after this life? That is the big question.” A billion other interdependent life forms might beg to differ, as they and the the earth itself suffers the consequences of our species’ fertility and adaptability. And the fantastic Mormons are not alone in this nature-demeaning, existence-demeaning, attitude. Most of our grand religious traditions tell us that humans are special, born to be masters, shapers, stewards, and namers of nature. Special and above. Made in the image of God even, with a destiny higher than all the other myriad members of our planetary families.

We are special, I grant that, and marvelous; we understand the structure of the atom and the solar system, we know how stars are born and have begun to decode the very formula of life. And yet, from just outside, or above, when you lift the cracked green plastic hood of our self-assuring and self-congratulatory stories you find an earth that is riddled, utterly infested with one very powerful, adaptable, and ruthless species.

Adapt. From a root that gives us apt, aptitude, adept, inept. It means, essentially, to fit, to fit in, fitness.

We are turning the planet into one grand human-serving and ever-shrinking compost pile; and we assure ourselves that we fit in, that what we do is just and good, even brilliant. We worship (large numbers of us) at the church of the Holy Fetus while ecosystems across the globe begin to collapse and fail. There are far too many of us and our silly stories do not serve the greater good. Is there nothing for it? Is it hatchet time? Will the earth find a way to rid itself of this troublesome species? Or will we adapt? Find a way to make peace with our planet and learn to truly “fit in.?”

In the Western Sky

January 18, 2010

dedicated to the families of Taylor McLaughlin and Michael Wagner and to the people of Haiti.

It’s calendar time, complimentary, sitting free by cash registers, arriving unsolicited in the mail, hand-delivered by home heating oil truck drivers. Filled with photographs: nature scenes, brooks, bridges, flowers, leaves, snow, deer; or prints, predictable, ever-recycling Norman Rockwell prints. This one, the Rockwell, I flip through quickly, having seen them before, headed to the paper bin when November stops me.

A man with a worn hat and wrinkled chin sits atop a paint-splattered stepladder, his eyes peer intently through bottom-of-his-nose glasses at a gold watch that he holds in his left hand. His right arm and hand reach up to the side and grasps the point of the minute hand of a large public clock. Outside. Up high. In a big city (New York?) with hotel marquees, fire escapes and white sky in the background.

He has just repaired the clock, or made some adjustment. Tools jut akimbo from his small kit as he sets the correct time, which he carries around with him in his pocket. He looks like the kind of man who would know the correct time, by nature, or temperament.

Yet looks are deceiving and the man is really Rockwell’s neighbor or a dentist and not a big city timekeeper. And even I know that real timekeepers get their time from somewhere. In Rockwell’s age it was likely the local train station which got its time every day, around noon, by radio, from the on-duty astronomer at the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. “It’s noon… now…. set your clocks.” And the Observatory? They got it from the sun, and the stars, and the great turning wheel of sky, measuring shadows, angles, tangents. Naval because, before time zones and the trains that made them necessary, ship’s captains knew that time and position were but two variables in one equation and knowing the precise time somewhere (D.C., for example) would help them plot their position more precisely when out in the featureless expanse of sea. The Observatory had a great ball (of which the one in Times Square is an odd cousin) which would drop each day precisely at noon as the timekeepers on board ships in the harbor watched, hands holding hands, ready on their clocks.

Sun watchers, if not worshippers; stargazers, finding, creating, time and position and order on this lonely planet, this little harbor in the vast expanse of space. And moon watchers, month keepers, day markers. There was a time when month really meant moon and moon meant measure . In Hebrew and Islamic calendars it still does. In some rural communities “new moon” still means “new moon,” the first tiny sliver that is spotted in the sky, instead of the “no moon” of modern hang-on-the-wall paper calendars. The local rabbi or imam retreats to the nearest high place as the moon disappears and watches and waits night after night, until the tiny crescent appears in the west, and then returns to the village to declare the start of the new month and set the dates of its festivals
The very words declare and proclaim are rooted in the same source that yielded the Latin calendar, for the Roman priests (known as pontiffs) did much the same as the imams and rabbis, watching and waiting, seeing, and then announcing, proclaiming the calends, the first day of the new moon, and setting the ides, the day that “divides” (same root as ides) the month, and, as such, is also the full moon and fifteenth.

Nowadays we can buy lunar calendars, moon phase calendars. Solar calendars fill book store windows and arrive with oil deliveries disguised as junk mail. We don’t have to go outside and look up. The moon is a decoration that we notice, or not, time is a beep on a watch, the sun wheels unheralded except when its setting is pretty. Even astrologers sit in their rooms, staring down at paper charts filled with colored lines and portentous squiggles.

Everyone knows, or can know, from this year to eternity, what day of the week January First will fall on, or Easter, or Yom Kippur, or Eid. We have spreadsheets and software and mainframe savants to show us. And every time we go online (if we’ve upgraded) our computer sends a few lines of code to the Time Servers, based not in D.C., but at a physics lab in Boulder, Colorado, and they respond over cables or satellites and adjust the little timekeepers that inhabit and order our motherboards. And since 1967, United States official time has not depended on the position of the sun over the Capitol but rather on the wavering, leaping orbits of electrons around the nuclei of cesium atoms in a special clock at that Colorado lab — they say it will not lose a second until 20 million years have passed. But at least it is an orbit, however small and quirky, still an element of nature, and some Rockwellian caricature of a physicist must still squint and monitor the output and upload the updates.

But what will the earth be like in 20 million years? What will we, it, have lost besides one second? Not to mention what or who, will be lost today, or tomorrow. So we mark our days, one way or the other, yearning for order, for predictability, looking at Norman Rockwell prints, and waiting, expectant in the darkness, wrapped in its mystery and, at times, its pain, searching for and creating meaning, assurance, and watching the western sky for evidence of new and bright beginnings.

imagine this

December 6, 2009

I wasn’t sure if he would notice, or, if he did, what he would think. We moved from room to room talking about windows. He’d measure. I’d discuss trim. The house was quiet, the homeowners away. Old friends but new clients, and this was only my second time in their home.

We’re like doctors, we carpenters, contractors, tradespeople. Visiting doctors, making house calls. We notice things, details. We don’t mean to. It’s all incidental, accidental. We’re not voyeurs. But we see things. How people live, in their homes, their stuff and how they arrange it, or don’t arrange it. Their books, the bottles in the recycling, their choice of dishes, the decor in the bathroom. You almost always have to use the bathroom on a job.

We see busyness. Stillness. Evidence of life, of passion, commitment, sometimes of struggle. Of quiet, contentment. It’s all there, on the walls, on the refrigerator, the floor, the kitchen counter, like DNA. Photographs of happy children. Pencil marks with dates and names on a door jamb, records of growth. A house full of cats, strays taken in by an animal lover/advocate. A house full of cookbooks with food all over the kitchen. A house on a lonely hill with a wall draped with South Asian musical instruments. A funky old hippie cabin with narrow walkways between piles of electronics gear.

People are fascinating, and fascinated, and preoccupied and busy, engaged in their lives, creating their own peculiar normalcies. If you ask questions they will teach you things: about strays and ferals, and the difference between them, about mandolins, and yoga and downward-facing-dog, about water chemistry in Bangladesh, a relative who died in the Holocaust, mysticism, parenthood, death, love, recipes. We’re amazing beings, truly, and the gifts and knowledge we have to offer each other are great and precious.

He finished measuring. The windows were all one size except for the one in the master bathroom. It was a straightforward order. Our business was done. He hadn’t picked up on anything, hadn’t commented. I had said nothing, except about the trim.

There is an interesting detail about this home, one that stands out a bit in this day and age. For better or worse. A detail that is commonplace for some people, terribly controversial for some other people. I was just there to replace windows, not to remark on controversies, or gossip, or sermonize, but I can’t stop my brain, and I’m always thinking, and wondering, and judging — what would he think if he had noticed the Hers and Hers towels in the master bathroom? maybe he did notice but didn’t say anything? or the wedding photo on the wall? the photos of them with their two beautiful children? What does he think of same-sex marriage? same-sex parenthood? Would that tax his imagination? It has certainly taxed mine. Any form of parenthood is pretty taxing. Is imagination the problem? Our lack of it? our ability/inability to imagine a life different from our own?

The root of imagine is the same as that of image, obviously, but also imitate. To create a picture in one’s mind, an image, of something in the world. The root basically means likeness, copy. To make a copy of something. Think of graven images, wooden statues of gods, think of the Jewish and Christian idea that human beings are made ‘in the image’ of God, that we’re little God-copies. But imagine has also come to mean something more, not just to copy, but to think a new thought, to see, in the mind or heart, something that does not yet exist in the world. Is same sex marriage such a new thing? Or is it merely a new recognition of a very old thing?

What is it like to grow up, to be a child of same-sex parents? (Ask someone who knows.) What is it like to be a gay child of heterosexual parents? (Ask someone who knows.) Is the same-sexness really the issue? Or is it the nurture? the love? the parenting? It’s a big step for some folks, to accept the integrity, health, the normalcy, of same sex couples. It is a bigger step to accept the goodness of same-sex parenthood. Or so I imagine. It touches so many nerves. Taboos. Fears. And two millennia of condemnation from Christian authorities who nonetheless worship God as a trinity of two hyper-close male figures (Father and Son) and a third (the Holy Spirit) of indeterminate gender.

All I’m doing is ordering windows but my mind is racing with these thoughts when he pauses and looks into the living room. He has seen something and changes the subject. “I guess it’s obvious who runs this household,” he observed. The living room was filled – neatly, but filled – with long fat flexible tubes that a child might crawl through, a gigantic soft giraffe that almost touched the ceiling, and forts and spaces draped with cloth where a child might nest. “What?” I answered. “This house,”he said, “the children, they have the run of the house.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ve met them, they’re very happy children, with loving, doting parents.”

Trick or Treat, InshaAllah*

November 17, 2009

There is something wrong with stop signs in French. They don’t look right: ARRÊT. Stop is red, the color of blood, warning; it is eight-sided and four-lettered; S-T-O-P. Slapping an ARRÊT on a STOP sign doesn’t make it so – it just looks like a STOP sign with a weird word on it. And what’s with the circumflex? over the E? the crooked accent, that folded thing? Are they trying to be cute? They don’t fool me. Every time I see the circumflex I see the ‘s’ that used to be there: forêt means forest; hôpital, hospital; arrêt, arrest. They are not fooling anyone. Mr. Ostrowsky taught me that in 7th grade French class, that the circumflex is a sign, a reminder of a lost s. But why do French people need reminders of lost letters? Why not just leave the letter there? Why drop it and tack on a reminder? Indecisive, sentimental, nostalgic, fancy…ARRÊT… give me STOP any day, or, at a minimum, ARREST.

Such were the perverse thoughts that circumflexed my brain as Jo and I went trick or treating, door to door, (or should that be tricking or treating?) in Laval, Quebec three weeks ago, stopping at all those arrêt signs with their missing s’s, following a flock of Pakistani-Canadian children and their happy mothers. Actually it was door to every tenth, or twentieth door, as the good people of Laval do not make a fuss over Halloween. Most of the porch lights were off and there were virtually no decorations anywhere. We owned the street, but were hard pressed to find candy and only bumped into two other groups of trick or treaters all night. I wore my multicolored crazy quilt Joseph coat, Jo had on her wedding dress with a gigantic flaming pink fake boa while Sumera and the mothers wore typical and beautiful South Asian garb under Western style overcoats and –this was a first– no head scarves.

My family had had a big discussion a few days before the trip; Natessa expressing surprise that our devout Muslim friends would even celebrate Halloween and myself quibbling over whether celebrate is the proper term. Observe? Practice? What is Halloween? It’s not really a celebration. It’s more a concession, an accommodation, to the night, to the other side, to our strange superstitious past, to spirits, ghouls, to the idea of worlds — of the living, of the dead, and veils that grow thin between them. You don’t celebrate Halloween. You participate. You go trick or treating. You become the ghoul, the demon, the sweet-demanding devil.

The girls had a blast. When we found a house with a porch light on they would ring the bell and stand silently, smiling with their bags held high. I’d yell at them to say “trick of treat” but they didn’t obey. “Trick or treat” had less meaning than a circumflex to these five through eight year olds who spoke fluent Urdu, Punjabi, some French and Arabic but only a smattering of English. They were princesses, a comic book hero, and a bumblebee — no ghouls in sight. But they did know about a certain kind of veil, a place between worlds, or at least their parents did. Just a few years ago they were homeless, feared and fearful refugees, fleeing a post 9/11 America, stranded on the border, peering into the agents’ eyes, seeking asylum, a home, no trick, just an appeal to be treated with respect, and given a chance to prove themselves as new citizens. These are the lucky ones, Sumera and her family, and their friends. Let in, given that chance, now making the grade. And here they are, with head scarves off, laughing in the night with their wide-eyed children filling their bags with candy from strangers.

We saw only one jack o’ lantern — all night. The French really don’t celebrate Halloween. I guess it’s an Irish-Anglo thing; the French are too enlightened, too frank, too free, for such tawdry Celtic nonsense. Too abbreviated. I told Sumera about the turnips, about how, in pre-pumpkin Ireland, the people would hollow out a turnip and carve a face in it and place a burning ember inside and leave it on their doorstep to ward off the devil and his minions, and also leave sweets to satisfy them. She nodded as if she understood, perhaps thinking of the pre-Islam nature religions that Mohammed himself had to negotiate with, conquer, appease. I thought of Allah, originally the god of the idol worshippers in Mecca, now the great God of Creation and all Muslims, and of El, the high god of the nature religions of Canaan and Mesopotamia who donated his name to the great Lord God of the Jews. El-Shaddai. God Almighty. (Is it significant that the names Allah and El derive from the same word/name?)

Are they are still there, old Allah, old El, old Beelzebub and the others, those old nature gods, or are they just harmless devils to be mocked and bought off with sweets? Are they smiling from inside our pumpkins? Are they lost and gone forever or is Halloween a circumflex, a folded circle pointing forward and backward, cryptically, crookedly but directly at them? Or do I just need to work off this sugar high, learn to appreciate the French, abbreviate my fevered brain?

* Arabic for ‘if the God is willing’