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.

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.

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?

“If you use a table saw, regularly, you will get hurt, eventually. It will happen.” Gary was the master of mechanics, of force, geometry, physics – the pope of production woodworking, all-knowing, emphatic, protective, a tough shepherd tending and warning his flock of whiz-bangers, local high school grads and the occasional seminary dropout who had found their way to the small, sawdusty dollhouse factory on Central Vermont’s own B-M road.

“You will get injured,” his words repeated softly in my mind as my eyes sharpened their focus on the fierce circular carbide-tipped blur that hummed just in front of us. “Not me, not me, nope, not me, not gong to happen,” was my silent mantric response. “Really, Gary?”I burst out, What if I’m really, really careful?” He stopped and smiled that annoying smile. I had taken the bait. “Yes, you will. And being really, really careful will only make the injury worse, and more likely.”

“Safety around power equipment is not about being careful, but about understanding the forces that are in play, respecting them, and mastering the proper techniques and procedures. If you waste your attention on being cautious, being careful, on trying not to get hurt, you only increase the chances. Injuries happen to everyone, but if you know what you are doing, do it well and consistently, work within the limitations and constraints of the tool, your injuries will be fewer and more likely to be minor, and you’ll be back working the next day.”

Gary shared that wisdom in the Fall of 1984 and I have yet to sustain a serious table saw injury, though I use one almost every day. I have lost control of the wood a few times, had it veer away from the fence and into the path of the back of the blade – the dangerous part- which seized it and flung it back towards my torso at a dangerous speed. There have been times when I’ve broken the cardinal rule – keep the workspace open, clear, and unencumbered – and had a stack of completed parts that were teetering on the table fall into the carbide blur and scatter across the shop like pellets from a shotgun. Once I did push a fingertip directly into the blade – the front, the cutting edge, the ‘safer’ part. Safer because it only cuts, doesn’t wrench, seize, twist or fling. It bled, it hurt, but was easily cleaned, stitched, healed. I couldn’t use that finger for a month but now have to search for the scar to identify it.

I do remember the P. A. though, the physician’s assistant, at the Health Center, her firm grip as she injected the pain killer, cleaned and scrubbed the wound, examined it, cleaned and brushed some more, uncautiously, carefree, relaxed, talkative, confident, master of her workspace, my finger, and technique as she reached for the needle and sutures and proceeded to sew right through my fingernail. Two stitches, a dressing, some instructions and she’s showing me the door. “How can you do that, sew right through a fingernail? so casually, without flinching, without fuss?” I asked. “It’s what I do. And it’s the only way to suture an injury like yours. It will be fine.”

The word I’m trying to get to here is care because health care reform is all the rage in D.C. and around the country. Care is etymologically a fairly negative term; it’s root meaning groan, growl. The same root yielded cur, annoying, growling dog. Care as worry, anxiety about fearful things – injury, sickness, death. Over time it also comes to mean alleviating those cares; it comes to mean cure, a word that looks similar but has a different root.

We’re all going to get hurt, table saw or not. We’re all going to suffer injury, sickness, and death. Will we be careful, anxious, will we avoid medical attention because we can’t afford it? or afford the insurance? Will our insurance pay for it? Will our concern over cost delay our visit to the doctor and make it worse? and more costly, for everyone? And is the medical workspace itself, the interface between patient and practitioner, ‘open and unencumbered’ or do insurance company shareholder concerns hover and crowd around the operating table, the examination room, the pharmacy? Does a for-profit business model free our practitioners or hem them in? Will a government regulated public health model provide less interference?

And will we have the discipline and courage to have a clear and open discussion about these issues or is the money that is streaming into the pockets of our Representatives, Senators and Cable News hacks cluttering and polluting our public thinkspace? There are plenty of things to worry about here. How much better might it be to think clearly about them, and calmly? And make decisions with the public health in mind? Will we understand the ‘forces that are in play’ and learn to master them, as a society, or will we just worry about vague fearful things and try hard not to get sick?

It was probably the hundredth meal I had eaten with them and this time I was going to figure it out. How they ate. Without utensils, without getting their hands dirty. I sat on the floor with seven-year old Menahil and her two younger sisters, our plates neatly placed on a rectangular cloth laid on the rug. She pressed her fingertips hard into the parata, the pita-like bread that lay round and flat on her plate, pushing her rigid right hand straight down like a spatula and rocking it, weakening it, forcing a fault line, a rip line, and then with her middle, third and little fingers holding down the larger part, she gripped the smaller with her thumb and first finger and tugged until, single-handedly, she tore the piece away.

She then manipulated the fragment in her fingers, pinching it, forming it into a kind of cup and then shoveled it into the curry, the chunks of chicken, the chickpeas, using it as a flexible, edible spoon, bringing the food up to her mouth, using the piece a few times before it too was eaten, and then she repeated the process – pressing her fingertips in, then spreading, pushing and pulling, ripping.

All the while her left hand rested. Unused. Ahhh. I understood, finally. I looked around. All the left hands, her younger sisters’ and her father’s, sat passively on the rug. Some old fear was present here, fresh and alive in a seven year-old, and her six and five-year old sisters. Three little girls eating their food with one hand tied to a taboo and the other clean, efficient, and artful. They had learned that the left hand was bad, dirty, only used for dirty things, and it had lead to this skillful, single-handed style of eating.

I first met Menahil in February of 2003. I thought of her as baby girl Jesus. It was winter, she was a toddler and was traveling with her young mother and somewhat older father. They were the holy family, fleeing Herod, on Amtrak, homeless, depending on the kindness of strangers; only it wasn’t quite Herod, but a hostile political party in their home country of Pakistan, and the anti-dark-skinned-Muslim xenophobia that had gripped the United States after September, 2001. They were too liberal (left-wing?) for Pakistan and too Muslim and dark for the US, so they had set their sights for Canada and gotten trapped in the no-country land at the border. This was just three weeks before the US would begin to bomb Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

A total of six Pakistani refugees bunked with us that month. Our own children are adopted from India so for Jo and me it was a welcome experience to see them surrounded by people of similar skin color and ethnic background. They loved it. Finally, Mom and Dad were in the minority! And we ate really good food. Sumera (Mary) cooked dinner every night, filling the house with wonderful and spicy smells. And Sajjad (Joseph) and I would stay up late discussing religion and world affairs and humanity and what it means to be a “true human being” and what Westerners think about Mohammed. And Ishmael. We talked about Ishmael, first born son of Abraham, father of the Arabs, pre-prophet of Islam, the chosen son of Abraham, the one that God told Abraham to sacrifice as a test of his faith… “Wait,” I said, “I thought that was Isaac, Isaac was the one almost sacrificed, Ishmael was the rejected one, the one sent out into the desert with his haughty mother Hagar.” “Oh, no,” explained Sajjad, “Isaac was a great man too, he is the father of the Jews, but Ishmael was the first-born, the chosen.” “Really?” I said, but I thought, “ah, a different version of the Abraham/sacrifice story with the sons switched, and the ancient insistence about the primacy of the first-born, the one who “opens the womb.” The first born who is blessed, and sits at the right hand of the father, the hand of power and might, the hand of blessing.

Did you know that the root of bless means blood, that blood and bless share the same root? Because the temple priest would kill the ram, or goat, or pigeon, and spray its blood around the altar. In churches they do not spray the blessed blood, but pour it and drink it, symbolically, as wine. God bless America. Hmmm…

And right. The root of right means straight, stretched. The right way is the straight way, the correct way, the mainstream way. The crooked way is bad. Only crooks and scoundrels walk it, leftists and homosexuals. To be erect is to stand straight up. The righteous are right, by definition, and the right way rules. Rule itself, and royal, regal, reign, Rex (king) all derive from the same rightist root. The Divine Right of Kings, the right hand that holds the scepter, the symbol of power, that holds the weapon, the threat of violence that guarantees power. Right makes might. Might is right and a sign of the deity’s blessing. And there is only one right way. One God. One blessed Son. One Prophet. And so only one right hand. The left, the gauche (French for left), the sinister (Latin), is the rejected other, the one relegated to shit, to dirt. And so with people, races, and nations. One nation rules over another, one race over another, one color, one sexuality.

Or… not. Slavery is abolished (in some places). The working class gains rights. A majority white nation elects a black president. Gender and sexual minorities assert rights — are right. Despite its etymology, and cranky taboos, there emerges more than one way of being right, of being a true human being, and of breaking bread – single-handedly, double-handedly, with utensils, with refugees at your table, or in Montreal, on a rug, with a no longer homeless baby girl Jesus and her

flips, flops, and fiddles

August 16, 2009

fiddle and sandalsI think people are staring at my sandals; I hope it’s my sandals, and not the fungus under my big toenail. As I walk along Third Avenue to the car, or down to Hoy’s, or to the beach. They are all wearing Teva’s or designer flip flops, factory made imports with alert little logos. And they all (almost all) have little white plugs in their ears and cords that drape around their necks leading to some kind of rectangular monitor that they strap to their biceps or waistband. As they walk by, or run by (there are lots of runners here), if you are quiet, you can hear a buzzing sound coming out of their ears.

And amidst all the ear-buzzing and chattering and boutiques and all the young bodies strapped into bikinis and draped in jams … they keep looking at my sandals.
Allan Block made them for me a good 20 years ago. They are the kind of thing Jesus might be asked to wear if he was starring in a made-for-TV movie. Simple. Flat leather soles with one thin strap that loops and wraps my toe, foot and ankle and returns to end in a single knot. Functional. Well-made. Handmade. Not a logo in sight.

Allan is a fiddler and poet and singer. He was the sandal-maker to the Beat generation, and then the Folk Revival, at least the revival that happened in New York City, in Greenwich Village, on West 4th Street where he had his sandal shop in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and presided over a nightly old time music jam. He is an urban legend and now a New England one, living on Bible Hill Road in a town in New Hampshire, still making music and, I think, sandals. I first met him at NEFFA, the annual traditional music and dance festival in Natick, Mass. He was setting up his booth next to mine, laying out his samples and belts and bags, plugging in his buffing wheel and old floor lamp. He was thin, and spry, his body a little crooked, especially around his neck and shoulders, bent, I would soon learn, around the shape of a fiddle, which he played, hour after hour, with different small groups of old friends and new who would crowd themselves into his corner. Bent the way a vine grows around a tree.

I didn’t need to leave my booth, rush to this stage or that, to hear good music. I could just sit and listen to Allan and his friends: Old Time, Appalachian, New England, banjo, guitar, mandolin, voice, a steady and bank-sloshing stream of melodies and songs, blues, bawdy, nonsense, with Allan blazing away at the center, burning cool, hot, and delightful, just four feet away.

Between the Beats and the beats I just had to get a pair. He stood me on piece of stiff paper, a shirt cardboard I believe, and crouched down, Golem-like, and traced my feet with a thick pencil. He looked at my arches, made some marks and arrows on the cardboard and asked for a deposit. I wrote him a check, bought his one music cassette, and two months later, the sandals appeared in my Calais mailbox.

Twenty years ago. I am still wearing them. I’ve taken them to Boisvert’s in Barre a few times, soles reinforced, straps strengthened. I’ve taken them my forty year old wood and leather clogs, too. I hope they’re glad to see me come in the door. Restoring things, fixing things, making them last. Henry P. gave me the clogs in 1984. He was a friend from seminary days. “Those are great clogs, Henry,” I said one day. “Would you like them, Dan?” “Sure.” “Here, they’re yours.” Henry’s easy generosity is forever attached to those clogs. I think of him and his gesture every time I put them on. He’s retired now, from the priesthood, but the clogs aren’t; I’m still wearing them. I think of Allan and his fiddle and his lusty version of Barlow Knife whenever I strap on his sandals, and of the Boisvert clan and their skilled, challenge-loving, employees, who’ve stared and thought and turned it over in their hands and heads, searching for fixes for my footwear.

I see stories everywhere. Objects, things, are thick with them. When I look at my fancy $100 running shoes I see worlds of people I’ll never know. Anonymous Chinese faces and hands working at top speed, cutting, sewing, glueing, lacing, placing them in boxes. I see bigger boxes and fork lifts, trucks, big red containers and cranes lowering them onto great ocean vessels. Massive engines and diesel fuel being burned by the thousands (millions?) of gallons. Waste and oil glistening in the long shining wake. And I see the landfill where these shoes will someday (soon) lie, twisted, suffocating in ripped black plastic and stench. I see landfills almost everytime I walk into a large department or big box store. They are just highly organized landfills that don’t stink yet. Pre-landfills. It’s a curse, seeing all these pasts and futures, which perhaps explains my attachment to durable, handmade footwear and why, at the age of 52, I have picked up the fiddle.

Like his sandals the songs that Allan plays weren’t made in windowless factories, and won’t end up in landfills. They are full of life, energy, pathos, humor, and foot-pounding rhythms. They live in the moments that they are being played yet carry with them echoes of centuries of earlier playings, earlier dancings. They convey life and energy that extends deep into our past, into our bodies, our beating hearts, and lifts us up, makes us dance, laugh, and cry.

The Jersey Shore is a bit of a wasteland for the likes of me and my sandals, but flowers will bloom in the desert. Our second day here I met a fellow Vermonter, Liza, the vibrant, graceful fourteen year old granddaughter of our old friend Allan Mackay of East Calais. She is a fiddler and student of Vermonter Beth Telford who is herself a student and friend of Jerry Holland, the great Cape Breton fiddler who, Liza informed me, had died just two weeks prior. We spent an hour on her porch in Avalon, just three miles from our apartment in Stone Harbor, with me trying to play a couple of Appalachian tunes and her blazing through Scottish and Cape Breton melodies. “Shall I teach you one?” she asked. “Sure.” And she did, phrase by phrase, patiently, the A part, the B, over and over, from the beginning, to the middle, back to the beginning, to the end, until I had it, her tanned bare foot lifting and pounding out the rhythm on the old plank floor, her long, lithe fingers dancing up and down the neck. It was a new tune, one just entering the tradition, composed by Holland for a friend of his who had died. Liza couldn’t remember the title or find it in the little spiral notebook she carried, but she knew the melody, every interval, every twist, and she passed it to me, note for note, beat for beat.

The word this week is fiddle/violin, two different words with different connotations, but for the same instrument and from the same Latin root: Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy and victory… and partying. Her name itself comes from a root meaning to lift, to raise up, as in to shout for joy, to get up on your feet and dance, to raise your spirits, or a glass of spirits, to lift yourself up, and your friends.

We’re a problem species, that’s for damn sure, with our petroleum flip flops and dying seas, and buzzing earplugs; and we’re also a precious, vibrant, beautiful species, young and old, and open, telling stories, making up stories, longing for beauty and joy and a good life, and eager to share it, in a sandal shop in Greenwich Village, in a living room jam in rainy Montpelier, on a dance floor in Cape Breton, or on a porch in beautiful, summery New Jersey.

A Welcome Arrival

July 14, 2009

Working on origin, and this great quote from Emerson: “Language is fossil poetry. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have once been a brilliant picture.” And orient. And horizon.  They all have to do with rising, I think. The or is a remnant, a fossil fragment of an ancient verb, from a time before writing, before letters, before history, but spelled er or eur by modern linguists, meaning to rise, to flow, to move. That’s what my books say. The earliest meaning is probably flow. The r in river is a piece of the same fossil, evidence of the same root. The word rise itself, same root. Arrive. A flowing rising river is doubly redundant, inundatingly redundant.

It is found again in the conjugation of our most fundamental verb, to be, in are. They are, we are. Same fossil, same root, now meaning to exist. Existence is movement, rising and flowing, to be alive is to rise and move. To stop moving, to fall, to lie still, is to die.

Origin, the place of rising, of first movement. Orient, the place of the sun’s rising, now simply the east. To orient, to know the directions, to know where you are, how to find your way.

But I’m wrong about horizon. The or fossil is a look-alike but from a different species, from horos, a younger word, Greek, of unknown origin (!) meaning limit, border, boundary, dividing line.  I am disappointed. I wanted it to be the same, the redundancy would be pleasant, the sun rising above the place of rising.

Sitting here pondering these things, on a sunny Sunday morning, seeing in my mind’s eye a brilliant picture, an ancient sun rising over the Caucasus ten thousand years ago, shining down on my chattering Indo-European forbears, when my laptop pings. An email has arrived, flowing in through the ether from my father. Subject heading: A Joyful Sunday.

My mother died seven months ago today. We were all with her. One of the last pieces of news she received was that my older sister’s daughter was pregnant, with her first child. Life flows on. The email from my father was announcing that my niece had given birth early this morning, to a girl. Seven months to the day. The sun over the Caucasus flew out the window and I burst into tears of joy and sorrow.

Within a hour a picture popped up on my facebook page, her sister had posted it. There they were, mother and child, the child the great grandchild of my mother, someone who had birthed me, held and nursed me the way Megan now held and suckled hers. And now gone. Seven months gone. And yet there, on my screen, in an other hospital room, in the mountains of North Carolina, not gone at all, in the smile, the loving embrace.

To flow, to move, to exist, to rise. To come into existence. This new baby rising like the sun. Megan, exhausted, yet beaming like a mother sun, milk flowing like a river from her swelling breast. The baby rising from the loving flowing of her parents, the loving movements of her grandparents, her great-grandparents.

Life goes on, flowing, moving, rising– and yet we die, we lie down and stop moving. The horizon stands in the distance, more clear to me, and closer than ever before, the divide that we must all cross, that my beloved mother has so recently crossed, that separates us now from her, this line that sets the sun.

And yet. And yet. Life does go on. Our mouths are full of words and fragments of words, fragments of pictures tens of thousands of years old, our blood with water billions of years old; the salt in my tears, how old is that? the sweetness in her milk, how perfect and ancient and ever-new is that?

What a Thing Is

April 25, 2009

Sometimes a word is just a word; one sound, one meaning is enough. There are no backstories, no tales of travel down odd byways.
No need to walk out along the word’s edge or backflip into its depth and watch the interesting old fish swim slowly by. Perhaps. I just haven’t found one yet.

Take thing. Or let it take you. Thing, the overused hyperbland generic of generics. The universal non-descript. The word that stands for everything, and anything. A place holder, a filler, a word your English teacher would cross out. “Be specific!” “Use picture words, sense words!” Any old thing. The thing is. He has a thing for her. There is going to be a thing. Thingamabob. Thingy. Thingamajig.

But take the shallowest of dives into thing and where are you but in a picture, and a very specific place, in medieval Iceland, and you are walking, not swimming, in a mass of people gathering in a great hall or outdoor amphitheater. The whole village has turned out, and the villages surrounding, and those farther afield. Some pressing matter is at hand, a big decision affecting everyone, perhaps a new law is being considered, or a new venture to Greenland is being planned, or violence has broken out between two communities, or a disease is ravaging the sheep — some matter (now there’s a word, matter) or matters of importance. And the way medieval democratic Icelanders made policy was through the ultimate Town Meeting, the Thing, the Althing. The Thing to which all were invited. In Old Norse and Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic languages, a thing or ting or ding was an assembly, a group of people called together to make decisions. And they did. And after a while the meaning of the word migrated, spread, from the deciders, the assembly, to the issues they were deciding or discussing. Things, as it turns out, decide things, talk about things, think about things. And released from its heavy booted palaverous root the meaning of thing spread rapidly in many semantic directions. A thing can be an object, an idea, a desire, even an unnamed body part and tool of desire. It can be of value, or an ideal, or a mere thing. There are even things that aren’t things (see the bumper sticker*). And a when a word can be what it isn’t …. that’s a truly wonderful word (and thing).

And, while we’re still in the shallows, swim over to England and the Husting, which is to say the House-Thing, the gathering of the King’s House, his ministers. The US President may have a Cabinet but the English King has a House-Thing. And follow Husting as its meaning shifts and sails the Atlantic, decapitalizes, democratizes, and enters the jargon of political campaigning, being used now to mean the places and platforms where candidates for election gather and where they travel, from husting to husting, stump to fat stump, delivering their speeches, and once in a while, hopefully, talking about real things.

Optional deeper dive for the thrill-seekers:

You may ask, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, Mr. WordMan, but why was that heavy booted Icelandic assembly called a Thing to begin with? And why was it a Hus-ting and not a Hus-someting-else? Did they just pull ting out of ‘tin’ air?” No, they didn’t. This word is not just a word. There was a thing before the thing, below the ting, inside the ding, and though the deeper you dive the darker the waters the strange fish that floats by is our familiar friend time. The root of time and the root of thing turn out to be the same, two leaves on the same great tree. And this long before Einstein put time and space into one equation. It makes sense, of course, because you can’t actually have a grand meeting unless everyone shows up at the same time (and the same place). Which is exactly the earlier meaning of ding ting thing: appointed time. A point in time. A point and place where people gather to be counted, to talk, to decide. And a good time was had by all. Till next time.

* the bumper sticker reads “The best things in life aren’t things.”

(Part One was about a packed dirt cave in southern Spain which was also a museum dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.)

I never saw the needles, except in my mind’s eye. They are part of a story, the central image, the thing I remember most clearly. Nine, ten, twelve needles, all in a row, stuck into the wooden mantel over the fireplace, each one with a thread through its eye and that long white thread dangling down.

Glory, great aunt Glory, couldn’t see to thread them so Uncle Johnny, whom I never knew, would do that for her, every morning before he left for work, and line them up, stuck into the mantel, so she could feel for them, find them, and do the day’s darning.

There was a name for her condition, but she wouldn’t say it, didn’t choose to admit it. She could see, sort of, around the periphery. She never looked at you directly but at your shoulder, or at the top of your head. It didn’t look like she was seeing. She looked confused, even disoriented, which was a little unnerving to me as a child. But she wasn’t confused. And she was always smiling. She was placing you in the periphery, along the edges of her eye, her retina, and she could see you, not well, but could make out your shape. And she could sew. Great aunt Glory. My grandmother’s sister.

Do you have any idea how many nerve cells are crammed into the tips of your fingers? A lot. More than in the rest of your hands, arms, shoulders, back, something like that. The tactile world, in large part, enters through our fingertips. Your eye has a ‘fingertip,’ a tiny yellow bump of a spot in the retina, directly opposite the pupil, that is similarly packed with nerves, in this case, light receptors. The center of vision, the center of focus, the spot that does most of the work of seeing. The size of a lentil, and if it is damaged, or detached, you can not thread a needle, recognize a face, or look your husband in the eye.

In medical jargon it is called the macula, which from Latin translates as spot. A good spot, an important one, one that needs to stay healthy, attached. Otherwise, macular degeneration, and the loss of vision.

But good spots are hard to come by. Generally spots are stains, and stains are, well, problematic. Just this week I spent an hour and three sheets of sandpaper removing stains from a newly exposed beam. Water spots, mold spots, dark age spots. Spots draw the eye. What caused that spot? Eyes focus on stains. There is usually a story behind a stain. Spots, unless you are a leopard, are added to something, something that otherwise would be spotless, even pure. Signs of activity, of injury, of passion, of age, leaking, dripping, spilling, water, urine, blood, you name it.

Or spots on a south-facing wall, the stains from cow dung thrown there to dry, to be used later as fuel. Missiles of dung, missives of dung, masses of manure spotting the wall, maculizing the wall. My chief source for all things etymological, Joseph Shipley, claims that the root of macula, ‘spot’ is an ancient Indo-European verb that meant ‘to throw,’ smeit, which besides macula also yielded missile, missal, message, and mass, as in the Holy Mass. Something thrown, something sent, to a friend, to a church, or against a wall. Through macula it gave us immaculate, unspotted, without stain. A clean slate.

The Church has claimed that all humankind is stained, that existence itself is spotty in some grand, overarching way, and that Jesus came as the great Stainremover, the Spotremover. And though never accepted by the entire Church and only made dogma by Roman Catholics in the 19th century, many Christians believe that for Jesus to have been such an effective stain remover his mother had herself to have been born without spots, literally immaculate, the Unspotted One, the Immaculate Conception. Thus Mary, when she was conceived in her mother’s womb, was conceived in a spotless, dripless state of grace.

Or such is the teaching. Ironic and beautiful and strange, easier to look at if we don’t stare directly at its center. Comforting and vague when seen in its periphery, with shifting shadows of guilt and sin and redemption, avoiding those ancient, weird, dung-colored superstitions about purity and cleanliness and south-facing walls that reside at its core.

Jennifer held the pen in her right hand and wrote. The letters formed
perfectly, just like they were supposed to, the way they do in the handwriting books and on the placards my
teacher had up around the classroom. Round, curved, leaning right, each form flowing into the next, smoothly. I was enthralled, mesmerized, never before had I seen such effortless and perfect penmanship. I was getting C’s in Handwriting – my lowest grades and no matter how hard I practiced my letters still looked lumpy and out of sorts, too upright, too tight, too loose -a sore point and discouragement, especially with a big sister who wrote so perfectly. As I watched her, in admiration and longing, I suddenly noticed
her pen. It was new and a kind I had never seen before.

The shape was exactly the same as a Bic pen, a hexagonal barrel, long,
straight, just like a pencil, but the plastic wasn’t transparent but a hard glassy orange opaque and the tip was sharp, sharp like a pin. The Bic pen was still a new product in 1964, the first disposable pen, at least the first that I remember, the first of a wave of disposability, pens that you can’t refill, a pen designed to be trashed when “finished.” Jennifer’s pen was,
of course, a Bic, the first fine point I had ever seen, and it worked flawlessly.

“Where did you get that?” I asked. “At the Ben Franklin. “Really?” I said
with glee, knowing that my salvation was at hand. I gathered my allowance and walked/ran the half mile along the old railroad tracks that bordered our Virginia backyard down to the ditch behind the shopping center and bought an identical pen, and rushed home to try it.

It worked. The first letter formed perfectly, just like Jennifer’s and the
writing book’s. The second letter was pretty good. But by the end of the first word it was painfully clear that the pen was not going to improve my handwriting. By the second word it had completely reverted to C quality. Aaargghhh.

Today I carry around a Targa. I have three of them – you can only buy them on eBay now. A calligrapher friend recommended it. Made by Sheaffer and discontinued years ago – a good writing pen – good ink flow – good nibs. I’ve carried one around for years, usually clipped into the neck of my undershirt, dangling against my sternum. When I reach for it it is always warm, ready for use, but that is mostly all I’ve done – had it at hand, ready, full of ink. If I can’t/don’t/won’t write at least I have a good pen…. to not write with??

The tool stands in, a substitute, a fetish, replacing the flesh and blood, the
flesh and nerve, the flesh and neuron. Tool ownership becomes a substitute for tool use, for self-expression, self-mastery, storytelling, myth-making, myth-breaking. The pen hangs, warm and ready, but remains a symbol, drenched in hope and “someday.”

In the mean time I discover (uncover, remove the cover from) words and their twisting, branching pathways. I find that the most abstract and high-falutin words began as humble useful objects, things, body parts. Style – now she’s got style – he’s a stylish character. Style, yes, from stylus, meaning pen, writing instrument. The word for the tool migrates and comes to mean the manner in which one uses the tool, one’s
Handwriting style. From there the word is loosed and is used to describe one’s hair, one’s clothing, one’s speech or way of designing. And before stylus? the root of stylus? It meant stick (in fact stick has the same root), a sharp stick used by some to make marks in the ground.

And character ? Questions of character…. does so and so have the right
character to be President? Before it was some deep, integral, and individual essence, character was, (and still is) a letter, a mark, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, cuneiform, each character being unique and distinct from every other, on account of its characteristics. And its meaning migrates from “distinct mark” to marks of distinction in the human personality. But where does character begin its journey? As kharax, a really old Greek word meaning, you guessed it, sharp stick, a mark maker, a different root from that of stylus but with the same original meaning.

Or manner. From Latin manus, meaning “hand.” One’s manner is literally how one handles oneself, how one holds oneself, the hand being the original and greatest of tools whether or not one’s cursive is perfect or whether you carry a sharpened carpenter’s pencil, a disposable ball point, or a pretentious fountain pen.