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.

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?

words and freedom

February 20, 2010

pinned to my wall

the tongue of a wise wag

October 18, 2009

The tongue of a wise wag once wigged “The teeth are hard and fall out — the tongue is soft and remains.” Tell that, I wangle, to those tiny back triangles, those millions years old sharks’ teeth that keep washing up on Florida’s shores – with nary a tongue in sight. Ah, but sorry little teeth they be, teeth without bite, without jaw or gullet, with no use but to hang pathetic, in plastic baggies next to cash registers in museum shops around the world.

While we and I keep talking, wigging and wagging, telling the stories that lift and carry, and carry us with them, for good and for ill, stories of heros and villains, wise men and and war, lies, myths, and conundrums, stories that create and perpetuate war and violence, stories that transform and bring peace, words that cut to the core of our being and heal us and words that merely cut.

Tooth to tongue and tongue to tooth and tongue to tongue these words restless waft. The shark (I am told) can not stop swimming. If it does it dies; these words can not sit still, on the page, off the page, into the mouth the ear, the heart and mind, around us now hanging in the air.

Lying alone in my dusty bed, leafing through a book of Jewish tales, I read: “Words can draw nails from the heart.” Scrawled now on a slip of paper tacked to the wall above my million toothed 6×48 belt sander- words can draw nails from the heart- now hanging in this air, around our heads, entering our hearts, – words can draw nails from the heart.

A man, a singer, an archaeologist of words, finds, in a maritime museum, a tooth from a whale – a whale who met a horrible fate to keep the oil lamps of New England lit. The light is long extinguished, the oil spent, the carcass recycled into 10,000 beings, yet this tooth remains, because it is hard, and because a tongue-wagging, heart-flagging sailor took a knife, another kind of tooth, and scratched into it words. These words now discovered by the folklorist who merges them with the melodies from two old English hymns and sings them while another tooth scratches them into warm soft vinyl, a record purchased and played on my stereo, the words renewed, cut thru the air again.

While on the sea my days are spent in anxious care, oft discontent,
No social circles here are found, few friends to virtue here abound.
I think of home, sweet home denied, with her I love near by my side.

See hoisted high the flag of love, by heavenly breezes waved,
Here sailors stop and orders hear, obey and you’ll be saved.

When will kind fortune smile on me, that I might quit this boisterous sea?
I love my friends, I love the shore, I long to leave this ocean’s roar.
Then home, sweet home will be my pride, with her I love near by my side

See hoisted high the flag of love, by heavenly breezes waved,
Here sailors stop and orders hear, obey and you’ll be saved.

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.

I tip my head

March 4, 2009

I tip my head
and these words
fall onto the page
stains that can not be removed/wiped off

As the Worm Turns

March 3, 2009

I was sprawled on the ground, hands scrabbling, combing through the wet grass, eyes darting, peering, squinting. My big wise sixteen year old brother Tommy came walking by, blocking the sun like a hawk: “What are you doing Danny?” “Looking for worms,” I answered. “Why?” “I don’t know, just looking for worms.” He hovered there for a moment, staring down at me and the grass, and then said: “If you want to find worms, don’t look for worms, look for movement.” And he turned away.

My hands slowed as his words wormed into my ears then flew through my neurons, lighting up, creating some new complex of synapses in my young brain. How do you look for movement? What is “movement.” Is it a thing? What does it look like? My hands stopped; my body stopped; my eyes stopped their stupid darting and began to focus. Movement. The blades of grass were moving, slowly, springing back from where I had pressed them. One blade or two or three gently releasing, unmatting. And then more. This was movement. It wasn’t a worm, but it was movement. I noticed the texture of the blades, the individual blades, long parallel veins crowded close like threads. It was all vein, all texture, each blade. I had never noticed veins in grass before. “These are like leaves,” I thought. Are these leaves? And none were really straight, each blade curved slightly and twisted, and all that gentle curving and twisting crossed and wove into a mesh of green that seemed to reach up, to point up, to the sky? to the sun? The sun that moved across the sky? Was that movement? And is something moving in those veins?

The grass had felt wet to my hands, sticky wet, annoying wet, but now I saw the wet, sticking to the blades, tiny pearls of wet, still and swelling, some merging and then  riding the edge of the blade down to the shadowy soil. This movement. I was forgetting about worms. I was just looking, and seeing. And thinking about movement, about kinds of movement, plant movement, water, animal. In forty-five-year-later-hindsight/mindsight I think now of the movement that was and is my thinking, those flashing electric synapping synapses that fired and flew and swarmed in my six-year-old brain as I hunched in silence, the world of one square foot of front yard revealing itself to me. And then small, roundish, brownish, all-by-itselfish walking-up-the-blade movement, a beetle scurried into view. Or scurrying came into view. Is it its movement? Is noun and verb the same? Is act and actor one? In whose brain are these questions moving? The six year old or the fifty-one? Or yours, dear reader? Do you know that grass, grow,  and green  all stem from one root? Of course they do. Grass being the noun of which grow is the verb of which green the adjective. The grass grows green. The green grass grows. Was there speech before there were parts of speech?

I found more beetles, or the motions of more beetles found me. I don’t think I found a worm. I didn’t care. I found so many other things, movements, ideas, questions, puzzles. Where is that beetle going? What does it eat? How does it eat? Is grass a leaf? Is everything moving? I didn’t touch or take any of them, yet they all touched and took me, moved me, as the simple imperative from Tommy had touched and stopped me, stopped my moving, or refined it and focused it. Don’t look for worms. Look for movement. Don’t look for things, look for activity. Don’t look for nouns, look for verbs. Learn to see. Be a verb. Verbify. Move.

Concluding bookwormy postscript:  Moment, the smallest possible fragment of movement, and the day, the hour, around which history turns. Emotion. Motive. Move. What moves you? All one root, meaning “push.” Worm, from a root meaning “turn” and “twist” (yes the worm does turn). Think of a worm gear, or of wriggling,  or of vermin (again, all one root.) Or vermicelli, that wormy wriggly pasta. The worm wriggles in the green grass. Which comes first, the wriggle or the worm? The grass or the growth? The movement or the moment? Or do they arrive together?