Now We Are Sixty
I am a dotty old Lady. No joke. I just got off the phone with a young mother of a nineteen month old from Georgia with a honeysuckle dripping- on- the – vine, Southern Belle kind of voice that evokes presumptions of such constitutional delicacy of demeanor, we can’t imagine her far from the fainting couch or smelling salts, the sweating crystal glass of minted iced tea with a quantity of granulated sugar laced lavishly with a baroque silver spoon inherited from her grandmother, Charlotte, on her Mama’s side. Gracious, scripted, contained, she is gorgeously frothing in organdy, ornamented in exquisite white lace made by a good many patient relics of the Ancien Regime, dames in white caps and jabots of their own making, their wrinkled liver spotted thin- skinned hands tatting away season after season, dawn to dusk, sitting sequestered in summer under the branching linden or lime, hunching close to the hearth for light and heat in the short cold days of winter away from the ripping winds, the shaking bare branches. Belle hovers on the broad and awninged porch of her Daddy, the Colonel’s Greek revival, column infested Southern mansion, ( Doric, ah believes, says the liveried lackey, pardon the gratuitous omission of p.c., Y’all) oozing Southern charm and hospitality, bourbon and branch water or juleps for the gentlemen who have loosened their starched collars and more than once, impelled by gallantry and seemliness, patted a dripping brow dry.
But no. This is my cable tech and she knows her onions, er, her modems and routers and cables. Not I. It is easily an hour from the time she has had me tugging at cords and cables, following a line from the what was I thinking? screen, for pity sake, when she clearly told me the computer, to the time when,
after I have found my mistake and unplugged the proper lines from the computer, the ding an sich, she tells me a bulletin has arrived, that the trouble is general to the area, not specific to me. Well now. Thank you. Bye Bye. Have a nice life, oh my patient forbearing mentor, allowing me, without demur, to fumble and curse, as I crawl gracelessly under the desk, to grapple with the rat’s nest knot of cable and line. I want to ask her how she came to be a tech, flouting the stereotype, and no doubt gratifying Mary Wollstonecraft, or anyone who has read and taken to heart : “You will forgive me ladies, if I treat you like rational creatures.” But I don’t ask, not wanting to break my concentration. I simply can’t throw up my hands in dismay: ah just can’t, ah need someone to hep po little ol me. If she thinks me slow witted or blind, she is too polite to mention it and as I am determined to succeed, simply must and do persevere, admitting a little slippage of powers, acceding, oh dear, the rights and lights of Alpha with a good grace. How fine a line between humility and humiliation, good sense and galling, pride – wounding loss.
But, even though I am losing altitude, I can only hope, if I name and claim for personal pronoun the name we all, each individual I, call ourselves in every language: ego, io yo,ich ,I… at once the most personal and universal of names, bespeaking our common origins, genetic inheritance and energy pool, the personal and mystical, the every and all. I like sidling up to the mysteries now and then, rubbing cheeks with the ineffable in the green room of possibility. But meanwhile in downtown reality, there is abundant evidence from every quarter and era, of our species’ proclivity for ending as besotted, wandering- witted fools, enjoying what is commonly called and often ruefully regretted, the second
childhood. Evidently it is a race between wisdom and senility and with any luck at all, we arrive with the former at the Finish Line…and joy to us all.
Lost Sock Warp
So much languishes, huddles, lounges, basks in the lost sock warp… not just the missing socks from the dryer, but essential, hah! things, thoughts, places, people… that won’t stay put where I can find them. Who knows what they’re up to, those escapees, those naughty, wild puppies, roaming etheric streets, free from human constraint and scripted obedience: stay! Refusing to stay! Gone missing: words phrases whole lines from poems I once knew by heart; beloved songs– first the words and then the melodies; names of friends, people I’ve known for thirty years I meet at the post office and we smile and exchange neighborly pleasantries, filling up the moments until the lights go on and we remember each other’s of course, how could I forget? name; and in my classroom I refuse embarrassment when I can’t recall the particulars of what I profess, which could be construed as not knowing– book titles, authors, characters, times and places, settings and plots. I hold up the self mocking mask of the good natured absent minded, still articulate, but ditzy professor. I say the information is hung up at a traffic light in Petaluma, or, my favorite refuge, we have data; we don’t have access.
Memory is now a sieve, more like a colander. And we all have our reasons and explanations: too much in the memory bank…the drawers stick and
there’s no WD40, like water overflowing the vessel, too many onions for the basket…as if the brain hadn’t capacity. How much grey matter is waiting in the wings at the ready to receive the footprints of our migrations and discoveries? Lots, honey, lots. Well, ok, because of all that smoke in the days of rock and roll, not that we’re not still dancing. Stress, then, and preoccupation… my mind footsore and heart sore, my sleep troubled in time of war. I grieve for friends lost, gone by neglect, product of my nomadic inclinations, my longstanding habit of setting up camp, inviting kindred spirits to sit at my table, to take warmth from my hearth, then packing up the 10,000 things and moving on. And lost through the last breath those beloved whom I would not have left, who could not stay.
Friends keep so much of who we are, remember what we cannot even remember we’ve forgotten and carry for us what we cannot carry. My late great goomba, Ed Halley, bore witness to our glory days in Marshall in the 70’s where I had been fortuitously summoned from the endless winters and cold sap of Vermont to cook at the Tavern. A while ago we were pining for the good old days when time was available to fill as we would, when possibilities were possible and gas was cheap. He remembered my menu. I called the locally caught fish and chips fish, Tiburon, knowing how few would have ordered shark. He recalled an incident I had entirely forgotten which restored to me a sense of who I was in exuberant youth, an ebullient feisty young woman whose sardonic proclivities made her name what others have called Caesar or Nicoise, Irving. Salade Irving. One evening a distraught diner called her from the kitchen and pointed to the intoxicated fly staggering through the garlic suffused salad greens on his plate. “What is that?” he demanded. “That,” said she, not missing a beat, “is Irving.”
C’est moi though I barely know her anymore or find her smooth skin and unflappable, unharried disposition under the wrinkled knees and circumstances of a woman of a certain age, a woman who has lived and died a gezillion times, suffering the slings and arrows, fortune’s fool. What gets me, though, the lowest blow, the cruelest joke is that I don’t remember the words to John Lennon’s “In my Life” or Bernstein’s “Tonight” or what’s his name’s “Autumn Leaves.” No, blankety blank, what I do remember is the sappy and insufferable ballad sung by Eddie Fisher.
”First the tide rushes in, plants a kiss on the shore
and rolls out to sea and the sea is very still once more. So I rush to your side
like the oncoming tide….” Feh!
What Do We Really Know?
My girl curls are grey now and as I contemplate the life that I have been given, the life I have lived, I wonder what I really know. Now my plump and dimpled girl hands are weathered. They are grandmother hands with thinning skin, articulate veins, and the thousand creased and wrinkled lines that emboss the parchment of flesh. Can the sieve, memory, be trusted? As with a smoldering campfire, the wisps of tenuous data adumbrate and disappear, just out of reach. Ephemera. All this the poets noted, warned me of, but my girl self, the young
woman I ,was haughty, heedless, seeming immortal . I would, could know all things- would, could keep knowledge in my cranium, ready and available always…but.
And while I have spent my life in passionate search for awareness and understanding, I am not so much impelled to make meaning as given to inquire. What do I really know? What do we really know? Here now at the edge of century and millennium, possibly at the brink of extinction, anyone can see what a confounding mess we have on our hands. In our tenure on the planet, we’ve whacked and hacked, weeded and hoed. We’ve erected citadels, laid waste and despoiled. We’ve dominated, predated, vanquished, polluted and oppressed. And: We’ve succored our children, cherished one another, and cultivated the garden. What a species.
Intermittently strutting and stumbling on the high wire, without a net, juggling hatpins and balloons, we find our precarious balance between hope and despair. The human condition. Ever thus.
Is there no balm in Gillead?
Surely we who have created the hanging gardens of Babylon, the sphynxes and
pyramids in Giza, aqueducts and the Roman Road, the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame and Chartres, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, the pueblos high on the mesas of Arizona and New Mexico, Stonehenge, the great figures on Easter Island, the cave paintings in Lascaux, Hoover Dam, Mt. Rushmore, surely we who have built a channel through the Isthmus of Panama, rerouted rivers to make the desert bloom, sunk cables under the ocean, sent rockets to the moon, surely we who have built outriggers and schooners, bathyspheres and submarines, airplanes and helicopters, automobiles and trains, surely we who
have nearly eliminated Smallpox and Polio, invented telescopes and microscopes, radar and sonar, printing press and Internet, X rays and MRIs, resisters, transistors , woofers and tweeters, computer chips, pizza and apple pie, surely we can clean up the mess we’ve made, solve our problems, and heal the planet and ourselves made sick by our excesses and ignorance, our carelessness and greed.
The systems in the body work in harmony and accord, complementing and supplementing each other. The body seeks homeostasis — balance. If we look at the corollary macrocosm, we see the earth is similarly a net of interweaving systems that require harmony and balance. Each individual is a part of a family and community within any given environment and a part of larger and larger wholes. We are masses of swirling molecules and energy, fabricated of elemental building material. Our DNA and RNA can be said to be on Inter-galactic Loan to us. We are the ephemeral vessels through which they pass. From this perspective, in such a context, we are able to see ourselves as one(s) among many. Thus what is good for the whole must be taken into account.
We need wilderness, clean air, water, earth. We need a supportive and nurturing environment that produces optimum chance for survival, flourishing and thriving….the greatest good for the greatest number of sentient beings, life forms, organic and inert particles here on Terra Firma, the blue planet, rotating on its axis, orbiting the sun inside the Milky Way.
Ancient wisdom traditions , which are often alluded to and seldom heeded , may offer us a way out of the apparent impasse, the stalemate created by the conflicting claims of the one and the many, the individual and the community. Shall we continue to strive for personal gain and glory, via ambition,
competition and dirty tricks ? ( Oh the loop holes, the bailouts, the laundering , the PACs, the clubs, the patronage- all the quid pro quos of golf course and boardroom- the special interests, the some pigs is more equal mentality that infests private and public spheres.) Or shall we remember the commonweal, the good of the whole, via compassion and cooperation? Or perhaps we, like the ancients, will choose the Middle Way. We have seen the excesses of the extremes: the pampered few and the hard- pressed many; one size fits all. The former is clearly unfair and the latter obliterates individual differences. Let us consider the Middle Way.
What is preventing us from revisioning and reconfiguring our social and political values and institutions? Some among us, gentlemen, would prefer to remain King of the castle, at the top of the heap . Some like things the way they are, thank you. Some would rather bear the ills they have than to fly to others they know not of. There are traditionalists whose task is preservation. There are progressives whose task is development. Just as each body contains both maintenance cells and growth cells, preservation and development, might we not envision and embody a Polis that serves the individual, the community and the Earth? What profiteth a man who hath his heap of gold , if the last trees are felled? What if the pancreas and spleen demanded all the oxygen and antibodies? What if the feet demanded all the food? The Isles of Langerhans would languish. Poor brain. Poor heart. Surely the good of the whole is the good of the part.
Over the gateway to the temple at Delphi are inscribed these words: Nothing in excess … an onerous onus for Homo, ahem, Sapiens. We, for whom too much of a good thing is almost enough, have always struggled with temperance. But
there is a way to Carnegie Hall. Through trial and error we learn, if we choose to. We are an educable species and that is what is left in Pandora’s box. We are not necessarily doomed to repeat the nightmare of history if we, like Stephen Dedalus, try to awaken from it (Obi-wan Kenobi would amend: There is no trying-only doing or not doing).Here now at Fin de Siecle, encore une fois, take it from the top, Louis,
we are up against the wall of time. Species are dropping like flies. The rainforests (Some say the lungs of the earth) are disappearing, the hole in the ozone grows, the specter of the AIDS virus lurks, our children are being ignored, neglected, exploited, abused and slaughtered, the glaciers melt and that plutonium fueled Cassini probe is orbiting the globe. Doing seems a better option than not doing .
When the kids I grew up with and I were quite young, we learned courtesy as a matter of course. When we took the bus downtown to go to the movies on rainy Saturday afternoons, we knew unequivocally that we gave up our seats to our elders, adults with small children, people encumbered by packages and those with disabilities. No questions asked, though we had gotten there first. We understood the natural priorities, that others’ needs trumped our own creature comforts and that this was small sacrifice to strong sturdy bodies. No big deal. We also learned not to litter. There was an ongoing campaign
sponsored by parents, taught in classrooms, and advertised in public places with the slogan: Don’t be a litterbug, the phrasing of which appealed to our imaginations and prompted us to action. We knew that we should leave no trace of our presence at campsites and were encouraged and reminded to leave bathrooms cleaner than we entered them.
The heart and basis of courtesy is consideration for others and the natural environment.
R-e-s-p-e-c-t means we take everyone and everything into account, that we make choices, base our decisions on natural priorities rather than selfish motivations alone, that we modulate our behavior knowing we are but part of a whole and the well being of the whole is more important than the well being of only some of the erroneously perceived “special” parts. This is the big problem of our culture: an inequitable distribution of resources. Some have too much, some too little, and some so dispossessed and deprived, the mind reels, the heart grieves, the spirit longs for rectification. Does the brain say I am the most important organ and deserve all the oxygen and nutrients in the blood at the expense of the “lesser” toes or fingers?
What if we learned the wisdom of the whole : both/and, rather than either/or. The great work of community is finding and honoring natural priorities. Everyone needs food and shelter, a full belly, a place to sleep. This is a natural priority, a more pressing consideration than wanting, feeling entitled to 300 pairs of shoes. Necessity and Excess. Life out of balance. Enough.
How to rectify? Finding remedy is our common work, our sacred task, the way through the bottle neck of skewed priorities, selfishness and greed into a viable future. May the force be with us.
Stand Up More…Again
In the late 40s and the 1950s when we were kids, Europe was recovering from the cataclysm of Nazis and Fascists. In America, authoritarianism sank roots and flourished. Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt wrote the bibles of behavior and father knew best. My brother and I grew up in Pleasantville, a sunny suburb under the shadow of the Victorian. Children were seen and not heard, questioned but not answered. It was an age of unconsciousness. Motive and intent were unrecognized, unacknowledged, swept under the Persian carpet. There were rules for every contingency, places for every thing. Order and routine prevailed and from this regularity, we were to draw strength. Life was predictable, stable, and secure. Sure it was.
It was hard to get a grasp of commonplace reality. Things were not as they seemed. Teeming beneath the calm and tepid waters of daily life were passionate impulses, unreasonable demands. Oblivious, the Zeitgeist ! Convention and propriety, gender roles and double standards obtained. It was an era of mixed messages: a time of unbridled restraint, extravagant repression, a wide application of the straight and narrow. Everyone lived by a script. On this
occasion we do this. On that occasion we wear, say, think that. Simon says do this. Do that. Some things could never be said. Under our outer garments we wore our unmentionables, and under them? Don’t ask. At school we sat at our desks with hands folded lest they be tempted to stray….which would make us go blind or our fingers wither. Those silly numbskulls… They spoon fed us white lies like chicken soup. Didn’t they know we could think outside the box?
There were only two subjects forbidden at our table: life and death.
The cold war was referred to by grownups sotto voce and we practiced duck and cover drills in the long corridors of P.S. 64 as if this would save us from the fallout of an atomic blast. We did what we were told, what they asked, but didn’t really register the reality of terror. We didn’t know that thousands of kids had been done to a turn in the ovens of Auschwitz and we were being protected, that in their silence, our elders were trying to spare us from suffering. Trouble is once you start erasing, bleeping out, Bowdlerising, you censor some of the hard truths we need to know in order to avoid the potholes, manholes, the sand-traps, the pits. Thin ice over muddy water.
Reality ? a guessing game, an elusive je ne sais quois. We were mired in euphemism. Bodily acts and functions were perceived as sources of embarrassment. There were words I never heard until comic genius, first amendment martyr, Lenny Bruce, uttered them for all the world to hear, the shock and fatuous fear of which liberated some and closed down the rest, the poor amnesiacs we now call middle America whose very decency is used against them by the friendly fascists, the oil barons et al who have usurped our country, desecrating our noble vision and real strength: liberty and justice for all. We have now, not a president, but a would be emperor only Moliere could have written.
We for whom the emigrés made the perilous journey to the new world became Americans. We became what they yearned for and then feared because of their programming, free-thinkers. Free beings. And because of the cotton candy confection of half truths and white lies they spun to sweeten our lives, we yearned to know the truth. We who sat in the Peanut Gallery were cheered and heartened by The Howdy Doody Show. Buffalo Bob Smith made us laugh, gave us a reality we could live in and enjoy. I watch so little TV, it was a small miracle I happened on the 40th anniversary of the show’s closing some years ago. I marveled when Smith looked us in the eye again and said : “Boys and girls, now men and women, I’m proud of you. I always told you to stand up for what’s right and you did.” We did. We answered meanness with generosity, competition with cooperation. We spoke up for Civil Rights and protested an unjust war. Now we are sixty, let’s stand up more again.
Surface of Now
While it’s true, right here right now in Marin county, at once sybaritic and green, we can spend time if not a small fortune on a weekend that will help us focus on the present through techniques and practices of relaxation and meditation, breathing, chanting, reciting mantras, and dancing, all of which summon us to an embodied grace of this and no other moment, and considering that we live in the unfolding of time, even granting that our awareness of and participation in each moment is fulfilling, gratifying, possibly enlightening, that
there is an exhilarating satisfaction in being fully awake and alive, I never the less brood when I see my students locked into the eternal moment, the surface of now, the provenance of childhood and the refuge of the so called insane.
We have been living in a seductive macro-culture that promises instant gratification, the quick fix and effortless convenience, luring consumers
( formerly customers) to spend moolah and save time on whatever is fast and easy, though now, we can be happy and relieved to note, there is a growing resistance to the siren spell sell of fast food and the new look. The slow seasonal food movement is growing apace and we are becoming more conscious of our carbon foot prints and willing to resole our boots rather than purchase the trendy new cuties. Is anyone safe from the bait? What creative spirit hasn’t been intoxicated by the gift of a bravura, one take performance, a great meal or poem, what I call when something comes perfectly formed, the Zen Pen. It’s what gets ink stained wretches on the hook and willing to endure, even enjoy the sweat of one’s brow, the time and effort, the second thoughts and revisions. The seasoned and enlightened know that time matters, that depth matters, that “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” (Kerouac)
I can’t know what it’s like to be young right now, though I see the bright and deep ones who face the immensities and challenges of the new century if not stopped in their tracks, then driven inward, as I suppose all heroes must. They know as we do how much is required of us if we are to squeak through the bottleneck of skewed values and perceptions to a harmonious and sustainable future. There’s so much to wade through, translate and master. Not everyone
wants to do this, many of my students among them. Kids just want to have fun. They are like the ferandulae in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door who won’t sink their tails into the earth and sing the song of the universe which, in the macrocosm, makes Charles Wallace, the kid whose mitochondria are misbehaving, so ill. They want to spend an hour on an essay and then get on to the real thing….and who can blame them? Sex drugs rock and roll. Pleasures. Diversions.
Robert Reich postulates four impediments to a full participatory citizenry: denial ( There is no global warming) escapism( It may be true but I can’t face it. Let’s go shopping) buck passing (They started it. It’s their problem) and cynicism ( Yes it’s a mess, but what can any one person do?) The kids are cynical. They see how entrenched the powerful and greedy, how apparently indifferent the benign elders. ”The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”( W.B.Yeats) They inherit the future, these children who have not been left behind, who are lost in the surface of now. I want them to be not just consumers, but fully alive, authentic beings, engaged in fulfilling lives, real people who are individuals, members of families, communities, cultures, citizens.
What to do? We can teach them that language creates and skews reality, how the rhetoric of advertising and the propaganda of politics influence their choices if they skate on the surface of things( hence freedom to be and do and have what is in their…not the Fortune 500’s best interests). We can teach logical
fallacies so they can know that an either or proposition, the black or white, eliminates the myriad shades and hues, the rainbow of possibilities. We can model the redoubtable virtues, the steadfast pursuit of our aims in the face of all odds. We can teach creative and collaborative problem solving, and assign them problems to solve, knowing the dignity of service far outweighs the drudgery of servitude. All this I do. But it is the artists, musicians, film makers who will reach them. Roll up your sleeves who can.
***** Who’s on First?
Merciful Minerva, it’s bad enough we’re all pumping gas and some of us more often than not, more’s the pity, but today I rolled into a station in Petaluma and thought I’d finally flipped my lid. I heard singing and there was no one there. I didn’t smell blossoms. The trees weren’t bare. No. There are TV sets at the pumps. Hmm… advertising and oil. Oui. Connect les dots. In his short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut limns a futuristic dystopia in which equality is enforced by the Handicapper General who mandates and dispenses artificial disadvantages for the gifted. The athletes and dancers have to cart around sandbags lest they be stronger, lither, more graceful than others. The brainiacs must wear head sets with bells and whistles, sirens and loud crashes that kaibosh their streams of thought so they won’t be smarter than anyone else. “Their thoughts fled like bandits before an alarm.” Not that the gas pump is where we necessarily go to meditate or sort things out, but you know while
we’re fueling up just standing around, virtually captive, idle, available, if we’re not cleaning the windows, who knows what thoughts may come? Or bumper- stickers….
I was mighty nervous when they launched the Cassini probe knowing there is a big bang waiting to happen, what with all that plutonium orbiting hither and thither, what with asteroids out there cruising around, an accident in potentia, signaling if not devolution, then The End: Exeunt Omnes. It may never happen. It may even be foolish to worry when the folks at Cape Canaveral are so sure no harm will come, certain as they were when the Challenger was launched, not allowing for human error which escalates exponentially when the payload stakes are high. Five degrees off course is negligible if you’re sailing a small craft on a seventeen mile long bay and can correct…no harm done. But out on open waters, you could end up in the shipping lanes and the obit column. And that’s not all.
Was anyone else taken aback if not put out when they ( whoever they are, you know…the Pacman barbarians with gaping maws and ravening appetites ) threatened to launch Space Billboards or Logo Satellites, so that any innocent mortal among us ( even the not so innocent) could look up at the starry panoply of the night sky: Look! There’s Venus, yon Rigel, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, also NBC, Nabisco, Shell Oil…Ptooey. When you wish upon a star/know they’re rich and we’re at war. And if you think that’s nasty, how about the new interactive TV commercials which I’ve heard are tailor made to the viewers’ own tastes, predilections, weaknesses and impulsive buying practices. Consider the collection of data that makes this possible, never mind the intent, the end in view. Oh Brother!
My list of plaints and lamentations is nigh encyclopedic. Noting the reactionary vocab. in the face of such invasive and nuisance idiocy, I confess I do so want to retreat and retrench to an era previous, before neon, billboards and commercials, but with Internet and blue jeans, CDs and DVDs. sigh. What’s a woman to do? Wait for the pendulum to swing? Alan Watt’s tells an old story maybe from the steppes of Mongolia where the other cowboys flourished for centuries. A man captures a herd of wild horses. An admiring neighbor says: Lucky you. Man says: Maybe. Next day, the man’s son is thrown from a horse and breaks his leg. Neighbor says: Too bad. Bad luck. Father says: Maybe. Next day the army comes through to conscript the able bodied youth and the boy escapes. So we never know. We cannot precisely predict the far ranging effects of things that go bump in the night, however ill or well we play our hands, wield our cues or move the pieces on the board. But TV at the pumps? Puhleese.
I find myself in a snit of indignation, even full throttled fury over the impedimentia and thwartage of the common weal. Great gusts of distress blow me off the steadfast and steady, as the great storms of winter unsettle the mild and meek trees, the howling winds knocking down great limbs as well as weedy branches which fly about the yard, landing in scattered heaps, the tell tale signs of the much ado. A lot of bending, lifting and lugging are now required to set things aright. I brood. I reason. I wring my hands. And then I see a bumper sticker: “January 20,2009: The end of an error.” Winter IS coming to an end. Budding spring is finally full throttle here…cherry blossoms, mustard, red winged black birds, trillium and all. Time to plant some seeds and dream up a garden again.
These words aren’t for the faint of heart or anyone who must keep keep an eye on the clock. No sooner said than Dali comes to mind and it is just this sort of unbidden imaging pop up that makes it so difficult for some of us to be direct and brief, to negotiate the mundane without exploring the adjacent waters or following the double entendre. Not only that, but, I find myself veering off course when something unpleasant must be faced, don’t you? Freud had a lot to say about avoidance, denial, indirection, substitution, but/and…onto the subject and hand.
Several weeks ago, a surge surged. ….I don’t actually know what happened, but since cartoons have taken their toll on my imagination, I envision Robin Williams playing the surge, the peculiar heady Elecropan. I’m quite certain things can speak, probably because I find myself aplogizing to the chairs should I bump into them. I like the animism of ordinary objects telling their side of the domestic drama. What would the vacuum cleaner say? Life sucks? Probably it would cough and sneeze because of all the dust and exhibit a personality not unlike EEore’s. It’s okay. I didn’t really want attention anyway. The closet is quiet and dim, if you like that sort of thing, and I’m not saying I don’t. Still, it has been weeks and weeks and the rugs were rather expecting me, but don’t go to any trouble on my account. A long rest is probably good for someone as old as I, who hasn’t had a nip of oil in years , though you would think the rugs might have said something by now, not that it makes any difference, kachew.
The surge protector bit the dust and saved the computer. As well, the septic pump fried, though not immediately detected. It was long enough for me to have entirely forgotten about the surge. Everything backed up and exploded through the drains downstairs where I had not been for awhile, family members and houseguests in absentia. I kept smelling a little you know and started eyeing the cats suspiciously, resentfully. I noted the proximity of the stench, let’s not mince words, to the furnace vent and having previously noted eau de Paul Mitchell arise from the shower spray downstairs wafting through the vent, I suspicioned the trouble lay down there. Cats off the hook. And yes it was there. I opened the door and found a flood of water, tp and all the accoutrements… It was offal. Aristotle says no violence on the stage. It is enough for us to know without having to endure the visual evidence, without having to see the brutal and gory which he says is a violation of sensibility, a psychic wound…why Oedipus blinds himself off stage. So I will spare you the finer points of the fetid sluice.
It was a Saturday, not a day the friendly neighborhood plumbers want to get a call. Still, I phoned a few, but it was hours before anyone returned my call. Meanwhile I did what anyone would…donned gloves, lead the towel and mop brigade and cleaned the mess up…to Ravel’s Bolero, a work generally associated with rather different sorts of feverish industry, but a woman does what is given her and what she must. Finally, a plumber friend called, told me to call an electrician because he thought it must be the septic system. The fourth electrician I called came over and diagnosed the immediate problem. The circuit breaker had been fried during the surge, but he could whaddayacall it when you hotwire the car? well, there you are… which he did, which meant I could turn
the water back on and flush. My hero told me to call City Sewer and so I was visited by the clan who everyone hereabouts eventually meets. The pump itself must be replaced. And then the insurance adjuster came who sent the guys who pull up floors and tile in a black water situation and the furnace guy had to come to remove the furnace until the new flooring and tile can be purchased and the floor and tile guy can come to do what they do.
It’s been really cold lately without a furnace, but I did lay in a cord of wood and have a peachy wood stove and though I am now adrift in the corridor of challenge and inconvenience, it’s so lovely to sit by the hearth of an evening and dream of spring…which I wouldn’t have gotten to do, if the ordure hadn’t hit the air conditioner, etscretera.
Agatha Christie said a couple of cool things in an autobiography otherwise leaden with tedious details about, if I rightly remember, the cups of tea she imbibed with the marquis de Leisure, the Duchess of Sang Froid and other important minor personages from the ranks of the continental nobility. Aside from her social proclivities and the production of her massive oeuvre, she apparently thought about topics other than mysteries born of machination and mayhem. Contemplating the immense Mysteries, she proposes an interpretation of the widely held notion that God created man in His own image as a creator. We are to work and see that what we have wrought is good.
This is a work ethic embraced by the old porcelain makers of Europe
who upon finishing un bagno, une toilette or bidet, carved or stamped beautiful ornamental chops underneath the fixtures, the surfaces that are fastened to the floor where no one will ever see them. This is my mark, my guarantee. I have worked and seen that what I have done is well done.
Ah pride in labor and satisfaction in a job well done. The loss of such a sentiment was precisely what Marx was grousing about in his much shunned and discounted disquisition. If working on an assembly line and bolting the same three bolts hour after hour, day after day, year after year, how can anyone get the same warm fuzzy feeling enjoyed by the porcelain crafters responsible for their handiwork and seeing the job through from beginning to end? Doing a mindless task, an essentially tedious boring and of course alienating bit of repetitive motion would drive anyone to drink … probably why a drink and a fight on a Saturday night was/ is so commonplace, why so much that happens on the date night centers around roadhouses and taverns. But more of that anon.
If I were one of the monkeys assembled to randomly write the Merchant of Venice, say, and only got to press the I and S keys, I’d go bananas…unless I was the ex editor of Elle blinking an eye when the handmaiden to my labors uttered the right consonant or vowel. I am referring of course to the stricken hero of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But even from his disadvantaged position, he capitalized on the tiny window in which he could function, by which he could write his moving account of what was happening to him, a topic we who are aging take a timid interest in. Naturally we are all going to live forever sans impairment or debilitation. Our writer/hero was, in a way, better off than working stiffs doing piece work. Although paralyzed, he controlled the means of
production through the work of his mind. His assistant took satisfaction in the work she trained for which became a labor of love.
After a week’s labor, like the ineffable Permutator, we common clay get a day off and this we dearly relish if we are to keep body and soul together. A day of worship is often how the Sabbath Day is understood and spent. I’m not quibbling with such practice when I note additional rejuvenating uses of down time. We want to relax, to restore ourselves from fatigue which means resting, much as the spaces between words, rests between notes, or space between molecules exist to make matter intelligible, like sherbet cleansing the palette between courses. To refine our behaviors and better our lot, to learn from mistakes, we need time to contemplate, to chew our cuds, to assimilate and absorb all that has happened to start afresh the way kids forget yesterday at dawn without the baggage of compounding confoundments, and time to dream, imagine, and plan ahead.
There are a myriad other useful tonics that the Sabbath Day occasions to refill an empty cup, like tennis, yoga, singing, making borsht or weeding the garden. I crave time for serendipity, the pleasures of the unexpected, opportunity for unbidden joy. Alas, I confess I come from a long line of non -practicing preachers. I do work and see that it is good, but my so called time off is eaten by house holding. As we know, mother is the invention of necessity. So for someone who can’t remember dates and phone numbers without an arsenal of post-its, the day of rest often eludes. This dilemma is not mine alone, but epidemic in our culture which I think keeps us from getting a grip. Some of us have even become what Agatha calls dog people who have to be taken out for a walk. Early
mornings or late afternoons… Saturday or Sunday. I’m not denominational, just desperate, a sabbatical wannabe.
The 100 year old cherry tree in our yard is blossoming. There is something so delicious about the spring after a long hard winter that gladdens the heart and quickens the step, a truism if not a cliché, but none -the -less pleasurable in the living. When we first bought the place in the dead of winter, we saw a scraggly sapless superannuated entity, a lot of useless wood taking up space which could be more fruitfully occupied by a younger tree. I flirted with the idea of trading the remains to my favorite wood turner, in exchange for a magnificent cherry wood bowl and platter….but then winter turned into spring and she blossomed.
I was smitten. Ever since I have adored her beautiful self. The second year there were signs of tiny cherries and the third, last year, she profusely uttered small aromatic fruit, the flavor of the lifesaver’s wild cherry. Mirabile Dictu! I am in the midst of a page turner of nature…what will happen next? Charming, elegant, she bears her age with majesty and what the old boys have claimed as a trait of their own: gravitas. I feel so honored to have landed in her yard. Sunday morning the bees’ loud buzzing in her billow of blossoms pulled me out of restless night to stand speechless before this rite of spring. Elsewhere, bees are threatened but here they gathered in throngs to inhale the heady nectar of her fragrant budding. And at her age!
So I would be, should I be granted fullest measure, making old bones as has my mother’s sister, my incomparable Aunt Helen, Kewpie Doll child, Flapper maiden with a boyish bob, opera and symphony lover, art maven woman and down right adorable 97 year old, game for anything. There are black white pics and fading color snaps of her on the backs of horses, camels, elephants, model Ts and golf carts. Nothing small about her except her stature, she’s always been willing to try anything, a dare devil who ate chocolate covered ants, rattle snake during the think yourself tough? Then prove it! culinarily avant garde era …hmmm…how would you cook a rattle? phooey. She ate with relish (garlic butter, actually) escargots, the little pests we sail over the garden fence or worse. I’ve never heard her grouse or grumble and watched her bear with grace life’s ebbs and flows. I marvel at the run she’s had… gone everywhere, done enough of everything and thoroughly enjoyed herself. And she’s still so good looking…”yeah, “she says, “not bad for an old lady.”
“You’ve got to take the bitter with the better,” is her motto and of course it is better to accept what is, graciously, though it is a blankety blank nuisance and a bore. True, no more toxic midnights that plague fond and foolish youth. The occluding wool has all but fallen from our eyes. No prophylactic buffers which could be a plus in the right context…I should be so lucky. But really, can any woman of a certain age who never leaves the house without a pair of tweezers be entirely thrilled? And of course it’s pointless to protest. Two year olds, the little Id people, the Cookie Monsters riddled with wanting what they want, right this very nowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww jump up and down, howling with desire.
How hard to stop the Wa Wa over wrinkles, fewer calories/ more exercise, no caffeine past noon, unwanted facial pasta, seeing the dentist more than the kids, falling asleep in the seventh row during a matinee, just like a fogey, and at night, not sleeping at all. And then there’s aching joints and other body parts that require the tedium of compensatory mega pills and supplement swallowing every single morning. In the words of the immortal Gilda, “It’s always something.”
To become a caricature of a formerly glorious being in full possession and exercise of ample faculties and powers, to little by little relinquish the main arena for the side show is harder to swallow than the horse pills. Having to accept the diminishment of range and aptitude, slippage and losing altitude is damnably daunting… or could be if we let ‘em pull the rug out from under. Better to remain calm cool and collected, as our mothers advised, to stay or land on our feet. (“At last!” I hear my mother’s smug belated satisfaction from somewhere in the stratosphere… “Sixty and finally she listens!” ) Better to bear with what we’re given with grace, the bitter with the better. Sometimes it’s not our call at all. But that’s another story. In the meantime, there’s Aunt Helen and the Cherry Tree. It is possible to flourish into the centenary. What I’m saying.
I’ve been booking tickets, filling out retirement forms, weeding and avoiding the stack of waiting essays who clear their throats, ahem, whenever I walk by. You wouldn’t think I was the retiring kind, natural born show off that I am, but I am. I filled out the forms on May Day… sort of appropriate, I thought, for a working stiff like moi who has done her best to corrupt the youth in two counties, and by corrupt I mean, of course, inciting them to think. An uphill slog if ever there was and I regret not a grey hair earned in the process. For the last fifteen years, I’ve provoked between 100 and 200 students a semester into becoming critical thinkers and creative collaborative problem solvers who are coming to terms with the, how you say, paradigm shift all able beings are summoned to address. I think quite a few of them are willing. They know we are but one of many species, but one of many nations and that all people everywhere want to be healthy and well fed. They now have a vision of sustainability, understand the meaning of moderation (well, more or less), and the value of presence and attention, community, friendliness and kindness… more important and urgent than splitting hairs over infinitives or even, sob, the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Austen, the letters of Rilke, the poetry of Keats et al et al et al….
And now it’s time to pull weeds….sort of the same thing as teaching …an endless process that instead of bending over backward to get any where, you bend forward. And then next year they’re back again. And they still don’t know the difference between fewer and less, more’s the pity. Year by year I have had fewer incentives and less inclination to extend my professorial career beyond this very now and that’s not considering the steep price of gas or deepening carbon
print. The early morning drive is lovely in the autumn and spring, but I won’t miss leaving a warm bed in winter at 5:23 a.m. … a wise woman knows the very latest she may arise in order to perform the endless feckless ritual acts of maintenance before the porcelain shrines and mendacious mirrors in the semi dark. I say feckless because more than once I’ve arrived in my classroom only to note that my mix and match duds didn’t, that the shades of black and blue clash or I’ve one brown shoe and one black, or my eyebrows…well, never mind that.
And by the way, and you’ve probably already figured this out, multi- tasking is for the birds, though they’re way too savvy a species to indulge in such foolishness. I realized this one early a.m. while performing my ablutions at 6 a.m. when I really saw myself in the mirror, one hand wielding the tooth brush and the other, the hair dryer in the frenzy of cleansing. I giggled but only briefly, no time to spare. I would have rather fallen apart laughing at myself, probably the most important of all acts of hygiene. Hence the current 5:23 Reveile, which allows time for a little rosy fingered epiphany should one occur. And how smart is multi tasking when I’m keeping an eye on the road and simultaneously planning the next segment of my classes’ foray into the bowels of academe, you should excuse the presumption of such a trope. I realize I’m probably making an ass of myself, analytically speaking, and I’ll probably be the butt of some asinine jokes, but waddaya gonna do?
What I’m most looking forward to is not knowing what I’m looking forward to… or giving a flying fig whether or not I end a sentence with a preposition, full steam ahead. Serendipity is the way for me, following impulse and inclination, a curious scene, a heady scent, a beckoning path. There’ll be time for all the tasks, projects, and activities I’ve back-burnered : really cooking and
baking, making music, plotting gardens and stories and who knows what. Who knows what? The joy of not knowing where I’ll be at any given moment, opportunity for chance encounters off the beaten track, leisure in which to unwind my skein? Gloriosky! I think I may take up the tango, perhaps make a quilt from all the velvet scraps I’ve been saving, or take some watercolors, brushes and paper down to Shell Beach with a picnic basket, mat and straw hat. Gazpacho. Peach and rhubarb pie, biscuits, honey, for the strawberries and cream.
For the record, to salve not so much my conscience as a sense of inaccuracy, there are a few linguistic malapropisms in
current use that drive me bonkers. Beware a lady with an umbrella. It’s not that I’m in a snit of righteous indignation. It’s the loss of sense engendered by mistakes of the kind I am about to detail that troubles my sleep. How can we come to our senses if we are careless and unconscious in our speech? Magic bullet is the expression I most want to set straight. This is a term now used in place of magic potion, an elixir of great restorative power that could revive the ailing king or wounded maiden, anyone, to health and wholesomeness. The potion was a mythical and magical substance of great power and value because it could heal, make hale and hearty, make whole. It was a draught taken from a fountain or remote spring or sylvan stream that could return the moribund to
life, hence often called the water of life. There are stories sagas tales and legends of this potent and efficacious liquid from all over the world. King Amfortas in Parsifal is thus restored as are countless worthy mortals in folk and fairy tales many of us read and loved in childhood. One such tale, ”The Water of Life” was collected in Germany from many sources by the Brothers Grimm.
First, let’s consider the raison d’etre of folk and fairy tales which are the repository of the collective wisdom of the ages. Children understand the symbolic value of stories in which the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Our sense of the rightness of things is satisfied. We know instinctively what is fair and just. Give any two kids a cookie to share and both know an even break down the middle is fair and square. They know goodness consists of kindness friendliness and generosity and that wickedness is brutal cruelty and meanness of spirit. It is so satisfying to be in a movie theatre with kids to hear the welling and outpouring of feeling in the roar of yeas and boos, the quieter sighs and groans as the plot thickens and the powers of good and evil are tried in the arena of mythic encounter. When Obi-Wan Kenobi says: ”Use the Force, Luke,” and he does, the audience in the Saturday matinee I attended exploded with joy. Similarly, when the arrogant and calculating step mother and her narcissistic daughter are banished to the laundry room in Ever After, we are enormously pleased and satisfied.
In fairy stories, the hero or heroine often has a series of tasks to perform, among them the sorting of lentils and beans, a symbolic rendering of discrimination and good judgment, learning to discern one thing from another, to know what is good for one and what is not. Learning values is at the heart of the hero’s adventures. Learning what is important, what matters is the work of
our growing up. For ages past, women routinely died in childbirth and men in the hazards of work and war. The fairy tales taught children whom life has thwarted or hurt through the loss of a beloved parent, patience to endure what now befalls, to await a better chapter later on, especially if he or she is like the youngest child, guileless and kind. In the tale,”The Water of Life,” it is the child who, making his way up the road, goes neither to the left nor the right as the older brothers do, the ones who take the goldness of the road into account and avoid treading on it because of its worth. The youngest brother is heedless of such considerations and only wants to make his way to the princess at the end of the road, to love. It is the youngest child who restores the king to health by being kind to a dwarf who tells him how to succeed in finding the magic potion and wins love by being unaffected by the glitter of material wealth.
So now to the point. Magic bullet was a term coined to describe the trajectory of a single bullet alleged to have passed through both President Kennedy and Governor Connally which common sense tells us was not only wrong but physically impossible. Since then, the term magic bullet has been used instead of magic potion, meaning a quick fix. We’re said to be looking for a magic bullet to end world hunger, poverty, homelessness, joblessness, pollution, the shrinking ozone, the warming globe. Not me, kids. I’m still sorting through the lentils and beans, in search of the magic potion.
Things get dirty and we have to clean them if we don’t indulge our inclination to sloth, not to be confused with resting after our labors. In play group and kindergarten, they now mercifully teach that cleaning up is part of making a mess and having lots of fun doing so, thank you very much. Chefs learn to clean as we go so we don’t end up with a mountainous mess at the end of an otherwise lovely evening replete with groaning board and decorous imbibage. I work in the garden, must scrub under nails because I prefer digging and puttering with hands nude, nails mangled. Perverse perhaps, but insulated in gloves, we lose the ability to learn through our sensitive fingers, the delicate touch referred to as green thumb. But meanwhile, back at the sink where I am scrubbing away dirt, grutch grows apace. Soon comes the reckoning. The sink snickers. Even though I scrubbed the sucker …surely not a week ago, it’s grungy again. The body the body: brushing flossing bathing, over and over again…
So what makes us think this doesn’t apply to the Macrocosm? We know the rudiments of ecology, the reality of a polluted planet with catastrophic consequences looming around the bend on the road we’re traveling. Who in their right minds would accede to this? Somnambulists… Ce sont nous, pardon the French. In our culture we’re seduced by the fast and easy. Time and labor saving devices in themselves are marvelous. While beating clothes on rocks is picturesque, I have other fish to fry, honey, and I love my washer/dryer in the shed. But I prefer to make slow food and as I faintly recall, there are other swell things best enjoyed in tranquility, not in haste… though I’m not knocking fast rides for the thrill…except on the roadsides, though some would rather do it
there. Easy is sleazy if we take short cuts that short change. Anyone remember the thirty kids who fell from a balcony in San Francisco a while back because the profit motive drove bosses and possibly unwitting builders to shave the ply?
Agatha Christie in her autobiography said two cool things. She thinks we are created in God’s image as portrayed in Genesis. As creators, we are to work and see that it is good, what we make and what we do. In our culture, we have lost touch with natural rhythms and harmonies. There was a corny but telling lyric…late fifties?
“Lucky lucky lucky me, I’m a lucky son of a gun. I work 8 hours, I sleep 8 hours, that leaves 8 hours for fun.” Hmmm. That’s a lot of R and R. What’s called for is needed, though few get a moment of between every this and that necessity, obligation, time – quenching constraint. It’s making us sick, kids. Too much stress, not enough fun! And the Sabbath day of rest…wither?
On the seventh day, rest. This is the day to absorb and assimilate, to see where we’ve been so we can learn from our mistakes, appreciate our successes and the wisdom to know the difference. Taking stock enables us to make better choices and decisions for the future. Taking time to contemplate and meditate daily and weekly, we are less prone to heed manipulations of the media or the siren spell of propaganda. We think for ourselves and know from the inside out, what’s what. All this takes time, and you won’t get a quick fix in a how-to manual. Physician, heed thyself. There’s no substitute for reflection, an ongoing long term process, a way of being in the world.
The wise Greeks wrote over the gates of their temple at Delphi: Know thyself. Nothing in Excess and E, translating to something like: You are alive…rejoice! Live!
Nothing in Excess. There’s the rub! Moderation or the middle way is the path embraced by the wise. Consider the Seven Deadlies, none of which, if not blown out of proportion, inflated, or hyperbolicized, would be a sin. We are erotic beings. We need nourishment and rest. It’s good to take a modest pride in our accomplishments. It’s fine to admire ,not obsess over our neighbors’ endowments and handiworks. Without the energy of anger, how would we fuel rectification? We all need our stuff, but how much? I save greed for the last because that is what’s consuming our nation of consumers. Why do we drive gas guzzling cars when we know the impact of petroleum products on the atmosphere? Two big cars in every garage and skin cancer on every face? Spraying from the sky for pest control gives a greater headache than the problem it attempts to forestall. We can do better. But it might not be as easy or quick to find the most intelligent solution. Why aren’t we both putting our heads together and listening to the scientists to solve our problems instead of evading ignoring denying or pickling ourselves in them. The evidence is in. Why don’t we act on what we know? The gap between knowing and doing, like the grutch, grows apace. The clock is ticking, chums. Time to clean the house.
oh bleep, oh dear, I’ve been screeching, sotto voce of course. I’m saturated with annoyance. Help. Somebody please wring me out quick! How can I empty myself of vexation and chagrin that I feel witnessing and experiencing the inundation of the mediocre and inane, the vapid tepid irrelevancies of modern life? Just try dialing the phone company, a credit card so-called customer service number, an HMO, hmph. They want us, I mean a machine tells us to key in a lot of numbers. No, no, thank you. This is not what I want to do in my precious spare time. And if you make an attempt to bypass the instructions, by pressing 0 or *, a nasty pinched nose machine voice tells us that was not a recognizable option, but, undaunted, I do it again, pushing on the pad with the pressure of fermenting frustration and then, having bypassed or surmounted that obstacle, I am connected to the next set of options and having chosen one, am then transferred to several minutes of elevator music. And yes I am bothered by these ups and downs. And the jerks really bother me. My buttons are pressed when I’m asked to press buttons…by a machine, no less. It’s enough to drive anyone stark raving bonkers and I feel I’m wavering on the edge, wondering whether or not it’s worth getting, encore un fois, a grip.
It is hard to be serene, to find the still point in the turning world, even sitting on a pillow. Oh moan, poor moi. The soma of meditation practice eludes because while I have in theory retired I am still bound and constrained by the necessity I so long postponed while I filled my cup with every joy and inclination. In that golden age of serendipity and youth, to boot, I read, I studied, I wrote. I contemplated the universe and its concrete particulars. I wandered in
the woods, explored the museums and galleries, frequented the concert halls, studied the featherless biped in our myriad manifestations and habitats. This gave me a true present, an unalloyed and centered attention. Thus empty and open, filling the hours as I would, not as I ought or must, I was observant, blissfully aware, keenly awake, alive. But in order to have that era, that unfettered time, I mortgaged the future which is the now I presently inhabit, a now filled with a surfeit of work, obligation, duty, apparently unable or better, not yet able to contain the spillover frustration which comes with the madding phone, the unsolicited solicitations, the effort it takes to speak with a real person in an institution or corporation. Hey, I haven’t even mentioned the self important drivers going the wrong way in the one way parking lot at Trader Joe’s.
Speaking of which, last Thanksgiving, I filled up two paper bags of plastic trash from the contents of the four paper bags of groceries from said emporium. I’m grateful for the cornucopia of affordable luxuries we obtain from the Mother Ship in San Rafael, Petaluma and now in Novato. Bless them for a decent bottle of Italian wine for under five bucks and for all the other groceries and food stuffs that fill our cupboard shelves and bellies. BUT about the containers, the landfill debris: no no no! What else can we do? We probably won’t go back to the apple, cracker and pickle barrels. Things in glass jars we can recycle and reuse. But all that is destined for the dump? Isn’t there a way to package and distribute groceries with low impact to the environment? Anything that will decompose, that doesn’t have a shelf life greater than the speed of light times time to girdle the earth? But this is but a scratch on the veneer of the disposable culture which, happily, is itself disposable.
I find solace in pressing keys, at my own behest, on this very keyboard, in these very words. But and I don’t want anyone to drill for oil. You know how I feel about the war and the waste of life and revenue that could be so better spent in universal health care, libraries and literacy, maintenance of public parks and upkeep of infrastructure, summer camp and other outdoor recreation for our kids, all of our kids, and education, lots and lots of educational opportunities, for the development and fulfillment of our lives, for the pursuit of happiness. And then we could invest in the development of green renewable technologies and enterprises, building and growing and sustaining a world worth living in. Enough Inferno. Let the Purgatorio begin. You know… the place and space where we learn our lessons so we can get on to the business of gardening in Paradiso, that is everywhere around us, had enough of us eyes to see. At the end of Candide, Voltaire’s hero comes to understand that to be spared the three miseries of humanity, poverty, vice and boredom, we must cultivate our gardens. And, as is perfectly evident, all the caca we are mired in is just the stuff we need to make the garden grow.
Words and Minds
Isn’t it interesting to be around for the dynamic activation of something long dormant like a volcano or even language itself? Suddenly, something we’ve taken for granted, as a fixed and unalterable given, is changing and growing. I once sided with the purists, the guardians of structural integrity, upholding correct usage. But language is a living thing. Any excursion into the history of usage shows that meaning and applications do, indeed, change.
The word ”presently” which denotes now, this moment, has a current prevailing connotation: in a while, soon, by and by. Like many arenas of disputation, both/ and seems a more reasonable approach than either/ or.
I became less partisan and more of a dispassionate observer when I became tired of reacting to the assaults and affronts, the negative impact on my nervous system. When the politicians finalized rather than completed, finished, concluded or even fulfilled their obligations, I was offended by their apparent inability to find le mot juste. But this was small spuds next to the revulsion and ire I experienced when people started turning nouns into verbs, impacting the language rather than making an impact.
We’ve all watched the national attention span dwindle, witnessed people relinquish a leisurely perusal of the editorial page for a sound bite of hot news sans commentary, sans context. So “Impacting” seemed to be a symptom of a malaise: the tendency to contract and reduce, to maximize effect ( ahem) with a minimum of effort. But why turn nouns into verbs? Pose the question as a cultural anthropologist, treating phenomena as artifacts, or pose the question
from the inside out. Perhaps we no longer see ourselves in repose, but only in terms of what we do, human doings.
As we have given up the Sabbath and the space the day of rest was meant to include in the cycle of weeks, we seem to have given up a sense of our nature in quiet contemplation and solitude…so busy, busy, busy getting and spending, and impacting.
And what to make of the construction…our spiritual nature ( our life, our mind)? Does this reduce us to a collective of indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable parts, our individual identities blurred and obliterated? This way totalitarianism lies. And what to do about the redwoods and dinosaurs? Thruway is more concise on a road sign. But the ancient forms are traces of our ancestors, the remote past still alive in the present in the utterance. Through. Brought. Anyone who has walked among Sequoias appreciates contact with with entities that span many generations, a living component of the past. We almost lost the pelicans awhile back when their eggs weren’t forming well because of the DDT. The pelicans are old, too, close to the pterodactyls of the Reptilian Age. Of course it can be argued that matter is finite, that life forms come and go and it’s no use hanging on. Blake wrote: “He who binds to himself a joy, doth the winged life destroy.” Yes, yes…and…the lingering traces of the past nourish the living spirit of the sojourners that we are.
I like to think of the old ones, the ones who grunted gutterally, the ones who said through and brought, less than twenty spans of fifty years ago and contemplated their posture ( our posture) then.( Not our (plural)postures (singular?) Little bands not of rugged individualists but as a group perhaps huddling by the fire. Seen from a distance, through the long lens of time, they are
but a blip on the scope, but a very real and important one. How can it be otherwise? I think it’s important to retain an image of the past, to remain connected to our progenitors…so that we may understand the present, able to see and understand the context of our lives, to see and know what is happening, to become agents in our own story, in our own stories.
Perhaps we are devolving as well as evolving and adopting old habits and practices we once relinquished as they bring something of value to our species once again. I still have trouble holding the phrase…”We have made up our mind for all the reasons stated and implied. Long ago, I went electioneering for the hapless campaign of McGovern or Gene McCarthy, I can no longer remember which or which political friend sent me on a mission to a Rehab community nearby. I phoned and asked if I could visit in order to spread the Democratic ticket cheer. “Well,” said the nameless faceless gent who had answered the phone,” You might as well save yourself a trip. We’ve already made up our mind.” Curious, isn’t it, that just at the moment our individualism has really gone amuck, when we are having to reap what Numero Uno has sown, oh the impact of it, there is a kind of linguistic throwback to the time when Old English was spoken and they really had to make up their mind.
Slick Slick Slick
Why are we so devoted to the cult of surface perfection, to first impressions demanding slick appearances? But more importantly, what are the consequences? Because whoever thought we needed unblemished apples and tomatoes, opened the market frontier to toxic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, additives and preservatives. I used to dote on pep eroncini before the chemists added yellow dye, an apparent carcinogen, to make the little pepper not only more attractive but drop-dead gorgeous. And for the convenience of the packers, our apples and oranges were genetically standardized which in turn begat Dolly which in turn begetteth what ?
And what about the impulse to blur individual variation, to homogenize, to puree the piquant rich soup of our differences in the blender of conformity, turning all into a pea green mush? Does this reduce us to a collective of indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable parts, the practice and danger of Totalitarianism, our individual identities blurred and obliterated?
The value of a free and individual life cannot be underestimated.
We are shaped by our experiences if we are open to them, if we leave the well- worn path, the scripted life and live authentically, uniquely according to our lights and inclinations, our tastes and proclivities, talents and curiosities. But we must be willing to accept quirks and blotches, flaws and deficiencies in ourselves and others with tolerance and compassion. It’s easier with quirky tomatoes, potatoes and apples, oh my. But with people? The effort to eradicate imperfections like wrinkles and blemishes drives young women and old to the
snake oil salesmen, the plastic surgeons, and market shelves for products and how-to manuals. Many prosper, but at whose expense? Phen-Phen,anyone? Remember the sure-fire weight -loss pill that contained a tape-worm? Fatism is possibly the last frontier of American bigotry. While we have opened our minds and hearts to difference, to acceptance of those whose race class gender and orientation are other than our own, there’s an almost universal aversion to and intolerance of the good and plenty who are perceived as monstrous, lacking in moral fiber or discipline. How superficial!
I know this. I know this in my bones and yet I also know that in our culture it is the thin who are prized and coveted, the lean who are deemed lovely, who are eligible. We walk uphill or go to the gym to mount the stationary bike, the treadmill and lift weights. Being fit is important. Exercising to be strong and trim makes sense. It is the sculpting to be loved that drives strong plump women nuts, knowing that, no matter how many diverse arguments to the contrary, character is not enough. Packaging, presentation…it is what it is.
Recently I saw a gorgeous ( i.e. slim young ) woman on a beach pose and photograph herself from every angle. Had she labored to be beautiful, and was she now appreciating and recording her handiwork? Of course we want to be attractive but/ and there are other occupations besides personal upkeep and grooming, even for scribblers. Too bad typing doesn’t burn many calories. Alas, while we cultivate perfection of the surface, young women languish in self- loathing. How can anyone act naturally in a constant and chronic state of appetite suppression, fearing to be fat? How many have died of anorexia or
withered in shame of a lovely amplitude? How many have died of a facelift, endeavoring to be young and beautiful? Oh reality.
The mania for surface dwelling which our all too busy lives encourage is about as sustaining as a fast food dinner, ingested on the fly. Can that ever match the depth and beauty and nourishment of an exquisitely prepared meal enjoyed at leisure with our closest friends? Can superficial contacts ever take the place of deep and abiding relationships? Only the very young or those wishing they were young again prefer the one night stand to the deep knowing of someone over time, though I’ve been told by those who embrace microwave expediency, these ideas are old hat, passé. I think we should resist the seductions of the fast and the easy because the price we pay for instant gratification is too high. To sacrifice substance for surface is feckless and leaves no spirit or sap for the Charleston, Lindy Hop or Fandango, exercise as well as dance.
The Pleasures of Travel
Travail. Travailler…hard work and then you eat. I just travailed to Italy where as a young woman I lived and studied Art History and Italian through Syracuse University’s program in Florence which fulfilled my deepest longings to be immersed, we said, in the worlds of art and culture which tepid western New York’s Pleasantville couldn’t provide. My Nineteenth year in Europe formed and confirmed my tastes and proclivities. I had a Euro Rail pass and 25
cents opened the door to any concert hall or stage performance I hankered for…and there were many. True, I sat in what is called the nosebleed section or The Gods, but I had no fear of heights or anything else for that matter. My business was learning. I learned languages, read voraciously, visited museums and cathedrals and looked at everything and everyone on boulevards, in cafés. It was paradisiac. Le style. The chocolate. Life.
So fueled by fond memory tinged with hyperbolic nostalgia, I booked tickets and flew to Italy. Anyone who travels recognizes arising at 3:00 a.m. to make sure nothing has been forgotten or in my case remembered and the plants given a last good drink in case the kitty sitters don’t notice and the weather turns hot. I drive to catch the 5 a.m. Airporter in Larkspur, imbibing up to the wire CD Berlitz: A che ore parte il treno a Brindisi? Dove il gabinetto? Preferisco un bichieri da vino rosso et Spaghetti con Vongole. Mi chiama Mimi. And then the rigamarole at the airport, the flight to D.C. and the Air France to Paris, with edible airplane food included in the pricey price of the ticket. Maybe I should have brought the bathing suit, the umbrella, the sweater. I should have.
Not exactly in Paris, just an airport in Paris, I trot past McCafé with a shivery frisson of je ne sais quois, en route to the little plane that was to have taken passengers to Genoa from where I would take a train to Santa Margherita, Ligure where I would meet my daughter who had arrived there a few days earlier to explore the Cinque Terra with friends whose wedding occasioned the trip. We were to land at noon. The ceremony was at 4:00. The train ride was less than an hour, plenty of time to shower and change into dressy garb. That was the plan, but cloud cover and turbulence prevented us from landing after four white
knuckle passes, so we went to Nice instead, necessitating a three hour bus ride back to Genoa, arriving long after the vows and kisses, but still in time for the supper, Grazie Dio. What a ride.
Unexpectedly, there was the French and Italian Riviera, the terraced vineyards, cream red and ochre stucco houses, the famous red – tiled roofs and passing palm and pine, red poppies and what looked like Scotch Broom and a more modest variety of Pampas Grass than we know and love or loathe, the ubiquitous crows. By the time our plane’s displaced cosmopolites arrive in Genoa, we are all chummy. I think. A young guy in a pin stripe suit helped me get a taxi which is hey, only eighty Euros, to our hotel. Don’t even ask what I paid for a deck of cards so we could play gin on the train to Venice where I got locked in the W. C. which looks like the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” I love trains. But ten minutes is a long time of banging on the door, calling Ayutame per favore, my accent improving with each summons. Practice makes perfect. Finally two adorable Ciao dudes unstick the stuck door and I wish their mothers’ gardens many mouseless summers.
It poured in Venice which, as is well known, wet enough to begin with. My daughter’s high school chum has joined us…we all magically show up the same time despite terrible directions at the flat we’ve rented from the booked up Hotel Galleria next to the Academia Bridge where we find a soggy place to gormandize and I buy my perhaps thirteenth umbrella, a collection entirely out of my control, really. In the middle of the night, I fall down loudly, having forgotten the step down to the gabinetto, La Forza del Destino! Lubricated by vino, I am a gatto. Still….
Next day, we have a reservation to attend the Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge’s Palace where we learn of courtly intrigue and the machinations of power while viewing beautifully carved furniture, gorgeous old maps, and portraits of all the doges but one who was airbrushed from history because of an uncovered plot to something or other. Outside, we find St. Mark’s Square flooded and have to wade through four inches to dry land and gelato. In Italy, there’s always redemption. No matter what awkwardness, mishap or worriment, the compensations obliterate any inconvenience.
I haven’t mentioned the food, Rick Steves who is the latter day Fodor / Baedecker, the left hand turn of the Bocce Ball Court presumptive on the roof of an ex pat in Forence, hanging out with young women always checking out the Ciao guys( See Eddie Izzard) or listening to an early frantic version of Rhapsody Blue in a 17th century concert hall in Pisa played by a handsome young virtuoso sporting a Hugh Grant do.
Everyone travels for different reasons: to visit family and friends, the haunts of our youth, or the land of our dreams. We leave the cold of winter for tropical climes, get out of town because we’re fried, bored, disillusioned, lost or whelmed by loss and grieving, in need of a change. People have always been impelled to roam, explore, discover, to gaze upon and attend great works of art
and culture, to meet new people with different world views and alternate realities or encounter flora and fauna of hitherto unknown varieties, bump into landscapes by Watteau or Adams. We fling ourselves from the comforts of home to go to school or work, to build a career, learn languages, purchase and collect, or even spook for the CIA, MI5 or whomever gets caught up in the games of black and white, us and them. All those are compelling motivations and I subscribe to several, but after having recently both amused and exhausted myself in travel, I have to confess…no surprise here… we also travel to be fed, to eat. And what’s wrong with that?
I don’t have to tell you of the pleasures of the table. Melanzano al forno is one of the best uses of nature’s bounty and energy and I don’t seem to tire of it. Put the eggplant in the oven and pour the wine. I don’t generally drink wine with lunch, but in Italy, they go so well. Everything goes so well. Everything we ate was great: Minestrone with a dollop of pesto, ravioli, gnocchi, and steak Florentine which two of us couldn’t finish. Tiramisu. Gelato we ate everyday. Such flavors: melon, cinnamon, pistachio and chocolate. On several occasions, we were treated to an after dinner grappa which will put hair on your tongue which is not the same as the dog that bit you, but close. The miracle of walking everywhere to get anywhere and eating absolutely everything we could cram into our eager boccas: we didn’t gain weight.
Some of the unexpected encounters that, reflected in tranquility, afford much pleasure and I don’t know how to explain the happiness I felt. Going to the University of Pisa where the Wandering Scholars of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance came to study, where Gallileo, that splendid maverick, did his research thrilled my nerdy soul. Even though the actual building was rebuilt in
the 18th century and Gallileo had never actually stepped upon the stairs I climbed, I felt a tenderness for the stone because he had been there, not there there, but there. On the train from Pisa to Genoa, we passed through Carrara and could see miles and miles of gargantuan slabs of their famous marble. Having recently visited Michelangelo’s David at the Academia in Florence, and been moved by the august beauty of that iconic sculpture, I found it lovely to see the raw material. When asked how he accomplished his masterpiece, Michelangelo is said to have replied: I chip away all that is not David. That’s been a touchstone, a beacon for those without the conventional script.
Another odd thrill came to me while cruising through my dictionary
en route. I noted that the Italian word for jelly fish is Medusa. Isn’t that crazy? I began thinking of our little Moon Jellies and then remembered the very large and toxic Portuguese man of war I avoided as a kid in the Atlantic in Florida. I could see how someone could imagine the Medusa,
a sea nymph and chthonic monster with snakes for hair ( how like a jelly fish!) whom Perseus beheaded, viewing her through the mirror of his shield and avoiding directly gazing which would have turned him to stone. I thought I could see into a chink in the past through evocative image….worth all the trouble to get there.
In a culture with different assumptions, expectations, customs and habits, it’s easy to make faux pas. I asked for parmesan for my
Linguine con Vongole. In Venice it just isn’t done. Worse, we offended our host when we told him the milk and oj which had expired in March were out of date. He sent someone to check and he assured us they
had not. They would not expire till March of 09. I didn’t think to read the last digits. Who knew they were box drinks? When we visited the oldest most revered perfumery in Florence, I proceeded to douse myself with what looked like the floor sample. No, Madam. That is not for persons. It is for the moths. Well that was a plus. Whatever else happened we would be safe from infestation. The other big plus, small gesture that it was, came from the Florentine pharmacist who dispensed cough medicine to me so my companions could get some sleep at night. I said something that really amused him and when I extended my hand for a friendly goodbye, he kissed rather than shook what was proffered, and I knew why I traveled so long and so far to a much older world than ours.
Every day pleas for the relief of the distressed arrive in my mailbox, and since I’m not exactly Daddy Warbucks, I send ten bucks to this and that always worthy cause, wishing I could send more. Actually I could, but I’ve been apparently too taken up with the pleasures of Babylon, on however a reduced scale. I’ve bought my silks and cashmeres at the Goodwill, the Salvo,thrift shops, flea markets, garage sales, and deep discount emporiums. I’ve indulged myself thus, not because I’m a cheap-skate, but because I want to be able to be generous to my friends and causes and if I bought the perfect sweater in season, preferably
during the pre-season sale as I was trained to do, I’d have fewer things, meaning I’d be a lot more portable which is better for a vagabond, which historically I’m inclined to be.
But it’s not only my penchant for feeding and garbing my friends or the need for the ready when dropping into a box office, book or CD store, that’s made me frequent the second hand shops. I like recycling and the treasure hunt, the you never know what you’re going to find, what odd collectable or adorable relic, what exotic has-been, superannuated chic, or beautifully made garment. I’ve believed myself to be on a rescue mission, saving the exquisite old darlings from the shredder or the dump, oh the delusional spell of rationalization.
Retail therapy is a drug for the polite, the mildly disgruntled, the burdened, the discouraged, the over- worked, the whelmed. It’s what I do when blue or spent or confused…when in a daze after too much hard edge focus and the press of plans, duties and obligations all threaten to consume me utterly. On the one hand, it is a perfectly harmless if silly form of recreational escapism as well as an inexpensive source of clothing. On the other, it is an activity promising a temporary relief from the challenges of life and therefore a form of balking, a refusal to step up to the plate, bat the ball, play the game as best we can, try ourselves in the arena, maybe even score a single, double, hoboy! grand slam home run. In a roast given him at the end of his life, film director John Huston observed that most of our lives are lived by our understudies, a remark worth thinking about. It is my understudy who shops. I prefer to sing and dance and type.
Then comes the moment when a habit or an addiction (spade a spade) becomes an onerous burden rather than an outlet, pass-time, or spree, when
going to usual kick-back haunts there isn’t a ghost of a thrill. We know too much, have too much, too many are doing without, so how can we continue to shop? We’ve had it with extraneous time and place holders. A surfeit by any other name is, enfin, too much, already. The shopping, the patrolling the rows and rows of cast-offs, looking for the sine qua non, the ne plus ultra of well made timeless outer ware, the very togs of chic: Genug. Farewell Goodwill, Salvation Army, Sack’s Thrift Avenue, Senior Service’s. Sob.
Oh if it were that easy. Years ago I had another little habit. I walked from North Shore Boats to the Marshall Post Office, then in the cove where the oyster co. now is. After posting my letters, I stopped by the general store and bought my daily dose of corn nuts, a nickel a bag….harmless enough, though hard on the molars….oh the path to perdition! After I ceased cigarettes, not quite through with my oral fixation ( Ach du lieber, I’m afreud ve do know too much), I took up blue corn and Kettle chips and threatened to start a Marin chapter of Chips Anonymous. In college, I thought of making a hand book for compulsive eaters and printing it on ham and Swiss on rye, hold the mustard. Naturally I am grateful my obsessions and compulsions have been trivialish. There were some who latched on to more serious anesthetics with stiffer consequences. There is the dark side, a shadow land to any idyllic village or town and every Western Weekend, we remember sad events that transpired here, swept under the carpet… and we carry on. Sigh.
Life is tough and sometimes unbearable. I blame no one who takes time out. I have friends who have little bon bon habits who will understand the pattern. However, as we know, every obstacle blocking the path is an opportunity for self knowledge and growth. Mitigating awareness, presence, and
the observant self watching the nibbler or shopper, noting the need for comfort, provides the space required for choice, not mindless caving in when we are immersed in drives and longings, blindly unaware. Our mothers told us to count to ten when we were angry so we would have the presence of mind not to indulge in a temper tantrum, to choose not to. Growth is painful. Self mastery…it never ends. Next level, please.
Did you ever as a child have to stay at the table long after everyone else had left, still compelled to eat, still resisting Popeye’s khaki spinach, a cold and soggy smear on the china? Blech. Character formation. In the long ago, we were told so that we would appreciate all that was set upon our plates that the children were starving in India. I would have gladly shipped them my vegetables, but they had troubles enough of their own without having to deal with the inedible ersatz vittles I had to offer.
Progress was our most important product. So Americans had been told and my darling if deluded elders bought canned and then frozen veggies, clearly de rigeur because they were the newest hottest item, leaving behind the real thing. Assimilating émigrés are often the most steadfastly loyal to any convention or practice of the new home land. The technology of lightly cooking fresh greens had been forgotten by the current cooks and not yet remembered by
the next generation, so there was this long post-prandial spinach-twirling before I perfected the art of slipping the stuff into my napkin little by little. “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”…often how we respond to the presiding and unacceptable circumstances of family and culture. I then excused myself from the table and threw the revolting brown greens into the john without the intervening trip through stomach and intestines via the critical, tender-hearted mouth which, Like Emily Dickenson, prefers to select her own society… a lot of merde to swallow, excuse the French.
There’s so much we still apparently have to swallow…so much that is unacceptable put upon our plates. How many of us want this war? What about the reallocation of our country’s wealth which has meant more rather than less inequity, less rather than more benefit to the common weal, the greatest good to the greatest many. We had imagined during the dreaming days of the Great Society that progress meant homes, jobs, education, access to health care, sufficient social security pension in our retirement to enjoy the fruits of our labors and a well earned rest for as many people as possible. Life: clean unpolluted earth air and water. Liberty: equal opportunity, freedom of expression, freedom of choice.
The pursuit of happiness: free to be whoever we are unimpeded by the biased distinctions and privileges of race, class, gender, orientation, age, and body size. I think we may be level with the same economic distribution of resources as we were pre American Revolution when society still mirrored the Old World’s class system of masters and servants, Aristocrats and Serfs. The upshot of the enlightenment was the rise of a large middle class which could enjoy the pleasures of life like the Aristos, earned by working for a living like the
Plebes. That the middle class has shrunk has been well documented and Robert Reich details this precisely in his essay, “Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor Poorer.”
I don’t begrudge anyone’s wealth. I do embrace free enterprise, but as we know having studied the history of the Robber Barons and profiteers of earlier times, a huge fortune is oft amassed at the expense of others and finally called ill gotten gain. What can anyone do with a billion bucks? How much breast of lark can anyone eat in a week? Not that I would. I’m not envious, though the social disparities and progressively large divide between the haves and have-nots could put one’s nose out of joint.
I’m with Blake: “Can I see another’s woe and not be in sorrow too?”
And of course there is simply too much evidence of the declining health of the environment. And then there’s the fragmentation! We simply can’t keep in the mind’s eye all the wretchedness of a society without a moral center and carry on… which we simply must. What was once the richest country in the world, richest in natural resources, is now in despoiled, in need of restoration. T.S. Eliot wrote the “Wasteland” invoking Rotten Denmark and Polluted Thebes. How unbearably sad and entirely unacceptable to see our current country in this framework. Forgive me. I don’t know how to write it lite.
Where is the Count of Monte Christo when we need him? Where’s the Green Hornet, Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk? I think it’s up to us who care, who can take the largest view, embrace the most inclusive vision… and as Joseph Campbell states in Hero of a Thousand Faces, the first impulse of the hero is to refuse the call. Liberation is a daunting task requiring effort, concentration, one pointed intent. Enormous effort…the vanquishing of ego driven desires of the self
to realize the well being of the whole. Daunting. But such was the vision of the founders we remember each July 4th, Independence Day.
I am not a Soprano. Then why did I sing last week with the Sopranos at the United Methodist Church in Mill Valley in a Gospel workshop under the auspices of the Light House Singers? I’m not a Christian. I haven’t been born again. I’m not drawn to organized religion and haven’t been since I was a kid and jettisoned pew attendance in favor of ecstatic woodland worship. I’ve wanted no Intercessors, screens or filters between the ineffable and myself. I wanted to experience and know from the inside out and commune directly with the great spirit suffusing everyone and everything. Even now, I am a pagan knocked over by the sheer loveliness of creation, the loveliness of a swim in the bay, the loveliness of a ripe peach, a well sung aria, a great line of verse, a well turned phrase, or an assemblage of molecules so exquisitely contrived on canvas or screen, I jump out of my skin for joy.
Suffice it to say I am a sucker for a spiritual and love the all out, full tilt boogie of Gospel. When my pal who has been egging me on to join her in an annual Gospel Singing Workshop which she’s been devoted to, despite her proclivity for reason and inability to get behind the message, asked again, I couldn’t think of any reason not to. Since another dear neighbor had signed up for the ride, car pooling clinched the deal. I sat with my friends for fellowship, as
we say in church, and they sing Soprano. It was a stretch, but I let the spirit take me to the highest reaches of the stave, beyond my range. And it is pure joy to sing with a choir, take direction from demanding directors who are talented and skillful musicians, primarily African Americans whose tradition this is, who asked for our all.
In the past, I’ve brooded about the unfortunate rift between the Secular Humanists and the Fundamentalists. I’ve come to see this as a dispute in reading….whether we read the sacred texts as prose or poetry, as the revealed word or mythic narrative, the only story or one story among many, symbolic rather than literal truth, poetry. If text is read as prose, as the Gospel truth, there’s no room for variation or multiple voices and this has troubled me. How, I’ve wondered, can you have a dialogue with orthodoxy if everything comes back to the last word, the final authority of the deity. Why? Because God said so, end of discussion. I began having misgivings, almost reneged. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite or imposter, mouthing words I didn’t mean? Fortunately, I remembered Coleridge’s advice to readers of poetry. He recommends a willing suspension of disbelief and in this spirit I went to sing in a choir, one voice among many.
I know a lot of people who think religion nonsense who swear by the Course of Miracles, Eckhart Tolle’s work and most recently “The Secret,” the premise of which is that we create our own reality. This is not a new idea. I encountered the notion years ago in a class at San Francisco State taught by an ex Harvard philosophy professor who gave up his first field as feckless and futile. He had us read Scientific American articles on sense perception, Eric Erickson’s “Childhood and Society” which details the psycho- sexual stages of our
development and a lot of poetry. His thesis was: we create order and project the world moment by moment, and this was both a thrilling and terrifying proposition to encounter, one which invites us to be responsible for our perceptions and choices. In its minimalist form, is the bumper sticker: You don’t have to believe everything you think. Our late great Inverness friend, Barbara Dewey, wrote several books on the idea, one of them, ”As you believe,” in which she too notes the primacy of self fulfilling prophecies. But here’s the rub: I found these ideas latent in Gospel Music read as poetry.
In my inherited tradition, the old Rabbis loved to dispute interpretation so they could understand what God wanted of us, so we could live fulfilling lives and be happy. One of the hymns our choir sang told us to be still, to listen, much as the Buddhists speak of being empty, empty of preconceived notions, empty of ego, empty of desire. This makes so much sense that I began really listening to the seemingly simplistic lyrics of what we were singing. One of the lines that really got to me was “ Look how far the Lord has brought me.He’s brought me from a mighty long way.” The Reverends kept suggesting we pay close attention to the words and meditate upon their meaning. I don’t know if this is what they had in mind, but all I could see was the mainly white choir obeying every minute hand gesture of the able black directors and know that we have all indeed come a long way since Plantation days and the fantasy of white supremacy. So my counsel for all who want to dismiss the fundamentalists: Don’t even bother trying to beat them. Sing with them. E pluribus Unum.
I am happy. The matriarch cherry is fruiting and I recently sampled the cherry cordial made last year from the miniature fruit the birds left. Serious Yum with promise of another blessed round this year as soon as the berries ripen and the cherries fall to the ground. I’m not exactly a closet Moon- Shiner. I’ve been making Blackberry Cordial for over thirty years. But last year I branched out and made experimental batches from the cherry leather and the red and yellow plums in the yard. I decanted the other morning in preparation for this year’s picking. It’s been a full year since they were put by and I need the mason jars for the coming dark and fleshy fruit. I was nigh on shnockered on the fumes at 10:00 a.m. and then I simply had to taste the new brew, purely in the interest of quality control, docha know, and thereafter blithely puttered about the rest of the day, thrilled to bits. Not exactly the confession of a dipsomaniac, for I am tediously industrious and sober, mainly, but it is absolutely lovely to depart from the grindstone mode and elevate the spirit for no reason at all, just because, a lark.
And I am wildly happy today because the finch couple are back and hanging about in the Bay tree and on the wire that stretches above the deck. I can see they’ve added to their nest above a porch light in easy view. I guess they have short memories and the pull of this place strong enough to overcome a serious disturbance of domestic life a couple of years ago by my then brilliant hunter, a part Abyssinian Tabby from whose mouth I have wrested hummingbirds and bats. I had been watching the nest building and egg sitting with pleasure and concern. I was worried that Emma would, well, you know,
but she didn’t…until one July evening when I was feeding a flock of friends and didn’t notice until too late, the nestlings were fledging and Emma licked her whiskers and sprang when each birdie attempted lift off and landed on the deck. I never saw the massacree but a few friends had and, gulp, requiescat in pace. It is the way of the world. I confess I do love chickens scratching in the yard and chickens roasting in the oven. Call me craven or crass, but there it is. Both and…. “The countryside is a soggy sort of place where birds and animals walk about uncooked.”
I know some people feel cats are not cool in birdy places and while I sympathize, I am a hopelessly afflicted feline fancier and cannot do without them. May Sarton wrote in her purfect book on the species, The Fur Person, “They are not our pets. We are their housekeepers.” Don’t I know it. On one of our many migrations, to graduate school in Albany, New York, we drove a truck across the country with a minimal portion of home to keep us among familiar things on the other coast. It was, as my people say, a schlep. The cats, however, were spared the inconvenience and discomfort of many hours and days on the road and flew. I have lived a heap of years. And I know who I am, a woman of a certain age apparently unable to carry on without catering to cat familiars. Ergo, we are all here: finches, tabbies, and yours truly keeping an eye on the feuding kingdoms. Emma the Terrible is now an arthritic old kitty whose hunting days are over. I can rejoice without remorse, be happy there is nesting and life humming along.
I suppose what has given me the greatest sense of contentment is the annual celebration of the Fourth. I love being in one dear perpetual place and seeing year after year the new ones growing, the old ones glowing, all of us
continuing and changing and bearing what good fortune and ill befall us with fortitude and grace. I am happy to be among intelligent productive caring people who live with kindness and equanimity …all right, then, “ish” to the above, mainly. The foot racing event in Inverness is a classic which no one ever seems to tire of. Every year families bring forth their champions to try themselves in the arena of their peers … a good way to get to know who’s who and what’s what on a tiny but, to all involved, significant and mercifully light hearted stage. Everyone gets to adore the adorable little people showcased in the marshmallow heat and the three legged races elicit the ultimate in team work and cooperation, a total kick. Many of us look forward to the reading of the Declaration so we can remember that it is not only our right but our sacred duty to overthrow any form of government that is not of, by, and, for the people. This year’s Orator read a rousing passage from Tom Paine’s Common Sense, though that is, as has been observed, the least common sense of all… or how could we be in the national mess we’re in, even as we sprint? Take Heart. November keeps coming to a booth near us.
Are we not at a crossroads or a forking point? Not to load the dice ( or is it deck?), but things seem so consequential, more than usual…what with the drought, all the wildfires raging around California and the slow drip just below the surface: war…war…war and we are all affected even as we sweep the floor, read a poem or hug a friend. Even as we mix the salad greens, work up a sweat on an uphill slog, even as we potter about, muse and dream, even as we watch the wind rocking the laden boughs of the cherry tree, even as we breathe. Nearing saturation, the tipping point or even just past, as some surmise, we’re at the end of the inning, the bases are loaded and everything hangs in the balance. It’s our move. Batter Up.
Easier said than done.
Pema Chodron says: war begins and ends in the human heart. I’ve been
pondering this and have come to the conclusion that as much as I’d like us to put the current Bozos who have brought us to war in the stocks for public reckoning, for the well earned disdain and scorn of the body politic for having sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, squandered our youth, their youth, their men women and children. their monuments and soil, our moolah, our trust, and whatever was left of our good name in the family of nations whose members surely look upon us as a willful unruly intractable child, we can’t. And we can’t, alas, tar and feather them and run them out of town. Nor can we rebuke and send them to their rooms to think the matter over or put them to bed without their suppers, though it gives me some perverse and pitiful solace in thinking about doing so.
…begins and ends in the human heart which means a very real reckoning
of the state of our own being in the world, our unalloyed union with life. For this the wise Greeks counsel self knowledge and moderation, the Buddhists, non attachment, freeing ourselves from partiality or aversion and the Hindus similarly say: Do the best you can and don’t be attached to the outcome. This is hard to do. In the old days before we thought we must win at all cost, we were guided by the cardinal rule of good sportsmanship. It’s not about winning or losing, but how we play the game. People were also once guided by a sense of decency and honor, doing the right thing, taking into account what was fair and square and in the best interests and well being of all, or a select sampling of all, given the rules of the game and the prevailing light and understanding of the time. A gentleman gave his word, his word was his bond, and there were no further oaths or contracts or signatures on the dotted line….a world with a moral center.
The great appeal of the classics is, for the reader, just such a moral center, an imaginative participation in the rectification of wrongs, or the reward and satisfaction of the good and kind which we find in the little worlds of domestic drama by the timeless novelists Austen, Eliot, Meredith, Thackary, Hardy, Forester and more recently Alexander McCall Smith, writers who portray the inevitable collisions of character and circumstance,and the consequences of virtue, vice, and petty human flaws. In the larger sphere of enterprise, Dumas looked into the souls of men swaggering on the stage of principled resistance, rebellion and daring do. In the Three Musketeers which is set during the era of Cardinal Richelieu,Dumas portrays and reasserts the enlightenment values of
cooperation and brotherhood: One for all, and all for one.” In The Count of Monte Cristo, he invites us to ponder honor, justice, vengeance, and forgiveness, themes found in childhood tales we’ve read and loved because things come out right, with values we want to embrace, values absent in our world, values we long for.
Sartre said that we must be the model for humanity we think the best, embody those values we admire, live our lives as we think all people ought. In a sense, Sartre’s existential philosophy comes close to Chodron’s truth. We may not be able to alter world events but we can work on ourselves, which most people I know are engaged in doing. There’s a wonderful Hopi address called “The Eleventh Hour,” in which the elder says: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” How so? We know from experience, from Aikido in every day life, that we cannot oppose evil directly. Confrontation begets confrontation which escalates to the very state we decry. Was it Bucky Fuller who says we spin our wheels in protest against an evil or ill; rather we must put something else in its stead. And so we do, all we everywhere endeavoring to live amicably in community, inspired by the beauties and mysteries, informed by mutual regard and aid, by forgiveness.
Why forgiveness? In a snit of indignation or choleric blame, we stumble onto an iffy path. The justifying monkey finds a million reasons to vindicate evening the score. Victims of malice and mayhem cry out we shall never sleep until we have our revenge, an eye for an eye, tit for tat, they had it coming and all that misery begotten misery. In a land where so many profess to be Christians, it’s good to remember that the new dispensation of Christ was to renounce vengeance and turn the other cheek. We are to not only love but feed our enemies. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” we understand as poetic justice. Pre Trojan War, justice was meted out by the Eumenides, the Furies, impersonal agencies. It was out of our hands. But for better and worse, we have lived a long time by rules, codes and laws created by mortals and at best is a very good thing. But go figure! Justice is now often understood in the Old Testament frame which has been played out in the Martins and McCoys and other feuding families, gang wars, the Mafiosa wars and so on, tooth for bloody tooth. We see the terrible price paid for bloodlust and revenge in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and we know in our hearts there is never a good enough reason to thwart love and incur such tragic loss.
To respond to fraught situations with forgiveness means a lot of hard work. Our big egos are challenged to renounce narcissistic exclusivity of privilege and entitlement, to not take things personally, but rather acknowledge multiple points of view. By including the other, it’s possible to give up anger and blame and have compassion for all, even if one does not come out winner, often a big ouch. Not that it’s easy. Our pride is easily wounded. But still, we can take
offence which leads to retribution or renounce the fray and make peace. The ancients knew that taking offense causes as much suffering in the world as giving offence. Our folks used to say two wrongs don’t make a right. And wouldn’t you know it, turning the other cheek wasn’t built in a day, if I may borrow Jack Kerouac’s “Walking on Water wasn’t built in a day.” But it is good to consider such a possibility even if we are not yet up to it. Implementation often lags behind good ideas. Such is life. Things take the time they take and so it goes.
I’ve often thought our country is still reeling from the consequences of the injustices meted out at its inception. By now, we know better and deeply rue the Trail of Tears, Slavery and later, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, the occupational hazards and suffering of coal miners who routinely died of black lung disease. We can all think of people and groups who have not been treated well or fairly, who were not or are still not included in “us.” They are “them,” betokening a country divided which, it is said and sung, cannot stand. There’s a low level awareness in the midst of our good fortune, our prosperity and mainly free society, of the huge black mark on the national character, the elephant in the living room that is rarely spoken of or regarded. There’s never been a public acknowledgement of all the misery inflicted and some reckoning needs to be made. I’d love to see some rite of contrition, a national day of mourning, apologies made and some compensatory action taken, not that there is any way to fully compensate. But we can endeavor to make amends, to love our neighbors, to embody the self evident truths.
Our human history seems to be a journey to consciousness, awareness, better choices, to maturity. The birds have got it knocked. Every year they woo, nest, mate, lay, sit on and hatch their eggs and feed the offspring till the kids fledge and can get food on their own. It is the way of the animal kingdom. Everyone knows and plays their parts, everyone but us. Our apparently still unfinished species is having a hard time growing up and settling down into our domestic responsibilities and finding contentment and satisfaction in living life fully, simply. Granted our complexities, proclivities, our misconceptions and mistakes, our capacity
for both ignominy and grace, futility and fulfillment, misery and happiness, some of us still look for thrills in other domains. Not that there is anything wrong with diverse expressions of our humanity. For some, amassing a huge fortune is the sine qua non of human endeavor. If this is not taking more than one’s fair share, rock on. A.S. Neill defined freedom as doing whatever we want as long as what we do doesn’t interfere with others’ doing what they want. Doesn’t this seem a reasonable, prudent and mature maxim, a rule to live by?
What is keeping us from growing up? Vested interests, ignorance, vengeance and greed, blah blah blah. Perhaps it is a matter of modulation, temperance. The word sin means missing the mark. What if we come to understand the Seven Deadlies in terms of excess? We all have appetites. Two pieces of toast is breakfast. Twelve pieces? Gluttony. We are all erotic beings or we wouldn’t be here. We all need rest, want admiration, want to feel admiration and take inspiration from others, are often roused to protest indignity and injustice. Without moderation, we sin or miss the mark. What else is new? Nothing for it but to try again, fail better…until there’s a sea change. After so
many incremental steps, quantitative changes, there’s a qualitative one. What has been obdurate becomes fluid as ice melts into water.
We have as a species yet to live happily ever after like our animal kin or fully realize the fate of fairy tale beings whose journey is growing up, becoming adult in the embrace of what is kind and good and beautiful in life.
A frantic ant just scurried through the labyrinth of the keyboard. Poor ants-they’re little welcomed here. I have been known to erect a mountainous barrier of cornstarch along the kitchen window. I am respectful of them as long as they’re outside. Back yard is fine. Kitchen’s verboten because a nuisance as is the spraying of cats, though cats are sometimes sprayed because skunks are skunks and cats are cats and good luck unless you keep the kitties inside, safe from hazard, but insulated from a proper kitty life: deprived of the great mother, the sniff and feel of everything. But the point is pest and nuisance and what we do about it. Repellence and relocation are preferable to eradication. And I still feel lousy about the tomb of the unknown yellow jacket in Sun Valley, in the county seat, where we lived several years ago. I couldn’t bring myself to enter the shed where they were poisoned and wish I had found better means to live with pests. Happily I found a way to live with the ants after terrible exterminations of their Mongol hordes by lethal sponge and worse. Ant Treblinka. Eventually I realized they were coming in to eat the cat food, so every
evening I put a spoon full of canned food in each kitty’s dish and one in a tin outside for the ants … and that did the trick. They didn’t come inside anymore.
When we lived in another neighborhood, I cursed my dinner guest, a raccoon who had taken to prowling in the flower garden beside the door, snuffling and hunting for the garbage can I began hiding from him, ha, in different places around the yard. He bit through the plastic guard that secures the lid which I bought for a stiff price for the so called final solution, wanting merely to discourage him. Endgame it was not. Stalemate, perhaps. But I cursed him and his kind because I had not learned to live with him, the nuisance. Before I found the right combination of lid and bungee cord, I had to pick up the messy garbage from his foraging, the nightly meal I prepared for him, al fresco, in the covered dish. When I put the bungee cord around the can securing it to the fence, rather than fecklessly over the lid, he could climb in to dine and not spill. Voila! These days, my neighbor uses a humane trap and relocates the rascals. Fond and foolish creature, I miss their cunning fingers, their little bandit faces.
About the deer…I wept over Bambi as a kid, sobbed and sobbed, didn’t you? Kids can be so open hearted and sympathetic, recognizing animals as kindred spirits and entirely loveable are the strength and grace of deer. But. A gardener has got to stake out a territory and erect a stockade to keep them from nibbling what she plans for her soup pot and salad bowl. And so I have, though in dry seasons I leave water out for the nocturnal neighbors, am delighted to come upon a doe and her fawn nibbling blackberries, or the young bucks trotting up the street, and feel graced by their presence. Truth is, I’m crazy about the wildlings including the skunk who sprayed the cat and stank up the night, and while anyone might rue the presence of wild turkeys in the hood, gobblers who
would love to gobble up our greens, I am happy to see them. I just can’t help identifying. Turkey c’est moi.
If you have the misfortune of mice or wood rats at home, do yourself a favor and don’t name them. You probably already know this. I made the mistake of calling the wood rat who had taken up residence a couple of years ago, Templeton. I could hear him rustling and skittering about behind the walls, no doubt caching the almonds he had just lifted. Any reasonable person would have pricked up her ears and bought a trap, avoiding the replacement of parts for the stove and dishwasher. Dadratit, what kind of creature eats machinery? Any reasonable person, I say, and thereby hangs a tail. I have a mind to think, but “The heart has reasons the reason knows nothing of.” ( Pascal) However, sigh, I was an idiot to have been charmed by Templeton. And when the peanut butter baited humane trap didn’t work, the rat trap did. R.I. P. Live and let live? sigh. Live and learn. A conundrum, truly, but/and where do we draw the line? No sooner writ, then I hear a scratching in the walls. Another rat.
My geriatric feline, once such a brilliant hunter there were no problems or infestations, has retired, and Oscar is strictly a reptile guy: only lizards and gopher snakes, aside from crunchies, get his attention. This rat has neither a name, nor future. Da da da da Dragnet!
I felt better when I put a yellow jacket outside on a daisy after he stung me in the kitchen ( finger actually) when I reached my hand into a bag of Farmer’s Market lettuce. At heart, at best, we want to live as fairly and harmoniously as possible with other creatures, pesky as they may be. Blake wrote: “The cut worm forgives the plow.” Collisions and casualties are inevitable without any intent to injure. So it is more a matter of motive than deed. Even so, we are all
accountable. In his essay, “The Lowest Animal,” Mark Twain counters the prevailing view that our species is a little lower than the angels, the highest species, for whom creation was made, posing some thought experiments to prove his point. In one, for example, he puts three goats in a cage with an anaconda who eats only one leaving the others, stopping when full. Not so Homo um Sapiens, perhaps the biggest pest of all. Perhaps. But it aint necessarily so.