Who was Cassandra?
In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters
of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo
loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed
that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow
Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well,
you know what happened.
the cassandra pages
words, pictures, and a life
Wednesday, June 30, 2004 Loving in the face of utter rejection means following in some of the most painful footsteps of Jesus, the Christ. But I'm convinced that peace is to be found in accepting that calling - not peace in the everyday sense of tranquility, but the kind of peace that emerges from believing in our wholeness and the rightfulness of our place in the cosmos. Loving in the face of persecution may not always yield happiness, but it seems to be the only response that allows us to make any sense at all of our lives.
John Fortunato, Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys for Gay Christians (1982).
Yesterday we had a good visit with the bishop. He was tired, and for the first part of the interview - we had 2 1/2 hours scheduled - I was worried that it wasn't going to be productive for me, or pleasant for him. During the past two weeks, he's been dealing with a deteriorating situation with the one parish in New Hampshire that has refused to accept his election. There was a meeting scheduled a week ago between the diocesan representatives (the bishop and the president of the Standing Committee) and the parish vestry. G.R. decided to give them everything they asked for - their own choice of priest (he agreed to re-instate a priest that the former bishop had fired), pastoral oversight by a conservative bishop instead of himself, with only the requirement of one informal visit per year by himself. (Canon law requires one formal pastoral visit by the bishop every three years.) At the meeting, it became clear that despite their former assurances and demands, there was no intention on the part of the dissenting parish to negotiate or accept even these offers. A member of the American Anglican Council (the group that is spearheading opposition to homosexual ordinations and encouraging the formation of a new, "faithful" Anglican Church in the U.S.) was present, and, according to G.R., the parish members "read from scripts" that had been prepared by others.
"If you rolled up all the hatred I've encountered all this past year, it wouldn't equal what I had to endure that evening," he said. "Even the priest I had offered to reappoint entered into a diatribe, attacking me personally, shaking his finger at me." No wonder so much pain and fatigue could still be read in his face. But, he said, "I decided partway through that no matter what, I was going to outlast them; I'd stay at the table and if anyone was going to walk out, it would have to be them." He said he didn't say much, didn't answer their hatred. And eventually, their own anger got the better of them; as a body - about 35 people - they slammed their keys to the church on the table and walked out. "I said to Hank," (the president of the Standing Committee of the diocese) "pick up those keys. Tomorrow we're changing the locks on this building, and starting to rebuild this congregation." On Sunday, G.R.'s assistant preached there, to a crowd of supporters numbering over 100, and including a number of people who had left the congregation in dismay over the vindictiveness and unwillingness to compromise.
While we were in his office, one of the most conservative bishops in the country called on the telephone. He had read the press reports of what happened, and wanted to tell G.R., who he had gotten to know through the General Conventions of the church, that he admired how he had handled it, that he had bent over backwards to try to accomodate the wishes of the congregation and preserve diocesan unity, and no one could have done more than that. Although he'd been through a wringer, G.R. felt relieved; he wouldn't have to deal with these people anymore and could concentrate on rebuilding that parish.
After we got this painful subject out of the way, things improved. I asked him some questions some of you have suggested ("Hmm - good questions!" he said.) He told me some stories about his experiences as a young person in the Disciples of Christ Church; I told him some stories about my father and his circuit-riding Methodist minister father, we all began to laugh and relax, and when five o'clock rolled around, I was the one who had to say, "Ok! Time to stop!"
Sunday, June 27, 2004
The other day in the comments, my friend Tom Montag mentioned that his blog gets considerably fewer readers than this one. He didn't care, he said, and I believe him: he'd rather have a small group of appreciative and interested readers than a whole slew of casual, silent ones. But if what he says is true, it's a crying shame, because Tom is one of the best writers out there and what he's doing, in his quiet, steady way, is worthy of far more attention.
Tom's blog, The Middlewesterner, gives us excerpts from his "Vagabond Journals" and other writings about the people and character of the present-day Midwest. Some literate urban dwellers of the coasts of our great country manage to dismiss or neglect the Midwest. The south has its great pantheon of writers, after all, and there are a few Chicagoans of note, but when it comes to the prairies and small towns of Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana...there's Willa Cather, and not a great many others. Or perhaps some identify the Midwest with that Nixonian phrase "Middle America" and see it as the antithesis of all that is cultured, educated, outward-looking. To do so is to miss out on the core of America, and also to miss looking back into our past, which this area of the country represents. I don't think any educated person can claim to understand America without knowing something about the Midwest.
I grew up in rural New York, too far east to be in Tom's geographical definition but with many shared characteristics. Like him, I appreciate the plain-spoken people and honest direct life lived there, close to the land - land which is still being used to grow food.
Yesterday, walking along a country road here on top of a hill, it was totally quiet except for the exuberant calls of the songbirds. A meadowlark sang on the edge of tall grasses in a pasture dotted with daisies and buttercups, and fragrant with bedstraw; occasionally a cow lowed in the distance, and over it all a wind swept cleanly and freshly from the west. It was a beautiful, timeless moment, as measured in the memories of my life, but it's disappearing.
Tom is trying to do something about that - to capture the elusive character of the agricultural land, the small towns and grain elevators, and most especially its people, the sort who don't talk about themselves much - before they disappear. His prose moves me, and I commend it to you. As a writer, he works steadily and productively, and his occasional advice to less experienced writers is well worth taking.
He's also a fine poet, as this poem from a recent post will show you:
THIS GATHERING SEASON
in MIDDLE GROUND (1982)
by Tom Montag
The steady eye, of course,
this rip in darkness,
of morning light the color
in April - The silence of
measured in the regular
of her breathing. She sleeps.
sucks the husk of night;
then, a glow to the room -
becomes more than I can own
Tom, thank you for being there and for what you are doing with your life and talents.
Saturday, June 26, 2004
Thanks for checking how my comments are working - and it's been nice to hear from some non-regular-commentators. Doc Rock just asked how my book project was coming, and I appreciated that, so I thought I'd give you all an update.
After the month in Canada when nothing much got written, the book is moving forward now, slowly and steadily. I wish I could write it faster, but I can't, and obviously there has been a lot going on in my life lately. Right now I'm completing the first draft of the chapter on the NH election, and will be moving on next to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church that approved the election of Bishop Robinson - and the firestorm that unleashed. I'm trying to tell the story through the real people who contributed to it, rather than simply reporting the facts - which is also the best way to maintain my own interest. The interviews I've done have been fascinating and the people very generous with their time and ideas. I'm working right now with a decision about how much of "myself" to put in. J., my best critic, says the writing is the best and most interesting when I do my observational thing and allow myself to have a point of view, as someone who was close to the process and has a lot of knowledge and experience of the Church and of thinking about religion and life, both inside and outside the formal structure.
"People may not agree with you," he says, "but they'll respect you and see that you are fair."
I don't think the book wants a constant or intrusive "I", but I do think he's right that the writing is stronger and much more interesting when there is descriptive interest and personal observation of people and events beyond straight journalistic reportage. Figuring out the overall tone is part of what I'm going through at the moment, but it seems to be kind of emerging naturally. Having said that, the project is far bigger than I originally thought, and I am constantly struggling against feeling overwhelmed. The outline is solid, the material is good, and I just have to chip away at it. These past two weeks have been productive, so I feel encouraged.
Another interview with the Bishop on Tuesday, and I'm lining up others as well. Anybody you want to hear from? Ideas? Questions?
Friday, June 25, 2004
Thursday, June 24, 2004
It's a hot afternoon here, starting to get humid. We seem to be into our typical summer weather pattern: clear, beautifully fresh days of high pressure, with billowing clouds - imagine a New England postcard with cows and a red barn in the foreground, and you'll have it just about right - slowly giving way to increasing humidity and haze, with clouds that pile up higher and higher into thunderheads. Then, usually in the afternoon, a mounting wind turns the maple leaves upside down, and eventually crashes into a full-fledged thunderstorm. I feel like a bird in the backyard, so attuned am I to this pattern, and to the attendant water needs of my plants.
Right now there are no clouds, though, just an indistinct haze. The tops of the tall maples above the river on, yes, Maple Street, are tossing pretty hard but we're far from anything dramatic happening. J. just opened a front window and there's a welcome breeze blowing past the big rosemary plant on the windowsill and filling this room with that scent. Just down the street, Helen's catalpa is in full, spectacular bloom. School is out. At the store today, I watched a young boy shopping for summer clothes with his mother, and I sensed in his relaxed happiness that long-ago feeling of summer just beginning, opening out into a nearly endless freedom that wouldn't begin to close up until late August, when the weather changed again.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
NEW YORK, FRANKLIN STREET STATION
We've been experiencing some attrition lately in Blogworld: first CommonBeauty, then Denny at Book of Life, and now even Butuki is considering calling it quits. As I told Denny, while I respect his decision totally, I will miss him and his writing a great deal. It's not as though I take blogwriters for granted, but you do become accustomed to checking in, as if on a morning walk, and seeing what your favorite writers have written and how they're doing. Silence and absence are very hard to get used to.
Both Denny and Butuki speak about wanting to work on "real" work - books they're writing, for example. This is what I wrote to Butuki today:
"I keep wondering why people keep saying “other work” is more important, in effect putting down blogging as a less valuable activity. Maybe it's because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about spirituality and different concepts of “ministry”. But it is quite clear to me that what many of us are doing IS important, perhaps vitally important, by providing a more or less daily lifeline of conversation about meaningful topics, or a quiet place of reflection, or a sense of kinship across time and space to other individuals. The fact that we cannot see or feel or measure the true impact we may be having on one another’s lives heightens my belief that this IS the sort of selflessness that really matters in our world. I could collect my blog posts and compile a book, or I could finish the one I am supposedly writing - and I hope I will do those things. But I don’t see them as any more satisfying or worthwhile than writing here. What that would do is gratify my ego, possibly help or interest some other people, and maybe - this is a very long shot - make me some money. But the big thing is that I could “see” the accomplishment, show it, talk about it. I am suspicious of these motives, frankly, but perhaps that is just that I’ve been on this spiritual materialism kick for a long time and it makes me examine my desires relentlessly."
Another point I am well aware of is that I'm writing from the perspective of nearly 52 years. On the one hand, I feel the clock ticking, and I hope I will be able to complete some projects over the next decade or two. But my feelings about "accomplishment" now are markedly different than they were when I was thirty, or even forty. An old, close friend, someone my age, wrote a while ago and reminded me that the chances of one of us writing the great novel or composing an enduring opera are miniscule: the Mozarts and Joyces of this world are very rare, as is that sort of immortality. I might write a really good book, and chances are that it will be forgotten in a matter of years, if that. What really matters - what makes us remembered and what makes our lives really meaningful - is whether we are loving people, to those close to us, and to the environment (social, physical, however you want to define it) that is nearest, and that we have a chance to affect. As my husband said once, as we left a memorial service: "In the end, all that anyone really cares about is whether you were a good person."
There is no way I can claim that my life is any more meaningful - just because it has "public" aspects - than that of a parent who lives and dies totally anonymously, but gives his child a sense of wonder and security and purpose, or a woman who cares lovingly for her family, throughout a lifetime, in obscurity. I do think it is important to figure out what we find fulfilling, though, and go toward that, because inside that "message", that deep attraction of the soul, we can discover a way to grow toward who we are truly meant to be. If things we are doing feel wrong or out of balance, then it's time to step back and reassess. It's also good to remember that we generally find time to do what is most important to us; these days I write here more regularly than I work on "other" writing - and I need to admit to myself that that's not an excuse, that's my preference. Someday, of course, that may change.
Loathe to do anything to interrupt the flow of opinions in the current comment threads (what would happen, I wonder, if there were NO character limit at all?) I'm going to give some suggestions for reading, in case you need more!
"THEY'RE REFUGEES FROM AFGHANISTAN" From today's BBC, a survey on what British school kids really know about the Palestinians (and you thought only Americans were poorly informed!) (Thanks, J.!)
I've been reporting on abuse and mistreatment in our nation's jails and prisons for the last eight years. What I have found is widespread disregard for human rights. Sadism, in some locations, is casual and almost routine.
Reporters and commentators keep asking, how could this happen? My question is, why are we surprised when many of these same practices are occurring at home?
For one thing, the photos of prison abuse in the United States have not received nearly the attention that the Abu Ghraib photos did. And maybe we have so dehumanized U.S. prisoners that we have become as distant from them as we are from foreign captives in faraway lands.
"HAS ANYBODY HERE SEEN MY OLD FRIEND GOD?" This one will at least make you laugh. A brilliantly (at least I thought so) satirical look at the co-opting of "God" by Bush and the religious right, by Sheila Samples in The Smirking Chimp.
As a Christian, I cannot come to grips with the premise that God got us into this mess -- that God is the shadowy figure behind the throne, whispering into Bush's ear to dishonor our nation, disgrace our armed forces and destroy tens of thousands of innocent people. Only a tyrant storms in and out of the affairs of common men, robs them of their way of life, of hope, of free thought -- and randomly and maliciously tortures, even slaughters, those who dare oppose him. Only a tyrant who, as Aristotle wisely noted, "must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion." Aristotle also pointed out that "Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious..." (Thanks to Dave Steele for these last two.)
I'm enormously appreciative of the reflectiveness and high quality of the comments being made here about individual responsibility and government. Joerg's comment, today, added a very important dimension to the discussion that has been lacking - a foreign perspective. It's especially pertinent here because he is German. If you are a foreign reader living abroad, or living here, I want to encourage you to tell us how these issues and this discussion feel to you.
For my part, I am dismayed that people of intelligence decide not to vote. It is, as Chris said, such a simple thing to do, and if more of us did it, it would make a difference. I was taught, growing up, that if I didn't exercise my option to participate in any system of which I was a part - the family, the school, the community, the country, the world - I forfeited my right to complain about it. In my family, everybody was active in the organizations and community they lived in, and it would have been unthinkable not to vote. People who come from dictatorial countries cannot imagine the freedom of expression we have here, and even though those freedoms are under attack, we still have them and it is vital that we use them. A major part of the problem is that people in this country are becoming more and more passive. (Dave touched on the reasons for this in an early comment; I'll take it up later this week because I have a good story about what can happen when people move out of that passivity and take responsibility for themselves.)
Not long ago, I talked to a woman who had immigrated to the U.S. from the Balkans. She agreed with the political position I was stating, but was frightened at public expressions of opposition to foreign policy. She warned me to be careful. Her deep paranoia reminded me of my readings about Stalinist Russia. In spite of my reassurances that I was all right and that this sort of individual expression (pretty mild, in my case) is not only tolerated but protected in America, she couldn't be convinced. I found this very enlightening. It also showed me how important it is to protect our freedoms by exercising them.
Saturday, June 19, 2004
UPGRADED COMMENTING & A FEW COMMENTS THEREON
This afternoon I upgraded my HaloScan comment feature. The major change is that it will now allow 3,000 word comments rather than 1,000. I hope this helps. For those who aren't as wordy as I am sometimes and are surprised to be caught short, here or on other blogs, what you should do is swipe your comment when you've written a couple of paragraphs and copy it to the clipboard. Post the whole thing, and HaloScan will cut it off if there's an overrun. Then paste from the clipboard into a new comment box, delete the first part that has already been posted, and continue.
I don't think you will have to re-enter your email address and homepage; my apologies if you do. If anyone has problems, please let me know right away. It's important to me and to our conversation here that you DO enter either an email address or homepage; I am considering deleting comments that don't have at least one of those listed. (Any thoughts on that from other bloggers?)
Finally, if you write to me for the first time, please make sure to enter a real subject in the "subject" field of the e-mail header. If you don't, and my email program doesn't recognize your name, your message is going to go into the junk folder; not something I want to have happen!
Friday, June 18, 2004
WALL, LOWER MANHATTAN
I'm not going to write anything else today, since I'm hoping others will read and add to the fascinating comment thread from yesterday. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far.
Thursday, June 17, 2004
Yesterday I had an interesting discussion about politics and individual responsibility with a person who immigrated to this country from the Near East as an young adult, about twenty-five years ago. I was talking about the sense of responsibility I've always felt, as an American citizen, to try to speak out and change the government or governmental policies that I felt were wrong. I said that even though I had openly opposed the Iraq war, and Bush, the Abu Ghraib photos had really pushed me over some sort of moral edge.
"But that is Bush, that is this government," he said. "I don't feel personally responsible for what they do. Why do you?"
"Because it is my tax dollars that are being spent to pay those guards and feed those dogs," I said. "I am responsible, no matter how much I disagree. Everybody who pays taxes or stays silent is actually participating."
My friend didn't seem convinced. "I came here, my life is here," he said. "I can't move again. And we all have to pay taxes."
"If you were back in your native country," I then asked, "would you feel more responsible?" That country is not a democratic one. My friend thought, and said, upon reflection, that he didn't feel a sense of responsibility for the governmental decisions there either.
I can understand that: when people have no power to choose or change their government, and have to live with oppression, injustice, the imposition of arbitrary rules, censorship, the threat of sudden imprisonment, torture, and even execution, of course they are not going to feel responsible for the government. But it stunned me to consider that this same logic - and not mere apathy or self-centeredness, or even helplessness - may be what we're moving toward here, when we actually do still have a democracy of sorts. That people can accept that this is what governments do - but it doesn't have anything to do with me.
I'm not going to stop paying my taxes, but I do struggle with my complicity, not just by participating finally in the military machine, but in my affluent, western, fossil-fuel consuming lifestyle. I do feel responsible for the ways in which my life causes suffering for others.
Because of this conversation I've also been wondering how much of my sense of responsibility comes from the fact that large parts of my family have been American and civic- minded (as opposed to patriotic) for more than three hundred years; or my ingrained idea - whether it is civic fact or myth - that we, the people, actually DO have the power and responsibility to change what happens here; or whether I am mainly operating out of my Christian belief that oppression, injustice, and violence must always be resisted, non-violently if at all possible. I also understand that I haven't had a history of being oppressed or threatened, and that I am white, Anglo-Saxon, and a long-term citizen, and therefore in a privileged position to dissent and speak out freely - even here. Sad but true.
There's a big difference between identifying with a government, or even a country, and feeling responsible, either as a citizen or a human being, for what happens to the larger community and how it is governed. Or at least that's how it seems to me. But how do you feel, out there? Are these questions moral ones for you, or civic ones, or non-issues?
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
ELEPHANT EAR in my back yard
This is a contribution to the June 15th ECOTONE wiki topic, Anniversary Place.
Happy Birthday, Ecotone Wiki! It's hard to believe that we launched this experiment in writing about place a whole year ago, but it is not difficult to remember the wealth of fine posts that have been written, the friends and connections made, the warm commentaries, and the hours spent contemplating the topics and trying to write something worthwhile in response. The Ecotone has, in the process, changed from an address in the ether to its own virtual place. It feels tangible because it is where I have encounterd real people who inhabit real places and imagine others, and it's a place where we have hashed out a new form of essay-writing in the blogosphere.
However it evolves or dissolves in the future, the Ecotone will always remain fondly in my writer's memory because it has prodded me into writing down many formerly inchoate thoughts about my own relationship to place. Much of my writing is about this topic anyway, but the Ecotone topics, with both broadly-sketched parameters or more specific focii, have forced a sharpened concentration into how I felt about, and remembered, different aspects of place - and that has been valuable to me, both as person and writer. They've given me an excuse to explore my childhood haunts in central New York, and contrast them with my adult home in northern New England, finding in the process new aspects of the girl who grew up somewhere inbetween. And now, finding myself drawn to a new, urban environment, I think a year of writing and thinking about place is helping me understand what's going on in our lives, and to sort through the emotional, as well as physical, ways that different places affect and change me.
But the most important gift I am grateful for on this Anniversary is the gift of so many new friendships. Good heavens, I can hardly imagine life before I knew Pica and Fred, Lisa and Chris and Jenny and Geoff, Numenius, Coup de Vent, Butuki, and Nancy, to name just a few of the place-oriented people I met first through the Ecotone Wiki. It has been a huge joy to see my old friend and correspondent "P." writing regularly here. And as the list of contributors has grown, I've been so happy to read new takes on place, and to encounter new parts of the globe through your eyes and your words.
What do we want to do in the next year? How can we increase our readership? I've been less regular in responding to topics lately because of other commitments, but I am no less enthusiastic than I was when we began. I hope other readers will suggest more topics, and that new ideas will emerge that will inspire us all.
Monday, June 14, 2004 " How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the rain, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: these are our spiritual directors and our novice masters. They form our contemplation. They instill us with virtue. They make us as stable as the land we live on. You do not get that out of a typewriter." Thomas Merton
Last Monday, J. and a friend and I walked through the block of SoHo and Tribeca (lower Manhattan) to pay our respects at Ground Zero. I don't know what I expected, but it was a more powerful and more moving experience than I had anticipated, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that you can't really "see" the place where the buldings were; what you see is emptiness. After walking through the vertically-lacked, visually-dense landscape of the city, any emptiness strikes you as strange, and this is a very large space where something huge once was, and is no more.
All around the WTC site are buildings in various stages of reconstruction or construction: cloaked in scaffolding, with workers perched on the fortieth, sixtieth floors like tiny, hard-hatted ants. Damage is still very much in evidence. The rebuilt metro/train station that one once entered beneath the Trade towers now teems with commuters, and the area surges with jackhammers, beeping backhoes, and construction vehicles of every variety.
I stood staring through the chain-link fence that separates the hoi poloi from the actual hole that is Ground Zero, and gazed at all this destruction and activity. I thought of the peope who died that day, about New York - my friends who witnessed the airplanes from their roof, others who ran through streets, covered with ash, trying to locate their children - about the families and the children and the valiant rescuers, the resilience and heart of this great city. But I also thought about everything that has happened since: the small window of hope, potential learning, and inter-cultural connection that was so quickly closed and all the lives that have been lost as a result, about a world that has become far more dangerous. It was impossible not to shed tears, and so I did; not sobs but the sort of tears that run down uncaring cheeks until they stop of their own accord. Nearby, my friends had their own private thoughts and remembrances, and I watched as one tourist family posed for a smiling picture, their backs to the site, and another stood looking into the abyss in stunned silence.
Afterwards we went across the street to Trinity Church, Wall Street, with its historic churchyard and chapel that has now become a shrine of remembrance, with displays and exhibits about the disaster. I sat in the church for a while, while a harpsichordist played and people in T-shirts and shorts milled around, taking pictures and chattering. this church - the oldest continually-used public building in America, where Washington once worshipped - no longer felt like a sacred place, while the graveyard, in its simplicity beneath centuries-old trees, with the WTC site beyond, felt totally holy.
Friday, June 11, 2004
I read the recent reports about the use of dogs at Abu Ghraib prison with great sadness, wondering how many readers realize the double horror this abuse would cause in a Muslim prisoner. Of course snarling dogs can be terrifying to anyone. But for a Muslim, dogs are also haram - unclean, forbidden by the Qu'ran. A practicing Muslim would never have a dog in his or her house, or allow it into their yard, let alone keep one as a pet. Muslims are not only unused to being around dogs, but if a dog touches them they are supposed to wash their body and change their clothes. Numerous insulting epithets in Arabic refer to people as "son of a dog" and worse; it's one of the worst things you can say to someone. I also remember the reaction about Saddaam Hussein's fancy pet dogs, when his palace was occupied, and a horrifying story in the New Yorker about women prisoners - Kurds - who he had captured in years past: they were able to look out on the prison yard and see their sons' bodies being torn apart by dogs: not only did they not get a proper Islamic burial, but their bodies were defiled and dismembered. People remember these stories. Like that action, I am sure the use of dogs by U.S. troops was deliberate, designed to humiliate and defile Muslim prisoners as well as to intimidate them. This would be entirely obvious to a Middle Eastern audience, but is probably unknown to all but a few Americans. All we hear is that the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners is forbidden by the Geneva Convention.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
INFLATABLE WORLD On West Broadway, way, way downtown
I've got so many pictures from last weekend I guess I'll post some without too much commentary. But more New York stories tomorrow, and globally-appreciated fireflies for tonight (see below).
Wednesday, June 09, 2004 A cloth of darkness inlaid with fireflies;
flashes of lightning;
the mighty cloud mass guessed at from the roll of thunder;
a trumpeting of elephants;
an east wind scented by opening buds of ketaki,
and falling rain:
I know not how a man can bear the nights that hold all these,
when separated from his love.
From Sanskrit Poetry From Vidyakara's Treasury, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls, via under the fire star.
Late last night, in the dark muggy heat, I went out and sat on the back porch, watching the fireflies dance in the trees. There were a great many of them, and I was stunned by the fact that it was already June, and the fireflies were out, and the peonies and poppies in bloom, and somehow I had missed an entire month. There was something that felt very unnatural about this, and I finally decided it was that I have never missed a month of growth and change in my own garden before, and hadn't known how connected I was to that rhythm until it was interrupted. It felt so strange to walk out and see hundreds of fireflies instead of noticing the first one, and then a few the next night, and a few more the next. Neither had I noticed the first buds on the peony bushes and watched them swell each day and turn from hard green balls to silken, nearly-bursting spheres of brilliant red and pink cradled in green. Perhaps I wondered, plaintively, how all this could have happened without me! But it was more, I think, a sense of receiving a gift I hadn't worked for: the garden, fully formed, blooming, alight with fireflies. Time, then, to stop analyzing and simply be there: a pair of eyes.
On Sunday morning, early, we got up and had a complimentary "cafe/croissant", as the French call it, in the hotel breakfast room, and then set out for a walk in the neighborhood. We went over to 6th Avenue, and stopped for a minute at St. Vincent's Hospital, where all along one side of the building there is still a long display of photographs and messages about people missing from the 9/11 tragedy. If you remember, St. Vincent's was the closest large hospital where everyone was mobilized to accept the ambulances of casualties - the ambulances that never came. I was surprised at my emotion at the sight of the faces and names: my eyes instantly filled with tears, and I felt a sob rising in my throat.
Across the street from the hospital is a small, empty parking lot with a chain link fence, next to a ceramic shop. After 9/11, the proprietor invited people from all over the world to make tiles with their own messages about the event, and has hung them on the fence - hundreds of them - where they remain today. The naivete and simplicity was very affecting. I found I couldn't look at them all, it was too much, but I came back later, alone, and read the messages and thought about all that has happened since, and what it must have been like to live and work right here. In addition to the square white tiles with painted pictures, there were red hearts for each of the children who had died, and angel tiles for the various organizations who had helped and sustained losses, and white dove-shaped tiles, and a couple of messages to viewers asking them not to take anything away from this display, except hope.
Later J. and I went across the street and had two slices of New York pizza, which is the best anywhere, in a hot busy shop where Dylan was playing on loudspeakers and you couldn't get decaffeinated coffee but you could get a pizza named after Bette Midler, or Diana Rigg, and the proprietor wore a Yankees cap and spoke Spanish.
Our first night in New York we went out with friends to a restaurant in Chinatown, one that specializes in Peking duck. New York’s Chinatown is very large and growing at the edges; it’s a wonderful, sensory-filled place to walk and, of course, to eat. On this busy Saturday night our party of eight people arrived in three groups, with one cluster of us getting there first. All the waitstaff was male, but the restaurant was presided over by a middle-aged woman, a veritable dragon lady with short cropped hair and a formidable demeanor. Our friend had made the reservations ahead of time, and on the phone the woman had insisted on a credit card to hold the table and told her that she would charge the card an additional $10 for every person in the party who failed to show up! Incredible! I could sort of understand it, though; there was a steady stream of hopeful customers coming into the crowded restaurant and forming a line right next to the tables of seated diners; all the waiters were moving at double-speed; the din of the kitchen and talking patrons was deafening; in this city where every inch of space is at a premium, they needed to turn over the tables fast and keep them completely filled. That’s the thing about New York. You can get anything, and you can get the best, but everybody is wound very tight, and everyone is competing for their own morsel. That human energy, animating the densely packed, person-dwarfing verticality of this astonishing piece of steel-, concrete-, and glass-encrusted real estate, is what gives the city its vibrant, palpable, unique excitement, and it creates people who are gritty, tough, animal-aware, competitive and huge-hearted. Those who survive and thrive become the typical New Yorkers: that particular breed of people for whom no other place on earth could ever really measure up and be called “home”.
The dragon lady refused to seat us until all the people in our party had arrived. But eventually we got in, famished by then at the sight of platters of fragrant duck being whisked onto each white-clothed table, and proceeded to have one of the best Chinese meals in my memory, crowned by a crispy-fried whole sea bass.
In spite of the fact that we had gathered for a memorial service, the whole weekend was an extraordinarily happy time. As I looked at J.’s photographs today, I remarked, “We all think of ourselves as kids still – and act like it too - but look at us, we’re all middle-aged!” One of us had said something about that, looking through old picture albums – “How is it possible that this much time has gone by?” In the rooms and streets we moved through together were the memories of different pairing of people, of old relationships and new ones, of parents who were once young and now had died, of the next generation of kids who really were kids and probably thought of us the way we once thought of the older generation, as incredible as that seemed. One of us, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, had come all the way from San Francisco where he now lives; another woman had come back to New York after living in California for a while and seemed like she was going to stay. We, the stable couple from the idyllic countryside, were singing the praises of the city and had just made the decision to buy a place in Montreal while all the incredulous New Yorkers were pining for some rural quiet; the daughter of our friends was about to go off to a camp in Maine for the summer. It all underscored how we tend to want what we don’t have, and how much easier it is to appreciate the place you are visiting, and to see it with fresh eyes. Walking to where the car was parked after our Chinese dinner, someone joked, “Is it all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge?”
‘Well, we could walk across, it’s beautiful at night,” said someone else.
“That’s funny,” said one of the New Yorkers, who has traveled all over the world but lived in the same apartment in lower Manhattan her entire adult life. “I’ve never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in my life.”
After brownies and ice cream back at our friends’ Greenwich Village apartment, we decided to try to get some sleep before the events of the following day. The memorial service was going to be held at 1:00 pm at the Salmagundi Club, an artists’ club that is an old New York institution, just north of Washington Square. “By the way,” I asked. “What are people wearing tomorrow?”
“Whatever,” said our host. “Remember - this is downtown!”
We've been in New York for the weekend; I'll be posting parts of my journal and some pictures in the next few days.
NYC, Sunday, June 6: It’s a drizzly morning in New York; from the fifth floor of this Greenwich Village hotel I can look out over the tops of the street trees at the rooftops of lower Manhattan, the brick walls of the toney residences that line this quiet street, the elaborate carved cornices, terracotta chimneys, and rooftop water towers. I can also observe the life of the birds who live, unconcerned, in this world above the street. Yesterday, after checking in, I watched out the window for half an hour while J. seaerched for a parking place. It amuses me that the street trees in this expensive neighborhood are sumacs and box elders – garbage trees back home – but tough enough to thrive in little soil and city air. I’ve always thought sumacs were pretty anyway, and from above they’re especially so, lending a somewhat tropical air to the view, with their delicate, articulated fronds of leaves and pale yellow, just-emerged flower heads. There’s a family of crows two streets over, engaged in a perpetual war, it seems, with blue jays, and many sparrows and pigeons flying between the roofs and perching on antennas. This morning a light rain is falling on the treetops, making them appear even fresher. It’s quiet, and beautiful. Or it was quiet until the church bells at the Episcopal Church around the corner on Fifth Avenue started playing hymns. Now the bells are sounding over the roofs - it’s the great Celtic hymn known as "St. Patrick's Breastplate" or “I Bind Unto Myself This Day” – accompanied by the rush of traffic on the avenue and an occasional taxi horn.
But at ground level Manhattan is Manhattan, and there is nothing like it. The contrast to Montreal is stunning, even funny. “Landing” on the streets here after a fast drive down is like hearing a sudden blast of rap music from new neighbors in the apartment above and realizing this is going to be your reality. Everybody here has attitude – even the bums. Everybody’s watching out, scanning the environment; everybody’s out for him or herself. I think the vibe even filters down to the animal world; yesterday afternoon, in front of a pushcart labeled “Crepes and Empanadas” – in itself a wild merchandising concept – we watched a black pigeon swaggering down the sidewalk, cocking his head now and then, a dude pigeon if I ever saw one. All he needed was a thick gold necklace.
It’s finally dawning on me that what it comes down to is that I love the country – real country – and I love the city – but I detest the suburbs. I can’t stand the destruction and erosion of rural-ness that suburbization represents, yet that’s what’s happening back home. Driving through the endless suburb that is eastern Connecticut yesterday, I felt almost physically sick. We stopped for gas and a sandwich near Danbury, CT, and I went in to the bathroom while J. filled the tank. This is one of the largest filling stations I’ve ever visited – we often stop here because it’s slightly cheaper than the others. There are TVs in the bathrooms, and there are TVs at each of the huge array of self-serve pumps, just in case you get bored. J. and I ordered a sandwich from the Hispanic woman at the counter of the all-night convenience store inside, and sat down at the counter which looks out a big plate-glass window at the pumps, and the parking lot, and the asphalt stretching as far as you can see. It was a kind of sado-masochistic moment, I suppose. “What would it do to you to live like this every single day?” I wondered out loud. The people didn’t look happy; they looked dazed, overweight, mechanical. When we got up to leave, a car horn was bleating repeatedly; it was a Jaguar parked just outside the door, with a perplexed owner trying to figure out how to turn off the horn.
But the city is different: Manhattan, from the first pulse, is like no other place in the world. We checked in, unpacked quickly, and set out down the final few blocks of Fifth Avenue and across Washington Square. Everything was in bloom; lovers were kissing in the park; hippies played guitars; chess hustlers waited for games; a tall girl with severe black bangs and high heeled sandals walked two whippets on legs as slender as her own. And meanwhile, the traffic swirled around the park in a blue of fast-moving yellow and silver; horns blaring; brakes squealing; ambulances in the distance.
J. shook his head and remarked, “This city makes every other city look like a tea party.”
Saturday, June 05, 2004
We're heading out this morning to NYC to attend our friend's mother's memorial service and see some friends we haven't seen for years. We plan to be back Monday morning, and I'll try to post something from New York - but expect regular blogging starting next week. My apologies to everyone who hasn't been getting comments from me for a long time. I've missed writing to you, and I'll be back soon.
Thursday, June 03, 2004
Well, anyone who has ever gone through the disorientation of re-entry into one’s former life after a long time away will know how I’m feeling. It’s been a strange few days since coming back home, made even more so by the poignancy of knowing we were not only away, but have made a major decision about where we’re going to be spending some big chunks of our time. I’m enjoying being back in my own house, the layers of personality and years of life it represents, luxuriating in its size, the convenience of having a washer and dryer, a functional kitchen, a shower, and closets for clothes. Despite the chaos of the garden and the constant drizzling rain the past few days, it’s beautiful outside, and having missed a month of growth makes the emergence of full-blown perennials, shrub and tree leaves even more of a miracle than usual. I’m happy to hear familiar voices, and know we were missed.
During our time in Canada, we were often asked, as if by a concerned sibling, “So – how are things in the U.S. – really?” When the conversation went deeper, it was said more than once, “From here, it seems like your whole country has gone kind of nuts – paranoid wouldn’t be too strong a word.” I couldn’t argue; I think it’s true. But coming back home has simply reinforced that view. At the prestigious nearby university, where only two professors were willing to demonstrate opposition to the war in Iraq last year, the whole faculty is in an uproar over personnel issues. Meanwhile, in my town, a few eighteen-year-old kids got into a fight last week with kids from a different town, a number of boys and girls got slashed up with knives, then the fight moved to the low-income housing complex where one of the ringleaders lived, rifles were fired at people at random, and it finally took the whole police department to break it up – all for no apparent reason at all. And today, on my way down to the post office, I saw that the most beautiful tree in the village, a mature catalpa – one of only two here – had been cut on the grounds of a business property. Years ago, the village committee that J. and I helped establish met with the zoning board to change the regulations for that property and some others in our downtown, specifically to restrict certain types of noisy and inappropriate business, and to protect and encourage planting and preservation. We all talked about that tree. And today it lies on the ground, chain-sawn into pieces. I understand – catalpas are messy. They shed blossoms in the spring, and pods in the fall. Probably the owners didn’t think the tree mattered to anyone. Now there is one more emptiness where a tree used to be; one more place to be filled with asphalt.
Like Butuki, I muse about what’s wrong. There are jobs in this area, there’s a good environment, fairly low crime, and we’re far from urban problems and fears of terrorist threats, if those are the source of the paranoia and desperation I see in society at large. But the sense that the ship is rudderless, and the society spinning out of control, reaches even here. Poor people in this town are getting poorer, while five miles away, people are building two-million-dollar houses. Individuals seem to be increasingly concerned with “me, me, and mine”: protecting my car, my home, my job, and to hell with everybody else. Without access to even that much control over one’s life, is it any wonder that people go on shooting rampages or beat up their wives and kids? And frankly, I find it even more worrisome that people who do have education and opportunity and quite a lot of control can’t seem to look past their own concerns. What it looks like to me – and this is not a flattering assessment – is the fruit of years and years of selfishness and increasing expectation suddenly called into question. People in all economic classes seem desperate when confronted with a reality that may not measure up to those upward expectations. Yet instead of looking outward, understanding the interconnectedness of the world, and figuring out a collective solution, they’re pulling in. It’s happening to us as a country, and to people as individuals, because we haven’t yet got the maturity, leadership, or courage to do anything different. I’m glad to see Bush&Co. self-destructing, and I hope it happens fast enough for the election. But does anyone really think a Kerry administration will be able to turn this massive ship, with all its weight and momentum, and all its complicated, secret indebtedness, quickly around?
I wish everyone could have the perspective of being seen from the outside, and having to talk about - even try to explain - America to non-Americans. I wish everyone could spend a month reading only foreign news. I wish everyone could see the ways in which other peoples manage to enjoy their lives without being as nutzoid and consumptive as we are. The change in perspective is not only negative; you figure out what you love about America, too. But you also come to see yourself as a citizen of the world, a shrinking world that we’re all responsible for. For me, it comes down to being fascinated by cultural difference, and feeling deeply fatigued by national political identity. Can human beings ever learn to treasure the one, and transcend the other?