Gutter Prayer

You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

Let’s touch them, you said. Of the disposable––the lonely, too.

Never eat a single mouthful, your mother told you, unless you share it.

When asked for beliefs, you disappointed. Only here, only this.

It’s not that you hadn’t sought more. It’s not that you hadn’t gazed into the heavens with an aching heart, waiting for some response. Finding nothing only made the ache worse, so you turned what you had of longing to those who mirrored it, to offer the comfort you would seek.

I remember the time. It was a year of massacre, mass suicide, mass extinction. The machine won the chess game. I was finding Joan Didion, the epigraph from Yeats framing her chronicle of the end of an era of wild hope. For? The promise of a new age, Turning and turning, some human achievement promised, but the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

It wasn’t going to work, was it? Meaning, any of the ideas.

You were done with ideas, too. Only love, you offered. Only this.

Unbreak my heart, we sang, our fragile candles in the wind. We were building a mystery, but it seemed to be swallowing us whole, like Jonah’s whale, the secret gardens of our imagined inheritance forever a million miles away.

No, you insisted. Only here. You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

And wasn’t this the ultimate hope, some finite relief to our dreams of immortality? That there was something we could do, really do––not dream, not imagine, not vision our way into or out of–– with all its messy, mundane details, its fluid and its stink, its inevitable decay, and the inevitable rejuvenation of this endless, wanting need? We could meet it just as endlessly until we couldn’t anymore, until we could be relieved of the pressure of our promise, swallowed back into the great void you saw everywhere, especially when you sought an answer or a cosmic face toward which to offer your prayers. Only here, you said. Only these outstretched hands. 

We could meet them, again and again. This you can do, you showed us. This you can do until you are done.

This morning, I am reminded that on this day, in 1997, Mother Teresa died, so I am considering the legacy of her life.

The Last Man

There is a story that the fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world.

After his brothers and his father, his father’s fathers, and his mother’s mother; after her sisters and their daughters and granddaughters were erased, he remained with his mother and his sisters until they died.

Then he was hungry. He took a calf. He was captured by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and a self-proclaimed cowboy. He smiled as they handcuffed him. He did not resist. 

What is your name? Now they wanted to know.  I have none, he told them. They called him the last wild Indian, took him to the sheriff.  He sat peacefully. Many came to look. The Last Stone-Age man, one paper proclaimed, of this quiet survivor. His people, all gone now, had been egalitarian, reclusive, resistant to central authority. They once protected the canyons, but these canyons were near the fields of gold, and the newcomers, wild with fever, were armed for bear. They surrounded the peacemakers, hunted the gatherers, cornered them in a cave, in a ravine, and fired. A few had fled the fire, to hide on higher grounds.

Tradition, all but erased, lived in him. Tradition had been clear about his name. Tradition demanded: Never reveal your name to an enemy. Never reveal your name until you are introduced by a friend

Soon after he emerged from the mountains outside of the city of gold, soon after he was taken into custody, members of the anthropology department at Berkeley took note. They came to collect him from jail. They brought him on campus, made him a custodian, then a research assistant. He learned English.

But what is your name? They asked him. I have none, he insisted, because there are no people to name me. Among the Yana, now extinct, the word for man was Ishi. They called him Mr. Ishi. He was often ill. Over time, until he died of tuberculosis, he taught the white doctor who treated him to make arrows and bows, how to hunt. This white doctor became known as the father of modern bow hunting.  The original fathers were gone.

There is a story that these fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world. When Coyote dropped the fire that Fox stole, it burned the land, burned the people, burned everything. The eyes of Bear looked in all directions into fire, and finally popped off in the flames. Only Spider remained in the sky, weaving her invisible web. 

*On this day in 1911, the man known as Ishi, considered the last of the Yana to make contact with European Americans, emerged from the mountains near Oroville after the death of his mother and sister. He was handcuffed by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and taken into custody. He became a public curiosity. Members of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley collected him from the sheriff’s office and brought him to the University. They gave him the title of custodian, then research assistant. Details of his life were documented by various members of the Kroeber family of UC Berkeley, and also by Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, who was concerned about the tendency of the so-called faithful to miss the divine light in the “others” that the self-proclaimed righteous are so often eager to erase or reform.

Events in Light and Color

Some saw wonders, others the portents of doom.

This week marks the anniversary of the 1859 Carrington Event, the largest geomagnetic storm on record, which resulted from a shock wave of solar wind interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. Apparently, there are holes in the sun, and these can work like wind tunnels. A cloud of plasma resulting from a solar flare can reach the earth in a few days.

The event started fires, disrupted telegraph systems, delivered electric shocks to the operators. Rocky Mountain gold miners began making breakfast in the middle of the night, thinking it was morning. The light was bright enough to read by, and it was described in one paper as something of indescribable softness which covered the whole firmament . . . like a luminous cloud. 

A miner witnessed lights of every imaginable color. As each one faded, he recalled, the next to emerge would be more beautiful than the last. Northern light auroras were seen as far south as Mexico, Cuba ––even Colombia. Some saw wonders, others a portent of coming doom.

Later that year, abolitionist John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry. He was soon captured by the soon-to-be Confederate general Robert E. Lee and executed for inciting a slave rebellion. Later that year, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Later that year, hundreds died in a steamship wreck on the coast of Wales. 

Also, John Dewey was born, and painter Georges Seurat, and artist Paul César Helleu, whose idea it was to install a ceiling mural of night sky constellations in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. So was LL Zamenhof, who conceived of the international language, Esperanto, as a pathway to the end of nations and the oppressions they spawned. He was called the Doctor of Hope.

It is said, of Georges Seurat, that he was moved by an idea that laws of visual harmony might be learned as one learns harmony in music. He was only thirty-one when he died, and his son died soon after. Before this, they say that he was constantly moved to imagine and reimagine the symbolism of lines on a canvas, the language of color and light.

Real Talk With Gallileo

On keeping time with heartbeats and the bumpy, dusty moon.

Today, I’ll be having another one of those one-sided conversations with a dead person, as I love to do from time to time when I find occasion to think about them. What got me on this track was learning that on this day in 1609, Gallileo Gallilei demonstrated his first telescope to lawmakers in Venice. I was wondering: Why, of all people, was it them? Perhaps he needed a permit. I have not yet found the answer to this question, but I did find some more questions.

Gallileo, I’ve been wondering.

What must it have been like, to notice ––while studying medicine at your father’s insistence, after he discouraged you from your calling as a priest, after he discouraged your interest in mathematics (on the grounds that neither vocation paid as well as a physicist)––that the chandelier above you, swinging in the wind at variable arcs, seemed to keep time with your heartbeat, regardless of the size of the arc? To discover, in the experiment that followed, that pendulums of any length will keep time with one another and the human heart?

What is it like to know what happened to this discovery, how it led––a century later–– to the creation of the first timepiece, which over time meant that people kept time, which over centuries meant that people were kept by time, which over centuries meant that people no longer tended to look at the sky or the shadows of a sundial to know the hour; that people would often be so rushed by the march of expectations corresponding to the commodification of minutes, that they would no longer stop to look up?

Apologies for this digression. Of course, I am projecting here. I am somewhat envious of your freedom for study––of your freedom to stop and examine things, period. That and the way that not only did you never need to introduce yourself with an ID number, you didn’t even use a last name. 

Of course, you had money troubles of your own, especially with your brother, a composer, constantly accruing debt to support his love of music. You had studied the arts, too, against the wishes of your father, and you befriended the painter Cignoli, who painted a Madonna on the moon, which was a common-enough image until you noticed the pockmarks on the moon.

I can’t help but think that his friendship with you had a hand in the painter’s decision to resist the convention of a mythical orb. I can’t help but think that time spent with you helped him to appreciate the poetry of the possibility that the celestial body elevating her feet need not be a perfect sphere of dreamlike luminescence, that it might instead be a rock not unlike the rocks of this world, suggestive of a sort of comical lopsidedness, with cracks and crevices in which everyday filth and ordinariness may easily accumulate, along with lunar dust and cosmic pests and possibly even space mildew.

I am grateful that your work made it possible to make certain associations between our most sublime conceptions––say, heaven––and the stuff that was hanging around everywhere, either invisible or appearing to be in the way of the men with their lofty goals, who preferred not to debase themselves with considerations of the cracks in surfaces, the way that the wind would get through, and the cold, the way you had to keep mending and stopping them like you had to keep changing and feeding and holding the crying babies, ––

gathering and chopping and seasoning and boiling and stewing and roasting and cleaning; to feed the noble man a single meal, just before you got back to the babies and before you got back to do it again, how sometimes, even after all this, it was still possible, for the length of sixty to a hundred heartbeats at night, ––

just after the children were asleep, to sit in a chair, looking up, feeling an ineffable pull toward a wonder and mystery that felt both vast and made of the same mystery that you had noticed gathering herbs, wrapping the soft body of an infant, and in the longings that persisted no matter how long they seemed to go unanswered.

Thank you for insisting on this connection, even though it meant you were outcast from the basilicas you loved, from the rituals you had once thought to administer yourself, from the silence of the naves with their candles and incense, and the awe of an intimate mystery in the air.  

I’d love to say more, but my second alarm is going off now, and I’ve not yet been awake for an hour. Time to check the sleeping baby, time to check the food, iron the clothes, pack the things of the day, all the while watching the clock––which marches, I know now, by the rhythm you first noticed in the chandeliers swinging above you as you sat with the books you meant to study, the assignments you meant to get to, the financial responsibilities you meant to meet, the appointments you meant to keep, the wandering heart you meant to tame, and you could not keep your eyes from wandering up, to rest on what you had yet to understand, having the insight to notice that even this was made of something as utterly familiar as the drum in your own chest. 

Cusp of Exposure

August 23 is considered by some to be a cusp day, caught between dueling energies.

At the carnival, there was a palm reader in a back corner of a big tent. She wore a business suit, carried a briefcase. This was unexpected. There was a big sign, we noticed later.

It’s the Cusp of Exposure, she said, regarding the day.
What?
She pointed to the date on the calendar. It was August 23.
She gave us one of those How Dense Can You Be? looks and explained that this was an in-between day, and everything was in flux.

We held our questions.

Between the maiden and the lion, she said, the salvaged wheat and the overflowing rivers; the keeper of lists and the spotlight-seeker on stage, where the right decision is somewhere between healing a broken system and setting it on fire.

But we just wanted––

Between coastal tsunamis and a mountain threatening to blow, the singing revolution and a warlord on late-night TV, between earth crashing up beneath your feet and a fall from a hot-air balloon. It’s the birthday of the poet and the mathematician, the engineer and the biologist, the sculptor and the publicist––

I think we––

––politician pianist, sailor architect, socialite soldier, chess master cartoonist, bandleader baseball player, photographer priest. . . it’s the feast of the mystic and the day of the flag.

We were just curious, we told her, moving to leave.

Not everyone buys it, she said.
We explained about having no money.

No, she said, I mean the whole idea. The day itself, she said, the cusp day. It’s caught between recognition and mockery.

It was a strange experience because we had not been planning on a palm reader. We had not planned on the carnival, either. The point of our visit had been to park by the fairgrounds, to access the trailhead that led to the wetlands under the freeway bridge. But we got stuck between our intentions and what was available. When you’re looking for quiet at a carnival, sometimes the palm reader is your only option.

Well, she said, is it your birthday? It wasn’t, so we left as we had come, still curious and still looking for a quiet place, but now less sure that we would find one.

Fireball

There are reasons to envy the unknowing of those observers, centuries ago.

There’s a great deal that I can’t explain about what is going on in the sky, but much of this is because I haven’t read enough, haven’t kept up with the march of the knowledge battalions into lands unknown, spurred on by a sort of manifest destiny, to conquer the mysteries that once grew wildly in the backyard––which, I assume, are still flourishing somewhere, but the armies are long past me now, and I have no doubt that should I approach the land and the heavens I once knew as utterly and completely mysterious, someone would be lurking like a sniper in the trees, to shoot me with an answer. 

On this day in 1783, the great fireball was observed in the heavens above the British Isles. It was faint and blue at first, holding still. Then it grew and moved. The whole landscape was illuminated. It must have lasted about thirty seconds. Someone thought they heard a crackling noise come with it, like small wood burning. A noise like thunder at a distance followed.

It was a meteor procession, we know now. But no one had these words then, so it was The Great Fireball. Weary romantic that I am, I can’t help but envy the unknowing of those observers, centuries ago. The sudden return to pre-pandemic pace has me feeling like the world-weary speaker in Wordsworth’s verse: Little we see in Nature that is ours . . . it moves us not (“The World Is Too Much With Us”). What was it like to study the sky with their naked eyes, to look with no means of expecting any explanation from any living soul, for the fantastic spectacle before them? I celebrate the advances of science to cure what might kill us, but I mourn the momentary pause of recognition at our common vulnerability to something still unknown––not the fear, but the silence around it.

Of course, our unknowing, as compared to that of anyone from any age, is almost just as infinite. But from where I am, trying to catch a breath from the relentless pace of a given week, it seems like a nearly impossible distance to walk to get to the beginning of some terrain still vast enough that, once entered, goes on and on forever and in every direction, into mystery. Even when I know it’s right here, in this space where I am still trying to catch my breath from keeping up.

Counting Losses

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Mondays are hard, with all these losses piled up against all these lingering expectations, and the sleep still in the eyes. Something is missing. Check the listings.

Why does it matter to name it? Will that bring it back? All you can do with a name is add it to a list.

That is something. Look here. Someone has arrived at their location in Lakeside with their boat still attached to the trailer, only to discover that somewhere along the way, the sail has flown out.

Meanwhile, just across town, a shepherd has fled the yard on the same day that Dozer, a best friend without a collar or a chip was taken from the motel parking lot. This near midnight, Friday night.

There are at least three new orange tabbies out there today. Plus, two huskies and a fifteen-year-old pug. 

No, that’s not it. Something else. Look somewhere else. 

Shall I tell you about the massacre of children, the holy war, the thousands dead or homeless? Or would you like to hear about what’s happening with the weather? The fires have––

Stop, no. I can’t.

On this day in 1960, a man dropped from a balloon over New Mexico, and during his fall achieved the highest speed by a human without an aircraft.

What sort of challenge is this? Who falls fastest? People will make anything into a contest.

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Let’s take a break from this line of thought. Tell me about a birth.

On this day in 1920, Charles Bukowski was born. Check this out. He wrote, “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.”

The hope is exquisite here. As if to indicate that the act of cherishing was an antidote to loss. 

It is, in a way. Because at least you are holding it well. At least there is something there, until the moment when the floor gives out, or the hurricane strikes, or the top blows off the mountain that gave us shade in the late afternoon, raining ash on our city of light.

Here’s something else. I think you may like this one, another thing Bukowski said.

All the impossible losses, accumulating over all our cities of light, all these missing best friends and the sails gone to our boats, what is a body to do?

No, listen. I think you will like this.

What?

He said this, too. “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning, and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside, remembering all the times you felt that way.”

Do we have coffee?

It’s brewing. It’s almost done. Just wait.

***

More in this series:

Real Talk with Dead Folks: Here’s to W.G., Absurdist O.G.

My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.”

You can’t honor the living if you don’t honor the dead, and large swaths of the current death machine work towards erasing them. One way to erase the past is to erase history. Another is to sanitize it and put our heroes on pedestals.  That’s why I like to engage in conversation and occasional correspondence with dead folks. From time to time, I will write letters to dead artists, writers, and other notable or unknown people. Sometimes, the occasion for this arises organically, from a question or reference in the air. Other times, I may discover that it is the birthday of a person of interest and be moved to strike up a conversation. This can be especially fruitful when it offers an opportunity to engage with someone previously unknown to me, as is the case with today’s entry.

Here’s something I learned this morning as I was wondering what today’s post would be about: On this day in 1904, writer Witold Gombrowicz was born in Poland.  My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.” I decided to make him the subject of my next “Real Talk with Dead Folks,” which is one of the Breadcrumbs exercises that I find generative, especially when I am tired of my own ideas.

Dear Witold,

I’m sorry we couldn’t do this in person. Perhaps you would not have talked to me, but I think I would have enjoyed listening to you, at least for a little while. Probably I would have found you a bit too obsessed with yourself and this question of authenticity, and perhaps you would have made assumptions about me when you learned that I worked in schools, which are the places that perhaps best fueled your sense of the absurd. We’d both have our reasons, I’m sure. Fortunately, when it comes to this sort of work, liking or not liking does not need to factor into capacity for deep appreciation.

You claimed that the best lessons of school were in the breaks, when your classmates beat you. Your education, you said, was reading ––forbidden books, especially–– and loafing. You were often ill. Puzzling over your dreams, the symbolism and possibility within them, you considered a possible way out. Of what? I wondered. And you said, The whole farce! Then I knew I loved you.

It was perhaps one long project you were on, a quest to get to the “real” of you. You kept a daily public diary also, but you preferred different lenses: sometimes polemic, other times self-absorbed lens. I am skeptical of claims to authenticity, but I have a soft spot for those committed to an aesthetic with relentless dedication. For this, I can love you also.

They called you “creepy as Poe” and “absurdist as Kafka” and you relentlessly criticized their forms––all of them, calling them covers for the conventions you despised. Refusing to be tamed, you cultivated immaturity as wisdom, imperfection as an antidote to the fake. Every artist has their obsessions; your grail was authenticity. “I am a circus,” you said, “what more do you want?” Hah! I thought. That’s all I need to know.

You raged at the teachers babbling clichés and poked at the nonsense of their often-hollow aphorisms, so devoid of meaning as to be deemed universally palatable substitutions for truth for anyone who prefers the easy nicety to real thinking. “Chirp, chirp, little chickie!” your hero announced. 

Were any of your elders spared your criticism? You called out Schulz on his assent to conventions, you joked that Proust “found more in his cookie. . . than they found in years of smoking crematoria.” You called Kafka “unreadable” and lacking sex appeal. You called your diary the faithful dog of your soul.  You did have a few nice things to say about Kierkegaard.

Rejecting institutions of honor, you baptized yourself a self-made man, planned a life of exile in obscurity, and were soon after celebrated. But Europe broke your heart. You were a bumpkin among sophisticates, and you died soon after.

Relentless in your quest not to be a type of writer, but yourself, you left behind a legacy at once brilliant, hilarious, dangerous, redemptive, perverse, irreverent, heartfelt, and voluminous. Today I celebrate your defiance of easy classification, and I celebrate your love of the absurd.

Titles, for example, you did only randomly. You chose names for your books like one names a dog – “to tell one from the other,” you said. You had, after all, the one faithful dog of your soul, your daily letters, and this was after all, the singular work of a life, continuous and ongoing in all of its embedded and wondrous contradictions. 

You said, “Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” You reminded, “Don’t be fooled by your own wisdom.” You honored paying attention, observing “the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence.”

Thanks for leaving a trail. I’m glad to meet you. I love the way you challenge people to examine contradictions, how you challenge pedestal-making with irreverence, and how you combat calcification of statues built as stand-ins for truth by dancing with the fluid and absurd. 

I hope to see more of you in years to come. 

Follow-up: It didn’t occur to me until this morning to make this a series on Breadcrumbs. Until now, I hadn’t articulated the impulse to be in conversation with dead people I never met, nor had I acknowledged that it’s something I tend to do in my notebooks and in my head fairly regularly.  I’ve done this once before on the blog, in a memo to artist Hieronymous Bosch, posted here: “Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work.” I look forward to more of these. 

The source I used for this exercise is Ruth Franklin’s excellent New Yorker article about the writer, “Imp of the Perverse: Witold Gombrowicz’s war against cliché.”

The Spectacle and the Living

In the day of the spectacle, paying deep attention is a radical act.

On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games opened in Berlin. Adolf Hitler presided over the opening ceremonies. He had gone to great pains to outdo the Los Angeles stadium of 1932, building a track and field stadium to seat 100,000 spectators, among other impressive arenas. It was the first televised Olympics, the first torch relay, and the Nazi Chancellor saw the games as a tremendous opportunity to promote his nationalist agenda.

He didn’t speak of killing or deathcamps. He just made sure that Jewish athletes were barred or otherwise prevented from competing. He tied the image of the noble and beautiful athlete to state power and his voice to high-minded ideals invoking language of unity, proclaiming, “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.”  It’s fair to assume that if he couldn’t stir millions with invocations like this, he wouldn’t have been in a position to orchestrate the terrors that followed. With this in mind, it’s worth considering and reconsidering what moves us, in order to notice who and what gets erased when the primary motivating impulse is grandiosity.

After the games, the Olympic Village was repurposed for use by Nazi armed forces, as a camp, an infantry training school, and a hospital. Because of World War II, there would not be another Olympics for twelve years.

Also on this day, in 1981, MTV began broadcasting. The first video to be aired was “Video Killed the Radio Star” from The Buggles, featuring these famous lines:

In my mind and in my car

We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

Pictures came and broke your heart

Put the blame on VCR.

The line of connection is the power of the image. It calls to mind Marshall McLuhan’s reminder that “The medium is the message,” and it’s worth noting the relevance, considering the diverse anxieties of living in an age where the speed and proliferation of messages is so omnipresent. Many a would-be dictator has benefited from the reality of censorship through noise. From the standpoint of anyone doing creative work: of art, education, growth, a movement–– sheer noise is one of the chief weapons of the anti-life force of the machine that works to prevent this growth. Soul and species survival, in this era, necessitates certain questions: what invisible truths are living behind what is projected in this moment? Who and what is not featured? Who and what is erased? 

Erasure is diffuse and happens most effectively when it can go undetected. Any ecosystem that supports the systematic erasure of certain life forms above others is by nature unstable in ways that threaten the entire ecosystem. Where certain lives are systematically erased, all lives live under constant surveillance and threat of erasure. It’s one thing to talk about fighting for life, about defending the threatened, but the problem with this rhetoric is that both invoke the same tired images of victory and conquest that support the erasure at hand. We can’t defend what we’re not noticing. To look well and deeply is an act of courage and humility. So is listening. 

Also on this day, Carlton Douglas Ridenhour was born in Queens, NY. He would later adopt the stage name Chuck D., form the group Public Enemy in 1985, and rise to international fame while delivering a call to social consciousness and resistance against the forces of state-sanctioned violence and racialized social control. In the summer of 1989, the group released “Fight the Power” with this timely message:

You say what is this?

My beloved let’s get down to business

Mental self-defensive fitness

Don’t rush the show

You gotta go for what you know

Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

Lemme hear you say

Fight the power

In an age of senseless invisible killing on a global scale, with the stakes as high as they have ever been, the act of paying attention becomes a radical act. It’s tempting and gratifying to the ego to invoke the same tired images of the fight, the raised torch, the path to victory.  But the spectacle is not in service of life. The spectacle, as employed today, is generally in service of another agenda. Spectacle in and of itself is not necessarily the problem, but it’s not the solution, either. You could argue that the lyrics above, powerful as they are, are part and parcel with spectacle.  

A spectacle designed to move people to resist corrupt power systems, in a world of spectacle, is important and necessary, but the real work is deeper. Children, for example, who need lots of care, will celebrate the wild, crazy uncle that comes to visit every so often, who raises them high in the air, gives piggy-back rides, speaks in funny voices, and feeds them candy before leaving. The kids are reaffirmed with a sense of magic and possibility, but they’d likely be in danger if they were left solely in his care. The care is the slow, unglamourous, painstaking work of the sleep-deprived parent, day in and day out, one ordinary moment at a time. 

What to do with these torches, these stirrings to victory, the way they are all wrapped up in our idea of transcendence? A good symbol is better repurposed than neglected. One suggestion may be, to bring the torch lower–– maybe to the level of the campfire.  To create a space for the opposite of spectacle, where the quiet magic lives, so real we can almost miss it. A place of listening and sharing, under the common sky, unified by a sense of being small beneath it. And against all the spectacles of false strength, to recognize a common fragility, and a call to protect what needs protecting, not with the posture of a blowhard pretend strongman, but through the patient, slow-moving, and restorative acts of the nurturer.

What They Said While They Were Leaving

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.

Artist Paul Klee, who died on this day in 1940, often invoked a childlike perspective when addressing matters of life and death. I’ve long loved the angels he painted, full of flaws and worries, trapped in human-like, sometimes animalistic forms. This morning I was looking at one of his last works, “Death and Fire” and the timing of this happens to coincide with my review of a book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death, by Lisa Smartt. I bought it years ago. Thinking of a character was my official reason, but the interests of a character are always covers for the questions we carry. I pulled it out again today, because I have a character facing death, and I am struck by the inherent playfulness of so many of the last words recorded in Smartt’s accounts, culled from documentation of many hospice patients over time.  There’s a sense of play in the voices of many of the dying, even at the “most serious” moment in life. I am always drawn to those for whom seeming opposites can coexist in the same space: joy and pain; life and death; wonder and heartache.

Death and Fire by Paul Klee, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The following are notes assembled partly from found phrases in the book and online, considering what people say as they are leaving:

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.
One claimed to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, 
then called Bullshit! and left.
One asked for chocolate shavings on her tongue. 
Another, a cigarette. Pancakes with whipped cream.

Then come the metaphors. Listen.
Get ready for the big dance!
Lots of new construction over there!
Magic time: watch me disappear!
See the little duckies now, lining up.
They are setting the table now.

The ones who saw it as a battle went hardest.
Another dreamt of being surrounded by crows. 
It’s a murder! he said, laughing.

Some heard music, exclamations of wonder.
So many people! Can you tell me where the platform is?
Can you get the door for me?
Where do you want me to put these boxes?
Next stop, real hope! Look, they left the ladder.

Some saw butterflies, the number eight, the color green.
Others said nothing, but reached with their arms, up and out,
eloquent as infants in their expressions of need.