House of Bones

Considering the first known examples of human architecture: dwellings made of mammoth bones.

They found them in the Ukraine in one of the Vietnam war years, in the year of Selma and the teenage sniper on the 101 and the launch of the world’s first in-space nuclear reactor. There were troops in the D.R. and the burning of draft cards and Muhammed Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in a rematch.

Phantom punch?

Right. It was Beatlemania and Watts and the Stones and Vatican II that year.

How did they find them?

It was just a jawbone at first. A farmer was expanding his cellar when he uncovered it. Then there were more bones.

How many? 

Hundreds, then thousands. They thought at first it was the site of a mass slaughter.

All mammoth? 

Yes. Then they noticed the patterns, the arrangement. Then they found more, and they figured that what they were looking at was one of the earliest known relics of human architecture.

People lived in the bones?

The tusks made an arched entryway. They created domes with the rest, covered them with skins. There were sometimes multiple domes in one area. Each could hold ten to one-hundred people. It is likely that there were ritual gatherings inside.

Day-to-day living, also?

Definitely. They would have to. Consider the cold. 

So, they were sheltered in the bones of the mammoth they had eaten?

And the bones they would gather.  

I am trying to imagine the quiet of that space, the uncompromised elegance.

Of living in the remains of the dead.

Of no one pretending otherwise.

Where everywhere you looked, there they were.

The remains, and you inside them.

Except it would be us, always us.

Always a group, breathing for a short time.

In the shelters assembled by living hands, from the remains.

As if to say, come in. Stay for a while.

As if to say, we are all going soon. 

As if to remind, this is shelter. Foxes have holes, birds their nests.

But the sons and daughters of men?

Only this.

For more about the 1965 discovery of the oldest surviving architecture, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information provides more information and a short video.

One Hundred Days

Celebrating the mystery of daily practice.

Today marks one hundred days of these posts, which started as “this thing I am trying” and evolved into Breadcrumbs, and which are now evolving me.

The project began from an impulse of love and a wish to connect. Someone asked: Why, where do you see yourself? I thought, Dead, eventually. Hopefully not soon, but a person never knows. It mattered not to do so while waiting for someone’s invitation to the table. 

I was working on manuscripts, which is long and lonely work. I am still working on manuscripts, some of which are new since beginning this project. I publish here and there in journals, and this is also slow-going. That’s how these things are. And meanwhile, every morning since I started this experiment, I also publish here. The idea was simple: try this thing and don’t stop.  I could evaluate after a hundred days. 

Evaluating now, I feel mostly gratitude. It never got easier, but it did become more automatic, the practice of––this thing. I don’t have to name it to learn from it. Daily practice teaches what I could not think to learn, including invitations to new questions. Friend, thank you for joining me here. 

The mind offers many reasons to stop and change course. This is what minds do, offer reasons for things. They can be acrobats of distraction. But the still part, the listening part, knows. This is the part I show up here to visit. This is where we meet, at the edge of the deep, still lake we share. Most of what is happening in it, I will never explain. This is the kind of presence I trust. The mystery is always more compelling than any of my own ideas.

Looking back at selections from the archives, I see something moving that is vastly more intelligent than I am, the logic of which I could never have planned. One hundred is a special number, and in this case, only a beginning. I mark this day with this prayer of gratitude. Friend, thank you so much for being here with me. I bow to you with a heart full of wonder. 

Holding Here

Remember the living.

There are plenty of good ways to lose yourself, many of which are to be welcomed as venerable guests. But not this. Don’t let me be dulled by the endless impact of the gears, the noise, the flood of what passes for knowing.

Remember sleep. Remember a meal.

Remember waiting, and to listen–– and look! What is that? Stay in the question.

There is sky. Here is earth. Remember water, and all that is invisible and necessary in the air. 

Then, remember breathing.

These are basic things. You knew them as a child, even if you resisted: bedtime, mealtime, any unwelcome pause in your momentum. 

But the world will pull you from it all, and away from matters of your substance. 

Not the world, exactly––but the machine colonizing it: including our breath, our dreams, the simple act of looking.

Remember what you are. Remember touch. Remember, body. 

Here is the place where you are. Remember, it is a powerful stranger.

After David Wagoner: 

“Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a powerful stranger” (“Lost”).

Skywatching

We looked and looked––so as not to miss it, so as not to be missed.

Squinting, we studied the faces. It’s all Greek, you said, of the letters. We looked back and forth: the sky, the charts, the corresponding manual. We couldn’t help ourselves; we kept returning, flashlights wrapped in red cellophane. What are we doing? You asked, as if to acknowledge the elephant.

They circled us. Or, they held in place as we spun. Or, it was all spinning, all of it pulling apart. The lines, at least, indicated order. The wandering stars came and went. Those are planets, you said. We nodded, wearing grave expressions to indicate our intended recognition of the obvious.

You continued. See the hunter’s belt, his right knee, the blade of his sword. Notice the white spot at his crown, how he gazes toward the head of the bull. We followed the book, looked up. Back to the book. 

Daughters of Atlas, braiding bright––and across the way, the dog star. Now the she-goat and her kids; now the charioteer. We pretended, at first, to see them. We didn’t want the story to vanish. The Big Dipper was offered: Take this cup, and our mouths fell open, heads back.

Our own galaxy is ragged, irregular, its dark nebulae like curtains hiding the light. In the spring came Ariadne, and then Theseus after the Minotaur. Surrounded by the walls of the labyrinth he built, the craftsman must have plead his case to the same sky, dreaming Icarus’s wings. 

Now the head of the hydra, now the snake and the eagle behind it. Now the scorpion, and here’s the instrument of song with Vega its center. He played for love, Orpheus, until he lost it, looking back. 

Now comes the winged horse. We looked and looked––so as not to miss it, so as not to be missed. No, I think that’s it! That must have been it! Unless it was the southern fish, unless it was the dolphin, coming to save the poet and his songs.

Turning and turning, Andromeda’s spiral, and the ram bled before it––until the dragon was installed at the gates, to guard the fleece. The royal family stood beyond them. At last, another hero with a sword, looking for something to slay. He asks the three sisters, finds the gorgon sleeping, takes the head.

There were other monsters to fight, other maidens to scatter, and Look! Do you see them there? Strewn from the east to the west?

I am telling you, we tried. So great was our wish to understand something; so great was our need to be tied to something that the ancients also knew, to run our hands across some venerable form that had managed to keep living, even after the bombs and the weather, even now––that we believed ourselves when we said Yes, and Yes!

Yes, we see! There––and there! Seeming with our raised arms to behold what held us, but what was it? We didn’t care, not really. Its substance was beside the point. In that moment what we wanted was the relief of our surrender. To say Show us, and wait, deciding in the silence: We believe.

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. 

How We Once Faced

Imagining behind the veils we saw everywhere.

In early spring, we sat on a south facing

bench above the water and the topic was

veils, what they may keep and then

reveal of promises and mysteries.

They were everywhere, suggesting

kaleidoscopic arrays of faces around us,

spreading themselves wide like arms 

to the histories we’d lost,  

collapsed inside the buds 

of new expressions, blooming, 

and they were in the water, too, 

rippling after fish jumps, after 

the stones we threw like hopeful

singers in the night, at bedroom 

windows, begging them to hear 

and wake before our eyes, to open 

the windows and show themselves again.

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.

Strong Magic

 If you start with reason, forget it. 

I need strong magic today.

Here’s a reference. Remember the primary goal.

An experience of mystery.

Now consider this. Most people hate bad magic, but a few also hate the good stuff. Why is this?

They feel fooled when the trick works. 

That’s why you want to make it a partnership, not a challenge. Then it’s a win-win.

What about a puzzle? 

Most people hate puzzles. They’re only for the mind. Without a solution, there’s no satisfaction.

But with magic, on the other hand ––

With magic, there’s satisfaction in not solving. There’s comfort in the illusion of mystery.

Has magic lost its hold?

Hah! No, this is the age of magical thinking. 

But there’s all these beefed-up intellects guarding the gates.

Sure, but people are willing to believe anything on an emotional level. You just have to  get past the gates.

How?

You present something that seems impossible. The intellect wants to explain it. When it can’t, it gets baffled. Then you’re in.  If you start with reason, forget it. 

What about a story?

A magic trick tells a story, but the story isn’t the goal. The goal is to create a sensation. 

To what end?

The point is clarity. You start with confusion, just to get the guard at the gates of the intellect spinning enough to drop his weapons. Then you’re in.

Then they will follow?

Then they want to follow. They want you to bring them home.

The reference in question today is Darwin Ortiz’s Strong Magic, which I purchased a few years ago with a magician character in mind. One of the benefits of writing fiction is having an excuse to immerse oneself in seemingly impractical lines of research which invariably lead to useful insights beyond the character in question. (Related post: Card Tricks and Other Joys of Research)

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.