Before the Storm

Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.

“Eclairs lointains” by jmbaud74 on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License

Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky. 

Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.

Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light,  and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste? 

They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”

Epiphany: Live in Concert

A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back.

There is a night, long after my bedtime in 1983, when the three kings take the stage. Soul is leading. For a moment, he is front and center, green jumpsuit and perfect hair, wanting company. The numbers dead from the Ethiopian drought have reached four million, and protestors are gathering at Greenham Common Air Force Base as Reagan’s army deploys missiles. It’s almost time to invade Grenada. It’s civil war in Zimbabwe, earthquake in New York, the birth of Mario Bros and Microsoft Word, some say the birth of the internet, and a new land speed record in the Black Rock Desert. I don’t understand what is happening.

The King of Soul calls on the rising King of Pop, younger and still darker than we knew him later, who leans in to be embraced by Mr. Dynamite, kissing his ear, his first words into the mic, I love you; I love you, then spin, shimmy, what is this? A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back. It’s the Embassy Bombing in Beirut, the highest U.S. unemployment rate since 1941, the assassination of Aquino in the Philippines. Here comes Run DMC, Depeche Mode, Iron Maiden; the age of the international superstar.  Let’s dance, karma chameleon, I want to party like it’s 1999. It’s time to fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen; buckle up, it’s the law. 

“epiphany” by spinster cardigan on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Next comes the King of Funk; Prince, where are you? Pointer finger extends a royal summons to the back of the room, stage left. The Artist arrives straddling the waist of the white-bearded muscle man who bears him on his back, whose image calls to mind Hell’s Angels; up goes His Royal Badness in a futuristic jumpsuit, gold lame details, heels. This king on the guitar, a prolonged erotic moment. Oh no, it’s not a jumpsuit, now the top half is coming off, now it’s the shirtless High Priest of Pop making love to the Mic stand, to the audience, thrusting himself into the space between the music and their rising cheers, then falling like a spent lover into the crowd. They are filling the prisons, building new warehouses for storage of the fathers and brothers and sons. There are bullet holes in the ceilings. The new warehouses are stacked five stories high; they can’t build them fast enough. The vans arrive in a constant stream; the machine needs bodies. The bodies are the fathers and the brothers, the uncles and the sons. Where are they now? They are Away.

This is the year I enter school – line up! Bells, the bells, the stone buildings, the weight of this ominous word, terrorist, its point to point to some being not quite human, grounds for extermination, but now, we were told was the age when the wars were done; now, the adults said, was a time of hard-earned peace. Of progress, the dawn of a new age! News of another car bomb punctuated news of mass extinctions, and even with the bombs erupting everywhere, even with the mass extinctions, and the adults looked ill with symptoms of battle fatigue that no one was allowed to discuss. 

It is the year of the West Bank fainting epidemic, and epidemics of fainting elsewhere, especially at concerts; it was the heyday of new religion, and our stadiums became our new meccas; and Sally Ride is the first woman in Space, Ride, Sally, Ride! and Guion Bluford is the first black man in space, Say it Loud! Vanessa Williams the first black Miss America, and the King holiday is signed into law. The Zapatistas are rising; Thriller is released. 

I am too young to be at the concert; too young to even know the names of the kings who take the stage. I find the footage later, among the artifacts of the hyperspace that was being assembled around us. I pour through the artifacts, looking for clues in the aftermath; it’s the same question in any aftermath, isn’t it? What happened? And what was there before? And, was there any sign, before it hit, what was happening?

I can’t help it, the way I keep returning to the moment when the second of the kings takes the stage, the way he says I love you like he’s someone just arriving, and I love you like he’s someone already getting ready to leave. I can’t help but think that if I had seen him then, I would have been moved with recognition. Even then, before I knew anything about anything except the speed of the way it feels to spin with your arms out wild, knowing you’re about to fall flat when the spinning gets too much; that’s what we did then, holding hands until we released them, falling flat and breathless on our backs, laughing in terror at the still-spinning sky.

Calypso’s Lament

She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left.

Let it be a song, then, and us inside its shattering wings — and you, when did I first know by your hand the letting of the blood of ancient wounds, unscheduled tears? If it began in this moment, where would you find me, if at all? In the space where we last slept, dream me dreaming you.

“Calypso” by Pinc Floit on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

My arms, so long beseeching some anchor, now find you, and the smooth plateau of your hungering back erupts in tremors above me; the aftershock a head before this altar, a whispered Amen. It is easy to learn new aches. New peace is something else, when the night undoes the day.

Let me be the simple task that is the most difficult to do; sketch filigreed complications on the stretched skin between these ribs, only bless and be blessed. “Shh,” someone says, don’t hurry, but I am faithful as the dog that holds on, because the desire to pray is a prayer.

If you will not heal my doubt, let me bear the unbelieving, about face, face this enemy facing consequence your face in my hands, I heard you calling, let me see.

In the beginning, the word; it was a god of open mouths, all breath and a promise. Take it, I say, here. I had only this imitation to give, and immortality. Blessed be this sin, teach me your new shame; to die is only difficult for the proud. If this kingdom we are holding is the only one, leave mine pillaged and let me know its glory only by what remains.

Let me give what I may not hold, dream an answer to the question I dare not speak aloud and pass it back, folded, in your hands. Do you fear the dead? I want to meet them in the olive grove before we find opposite sides of an invisible highway from which to sing our goodbyes. Let me know a patience to cook blood, freeze the earth against my cheek. 

Give us this day, taste. 

What is this mortal body? I want to study how it shudders around a heart. From this quiver pull a single arrow. Aim another card close to my chest; teach me new deliverance, then give me rest.

You had a secret and lost it. It was the expanse of your life. Look, I will open another to you. Call it forever. Come here. Let us be suddenly young and always, our monuments etched in Crayola hues, each touch conferring the ancient blessings of the rainbow that followed the flood.

What else did we ever do with our bodies, but offer them on altars, before the sun and the moon against drought and flood, against all the ways there were to die slowly we found new ways to sing, take me now and make it swift, so many candle flames roaring against the darkened hills?

Give me a sermon and I’ll sing you a psalm. Raise a hand, raise a glass, raise the dead. Take this body from this tomb where they left me in rags after the last breath I took alone. Brother, take my hand and do not move for it may pass. Hurry, it may get away. Are you tired? I am tired too, of waiting on this island, but how else do you take the measure of a beating heart?

*In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Calypso is a nymph on the island of Ogygia, where she detained the hero Odysseus for seven years, as he tried to get home. By the time he washed up on her shores, he had lost all his men and most of his hope. He found comfort and pleasure on the island, and was well cared for by the goddess, who was a match for his wit and a lover of music. His departure was an essential moment in his journey home, when she freed him reluctantly after receiving an order from Zeus, via Hermes, the messenger. She had offered the hero immortality if he stayed; he refused. She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left. As the story goes, there was no one like him. As I do with women of antiquity (including goddesses, nymphs, and gorgons), I sometimes wonder about what parts of her have been erased in order to fit the perspectives of the men who wrote her history for her. 

Blurred Visions

Self; not self. You learn to stop wondering about which is which like you learn to accept how it is customary to call the thing you have: one life. How strange, the way that this phrase is stressed, as if it’s a limit.

There’s a moment, and it goes so quickly that it’s easy to miss, when you think you know who you are. The reason, looking back, was that you were not thinking about it at all. You simply were there, doing what you did in the manner that you did things. For example, drinking from a garden hose in your underwear, or writing a five-act musical for Rocky, the elementary school janitor, on the occasion of his retirement. Or showing up on the blacktop before the bell rang for the start of a third-grade day, after any break longer than two weeks, wearing an accent you had acquired on some imaginary voyage to a distant land. Here a brogue, now a drawl, now something approximating the outback. 

“blur” by lee on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License

Around the age of blood, this changes, and it is no longer considered sufficient to simply make things up as you go; one must have acquired something distant, something not already possessed. You’re not sure what it is, but you understand that the time has come to go out looking and stop pretending that you know what you need. The point, it seems, is to listen. Others know exactly what you need, especially men, who have no shortage of ideas as to what you ought to do. It will be decades before you learn to categorize such professions of wise-seeming advice into the file of “Men explain things to me” (Thank you Rebecca Solnit, Sheila Heti). 

But it’s not just that. It’s in the way you look, like you’re practically begging the world to explain something to you. 

Sometimes you stop, staring, and think, “Here is something.” You think this because you are wondering and because whatever you are looking at is indeed something. It’s enough anyway, to remind you back in the direction of something that you almost thought you knew. But it isn’t that, not exactly. 

The nuns had a saying for missing things. “St Anthony, St. Anthony, come around,” they chanted, over the lost items. It gave the frantic seekers something to do while they looked.

Self; not self. You learn to stop wondering about which is which like you learn to accept how it is customary to call the thing you have: one life. How strange, the way that this phrase is stressed, as if it’s a limit.

One lives.

For the Birds

“i hope i die
warmed
by the life that i tried
to live”
 –Nikki Giovanni

Image: Regent Honeyeater by Michelle Bartsch on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 License

The regent honeyeaters of Australia have been dealing with a serious problem. It started in the usual way––with their massive disappearances, caused by habitat destruction; but this is a different problem, one left to those remaining. Apparently, there aren’t enough mature birds around to teach the young males to sing. The new guys are doing their best, imitating the songs of other birds and sometimes improvising here and there, but the females of the species are listening for some very specific notes. If she doesn’t hear them, mating season can’t go on as usual. The problem is raising alarms among ornithologists worldwide. One solution is to bring some birds in on a sort of contract basis, like visiting professors. Early trials of this method are promising.
 
Humans have a hard time resisting the impulse toward anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, and most other inclinations toward turning a given fact about the natural world around something applicable to human behavior. As one, I can’t help thinking about all the time we’ve ever wasted teaching anyone anything except with the impulse toward song at the center. Doing or not doing this becomes a matter of species survival. Maintaining protected spaces for development and nourishing of song becomes a matter of fundamental security. Maintaining an ecosystem in order to ensure that an emerging song, when it finally surfaces, will not be drowned in a constant din of noise, becomes a matter of painstaking vigilance, as with the protection of any species of newborn life, anywhere.

Live at the Apocalypse!

Let’s go! someone said, meaning to the apocalypse. I thought it was coming to us.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s go! someone said, meaning to the apocalypse.
I thought it was coming to us.

Sure, but let’s meet it.
What do we bring?

Whatever you want. Everything! But you may have to check it at the door.
Will there be snacks?

No, just a single unrestricted feast.
Dress code?

The less, the better.
What else?

Bring every ending, every lilting note of your unuttered cry––
What about the pets?

Well, obviously the dog comes with.
And the cat?

You know cats. I suggested this morning and she just gave me a look.
Like, “Again with this apocalypse?”

I think she’s probably done a few already.
What about the sleeping arrangements?

Have you been listening? Who’s sleeping?
Will there be singing?

At first, only silence, and then, there will only be singing.

In the Weeds: First Lessons in Classification

The opposite of weed is welcome: meaning, someone is asking for or seeking out the thing. Because someone is always seeking out the thing other than what is abundantly here.

“I sing the weed that is not weed: the uprooted,
Thornless shape with a scattering of seed
To the cast wind; whose green and gold are mated
in one bloom, healed to one shaken blood.”

                        –    from David Wagoner’s, “An Anthem for Man”

Dandelion by David Slack on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

The opposite of weed is welcome: meaning, someone is asking for or seeking out the thing. Because someone is always seeking out the thing other than what is abundantly here. As in, there is the prize. Here is the weed.

The weeds are abundantly here, but the prized harvest is elsewhere; there are the treasures, there the celebration. To mean something was to be somewhere Far Away, glimpsed for a moment. Invasive species must have looked like such a harvest, in the moments before anyone figured out what they were.

 I learned about this the first time I ever picked weeds–– I called them flowers, then; I didn’t know any better–– that were abundant in the yard. I was barefoot, bending down, starting with the delicate yellow petals of mustard, bright faces turned up, offering themselves. 

I dropped to my knees at the sight of them, pulled carefully as close to the earth as I could, taking only three ––a round number, my grandmother’s trinity of beginning, now and ever after, and then––farther from the concrete sidewalk, I found the dancing orchard grasses, their wild heads extending like Fourth of July sparklers from their stems. 

I laughed to meet them, and they laughed back, waving in rowdy groups, loitering along the neighbor’s wall, telling raucous jokes and cracking roasts about each other’s untamed manes, each one wilder than the next. 

There was one group, they could not be separated; when I pulled near the base where they were cracking up, they all came up. They appeared to be willing in chorus, to join the lowly mustard, and me. 

There were grasses toward the wildest corner, which were stronger and thicker than the rest. They were very regal and stately, their blades long and wide, slightly furred. I gathered them, too, for balance and symmetry.

I brought them inside, an offering. It is no fun for mothers when they have to break things to their children, like the difference between the world’s leading lenses and their own. 

“Those are weeds,” mine told me, quite matter-of-fact. Still, she graciously accepted, filling a dixie cup with half an inch of water and placing my motley bouquet inside, for display at the kitchen table for the remainder of the afternoon. 

The import of these words rolled as quickly off of me as anything else. It wasn’t until much later, after at least a decade of school, that I considered them again, as the first lesson in something about established orders.

“What are weeds?” I had asked. 

“They are the plants no one wants,” she told me, careful to add that such prejudice did not apply here, where the weeds were proudly displayed, for a whole afternoon, in the water of a dixie cup. 

I had so little practice at the time, with rules for the classification of lives. How some were deemed worthy and others worthy of execution by committee and pesticide. School was coming, and I would have many more opportunities to learn how the living, examined under the lens of the machine, could be sorted and separated into categories of prized and rejected, in ways that could indefinitely keep us from ourselves. 

Now when I think of it, I am grateful to be old enough to have encountered the sort of living that makes me understand the way that opposing truths may breathe side by side, like the unnecessary and the desperately sought; like salvation and discarded; like the thing that you meant to get rid of, and the thing that was saving your blind and desperate life, all along, with the calm of knowing what was once, is now, and ever would be, in this world of never-ending limits of what may. 

Seeking Directions: A Cautionary Tale

Once, studying some recurring questions, I encountered a phrase: Be the hero of your own life.

It took me, as it were, by the locks, tugging my scalp. I couldn’t see what it was that was holding me, and it didn’t provide much in terms of useful transport, but it certainly did a lot of thrashing about up there. I was much older when I finally untangled my hair, which by then was starting to fall out. I think sometimes how the arresting speaker probably meant well. It was hard to tell, as he didn’t speak except in grunts, celebratory yelps, and the bridge progressions of various top-100 Jock Jams. Was this a man? Maybe, but memory does interesting things, so when I think of him now, I see the characteristically furry, vaguely hominid Sasquatch figure of an 80’s B-Movie, and he’s wearing a red T-shirt. The phrase was on the T-shirt. There was a company logo on the back. I couldn’t tell which one.

Correction. He did have a few words; he just didn’t seem to string them together into anything that sounded like a sentence. While we were marching, I could make out something like, “Yes, Success! Yes! Are you . . . ready to rumble?!!!”

He shouted the word “Legacy!” in a similar manner, but with a more elaborate percussive element.

And yet––

The attempt at – (what was that, anyway? making an impression? branding? was it meant to be instructive?) whatever it was, would likely have landed much differently on someone less porous, less susceptible to wonder about where her body ends and the next one began. It might have been recounted fondly as one of those turning point events so popular in American films, as in: “I was just sitting there, or dancing in a circle with no discernible ambition and then––Whammo! Blinded by the light and a sudden potent animal heat, I was moved to the summit!”

Of what? One might ask, but this is often wasted breath. If so inclined, it’s probably best to step back and simply regain what breath can be had, given the prevalence of such attacks by the spirited and hairy successful creatures, lauded throughout the land for their immense strength and variety of name brand merchandise.

You can know them by their talk: by their obsessions with legacies, their playbooks of endgames, their hostility towards doubt in all forms.

For a carrier of other bodies, the points of endings, like the points of beginnings, were equally irrelevant and often not even on the map, if there was one, which started either in the branching alveoli, or the ventricles (Which one? Right, left? Upper or lower? And which came first, arteries or veins?) or in the sound of a mother’s heartbeat, or her own, or her child’s, and if most of this is water, where would I find the source? Do I go back to Eden, the four rivers, or further, to some original droplets of cosmic condensation?

There were good reasons to struggle with the question of beginnings, which naturally impacted the question of focus, and, regarding various inquiries around one’s own life, where exactly it was.

A better suggestion, in my case, might have been, Come here. Look ––for example, at the aspen, to notice the unseen roots. I might have been instructed to sit and listen, in good company, which I did ––and I was, eventually, and there wasn’t a hero among us, only a song in the distance and the waiting, and everything that mattered

––underground.

Aspen Grove – June Lake Loop by paraphulm on Flickr

The Matter of Your Substance

This is for the quiet behind your words, the songs vibrating in the back corners of your silences, for the shapes you have been noticing in the ceiling after dark; how they move in your nameless mystery. This is for the impulse to close your eyes when you’ve had enough of looking, to find the shadows just as present as the bursts and squiggles of colored luminescence spiraling across the eyelid-curtains after you stop watching.

Stellar Nursery in the Rosette Nebula – Nasa.gov

This is for your still-seeing even then, for the way you knew you could fly like you knew a mailbox could morph into a griffin; a streetlamp into a vine, from which you might swing across a rising river and drop safely on dry land — to wave at your enemies, scratching their heads.

This is for the rippled reflections over water when you touched it for the first time — really touched it — feeling it as babies do: Now it’s a boundary, now you’re breaking through; now it’s a horizon; now it’s swallowing your hand, your knowing screams of “Aaaaaah! Ha! Oooh!” against each splash.

This is for your hand — the speaker of the moment, do you remember? Chubby and sure of itself without even fine motor skills, already fluent in an ecstatic dialect, intimate with joys of pressing itself against what it cannot hold.

For Your Looking Glass

for Jill Tarter, and stargazers everywhere*

Considering how you beheld, before your teeth had grown in, the wide embrace of infinite above you every time you looked up, how you wondered about the possibility that someone on an invisible and hypothetical planet, orbiting a just-visible or hypothetical star, in a possibly habitable zone, might at this moment or in a parallel twin moment, light years away, looking back with its parent, asking, Are we alone?

––and, suspecting not, how you looked and kept looking, sought and kept seeking, ransacked the monochromatic track-lit waiting room where the tired skeptics sat in comfortable clothes–– arms crossed, smirking; reminding them how when you started looking, no one (not one!) had even found a planet ––yet!

–– around any of these other stars; considering the calm with which you pointed out the problem of certain assumptions that the over-confident doubters were always making about the impossibility of your life’s work; about its wasteful utter futility, how you pointed out their blindness to life beyond the water we are so familiar with because it is in us, and the fallacy of assuming that what is not in us may not exist as a viable life, pointing to the wild, raucous late-night parties of extremophiles bubbling over in other impossible places like the cooling liquid of nuclear reactors; how, speaking of stardust and star stuff, we are part of a billion year lineage of its nomadic essence;

how you wandered after and in it, recklessly grounded against the leering jealousy of the waiting-room skeptics waiting for your failure, waiting for your infinite motion to stop, for you to decide to finally let the limits of your present reach preclude your future reaching or to deny the fact that a stretching embrace of what you could not possibly begin to hold was always and still the essential orientation of your organism, and finally admit your discouragement; how, with both feet beneath you, you observed with the same calm how, in a billions-year legacy of wandering out, out, and into this human-ness, your arrival––our arrival–– had happened only a blink ago;

and because you saw fit to remind that if someone looking for proof of the existence of ocean fish were to come up fishless on a first attempt to harvest one, using a twelve-ounce glass, from any of the world’s seven oceans, one attempt per sea, only to decide that fish were nothing more than myths we invent to feel less alone against the ocean’s expanse, that this would be a premature decision––not to mention, a poor survival strategy;

for highlighting the tyranny of light speed regarding the length of time it takes for a signal emitted by one body to reach the perception of another, reminding us that, after all, some of us just read the Antigone of several millennia ago, and what about the aurochs on the caves of Lascaux; what about what we knew before assuming this always-assuming human form, this particular constellation of ancient dust,

assembled just so in this moment, right now; as if to imply that the way to balance your urgency is with equal parts empathy for the speed of the living, for the devastating wait, slow and deliberate as any melting ice cap, of living on a planet that spins a thousand miles an hour;

the vastness of your patience with what you call a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium that evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from and how you manage to understand that now is no time to stop looking, now is no time to stuff our have-beens into our ears, dulling our is-nows and forestalling the conception of our ever-shall-bes

––Thank you, because sometimes I need to be reminded backwards and forwards, and welcomed back again, into a space where I remember how to look, when I am meaning to see.

Jill Tarter is the co-founder of the SETI institute. Her life inspired the character played by Jodi Foster in the 1997 film Contact, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. I was  inspired by a wonderful interview with her, in a recent episode of the On Being podcast Krista Tippett. ​