On Service: An Allegory

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw.

When it came time to fight the dragon, one among them shouted, I will not serve.

He would not submit, but others would, to the lies he commissioned, always dressed in righteous robes.

The fighters went on, the one before them saying, I will.

Those moved by this example said nothing. They did not shout. No trumpets blared.

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw. Announcing allegiance to another order, they moved with the quiet conviction of visitors to the dying and the sick. Each tended to another’s wounds and they left no one behind. They brought diapers to new mothers and to orphaned children; soap to the unwashed, clothing to those who had been sticking to their own stink. They shielded the unsheltered from the elements, including fire from the righteous. They brought water to those beginning to hallucinate with thirst. Not food, but meals. Not pretend answers, but real questions to real needs, and the mess of it never left them. They wept often under the strain, and knew joy, too. And in the land of fire with the dying in the dragon’s mouth, there was peace because they were there, offering it where they could. 

The Large Bathers

I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

A person much better schooled than I am in the subject of art history recently observed that Cezanne was obviously frightened of women. I thought of his large nudes and my first impulse was disbelief based on the forms he painted; based on The Large Bathers alone, but then I looked again and saw what might have been immediately apparent, had I been less than thoroughly schooled in the superiority of binary notions. As in, an idea that the beautiful and the terrifying live in opposite poles; an idea that an artist’s preoccupation is the familiar and never the unknown; the idea that knowing well somehow cancels the haunting aspect of mystery. 

Schooling in the superiority of one thing over another is a very different thing from being schooled properly in the anatomy of a body of interconnected parts, in which even the poles of a supposed binary are reliant on one another for existence. For example, it is possible (and even likely) to be raised Catholic and read very little of the Bible beyond the red words. But then you look more closely, and you see how he was with the women and with the sick and the dead and you learn much later – by this time, you are actively looking, following a hunch and the wisdom of scholars who have managed not to sever their minds from their hearts–– that the most concise truth in Biblical letters is: Jesus wept. This at the death of Lazarus, when he knew he would raise him–– or perhaps he came to know this in weeping for his friend. You look at this liberator, his patience with the lepers and the new-dead sons, the accused whores left for dead and the tax collectors, and the Roman soldiers, and even Pilate himself who had little choice, and you think, here is a capital-M man, in an actual body, bound to be hunted for execution by the forces feeding on obedience of the same lowercase men holding a jagged rib like a shiv at Eve’s naked throat, and the fact that this was obscured so thoroughly hits with all of the imagined weight and pressure of the first nail.

Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers,  Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, posted by jpellgen on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license. 

Then I look at the nudes again, and I see it, the way that naked truth becomes the terror in the night, how most of the time someone claiming to want it is just dropping coins by mouth into a coffer at an expected time, a fee more commonly known as lip service, which might be more aptly described as the words spoken in the name of an embodied mystery which has been bound and gagged prior to the press conference. I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

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. ​

Let it Shine

Art lives in acts of generous connection. The question is how to protect the tiny flame of a precious and individual life from being snuffed out.

​Lately, I am obsessed with noticing how the forces that are detrimental to the creation of art run parallel to the forces that threaten the species of the planet, populations of people deemed disposable, and the viability of life for anyone who needs to breathe. This is why I am going to commit to meeting anyone who wishes to join me, everyday, in this space where I will be publicly doing the work that I consider the work of my life, and if you are reading this, it most likely runs parallel to the work that you do, whether you presume to call it “art,” or not. Capital-A art is a loaded word  for good reason, most of which is co-optation of something human by a greedy machine and/ or elitist. I’m a fan of lowercase art, the kind that is something we all recognize by the way it makes us feel moved, because it calls us to notice something we value, which we might have lost the name for. It lives in acts of generous connection, and often revolves around the question of how to protect the tiny flame of a precious and individual life from being snuffed out.

About five years ago, I saw the 2006 film Black Snake Moan  In it, a Blues Musician (played by Samuel L. Jackson) develops a friendship with a woman (played by Christina Ricci) who is fighting for her life. She is beautiful, sensitive, and abused: a condition common to most life forms today, except for the one-to-ten percenters who are feeding off the lives of the beautiful and abused. The plot is complicated and interesting in ways that deserve your full attention, and since I haven’t seen it since 2016, I won’t try to get into it here. I am only going to share one of my favorite scenes of all time, in which this woman, waking on the couch where she has found refuge, in the home of the bluesman, has picked up a guitar and started strumming. The scene that follows goes like this.

    “Look like somebody know a song.”

    “No, you know, I got the words in my head. . . I don’t know where I learned it, you know, but I can’t play.”

    “How you feel?”

    “You know how you feel when you come out of a bad hangover, you know? Like you could open your eyes a little more?”

    “Oh, I’m there.”

    “Well,  got up real early this morning, sun was shining’, I thought, well maybe I thought, you know, maybe I’d see if I could play that split.”

What happens next is beautiful. He plays: she sings. He nods encouragement; she closes her eyes, finding the song. I had almost forgotten this element that makes it even more so, because it speaks to the precious fragility of what they are making. As they are singing, she has her eyes closed and Samuel L. Jackson’s character has his back to the door, and for much of the last verse, her abusive and frightened boyfriend, Ronnie, is entering the home extending a pistol, aiming it at the place where they are singing. I can’t do it justice. You can watch it here:

It’s like that, the endeavor of making art. You are doing it to save your life while someone with a loaded weapon is trying to kill you because it scares them to see you so raw and honest.

In this spirit, I am moved to share an occasional series of raw cuts, by an artist with no musical training, whose medium is decidedly NOT music, who just found a random five minutes to sing. I do this not because I am comfortable with the idea (I’m not. I’m a writer, not a musician. But, like many of my fellow humans, I sing in my car and in the shower)––but because I appreciate and love art in the raw. I met a wonderful white-haired woman years ago at a dinner party. She was a fifth-grade teacher and she spoke about her willingness “to be silly and weird so that they (her students) feel it’s okay, and they don’t have to be afraid of being weird.” The first name I was called was alien, and like many such names, it stuck with me for life. Lately, I have been embracing it, lovingly, in recognition of countless other fellow humans who are labeled as such, most in ways that are vastly more cruel and dehumanizing than my own childhood slight.  Life doesn’t have a time minimum when it comes to breathing, and we owe it to one another: to seize every breath we can find and offer it back up to one another, in honor of what my favorite philosopher, Achille Mbembe calls, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” a sentiment which has resounded with more depth and meaning every day of this past year. It is good to be here, breathing with you. The exercise of this right comes with a responsibility: to breathe publicly, to call each other out, the names of the living and the dead, and the song that is waiting to come, through our collective hope and grief: Let it shine.