November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Lilace Mellin Guignard

Becoming All Animal

“But she didn’t entirely forget. We are always in both worlds, because they aren’t really two.”

—from The Woman Who Married A Bear by Gary Snyder

 

            You study the sky, hesitant to have left shelter. Wind pushes clouds over the granite ridgelines like predator and prey, the white ones seemingly chased by darker ones. But for now the sun is warm on your hair. You have time and needs to meet. Something in your bones surges and you feel your feet make the decision to proceed. Your load is winter-ponderous, not the light lift of warm weather, but your back revels in being useful, capable. As you move, your breasts, fuller at this time in your cycle, amplify the sway of your body over land. Your haunches rally as you step up rocks; shoulders, hips, and ankles balance-dance as beneath your feet the granite shifts color, clouds still dashing across blue plains above.

            This is not just another solo backpack trip. I am on a mission, sent by that inner voice that, when I hear it, I cannot disobey. Though the forecasters call for the first winter storm of the season, and though I’m used to the milder climate and terrain of the southern Appalachians, I doggedly stuffed one more warm shirt under the top pouch of my pack this morning, and drove an hour-and-a-half to South Lake Tahoe to get my permit. There is irony in having to gain society’s permission to escape it. The ranger wrote out the parking pass and hunted down change. That’s what I was hunting too, in another fashion, and I was glad the ranger was female when she asked, “How many?”

            “One.”

            “Any dogs?”

            “No.”

            Locking my car, I pause before hefting the pack, always unreasonably heavy when I go alone. If I were a werewolf, or the bear husband of the old stories, this is when the hair would quickly grow in across my cheeks and shoulders, the claws emerge and back hunch. People watching would know then. But here in this parking lot, a family walks by and looks only at my pack and pony-tail. They have no idea the changes going on inside me as I attempt my first shape-shift. As I deliberately become all animal.

          

   You are away at college and have gotten up the nerve to kayak. Bobbing with what comes, hips starting to react on their own, you follow the experienced paddlers. At the end of the drop the back wave catches your edge and you’re underwater. So slow and dark and cold. And then you’re up, shaking your head like a spaniel. Such a different world beyond the familiar surface — now you know. This is what you came for. To belong somewhere like a frog or heron.  Like the people cheering you who belong on the river — so beautiful and strong and free — so unlike the people you grew up around. Laughing, you peel off wet clothes by the side of the road, not caring who sees. Later, in front of your mirror, you stare at your body, neck twisted, watching your back, flexing both arms at once. There, between your shoulder blades, new ridges. The beginning of wings.

            Of course I know and you know that we are animals. But like the phrase “Boys will be boys,” the fact that we’re animals is treated as something we can’t help, rather than something to be proud of, to cultivate. I don’t remember when it first occurred to me that by inhabiting my animal nature more I might find a way around my fears, which had grown rather than shrunk over the years of traveling, hiking, and backpacking alone. Fears of meeting human males in the wild; of being told, if I made it out of a bad situation, that I should have known better; of believing all the voices out there that say it’s a woman’s fault for going anywhere — but especially into the wilderness — alone. Maybe it was when I read about grizzly sows having to avoid and ward off attacks from the large males. They can’t hide away all the time and they don’t look for an even larger male to protect them. They adapt. They use their senses to discover if a male is around. If so, the sow tries not to feed in the prime areas when the male is likely to feed. But if she or her cub is charged and the sow must fight, she fights tremendously. And who of us would suggest if she fails and is killed, or her cub is killed, that she asked for it?

            At the trailhead I check the map for distances. A man with a toddler is ahead of me.

            “How far you going in?” he asks.

            “Don’t know yet.” I evade the question. Though my instincts say he is harmless, I won’t give my destination. Smiling, I leave them behind. My goal this trip is not to act as a female grizzly would, or any particular animal, though I often think about what I know of animal behavior. I want to become my own animal. To do this I must shut off the cultural white noise and remember what it is to think with my body. My cerebral cortex has been thoroughly colonized, but my haunches are still pretty pre-cultural. My hands and feet are quick to solve problems when I trust them to.

            I approach two middle-aged women at the top of a long stair-like climb. They’ve been resting and watching my small steps and deliberate foot placements.

            “How much does that pack weigh?” one asks in fatigued awe.

            “I have no idea,” I say with a breathless laugh. “Never weigh your pack. You want to believe it’s lighter than it is when you start out, and to brag it was heavier than it was when you get home.”

            This attitude is more self-preservation than suicidal tendency or ego. If the pack is too heavy, my back will tell me (I try it on at home). But put a number to it and my brain will convince my body it’s too heavy regardless. Or worse, if I’m having a bad day, I don’t want to know the pack is plenty light and should be no problem. Animals don’t weigh loads, and I know that when I’m out on my own my body amazes me. What seems heavy in the driveway seems infinitely doable on the leaf-strewn trail.

 

            You are thirteen, swinging down from the cherry tree by your window. It is quiet except for the sounds of cars nearby and your mother’s voice in your ear: not after dark . . . never alone. . . don’t you read the papers?  No one understands your restlessness. The suburbs suck. Your brothers get to go where they want, even at night. You get to go to your room. Because there’s nothing else to do you walk the black edge of the road, with each step daydreaming of woods, dogs that come every time you call, and strong, kind boys. A half moon winks through the trees. Then someone whistles. “Hey baby, you don’t have to walk.” You remember where you are. Stuck. The car doesn’t stop. What if I want to walk, you think. What then?

            Like many female adventurers, I’ve had to learn the hard way and I break society’s rules. I’ve struggled free from some of the traps western culture has set out to extirpate my instincts, and I feel lucky not to have lost a limb so far. Although a mouthy child, always be polite, was firmly ingrained by the time I became an adult. Attached to that was don’t make a scene. Following these rules makes it almost impossible for the civilized female to prevent a threatening encounter with a male, so caught up is she in giving him the benefit of the doubt until he has his hands on her, is forcing her into the car or on the ground.

            I laugh at the centuries-old message that civilization is created for and maintained by women. Civilization — that place with walls where humans deceive themselves about the extent of their control and buy into the myth of security. The only place, we’re told, where women can be safe. I am not less safe in the wild. Statistics show I’m at greater risk of attack in my house or on a city street, where unethical men may prowl the night, than I am miles away from a trailhead or parking lot. I don’t trust what civilization and culture tell me anymore. I trust my gut. Out alone, I look everyone in the eye once and then avert my gaze (but never, ever look down). I turn to face anyone coming up the trail from behind. I can look ornery and unapproachable in seconds. I don’t wear the shroud of fear and vulnerability I’m told is attractive, is feminine. I bare my aggression, like teeth. If a man does not understand how to respect my privacy — a kind of territory — then he deserves whatever growls he’s given.

            Two young women day-hiking ahead. One steps aside and as I pass, whispers: courageous.

            It breaks my heart.

             Someone rounds the turn below you. Something about his size, or that he’s alone, or the way he cocks his head sends a tremor up your back. There is a large boulder and you slip behind it. What about this person makes your ruff go up, makes you not even want to sniff out his intentions? It doesn’t matter. There are no walls here and disappearing is not hard. As he reaches the boulder and moves past, you’re crouched, ready to pretend you were peeing if he looks. He doesn’t look. Why would he? No one expects you to be here. A little amazed, you watch him march uphill, oblivious. A wren perched without moving in the bushes nearby meets your gaze.

            Men are animals. This is what I’ve been told countless times before driving cross-country or going camping by myself. Most often it’s male friends who have drummed this into my skull. I understand them to mean that men are driven by their dicks which pulse with instinct, not reason. They mean that men can act badly. Well, women are animals too — treated like such is the way many feel. And animals are animals. I leave civilization to be with animals and to be an animal, and surely I can allow men inside this definition in the same, less derogatory way I’m including myself. Most animals, especially the best killers, the blood-thirstiest, have ingrained inhibitions — both social and genetic — that keep deadly conflicts among members of a species to a minimum. Especially prevalent are the inhibitions males of these species (most birds and mammals) have that keep them from physically attacking a female. It seems our culture evolved too fast; our hereditary inhibitions couldn’t keep up.

            Or maybe the messages given females are social inhibitions devised by patriarchal culture rather than biological evolution. The messages: “You’re putting yourself in danger!” — as if women should never take risks or don’t want to; “You’re asking for it!”— the ”it” presumably the same as in “doing it”; and “Take someone with you!”— an especially problematic message for single women since more than 80% of sexual crimes are committed by someone we know.

            Women are domesticated through fear. We’re taught that we need — no, deserve —protection. A privilege that we enjoy like poodles who’re primped, dressed in bows, and carried around. I don’t want to be a decoration or a pet who waits for her husband to come home. My husband and I do things together — climb, hike, kayak, bike, read, debate. But we also do things separately. And when I go into the woods alone he has to defend both my decision and his to others (not to stay, but presumably to have let me go).

            Even in other primates, possibly the most social of animals, members take time by themselves. For some people, being alone in a crowded city street or bar is enough, or having the whole house to oneself. I need the woods, mountains, and rivers which remind me dirt and sweat aren’t undesirable, that I have muscles for a purpose. I need places without mirrors. In all their good intentions, people who’ve tried to keep me safe have helped keep me from discovering myself and exploring my creativity, my body, and the land. A room of one’s own? Yes, but an isolated canyon, peak, or valley occasionally is just as necessary. Let me go, I begged my mother. Let me go, I begged the voices in my head. I never would’ve married a man I had to beg this way.

 

            When you reach the lake it’s still sunny. You hurry, hoping to get in a quick dip while the sun is full-force. After scouting out a place in the steep granite walls that will let you camp above, unseen from the banks, you reclaim your pack and huff it up manzanita and scree to the flat. The wind, as if it’d been waiting, surges as you pitch the tent. You check from below to make sure it’s hidden. Once it’s weighted down with rocks in each corner and over the stakes, you explore the shoreline. All the hikers have left. Each time the sun’s consumed by a cloud you wonder, Is this it? Kingfishers rattle. You strain to hear the sounds of conversation carried a long way, relax when you determine it’s the wind-thrown water hitting logs and rocks. As a stellar jay cries and heads for the lone Jeffrey Pine, you settle in to listen to the voices.

            Even with everyone gone, I have to concentrate on the sounds around me, make them familiar, before I can completely relax. The animals that live here know these sounds, but I’m new to this habitat. I’m used to rustling leaves and eastern rivers, not the irregular slapping of lake water on a rugged shore. Sun heats my face and I begin to strip, hoping it will hang around long enough for me to run into the cold, clear water. Then a cloud shoulders the warmth aside and, reluctantly, I pull my shirts back on. Am I being wise or wimpy, I wonder. Skinny dipping is an obsession of mine, even when it’s too cold to really swim. Immersing myself in natural waters is a conscious reminder that I don’t have control over things like temperature, depth, or what’s on the bottom. It’s a reverse-baptism, one that celebrates my body and mortality by baring myself to this beautiful, relentless creation. Two mallards come right up to where I’m filtering water, and I enviously lose myself in their antics and the iridescent blue, green and purple feathers up close. As they paddle away I screw the lid on my bottle.

            “Is that water potable?” I spin. The man has stopped a respectful distance away.

            “No, that’s why I have a filter,” I fumble. I didn’t hear him. I hadn’t heard him.

At first this is all I can think, but as a woman catches up with him I realize this time it’s okay. Maybe animals stalked from downwind feel this way when they finally get a sniff of a too-close stranger.

            “Sorry if I startled you. I didn’t expect to see anyone out here,” he’s saying. “You know there’s a winter storm watch. . .”

            I nod. I’ve categorized him as one of my kind — pleasant outdoor enthusiast who appreciates solitude. “The weather report called for snow down to 7,000 ft. That’s why I didn’t go any further in.”

            “5,500 is what I heard.”

            We all look toward the lake, imagine snow covering the shore, pines, and granite ledges. The hush of the next morning.

            After they leave I feel truly alone. It’s wonderful. The wind has picked up and I’ve started the stove even though I ate my sandwich only two hours ago. Like the other animals, I must scurry for food before the storm hits. In my case, hot food. The temperature is dropping fast. As creamy garlic pasta burps in the pot, I squat on a boulder to get a better view. Like an animal, I stayed when people fled to their cars. Like an animal, I’m not uneasy that a storm is coming. Perhaps, as for the other animals, this can be a kind of home. At least I feel at home, the way when the curtains are pulled you can walk around in your underwear, not caring if your hair’s combed or teeth brushed. Here, on this ridge, I’ve escaped society’s gaze.

            The steep scree and aspen slopes rise above on three sides. Could the black bears around here scramble up them? It’s hard to imagine. I stare at the nooks in the rock walls as I eat way more than I need, trying to hoard all the fat against a cold night. I compare each gust with the last and each one’s stronger. No bears pass through. The barometric lows before a major storm make animals lethargic, I recall. That and my full belly has me thinking it’s time to den.

 

            A few drops of rain convince you to take a last pee in the half-light. Something moves, a dark head bobs in and out of the tall manzanita. Your heart stops. They’ve come for you. More follow the first, but they’re in baseball caps. You look back and the bear becomes a guy whose navy sweatshirt hood is pulled tight around his head. You’re disappointed.

            And nervous. They came from another direction, off-trail, and head toward the high point of nearby rocks. They didn’t see me but can’t help but notice the tent from where they’re going. My brain says to zip up tight, avoid contact, but my body wants to stand ground. They know where I am; I want to see where they are, where they go, and when they leave. Can they tell I’m female? Probably not in my shell and hat. But if they come closer. . .?

            They’re not dressed for the weather that’s coming. They don’t even carry daypacks. What brings them out here? To my place? I remember how ethologists say an animal will be the most aggressive toward others of its species in familiar territory. The fact that I’ve settled in may be why I’m not interested in retreating. It doesn’t take long for them to wander out the back way they came, and I consider how I’d feel if I were holed up in the tent now. I wouldn’t know they were gone. Even if I peeked out and didn’t see them, I’d wonder if they were hidden. I’d worry all night. My body made the right decision.

            It’s started raining and I consider keeping the food bag in my tent. What animal will be out in this?  Or I could just stash it in the crook of a small tree. I mean, there aren’t many tall enough and all the lower branches on the pines are broken off so that . . . but my body is not listening.

            My hands grab the unwieldy clothesline and double-bagged food, while my feet and eyes hunt for a suitable spot. There is really only one option. The pine is on a steep, scrubby slope which makes it difficult to get into good position for an underhand throw. I didn’t often have to hang food where I’m from, but after a couple tries I lob the rock over the branch and the tied rope follows. Now I stand amidst juniper and rock. It’s only me, with no reinforcements, and I’m enough.

            Finally in the tent, wet gear off to the side, I think about how I came to doubt myself. Was it that I was born with a suburban spoon in my mouth which fed me all those white middle-class fairy tales about how great it is to have men do everything for you? Was it that in the seventies and eighties females were working hard to prove their competence in the male world of commerce, emphasizing their minds and masking their bodies? Was it that no women I knew sought solitude outdoors? In the metropolitan area of my youth, the wild was something only men were supposed to crave, and then only a few weekends a year when they tested their brawn against their pin-striped brains.

 

            You are five, racing around the front lawn behind your older brothers on the first really warm spring day. Your mother calls you aside and hands you a shirt. You start to cry and point at your brothers. “Little girls are different,” she says. “Little girls wear shirts.” But you cry harder and beg for one day more, one day, and she relents. No longer sure what the game is, you roll down the hill again and again. Grass sticks to your back and belly. Climbing the magnolia you pay special attention to how smooth the bark is as you hold the trunk. Your brothers go inside. It’s getting cool. Under the wisteria you tuck your knees to your bare chest for warmth, afraid to go indoors. Afraid of never being let out.

            With short hair and a penchant for dirt, I was always mistaken for a boy when little. I prided myself on being a tomboy and wore my brothers’ hand-me-downs until puberty dropped me into a vat of pink-glitter lip gloss. Luckily, once at college, the hippies got me comfortable with a clean face again, and the rednecks reminded me that flannel could be flattering.

            Today I’m still caught off guard by the people — both males and females — who describe me as butch. When single, I learned it was easier to move around in social circles if I grew my hair long. A man I’d been working with for over a year and whom I admired, asked if I knew how much taking up knitting had changed my image (why do people assume lesbians don’t knit?). This man and I took high schoolers on hikes and longer trips. In the woods I felt no qualms about spitting if I had to, competed in belching contests, and — like the male leaders — didn’t suppress any gastric emissions caused by the rice and bean diet. Not my behavior in a restaurant, but they didn’t necessarily know that. It now occurs to me that those actions construed as manly are really me at my most animal.

            How did it happen that men get the freedom to act as animals? Do we really think they can’t help it, or, rather, that we can help it more than they can? Maybe it’s feared that women who let themselves be a little wild will, like the woman who married a bear in Northwest Indian tales, choose not to turn back. I don’t know if that’s still a possibility anywhere in the world, but it’s not one I’d choose. Still, I’ll claw and kick for the chance to temporarily drop as far out of human society as possible. And to spit when I need to.

 

         The wind is crazy now, pushing your tent’s dome from all sides, bending the poles concave at times. You hear each gust gather in another valley and grow to the great growl of Urset that charges over the ridge and shakes your den. Maybe you are trespassing. Your full bladder whines insistently so you slip out of your bag and into rain gear. Outside it’s dark, as if the earth rolled into a cave. The cold rain stings your butt with its quills. Shadows everywhere shift and settle. Remember what the elders say: if you meet a bear, open your coat and show that you’re a woman.

            Back in my sleeping bag trying to warm up, I wallow in memories of sun on my skin: hiking the Cumberland Island beaches on my first backpack trip, all of us naked except for what we carried; stripping my shirt off every lunch stop during desert day hikes; standing nude, shin deep in the Colorado River, admiring the rich colors of the Grand Canyon while a breeze slips between my legs; celebrating Independence Day by skinny dipping solo in the Rio Grande, stroking back and forth from America to Mexico.

            I’ve always wanted to get rid of barriers between me and the earth, but it wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I finally returned to the outdoors as the little girl I was before impending breasts and periods separated me from boys and nature. I remember nervously approaching the reservoir’s edge with others for a dip to wash off all the grease and stress of the restaurant’s late shift. I said I’d go but wouldn’t strip. No one cared. When I’d almost reached the water, others were just starting to splash into the shallows. The dark swallowed the details and suddenly I felt more self-conscious in underwear. The next instant I was wading to where the black water could slide over my chest.

            What do we lose when we become afraid to ever bare ourselves, emotionally or physically? When we’re uncomfortable being naked except to make love or wash? The distrust of our bodies is crippling. As girls, we’re told they beguile ceaselessly and cruelly, so we clothe ourselves to hide or accent them. We’re told they’re weak and can’t protect us, so we cower. Then, sometime when we’re older, we hear from women who’ve found their voices, who have begun to expose these lies. They tell us together we can fight to make the world safe someday. I know their work has made it easier for me to shape my life, and I’m grateful. But I don’t believe the world will ever be completely safe for anyone. And I’m glad because a safe world has no room for wildness.

            At midnight the rain slaps the nylon even harder, unlikely to ever gentle into snow. Can this cheap tent hold up for six or seven more hours of this? I feel certain a pole will snap or nylon tear. As it is I’m riding on the raft of my Thermarest, the decomposed granite outside unable to absorb this much water. It’s pooled underneath my groundcloth and the tent floats between where the corners are staked. The fly doesn’t even cover the back of the tent where the full force of the storm has soaked the wall. I imagine trying to hike the steepness in these gusts with a full pack in the dark. I don’t think I could get down the manzanita slope, let alone keep from getting blown off the narrow cliff-edged trail. For a few minutes I stare anxiously at the nylon sides pressing in on me. Then I remember why I’m here. No animal would stay awake worrying about what might happen. It’d just react if something did. Abruptly I release the tension in my body. The reality is I don’t want to have to deal with a busted tent or stashing my pack so I can get to the car in the dark, but I know I could. Now I concentrate on the noise and let it drown out the cultural messages my brain tries to send. The storm distracts me from pointless human worry, and I welcome it.         

           You’re on the borderline between awake and asleep, afloat in a deep pool of belonging. Your heart reaches out to other creatures burrowed in this place, enduring the same forces. To creatures nested in places you’ll never know, living lives you can’t imagine. In their world the expectations are simple. You sense that their world is your world but without the lies. You release those lies, which turn into ravens calling and winging above the dark valley. You have not taken back the night.

            Better, you are sharing it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Litchfields, Lynda Barreto

The Litchfields, Lynda Barreto

 

  

 

October 17, 2009   1 Comment

I Was A War Child/Helene Gaillet

War Child 75 Photos 060

At 3 Rue des Saints Pères on the Left Bank, Maman became a renowned art dealer during and after the war. She was heartbroken when she had to sell the gallery in 1946 when we moved to Larchmont, New York.

* * *

* * * * *

(Chapter)

42

PARIS ART GALLERY

At the end of summer 1941, having left us in Brittany under the kind auspices of the Mother Superior and her flock of devoted nuns, my parents continued to live in occupied Paris in du Plessix’s grandiose apartment on the third floor of 6 Rue de Longchamps, facing the quiet sloping street in the front and the busy courtyard in the back.

Maids and cooks would dump their garbage in dark gray bins and take time out to chat, their voices echoing around the walls past the sixth floor up to the clouds. Rubbing their chafed hands on rough cotton aprons, they complained about everything, compared notes about their employers, commiserated about their own families far away in the country, and then went back to their jobs.

Free of children or housekeeping responsibilities since Arthur and Léontine took care of everything, my parents enjoyed a lot less pressure and even some measure of quality of life. While still complicated, provisioning requirements were minimal for just the four of them and so much easier in this quartier. Whatever came on the table satisfied them easily.

Often they rode their bikes over to see Bon Papa at Rue de la Trémoille, where Hortense surpassed herself in turning bland ingredients into delicious concoctions. Balancing leftovers on handlebars, my parents returned home quickly by the small streets before curfew.

Nonetheless, Maman was miserable knowing that to avoid a repeat performance of the terrible winter of 1940, her children had to stay put. Only thirty-seven years old, Maman began to think she should acquire some kind of occupation. Paris was at half-mast yet safe in so many ways that there must be some work she would find fulfilling. She had learned much running the show in Mimizan, surely there was someone, something, where she could apply her savoir faire to some benefit. With many empty days and nights she grew restless, especially as Papa was away on business much of the time. When he was there, she was as impassioned as she had been in the first days of their marriage; the strength of their love was so profound it couldn’t be plumbed or punctured.

War Child 75 Photos 035

Maman

On weekends when Paris was somnolent and Papa wasn’t working, they whipped around on bicycles in the deserted city that was practically free of motorized traffic. They loved ferreting through semidark antique shops and art galleries on the Left Bank. Wobbling on their bikes around the small cobbled streets of the old quartiers one Saturday, they stumbled on a sign A Vendre (For Sale) posted discreetly in the bottom corner of the window of a small gallery. They stopped and, hands cupped on the window to shield the glare, they saw misshapen piles of artworks strewn around a somewhat dilapidated shop. Stepping back, looking up through years of dirt, they saw a dark green sign with gold lettering: Galerie André, 3 Rue des Saints Pères. They looked at each other, entered the gloomy space, and unknowingly changed the course of their lives.

The weary proprietor showed signs of frustration as he described his situation. His story was no different than many others’. His mistress had been in charge, but she had died a few months back. He was leery of hiring anyone new. He still went to a boring day job as a bank clerk on weekdays, so could open only on Saturdays.

Maman started to daydream.

This man confided to my parents that he would gladly sell the gallery and retire if he could only find a buyer. He talked about the stock he had accumulated for the past thirty years. More than three thousand drawings, etchings, prints, and lithographs were asleep in cardboard portfolios, with prices that seemed ridiculously low. There were piles of these resting against the walls, on tables, on the desk, in the back room, haphazardly placed in such a way as to make it impossible to even sell one if he wanted to. In other words, the place was a shambles and needed an entire makeover.

 Maman’s excitement grew as they began to look through some of the pictures. There was artwork of every kind, from the worst to the best. 

“Who would be interested in this kind of business at a time like this?” he complained.

His question hit her like a lightning bolt. It was her eureka moment, and from that day on she could talk about nothing else. She was convinced that this forlorn art gallery was the perfect remedy to pull her out of her loneliness, and she made it clear to Papa that she would use her own money to acquire it.

The following Saturday morning, on their bikes from Rue de Longchamps to Rue des Saints Pères, through the Trocadéro, along the right bank of the Seine, flying over the Pont des Arts, my parents covered the two miles in record time, fueled by resolution. Breathless and flushed, they sat down with the owner to get more details and to inquire about his terms.

The owner was taken by surprise. He never expected to see that eager young couple again. He never even asked why my parents were interested, or what background in art had led them to want his gallery. Making a fast deal was foremost on his mind. He presented an irresistible bargain with very reasonable terms. He was anxious to retire. He needed only a little capital to help cushion his bachelor life-style, unencumbered by family or children. He wanted 100,000 francs for the business, including the lease transfer, and 50,000 for his stock.

Ever the wary executive, Papa had reservations about the value of the stock, which looked like a mess, even though the asking price was ridiculously low. He rummaged through some of it again and agreed to buy the whole lot at 40 percent off the list price. To his surprise, this turned out to be quite a bit more than the original asking price but, without haggling, he paid the required sum.

Maman was ecstatic. Right in the middle of the war she became the proud owner of an art gallery a few steps from the Seine, on the Left Bank of Paris, which cost her all of 400,000 francs ($4,000 at the time), an inconceivable deal.

Maman couldn’t believe her luck. Her mind veered quickly from somber news of the war and worries about the children, which were always tormenting her, and turned her focus to her gallery. She quickly hired a couple of day workers from the neighborhood and, with an innate sense of creativity, gave the place a modern, clean, and stylish look. Having never signed a check in her life, and with not the slightest notion of accounting, she went headlong into the ownership of a business and, somehow, succeeded brilliantly.

Her first working tool was an eraser. She carefully removed prices marked on works of art and increased them appreciably. Without revealing her new calling, she found out what their current values might be by visiting other galleries. She said that often she didn’t even erase a number but would just add a zero at the end, or even two. She had a genius for switching from etchings and lithographs to paintings and aquarelles, discovering young painters and changing her exhibitions often so she could expect a bigger turnover.

At 10 Avenue de Messine, in the prestigious eighth arrondissement, was a renowned dealer, Louis Carré, who had founded a first-class gallery in 1938. Known for representing and exhibiting modern masters — Gris, Klee, Matisse, Calder, Léger, Delaunay, Kupka, and Picasso — Carré also showed the works of Jean Bazaine, Maurice Estève, Charles Lapicque, and Jacques Villon, lesser known artists at the time. He was considered one of the great Parisian art dealers. Papa knew him well from handling difficult requests for deliveries of special papers.

Just a few months earlier, Carré wanted to print a limited edition of lithographs by Raoul Dufy on rare and hard-to-get art paper that Papa had been able to procure. As a way of thanking him, Carré offered to put Maman in touch with promising painters who did not yet deserve their consecration with an exhibit in his own gallery. She launched a few, while making her own discoveries: Dubuffet, who was to become very famous, Jean Dufy, the brother of Raoul, whose following was growing steadily, and several others. These artists became the beacon that brought fame to the Galerie André before long.

In those days, some Parisians had quite a bit of disposable money but had trouble finding safe ways to spend it. In a time of war, spending on luxuries was highly distasteful and suspect. Artworks and jewelry were considered safe private investments. If you had the means to find food first, often on the black market that was thriving behind the back of the Germans, then you could luxuriate in an oil painting or a diamond bracelet and keep them hidden easily. Maman was an expert at keeping secrets and, being a dealer, had every right to strap a painting to her bicycle to drop it off “somewhere,” no questions asked. Her books showed sales to names like Smith, Brown, and Jones.

In the back of the gallery, beyond the ground floor space open to the public, was a little office leading to a toilet and, beyond, a closed door. A tiny stairwell behind this door led six steps up to a small loft and bath, with only one window on the courtyard, therefore very dark. Maman fixed it up very simply with a desk, a chair, an armchair, a swing-arm lamp for both, a single bed, and, to break up the monotony, a colorful Moroccan rug. Except for the rug, it was just like a monastery room. Her intention was to be able to sleep there should she work too late to ride her bike home after curfew and to save time commuting back and forth when Papa was away.

But this room wasn’t to be her cocoon of safety. One day soon after she opened her doors, a tall, stooped, skinny man walked in with some paintings under his arm. He was dejected, tattered, and looked gaunt and desperate.

“Madame,” he said, “help me. Please…”

 

War Child 75 Photos 032

Helene Gaillet

Moving him away from the front door toward the back of the gallery, she let him line up his paintings against the wall, while he said, “I will give you these…” His voice quavered and his eyes were alarmed and weary like a frightened animal. Maman was at once repelled and touched by his condition while very attracted to his art.

“And your name is?”

“Non, I don’t have a name anymore. I have no family.” He trailed off.

“Are you hungry?” Maman asked maternally. The haggard young man paused for a moment, then quickly nodded, his head down, looking at the floor.

“Please, sit down,” Maman said softly, pointing to the back office. The young man hesitated, his eyes darting back and forth in fear and suspicion.

He finally lifted his head up and looked at Maman.

“It’s OK. You’re safe here. You can trust me,” she said. The young artist finally followed her back to the office. He winced when Maman turned on the light. She turned it off with a sigh.

“Perhaps it’s best to keep the light off. Eyes are everywhere these days,” Maman said and nodded to the desk chair. He slowly sat down, heaving a sigh of relief as if he’d been standing for years.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, walking to the front of the gallery, drawing the nightshades, and locking the doors. She hesitated, it was still early, someone might question her closing at this time, but then she firmly flipped the sign to read FERMÉ on the street side and glided back to her unexpected guest. She quickly sliced some bread and a small wedge of cheese, adding half a tomato. She walked the small plate back to him.

“It’s not much, but…” she began to say when the young man quickly grabbed it and began to devour the food ravenously, licking it from his soot-crusted fingers.

“Merci, ah, merci Madame,” he repeated, muffled by mouthfuls of bread and cheese. The sight of him so helpless strengthened Maman’s resolve to help him.

She learned he was a Polish Jew on the run from the army and from the Gestapo, a target for raids by German soldiers and French police. She asked again but he wouldn’t give her his name, said it was too dangerous, had lost track of his family. She feared the repercussions that could befall our family if she helped him; she could be shot on the spot if discovered. She knew she should just give him some money for the paintings and let him out in the street. She had relatives who were prisoners of war at that very moment and thought of them. He looked so forlorn and lonely, her mind whirling with apprehensions, but eventually her decision was made though it went against the tide of safety.

All his answers to her questions were no. No food, no room, no money, no relatives, no one. He was truly a fugitive with nothing. She gave him some money for the paintings, which she deemed were quite good, and in an act of folly and faith, she also offered him the studio as a hidden shelter. He moved in with not much more than what he was wearing on his back and slept for hours that first day. She told me much later how his presence elated and scared her to the same degree, like having an illicit affair. But once embarked on saving him, she could never change her mind.

Little by little, her life took on an unusual rhythm of exhilaration and anxiety. Strict rules were set for his safety. She showed him an emergency exit through the courtyard and instructed him, “You must never go out in the street. If you smoke, blow it out the window but keep the shade down so people around the courtyard can’t see you from their windows. Don’t smoke when there are servants in the courtyard, they would notice right away and set off an alarm thinking it might be a fire. If you need something, you must write a note and slip it out under the door. You must never come out unless I knock on the door.” They established a knock-knock code. He spoke good French and that was helpful. He readily agreed to all her conditions; with her he felt safe for the first time in months.

Maman’s exhilaration at saving a life was tremendous, but her anxiety intensified. She was hiding a Jew from both the Germans and her husband, who she knew would harshly reprove her. She snitched some cigarettes from Papa as they were found only on the black market and sold only to men. She brought food to the artist that he would consume cold and return the plate immaculate, as if he had licked off every last crumb. She scoured the occasional church jumble sale for a sweater, a shirt, underwear, a pair of pants, to make him more comfortable.

Thus she fell into an unusual pattern of running the gallery up front, dealing with her artists, new friends, visitors, making sales, going to openings, becoming a successful Parisian art dealer, and, on the darker side, making sure her fugitive was alive, comfortable, entertained with newspapers and magazines, while patiently waiting for deliverance.

This fragile relationship held steady for almost a year, from the fall of 1941 to July 1942, without any mishaps. This was a miracle considering his close quarters, her multitude of activities, and raids for Jews in every corner of the city. No one ever denounced him because no one ever knew of his existence.

While Papa worked hard at the office, he was relieved that Maman thrived at Galerie André, until the day he found her filching cigarettes and she confessed about the perilous arrangement with the painter. He was infuriated about her dangerous position. How she ever got the nerve to hide a Polish Jewish painter escaping from the claws of the Nazis he’d never know. The thought of how she wavered for months before telling him enraged him. Years later, Papa admitted that part of him always knew that Maman had more courage and heart than he would ever know. But then, faced with a fait accompli, he had to accept the poor man’s presence while his concerns about the situation kept him from ever broaching the subject.

Papa simply refused to talk about him, fearing the echo of his voice might carry to the nearest Nazi, who would arrest them. It was impossible to think of the consequences that would have befallen Maman, the family, their children, should she have been caught by a patrol canvassing the streets. Papa would describe the situation later with disdain draped in so much love and pride for Maman’s bravery. He said she had a beauty of spirit and a certain presence of character that he could not transcend while it always seemed to protect her.

Without warning, this precarious balance was shattered one day in July, when the artist was attracted by an advertisement in one of the old newspapers scattered on his floor. Men’s shoes were on sale at a very advantageous price only a few blocks away. The money from selling his paintings was burning in his pocket and cramps were hurting his feet. These shoes had to be his. Exactly in the way I had been drawn to that mushroom bollard, he couldn’t help himself. He stared and stared at those shoes in print and eventually succumbed to their appeal.

Maman had not arrived yet that morning. He broke the rules. He left through the emergency exit and, quickly crossing the courtyard, turned south down the street toward Boulevard St. Germain. His collar turned up, his hat down on his face, he tried to make himself invisible. But transparency is intangible; just like magic, it disappears.

His tall, lanky body was visible to anyone nearby. His luck turned when a French police patrol, always on the lookout for fugitives, stopped him.

“Are your papers in order?” they asked.

He could not show any papers and was arrested. He had gone out just when raids were more intense than usual that July as there was a quota to fill for arresting Jews. Nazis strictly supervised the French police in various districts of Paris, during which more than four thousand stateless and foreign Jews were arrested that month. Even more devastating was the fact that he was reading an old newspaper. Had he had a more current issue, he would have known about the intensified raids and certainly would have stayed in his hideout.

Somehow Maman got word he was being held in the internment camp of Drancy, in a northeastern suburb of Paris. Built by the government in the late 1930s, this camp of dreadful high-rise residential apartment buildings was poetically called “The Silent City.” The Germans had requisitioned it in 1940, thrown out all the residents, mostly poor blue-collar workers, and set it up as a detention center to hold “undesirables” until their deportation. Without Papa’s knowledge, again, Maman took the grave risk of going on her bicycle to bring the artist some care packages— not just once, but twice. Soon he was deported to Auschwitz and was never heard from again.

Maman was lucky and blessed to avoid any kind of retribution from the police. The artist never denounced her and, bit by bit, with gloom in her heart, she erased all traces of his existence, keeping only one of his paintings for herself. On the order of Papa, unimaginably upset at her for placing the safety of a stranger over the family, she followed the trend of all Paris and closed down the gallery to come to Saint-Servan for the month of August.

By September the whole thing had blown over. Keeping his memory in her heart, Maman carried on as if this interlude had never happened. The Galerie André was for her an excellent occupation, a full-time job, a fascinating learning curve, and the center of her life while we children were under safe care elsewhere. With a very low overhead, she brought in an excellent increase in revenue for the household. A year later, at the end of 1943, she was proud to prove to Papa, statements in hand, that her profits had that year surpassed his income.

They sold the gallery after the war for 3.5 million francs to a Madame Ducret, who knew nothing about art and shortly had to let it go to an expert, who soon restored its reputation under the name of Galerie Framont. That storefront has retained its clean-cut prewar appearance that, with an occasional coat of paint, looks exactly as it did when Maman owned it.

 

***

 About the author:

Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard is a self-taught photographer and artist born in France and raised in heleneLarchmont and New York City. Her passion for photography developed early when she used her babysitting money to purchase her first camera at the age of 14. After successful careers in advertising and public relations, she was able to go freelance and turned to professional photography in her mid-thirties.  In a field where she quickly excelled, it didn’t take her long to leap over boundaries in her ability to explore beyond the limits of cameras and films.

Her photographic archives have been acquired by the HILLWOOD ART M– USEUM on the C. W.  POST CAMPUS of LONG ISLAND UNIVERSITY which exhibited a retrospective of her work September to December 2008.  She is also painting in watercolors and acrylics, creates conceptual art pieces and writes books on various subjects.  She lives in New York City and Naples, Florida.

http://www.helenegailletartist.com

 

* * * * *

4.TINTINPLANE2013

Jonathan Kelham illustration.

August 29, 2014   Comments Off on I Was A War Child/Helene Gaillet

Fiction Contest/Runner Up

award

 

The following story by Ely Azure, is a runner up in Ragazine‘s first fundraising writing contest, “Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Written in 2013)”. We extend our appreciation to all those who entered the contest, and especially to our esteemed judge, Sheree Renée Thomas

Click here to read the winning entry, “The Chance,” by Avery Irons. 

* * * * *

NEVER. GIVE. YOU. UP.

 

By Ely Azure

On my fortieth birthday, Mac blindfolded me and took me to an adoption agency. He told me to pick one, as many as I wanted, and we would take them all home. I burst into tears. Not exactly the reaction he was going for and over a wad of tissue I explained that it was a baby I wanted, and nothing short of an actual baby would ever satisfy me. I’m sure I sounded like a hopeless brat, but Mac just nodded and swallowed several gulps of air, a nervous habit he has when he’s trying not to cry.

He looked around at the hordes of unwanted kids. One sweet-faced toddler with bushes of dark brown curly hair waddled towards Mac with his one arm outstretched. What was left of the other was heavily bandaged and soiled. Mac scooped the child into his arms and the little boy lit up like the sun. This child was familiar with my husband.

“They need love too, Mel,” he said. His voice choked back emotion and I felt a certain aching come over me.

“Parker has that same curly hair as yours. Why don’t you hold him?” He held the child toward me and I took a step back.

I had no idea how much preparation he’d put into this visit, the paperwork, the extensive meetings with the agency. He wouldn’t have unless he’d felt sure of more than one kid I would gravitate toward.

The children at this agency were all victims of terrorism and natural disasters. They had been orphaned by circumstances beyond their control. Parker was the youngest of the bunch, barely two years old, while the rest fell between five and fifteen, and all looked desperately abandoned. Their eyes passed over Mac with softness, like fingertips caressing his face, but they scowled when they looked at me. It felt like they were poking their dirty little fingers right into my eyes.

“I can’t stay here another second,” I said, holding my breath. I fled to the safety of our car in the sweltering heat of the parking lot. I’d forgotten to pull the mask over my face in my haste and those few moments in the tainted, diseased atmosphere had me hyperventilating.

The building was draped in airlock plastics as were most of the structures outside of the safety zones in Miami. It was mid-August and there was no breeze blowing. The buildings looked like giant, frozen ghosts. I shuddered and inhaled from the alkaline booster that was plugged into the cigarette lighter, and then pulled the paper mask over my nose and lips. The boosters had been invented a few years prior as a method of prevention, to try and neutralize the infection at first contact. I’m not sure they ever really worked, but Mac and I always kept them handy. I brushed a bead of sweat out of my eye.

For the past six years, an airborne virus had swept across the United States, leaving a lot of people in a decayed state; what we in Miami called the rotten, because their skin was covered in foul lesions by the time the infection was finished with them. The normal dead could be buried or cremated, but the rotten happened to still be walking around, and the virus was so aggressive that a simple sneeze had the potential to wipe out an entire city block.

When the government realized that the infection couldn’t be contained they began to organize evacuations. Massive amounts of the population tried to migrate into other parts of the world. The gates at customs were quickly slammed in our faces. Mac hadn’t been home to France in almost ten years.

The grind of a concrete drill suddenly filled the silence. I twisted my head right and left searching for the sound, then saw Mac walking toward the car. He didn’t look happy.

“You alright, baby?” he asked with concern. Even after I’d clearly embarrassed him in front of the entire agency’s staff. I couldn’t find any words. I only nodded. He handed me an envelope.

“I don’t want to disappoint you, but it’s rare for the agency to receive babies anymore. Parker is their youngest. All of the kids here are infection-free and certified healthy for the most part. This is the only agency in the south with a kid under three years old, I’ve checked. Parker’s ours if we want him, but there is another family waiting to adopt.” He paused, waiting for me to answer or change my mind. I could do neither.

“If we don’t decide by Wednesday, they’ll put us on a waiting list. If a baby comes available, we’ll be the first couple they call. I’ve made sure of it.” He motioned to the charity slip with a huge donation made in our names. I stared quietly out of the reinforced window.

“I won’t lie,” Mac said. “I’m disappointed, but I’m not angry with you, Mel.” He reached across to slide the mask down to my chin, then leaned over and kissed me. My body folded into his and I melted against his shoulder. His touch was familiar and soothing. He reminded me of fresh-baked sugar cookies. The curve of his neck was where the warm cookie scent was the strongest.

My mother had known sugar cookies were my weakness, my pleasure, my comfort. It was the last thing she did before the infection took her from me. Right after my hysterectomy she’d brought a warm batch over to the house. Since then Mac has baked pounds of cookies for me. I still enjoyed the scent on him, but because the taste reminded me of my mother, I couldn’t eat them anymore.

“I’m sorry I flipped out,” I said. “I’m just so stressed about turning forty.” It wasn’t completely a lie. I’d found two gray pubic hairs in the last month and one in my armpit. I was slipping again; I felt that familiar sludge of sadness creep across my shoulders.

*

We floundered on the adoption waiting list for five years before they started closing state borders. Three more years passed since then. The infection was rampant and it was a miracle that Mac and I were still healthy. My fiftieth birthday was staring down at me from the top of the hill. I kept looking the other way, but my hair had started to shed. I tried to keep Mac from seeing the full-length curly black hairs wash down the drain.

He still had an entire head of lustrous hair, with only a minor spackle of gray. He was still as beautiful as he was when I met him twenty years ago as a part of the student exchange program in college. I looked haggard and wore the wrinkles of an old woman. Mac would be so angry if he ever heard me say that aloud, so I only ever whisper it to myself.

*

Nine years later, the call we’d been waiting on finally came. I nearly wet my pants when Mac told me. Did I still want a baby? Was he kidding? Just the news of an available infant made me so happy that I was dancing around the kitchen in my slipper socks, singing into a pepper sauce bottle.

Mac and I made love for the first time in four months. Then we dove into our rows of sterilized boxes in both the attic and shed, pulling out long forgotten baby toys, clothing and furniture. I insisted that he finally peel that “baby on board” sticker from its shiny white backing and promptly attach it to the bumper of our Chevy Volt IX.

The next day we charged a car that had been parked in the garage for a year and headed down the familiar roads. A sheet of dust covered the hood, made it look gray instead of baby blue. I bounced in my seat as we rode through a city devastated by the infection. It was ashen outside. Smog clogged the sky, the Earth coughed and shook. In order to decontaminate areas of the city, more buildings had been demolished than there were buildings still intact, and the reconstruction efforts were undermanned. There were more rotten than living people occupying the cities.

There were less than ten passenger cars on the road going in any direction; mostly the streets and highways were congested with delivery trucks. It was late January, and even though Miami didn’t experience winter, the ashy substance floating about reminded me of dirty snowflakes.

Every few miles a patrol Hummer would pass by, red and blue twirling silently, checking for breaches to the perimeter; it’s what the military did now, fight homeland wars. Outside of the safety barricades, the fluorescent green flashers were the ones to worry about. Those meant an uncontained contamination site was nearby, take cover.

Quite a few roads were permanently blocked off and the streets were littered with yellow detour signs and those sterile red, white and blue “Quality Assurance Quarantine Area” signs. They were fresh out of the box and had yet to be defaced. The QA markers were intended to be a comforting thing, but it’s hard to feel safe in a place guarded with barbed wire and airlocks.

The things that normally soured my mood didn’t that day; I’d waited too long for this. It’s true what they say about becoming a mother for the first time.

When Bambi looked at me with those big, round eyes, I oozed delight. She was only two weeks old. They reassured us that she was African-American, one of my preferences; however, her complexion was so translucent that there was hardly any color in it at all. She had the palest, pouty, heart-shaped lips I’ve ever seen. She was almost weightless.

I loved her immediately, but there were so many warning labels wrapped around my baby that I couldn’t feel her touch. Those tiny fists and feet were enclosed in safety mitts. I didn’t even know they made a protective mask that small. She was already infected.

She was a part of a growing unit of newbies that had been born of infected mothers, but the infection was in a precognitive stage the doctors believed the right kind of treatment could suppress, but were not hopeful of long-term survival. She would need to be placed with a family with the right amount of resources in order to give her the best chances at a semi-normal existence.

Mac and I were prime candidates, not just because of our financial security, but also because of our ages. It was news to us. Something about a vaccine we’d been given as children made our resistance higher. Too bad the government had cut funding for it when they decided it had become obsolete.

We were part of a first-time experimental group of parents and along with that responsibility came an ocean of waivers to sign, mountains of health paperwork, and hordes of medications. The doctors had to be sure we understood the potential risk of exposure while caring for an infected child.

There was also a field of protestors waiting for us outside. The coggie experiment, as the media liked to call it, had angered the survivalist groups who believed that releasing coggies into the safety zones, heavily medicated or not, was a danger that threatened their health and freedom.

Initially I agreed, however there were seven coggies at the agency in Miami, and the moment I held Bambi, I was certain that I no longer held that extremist view. I didn’t need to look any further. My family was finally complete.

*

Two of the many sanctions of the experiment were to wear full body protective armor at all times while handling the baby and to keep a detailed health journal of the child’s developmental milestones. While wearing the armor, Mac pretended to be an astronaut to make Bambi laugh, which by three months she hadn’t done yet. Not even a hint of a smile in her sleep. The doctors warned that her growth would be far behind that of the average child.

That didn’t bother me so much, but the crunchy sound of the plastic body wrap that separated me from her was unbearable. How was I supposed to establish a bond with my baby that way? I was almost to the point of ignoring the warnings and loving her right. I wanted to hold Bambi against my chest. I wanted to press my lips against her fragile skin and feel how alive she was. She was alive. Nothing anyone can say will ever change my mind about that.

Mac didn’t share my complaints. He loved to don his body armor and take Bambi outside. The doctors said it was good for her to get fresh air. Technically the virus was dormant as long as we kept her on those thousand dollar medications. However, she’d be highly susceptible to the infection becoming primary, so ‘fresh’ air was the key word.

Mac bought one of those bulky supercharged alkaline booster machines they used in the sports stadiums. Most of the surviving arenas were quickly closed-in and the owners added the extra benefit of the machines to reassure the crowds that the games were safe to attend, but the infection was too strong, people still got sick, so soon the machines became obsolete. The doctors agreed that the machines could work better in a smaller area, such as our backyard, where there was less contaminant. It made me smile to watch Mac run around the yard pretending Bambi was an airplane. Mostly she looked terrified, but she never cried.

*

I sipped mineral wine and filled baby journals while Mac and Bambi had daddy-daughter time. The normal developmental milestones say that by three months old, the infant should be able to lift her head while being held at the shoulder.

At five months, holding Bambi that way only made her cry. I would’ve, too, if I had sticky plastic plastered to my cheek. She preferred the arm cradle so that she could always look up at our faces. She didn’t lift her head on her own much, yet, but she could turn it from side to side pretty well, even with her tiny face smashed into the carpet. She wiggled and kicked up a storm and responded well to our voices.

*

Just before she turned seven months, a flaming diaper filled with rocks and mud flew through the window, splattering glass everywhere. Someone had scribbled “diseased baby” on it. It landed on the floor a few inches from where Bambi was snuggled asleep on a pallet. Without even waking, she rolled out of the way of the fire bomb and stuck a thumb in her ear. That was a surprise. We hadn’t expected to witness a full rollover for a least another four to six months.

*

The week before she turned nine months old, we were unloading boxes in an entirely different city in Florida while Bambi sat in her rocker on the shady side of the porch. She already had eight teeth and was gnawing ragged little patterns into her safety mitts. We had to finally throw away most of her toys. She’d long ripped all of them apart. In fact they were becoming so unevenly chipped that we’d been searching for a dentist in the area that would treat her early. No such luck.

We’d already moved twice to avoid the intense sort of scrutiny that made some angry protestors set our first house on fire and leave a burning tombstone in the yard of our second home in Coral Gables. It had Bambi’s name slashed angrily across it in wet spray-paint. At first, we refused to be bullied. But after the incident with the flaming diaper, Mac thought it better to abandon Miami completely.

I had been reluctant to move, afraid the conditions would be worse in other parts of the state, but St. Petersburg wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t as hot as the bottom of the Florida peninsula, and being located on the milky Gulf coast, the breezes were heavenly.  Mac and I could afford the overpriced, gated, twenty-four-hour safe zone. It lulled the inhabitants into a false calm that made it easy to forget the horrors on the outside.

Before the infection became official, Mac and I had gotten in on the Amway knock-off, Tidal Wave Industries. We topped the pyramid in less than three months. Both of us were business majors; Mac had been a financial advisor and I worked in accounting, so we knew how to run a business. Everyone wanted online product distribution to deliver the things they were unable to find within their own communities. They rarely traveled farther than a few miles, even for work. Retail businesses couldn’t prevent contamination unless they were closed to the public. We kept so many products on-site in order to offer quicker delivery service that we eventually had a storage facility built on our property.

*

At fourteen months old, Bambi still wasn’t crawling. She could roll-over like a slinky, pushing those awful little gagging noises out of her throat. I hated when she did that, it was almost as bad as when my little cousin ground her teeth in her sleep. The doctors suggested we keep her supplied with pacifiers, but she usually chewed those into tiny bits. Once, she nearly choked on a piece that got lodged in her throat and Mac had to pry her jaw open so I could shove my finger into her mouth to get it. She tried to bite down several times and missed my finger by only a second.

Her face crumpled like she wanted to cry, but then her eyes swiveled to her bare fist and she chomped down on her own hand instead. Blood slithered from the tiny hole her incisor made just above her knuckle. Mac applied pressure to the bite while struggling to keep her mouth away from her own skin. I hurried to get bandages. After we replaced her safety mitts and mask, she glared and rewarded us with the silent treatment. Not one gagging sound until the next meal. It nearly broke my heart.

Speaking of meal times, she hated the formula we fed her, but refused to graduate to the jar varieties either. The only thing she seemed to really want was Vienna sausages. She’d devour can after can after can of those things. I was getting worried that her diet was insufficient. We’d tried so many of the snack choices and usually ended up sweeping that off the floor. She was gaining weight at a decent pace, on the other hand. Thirty pounds already and it was killing my arm and hip to carry her around.

*

Her fingernails grow like kudzu. I had to clip them twice a day or she’d rip holes in the mitts that we already had to replace once a week because she chewed on them. But whenever she slept, we loved to curl up around her, intertwining our hands and feet, creating a circle of love to protect her from the rest of the world.

Mac slid his fingers through Bambi’s straggly curls. “Our baby is growing so fast,” he said with a tired yawn. It had been his shift the previous night. She doesn’t sleep well alone. If she woke up and no one was near, she’d screech like a recently spayed cat.

“She really is,” I said, staring into Bambi’s angelic face. Her eyes darted side to side as she dreamed those innocent baby dreams. If only she didn’t breathe so jaggedly. I rubbed my finger across her lips and caressed her belly. Those were the only times I allowed myself to touch her without the body armor. Her skin was so soft that it felt like cool water against my fingertips. It had darkened over the past few months, but instead of getting browner, it was taking on a grayish pallor.

“I love you so much,” Mac whispered to me and clasped our fingers into a tighter grip.

“Me too.” I squeezed him back. My heart ached with love for my family.

*

Just after Bambi turned two, the state relinquished all responsibility of each city back to itself. It was becoming too much of a burden to control the entire state. The new decrees were fierce in St. Petersburg. There was barely any communication with any city beyond Tampa and Clearwater. We could no longer take Bambi in to see the doctors in Bradenton for her check-ups and the wait time for a video consultation was enough to make me pull out my hair.

The good news was Bambi finally crawled. It was an odd, shuffling sort of movement. She appeared to be dragging her left leg around instead of using it, but she was definitely beginning to move. Mac was ready with the video camera. Their trips out to the backyard became ten times more interesting. Bambi had an eye for bugs. She stopped to examine every single one that crossed her path. Keeping her from sticking them in her mouth was the biggest obstacle. It didn’t take long before she graduated to small furry animals. It took all of my energy to keep chasing the squirrels away. Poor things, they didn’t know any better.

*

My birthdays after fifty went by unnoticed because Bambi was the center of our entire lives. She was one of only two coggies still alive from the original experiment and I was determined to keep her that way. The doctors were amazed at the developmental growth I expressed in Bambi’s journal entries and attached videos. They still warned that long-term survival was not likely at this point, but nothing could discourage me.

The safety zones encouraged community involvement, be we shied away to protect our child from the external dangers and the hatred. Some of the other experiment participants had inadvertently put their children into harms’ way. I never left the house, not even with Mac, now that we had Bambi to protect.

He understood that and still found ways to make putty out of my heart.

It was one of those nights that Mac got all romantic and prepared an extravagant dinner. Bambi was asleep on the couch where we could keep an eye on her, but lucky for us she was dead to the world while she slept. After dessert, Mac switched on the karaoke and even though the song was long forgotten nearly two decades before we were born, we had a thing for vintage music. Mac belted out the verses of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” as if he’d written it himself. It was the same song he’d performed for me at our wedding reception. We danced closer than we’d dare to then.

Things had just begun to heat up when Bambi’s gagging sounds interrupted us. She sometimes made them in her sleep, but it came in short grunts, not the gasping, choking sound she made while awake. Sometimes it seemed she was trying to communicate, I’d written it up in her journal. Mac and I jumped as if we’d been caught kissing behind the bleachers.

“Omigod, Mac, she’s standing up!” I immediately tore myself from his embrace and ran to my daughter.

“C’mere, Bambi, come to Daddy!” Mac said with his usual enthusiasm. Bambi lifted her right foot, the one she didn’t drag, and put it back down. There was no forward movement, but it was still a reason to celebrate. We cheered and clapped to encourage more attempts, but she only stood there staring off into space. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve called it sleep-walking. The gag and sputter were the only replies before she plopped down on her bottom.

I swooped her into my arms, cooing in her ear. I felt Mac’s arm wrap around us. We stood that way until we thought she’d fallen asleep again, but when I moved to lay her down, she squeezed tighter. Mac had to peel her arms from around my neck and in the process her fingernail scratched my skin. I suppressed a yelp and scolded myself for forgetting the body armor. It was enough to keep me preoccupied the rest of the night; Mac finally gave up on rekindling and went to sleep.

As soon as it was safe, I hurried into the bathroom to survey the damage. A cut, not more than a half inch long on the back of my shoulder, had already stopped bleeding. I knew how lethal her nails could be, but I was still shocked at how easily it tore through my blouse to draw blood.

My thoughts were playing bumper cars. Was Bambi even contagious? If so, was the small scratch enough to infect me? Should I worry Mac about it?

I doused the area with alcohol and smeared Bambi’s medication over my skin. Just as a precaution, I swallowed two of the antidote capsules I normally had to mix into her food. I sucked on the spare alkaline booster like it was an inhaler. Was my breathing uneven? Did I feel feverish?

I stared at my face in the mirror. It couldn’t be, but it looked like my eyes were pink around the irises. I splashed water on my face, took a breath, decided that wasn’t enough, and then stripped down naked for a scalding shower. My scalp tingled, my toes curled, but I didn’t turn off the water until I had washed my fear down the drain.

I reapplied the skin creams, put on my pajamas, and made an entry in the journal. I vowed to wipe the incident from my mind. It was just a little scratch; nothing could happen to me because I had to be here for Bambi. The only thing worse than other people fearing her would be her parents doing the same. Mac and I had worked hard to create a safe haven for her, and I wasn’t willing to mess that up. Wrapping the plastic-rubber jacket around me, I gingerly moved Bambi from the couch to her crib and went to bed.

*

The scratch healed, although I hadn’t been able to keep it a secret from Mac for very long. No doctor would examine me on the outside. They were too afraid I was infected simply by association with my child. So Mac had insisted that I order a double supply of Bambi’s vaccines and antidotes for the next few months, just to be sure. The medicines made my skin dry and my body dehydrated, but other than that, I didn’t notice any changes.

It was easy for Mac to forget about it because the act of standing had been ammunition for Bambi’s growth. Within less than a year she was able to walk on her own, slowly dragging the left foot, her steps were more certain. At three, she still hadn’t spoken a word, but she found ways to communicate. Mac and I joked that instead of teaching her English, it would be easier to learn her language. So we deciphered the signs she gave for needing to be changed, wanting to play or be held, and most of all hunger. She’d eat all day if we let her, but we didn’t. We had to force her to drink the nutritional supplements by withholding meat.

*

Just after Bambi turned four, some neighbor’s poor pit bull pup got loose and ended up in our backyard. The outer bands of a tropical storm had recently passed over our region and we’d been stir-crazy cooped up in the house. The three of us were having a picnic on the lawn and playing dolls together when Bambi suddenly lurched forward into the bushes that lined the back gate. I’d never seen her move so fast. The whimpering sounds soon followed.

Mac pointed at me like it was my turn to save the squirrel, but by the time I reached her she’d already torn into the puppy’s neck and had blood and guts all over her hands and face. I didn’t have time to cover the shock. The dog was the biggest animal I’d ever seen her attack and honestly we’d gotten so comfortable saving the little ones in our yard, that I didn’t think she really hungered for them anymore. Perhaps the occasional lizard, but I left those parts out of the journal entries.

She stared at me, red-streaked palms up, with a guilty look on her face, and let a tuft of damp fur fall from her lips to the ground. My shock was replaced by pride that we had somehow gotten through to her. She knew by killing the dog, she’d done something wrong. I held back the usual chastisements and instead smiled at her. And for the first time ever, she smiled back. It wasn’t exactly a proper smile because her mouth was open too wide, but the idea that she was able to move the muscles of her face in that direction had me bouncing. I called Mac over and he snapped several dozens of pictures. An hour later, her face was still frozen that way, even after I brushed her teeth.

*

It became impossible to satiate her hunger with food after that. She’d refuse to eat anything that wasn’t living flesh. After three days of nothing to eat, I could see her rib cage poking through her tender skin. Her breathing was choppy and she slept for longer periods of time than normal. Mac gave me that look, the one that said, “We do what we got to, to save our little girl.”

I stared out the patio doors at the backyard and tried to meditate on what all that involved when a squirrel scurried across the tree branch near the house. It looked at me the way I was looking at it. I accepted the sacrifice and crushed a sedative into a bowl of nuts and fruits. An hour later, two squirrels lay still, warm and breathing, underneath the tree.

Mac brought Bambi outside and put her down. The scent must have been strong because she immediately opened her sleepy eyes. She looked up at us curiously. Mac nodded and held my hand. Bambi squatted over the small animals, and touched one with her fingertips as if to check for a pulse. She then pressed her face into the animal’s belly and tore it open with her teeth. I refused to look away. Blood splattered across her nose and her eyes rolled back in her head. She didn’t stop until there was nothing left but a shriveled, matted piece of furry skin. She offered the other squirrel to Mac. He took it with a smile.

“How about bath time with Mommy, while I put this somewhere safe for you?”

Bambi gurgled a reply and came to take my hand. Mac kissed me on the cheek.

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll teach her how to hunt. Everything will be fine.”

*

I had strange dreams for months where I was being served little creatures: squirrels, mice, chicks. The taste of warm flesh was inviting; it was the fur that made me gag. I’d wake up and vomit like I had morning sickness. While I nursed a bellyache, Mac ordered a tranquilizer dart gun and hunting gear for the two of them. I dare to say he enjoyed the excursions, and since they were the only times Bambi could leave our property, she wore that wide smile on her face for days. Her skin lost its sallowness and she almost looked cured. I didn’t want the doctors to misinterpret that part, so I left that out, too.

*

The morning of her fifth birthday, I received an email from the doctors expressing gratitude for my meticulous journaling, but they regretted to inform me that it would no longer be necessary. The other surviving coggie had died the previous week. I believe Marlin was his name and he’d been only a year older than Bambi. The autopsy revealed the same results as all the other coggies. The medicines hadn’t worked, there was no cure, so the experiment was over. They confirmed the coggies had mostly damaged internal tissue, very little brain activity, and the failing organs of the elderly.

They suggested, gently, that we have her put down at a local veterinarian’s office. It was so gentle, in fact that they rambled on for six paragraphs before dropping that bomb. My heart lurched. I deleted the email before Mac could see it. There was no way I was going to euthanize my daughter. At a vet’s office. The nerve it took to even suggest it.

I went back into the kitchen where Bambi and I were baking her birthday cake. Mac danced around the living room while hanging decorations. Bambi grunted to the music. We were just like any normal family. We had a picky eater. We had some behavioral issues. Sure, we wore plastic-rubber all the time, but for one night that would change. This was a special birthday and Mac and I had promised to dress up in real party clothes.

“I’m going to jump in the shower. Don’t forget to set the table, baby,” I said to Bambi with a plastic kiss. She grunted that she understood. At some point Mac joined me in the shower. The heat between us made the de-steamer obsolete. We didn’t care. It was the best day of our lives.

*

We came out dressed in clothing we hadn’t worn in years. Mac, in his cobalt tuxedo jacket, told me that my gold Grecian evening gown complemented my skin better now than in the past. We had that morning-after glow all over our faces, but the birthday girl outshined us both.

Bambi was all dolled up in the pink taffeta with the tiny white hearts that I’d laid out for her, complete with white patent leather shoes. There was a pink feather in her hair and more on a chain around her neck. It was jewelry the two of us had made together one rainy afternoon. She led us to the table that had been decorated for a tea party, like the one in her bedroom. We each took a seat and sang happy birthday to her. She smiled, a genuine one, and clapped excitedly. We’d been working on her wide mouth scowl for months.

She moved around the table as she poured us some of the lumpy beverage from her teapot. We toasted and drank it and I was suddenly feeling quite sleepy. A blurred tranquilizer dart sat broken in the center of the table. I was unable to have any reaction at all when Mac slumped to the floor.

He’d gulped. I’d only sipped. The scent of rotting flesh was strong and no longer able to be ignored. I watched paralyzed as Bambi put on her bib, bowed as if to say grace, and then began chewing gracefully on Mac’s neck. Blood bubbled and his body twitched involuntarily.

When she finished, she wiped the blood from her lips on a birthday napkin and looked at me with eyes so ravenous that it was hard to believe I’d just watched her chew most of the flesh from her father’s bones.

Bambi climbed onto my lap and reached for me. That move I’d been waiting for, but had never received. That recognition of the bond every child has with their mother from birth and hearing their voices utter that beautiful word.

“Mommy,” Bambi whispered in a tone so soft that it melted from her lips. A milestone. I felt hot tears well up in my eyes, but they never fell. I was in a state of frozen ecstasy. She pressed those precious lips against my neck and my eyes closed. I wished Mac had been alive to see it.

About the author:

Erica Shaw, pen name Ely Azure, is a native Floridian and a veteran of the United States Air Force who has been conjuring imaginative tales as a storyteller since she about eleven years old.  She elyazurpicloves the sounds of nature, traveling, and every color in the orange spectrum.   She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California-Riverside. Her short story “Strange Fruit in Pratt, Kansas” was chosen as a finalist in Glimmer Train Press’ 2012 June Fiction Open and she has had both poetry and creative nonfiction published in The Cypress Dome‘s Spring 2011 issue. Currently, she is a poetry reader for The Whistling Fire and has written professionally for both the Goodfellow Monitor,  a military news publication, and the “Teen Wrap” section of The Florida Times-Union.  

 

 

 

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banana-boat-worked600wm

Walter Gurbo, Drawing Room

March 1, 2014   Comments Off on Fiction Contest/Runner Up

Fred Roberts – World Out of Control

DecoderPosterOld

Decoder (1984)

 

Der Protest

by Fred Roberts

Did you ever watch a pot of water come to a boil? First the water is still, then there are a few bubbles, then more and in more places, and all of a sudden many, until finally the boiling point is reached and the water is in a constant state of turmoil. This is what a recent viral video reminded me of, a project by Penn State doctoral candidate John Beieler mapping global protests from 1979 to the present day. It makes sense. Anywhere you look there is something to be concerned about. Corporations out of control, banks out of control, militarization of the police, mass NSA spying, prison as a business model, war as a business model, fracking, mass oil spills, nuclear meltdowns and melt-throughs, genetically corrupted food, global warming, dysfunctional government and a complacent media trying its best to make us feel good along the way to the catastrophe.

In this article I want to share some encounters I’ve made with political statements in music and film in the German language, representing different approaches but sharing a common goal: change.

A German film released in 1984 – “Decoder”, was just about 30 years ahead of its time. It is a must see today: a counterculture film of post-punk protest – surely not one to catch on in the mainstream of the mid 1980s. Too radical, although indeed the film did make its mark in Italy. During Italy’s period of social unrest an early version of the chaos club showed the film at all of its events and garnered it a faithful cult following. The film was inspired by the writings of William S. Burroughs and includes tracks by Einstürzende Neubauten, Soft Cell and The The, with additional music composed especially for the film by members of Soft Cell (Genesis P-Orridge and Dave Ball) and of Einstürzende Neubauten (FM Einheit, Alexander Hacke, and Jon Caffery). Burroughs had a small role in the film, as well, which is an unimpeachable confirmation of the film’s integrity. The lack of distribution apart from the Italian exception counts the film as a forgotten classic today.

The film is set in a dystopian present in which muzak is used to hold the population under control. The imagery is of fascism, a howling wind, a nameless agent walking along an urban landscape into a faceless bureaucracy, then through endless, anonymous corridors. It looks creepy and hypermodern. Many shadows. The lighting creates a dark mood, similar as in films like “Blade Runner” or the TV series “Max Headroom.”

The main character, FM Einheit, discovers that by playing back certain music/sounds, he can counteract the muzak and cause people to revolt. He carries out his experiments in, of all places, a fast food restaurant. All the while he is pursued by the shadowy agent (Bill Rice) out to eliminate him, but also following an obsession with FM Einheit’s girlfriend, played by Christine F, of the famed book “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo.” In a key scene, Genesis P-Orridge states: “Information is like a bank. Some of us are rich. Some of us are poor with information. All of us can be rich. Our job, your job, is to rob the bank, to kill the guards, to go out there to destroy everybody who keeps and hides the whole information… Information. Power!” Later, during the riotous endgame, one of the leaders reflects the converse of this idea: There will be no news blackout. It is an information blackout.

The film metaphorically portrays today’s powers as they stand before us with the curtain drawn back and their masks torn away. This has been brought about as much by the lack of real change over the decades as by the new awareness given by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. “Decoder” captures the moment of the boiling point when the powers that be are no longer able to control the masses. This is what makes the film so remarkable and essential viewing today. There has been a US DVD release of the film, albeit out of print, but according to the film’s author Klaus Maeck, a European DVD release is planned for 2014.

Georg Kreisler

Anyone who is a fan of Tom Lehrer will probably be astonished to learn about Georg Kreisler (1922-2011). Kreisler was a Jewish-Austrian who emigrated to America with his parents in 1938 just after Hitler had taken Georg_Kreisler_detailover in Austria. Kreisler began performing macabre, sarcastic songs in a similar vein to Lehrer but by the mid 1950s returned to Austria, continuing the same in German, developing over the years a repertoire of several hundred songs of social and political criticism, ironic, satirical and often quite dark texts. Kreisler coined the term “everblacks” for this type of song. His performances were cabaret style, accompanying himself on piano. In learning about his work, I came across many gems with head-on attacks on the reality of society’s institutions. It is punk protest in a charming, old-school manner, often praising his targets to death. Many of the songs were banned from radio and according to an intro to one of his songs, Austrian state radio was reluctant to play even his apparently harmless songs, as they were afraid he might be saying something they did not understand.

Some examples: “Der Euro” (1996) starts by listing all the historical landmarks of Europe which will soon fade into oblivion, overshadowed by the all-powerful Euro. “Who needs culture when you have the Euro? It can bribe politicians, build banks rising to the stars. It can build McDonalds and military barracks, poets will die for it and the masses will learn to worship it.”

Another song is a chilling psychogram of a sociopathic politician: “Der Politiker.” With each verse he captures some aspect we will recognize in some politician somewhere: “I see homeless freezing under bridges, unemployed who are ashamed before their own children, war refugees, burning villages, and freshly raped women. My one thought in all this: How can I help my party?” Another remarkable song laments the fact that there is a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and also to nearly every class of person, but not a society for the prevention of cruelty to the police: “If a student goes for a walk before parliament / He should desist and cease / Let’s protect the police.” Over and over he decries ad absurdum, “who will protect the police?”

Those songs are just the tip of the iceberg. I ventured a translation of one of Kreisler’s works which struck me as the most bitterly sarcastic song I’d ever heard. As I translated, it terrified me that this is a perfect snapshot of America today. Do I need to give examples? Warning: the language is graphic and racist:

Shoot them Dead
 
If you see a nigger ape –
Shoot him dead!
If your neighbor looks agape –
Shoot him dead!
You don’t have to be ashamed
You will never once be blamed –
Shoot them simply stone cold dead!
 
Turkish, Kurdish, Lebanese, and sometimes white –
Worthless human specimens are a blight
Communists and anarchists and bleeding hearts –
Don’t you lose your sleep at night!
Attorneys and employees and pacifists –
Anyone who still believes that good exists
In the gutter, in the trash!
With a weapon flash!
 
Does someone have prosthetic legs –
Shoot him dead!
Has he joined the reader dregs –
Shoot him dead!
Homeless bums or slacker swine
And the Gypsies first in line
Shoot them simply stone code dead!
 
Don’t come to me with democrats –
Gas them, squash them!
Let them die like traitor rats –
No one wants them!
Father, mother, sisters, brothers, and old friends
There’s something you need them for?
Pastors, teachers, city libruls –
kill and crate them!
All the stupid poet souls –
Eliminate them!
Know one thing: you are strong!
All the rest are wrong!
 
Let’s go to war in foreign places –
Shoot them dead!
Decimate entire races –
Shoot them dead!
When they’re in the cemetery
You will feel so legendary –
So shoot them stone cold dead!
 
Stone cold dead –
Eats no bread
Get them and shoot them dead!

 

Songs like this unmask a harsh reality, make us uncomfortable, and hopefully catalyze us into effective action. Another key song of Kreisler’s “Vorletztes Lied” (Next to Last Song) captures the idea that it is too late to write songs, jokes, words to change the establishment. It is time to do something. That is where we are today.

 

Gustav

 

gustav-hamburg-pudel by robin hinsch

Photo by Robin Hinsch: http://www.robinhinsch.com/

 

Austria, the land that gave us Gustav Mahler and Gustav Meyrink also gives us the lady Gustav. Gustav is the pseudonym under which electronic musician Eva Jantschitsch writes and performs songs that follow on the idea of Kreisler’s “Vorletztes Lied.” Her texts (in both English and German) are determined attempts to slap us out of our stupor before it is too late, and in some cases with the undertone that it already is. Her debut “Rettet die Wale” (Save the Whales) was released late 2004 and became an immediate favorite of mine. The American war against Iraq was in full drive and headlines sometimes took on surrealistic proportions. In 2008 she followed up with “Verlass die Stadt” (Leave the City), but most of her time in the past years has been devoted to theater projects.

The first song on her debut “We Shall Overcome” is a cousin to the civil rights song of the same name. It is about seeing through the superficialities of modern society and breaking the chains of manipulation, to ultimately overcome the repression. It also immediately establishes her style of songwriting. Most of her songs are a challenge to interpret. The texts bombard the listener with the same idea presented in different ways in semi-enigmatic references, for example: “when all the beauty just seems to be wrong”, “we dance to their music”, “we all are invited to their big bingo show.” The advantage: the songs stay up to date and allow listeners to relate the ideas to their own perceptions. Some songs have a strong feminist message: “One Hand Mona” describes the situation of a woman becoming a man’s wife, calling it the same as losing an arm (ceasing to be his equal) – the modern violin accompaniment lends an extreme sense of urgency to the situation. “Mein Bruder” is like a song out of the end times of permanent war, repeating the mantra “my brother was an American patriot, brave, strong, a believer, family man and pilot” alternating it with the details and repercussions of his death in battle.

The loveliest and most fascinating song on the album is “Rettet die Wale” (Save the whales), with sugar sweet vocals and orchestral accompaniment, it sounds like a sister to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” but is instead an aggressive attack on complacency and the idea that by correctly sorting your garbage and using all the politically correct terms you will save the world. Gustav performed in Hamburg several weeks ago and sang it like a long, slow kiss with the audience. The final suggestion, take each other by the hand and make love every day, has the implication that maybe all we have left to make this world a better place is to reach out to one another on an individual level.

Her concert at Hamburg’s Golden Pudel Club was also the occasion for me to learn about her newer songs including a lullaby about the riders of the apocalypse and the amazing “Soldatin oder Veteran.” It is classic Gustav, asking the question: are you a good soldier, or a veteran of that belief? Are you a conformist or a fighter? The idea is presented again and again in diverse variations: when you dream are you someone who resists? It’s the kind of song that makes you want to open a club, just to play it – because it rocks that much.

Gustav has received positive reviews for rescuing the genre of protest songs, but her songs are not exactly protests. They are not songs to sing at the demonstrations but rather to get us there. In a sense we are living in Metropolis and Gustav is Maria, calling us into action.

Gustav’s Website: http://gustav.me/

———–

Maybe contemporary events are so far along now that we can only despair. I hope not, but to paraphrase Georg Kreisler, the time for writing songs has long passed. It is time for action. Gustav’s music is a wakeup call to all those who have missed that message. The film Decoder shows us the prerequisite for change. We need to fully understand what is going on in the world in order to correct it. So what do we do now? Something, I hope.

 ———–

About the reviewer:

Fred Roberts, contributing Music Editor.  A native of Cincinnati living in Germany since 1987, Fred enjoys subverting the arbitrary commercial process in which great works often go unrecognized.  He is creator and designer of Elbot.com, an award-winning AI system. His interests include literature, film, photography and discovering all the well-kept secrets Europe has to offer. You can read more about him in About Us.

Email: indeterminacy@gmail.com

November 2, 2013   Comments Off on Fred Roberts – World Out of Control

Nocturnes/Virginia Fabbri Butera

Left Bank at Night

LEFT BANK AT NIGHT, by George Garbeck 

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Capturing the Night:

The Nocturnes Exhibition

at the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery

By Dr. Virginia Fabbri Butera

What is a nocturne? The word, deriving from the feminine Latin noun, nox, noctis, meaning night, comes from the Latin adjective, nocturnus (notturno in Italian, nocturne in French, and nocturnal in English). A nocturne has antecedents in medieval prayer and music as well as eighteenth century pieces composed for evening concerts. The nineteenth century nocturne was further defined by Irish composer John Field who developed a special structural format which was then embraced and made famous by the Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin.[i] Chopin wrote twenty-one nocturnes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V60USaluxGA) which were often inspired by poetry and painting.[ii] His Romantic pieces conjure up dreamy, haunting compositions evoking nighttime, magic, desire, danger and more. Chopin’s success with the form and concept of the “nocturne” encouraged many subsequent composers to explore the possibilities of this musical form.

Since the early 1300s, many western artists including Giotto, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Joseph Wright of Derby, Goya, Whistler, van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe, to name a few,  have created nighttime scenes that employed metaphorical concepts of “night” to construct religious, scientific, political, social and abstract dramas.[iii] To investigate current night images, I have selected paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and mixed media works by nineteen New Jersey and New York contemporary artists for an exhibition entitled Nocturnes, on view June 18 – September 22, 2013, at the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery which I direct at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ.[iv] These recent pieces sometimes acknowledge nocturnal themes not just in visual art but also in poetry, plays, dramas, musical compositions, dances and movies, while exploring new approaches to the nocturne concept in keeping with twenty-first century life and culture.

In 2004, Ultra Violet, a contemporary Neo-Pop artist, and formerly an artist’s assistant, muse and friend to Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol and many other well-known artists, reinvigorated religious nighttime drama in her sculpture, Silent Night, Holy Night (fig. 1).[v]  In art, the reference to, or depiction of, light in the midst of darkness became a metaphor for hope, truth and, in Christian imagery, salvation. The events surrounding the birth of Jesus, his life, crucifixion, death and resurrection, are often portrayed in darkness with holy occurrences physically illuminated. Her work is a mixed media, 3-D collage of materials including black fabric, foil, lace, twigs, gold paint and cut-out photographs that projects golden light from its dark background. In a 2004 interview, Ultra Violet reinforced that she views herself as an apocalyptical messenger and that her art is a way to transmit light and understanding.[vi] Her Nativity scene is not a traditional one. To the right of the Holy Family are two queens, rather than kings, in red dresses, bearing gifts. To the left are two other female figures, but it is not clear who they are. A fifth female figure, perhaps representing Ultra Violet herself, once a recording star for Capitol records, is in the bottom center of the scene, holding a guitar. [vii] Thus, across almost seven centuries, the spiritual significance of night as a time for religious revelation endures.[viii]

The symbolic duality of good (light) versus evil (dark or night) has been continuously employed in artistic arenas. But horror and fear are also associated with, and amplified by, the night in a work such as José Rodeiro’s 2001 India-ink on paper sketch, Armies of the Night (fig. 2).[ix] This is a sketch for his larger 9/11 memorial painting which intertwines night, religion, power and conflict and also references Pablo Picasso’s 1937 anti-war masterpiece, Guernica (http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=89&action=show&lang=en ). Rodeiro based his sketch, in part, on lines from  an 1867 poem, Dover Beach, by British poet Matthew Arnold: “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”[x] His image shows a muddled mass of soldiers fighting in the physical, and metaphorical, darkness, prescient scenes of our post-9/11 chaotic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another contemporary artist, Len Merlo, often depicts issues revolving around social injustices.  In his 2009 acrylic and collage on board entitled, Eyes (fig. 3), ocular sockets pierce through the night, staring unflinchingly at us, making sure that we know that they are witnesses to our every move, good or bad. In addition, because of the abstracted sense of place in the image, these may also be malevolent eyes waiting to do us harm.[xi] We have only to think of the actual nighttime killing of Osama Bin Laden and the slightly fictional 2012 film depicting this event, Zero Dark Thirty, to realize that these same themes of right and wrong, war and oppression, religion and power, are more forcefully expressed in various artistic media when intertwined with a nocturnal background and all its dark connotations. One’s positive or negative reaction to “night” can sometimes depend on which side you support.

 

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Nocturnes

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In nineteenth and twentieth century art, shifts to modern subject matters and styles resulted in some images of the night becoming less tied to religious, historical or philosophical scenes and more engaged with impressionistic and even abstract effects. Nineteenth century American painter James Whistler, wanted to visually capture the feel of the Romantic music of Chopin, Claude Debussy and others, and began to title his works in musical terms: “arrangements,” “compositions,” “harmonies,” and “nocturnes.” He increasingly employed loosely painted images, most evident in his nearly abstract 1875 oil on canvas, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/whistlers-nocturne-in-black-and-gold-the-falling-rocket.html).[xii] The image captures the momentary plummeting of fireworks through the dark sky above the Thames River in London where he was living at the time. Whistler’s painting also caused a different kind of combustion. He sued British art critic, John Ruskin, who had written that Whistler’s non-realistic painting was “like a paint pot flung in the eye of the public.”[xiii] Although Whistler technically won the trial, it was a pyrrhic victory, ruining Whistler emotionally and financially. Artistically, however, the painting stands as one of the great nighttime, and abstract, images in western art.

Several contemporary artists employ a freedom of abstract line and space, and play light off against the darkness, in ways that hint at Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold.  In 2005 from high above New York City, night photographer Lynn Saville captured ribbons of light streaming around Columbus Circle (fig. 4).[xiv]  So Yoon Lym has long had a fascination with the eeriness that occurs after dark in suburbia.[xv] In her 2011 acrylic on canvas image, she scattered abstract colors across black space, so that the rounded shapes in Nighttime I (fig. 5) feel like car headlights and taillights searing through the darkness. Stephanie Brody-Lederman’s 2012 abstracted mix of sky, empty landscape, scattered trees and words, and a shining Chinese lantern in Starting Tonight (fig. 6) carries hope and a sense of longing for a family winter homecoming.[xvi] An enduring, if shimmering, quasi-rectangular block creates a startling, haunting contrast to the inky blue-black background in Lisa Pressman’s 2013 oil on board painting, The Light 2 (fig.7).[xvii] Using fluid bent black wood pieces, Betty McGeehan created a movable sculpture, Rock Me (fig.8), 2013, that embodies a cradle/boat shape and the nighttime need to be lulled asleep.[xviii]

In 1889, fourteen years after Whistler painted his Nocturne in Black and Gold, Vincent van Gogh created his incandescent Starry Night (http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79802), undoubtedly the most famous nocturnal painting beloved by our era. With the church spire in the background village as the visual echo to the bold vertical of the cypress tree in the foreground, Starry Night retains a spiritual pairing of religion and nature infused with the beauty of the  night and the celestial symphony of stars spanning the sky. And it was just one of many nocturnal subjects that van Gogh created.[xix] Recent artists have taken their cue from van Gogh in their attempts to capture nature, night and the universe. In his 2013 Shredded Van Gogh (fig. 9), Rob Barth adopts a tongue-in-cheek approach to the iconic work, using a slivered print of Starry Night to make a pulsing star-like collage that functions as a synecdoche of the entire scene.[xx]

Buel Ecker’s 2007 acrylic on paper, Origination (fig. 10) was inspired by the 8th century Japanese marbling technique called suminagashi. [xxi] Her work’s chaotic abstract swirls seem to depict the moments after the Big Bang, 13.82 billion years ago, when light and atomic structures exploded from dark nothingness to the begin our universe.[xxii] In contrast, Susan Holford uses acrylics, lumière paint and gold leaf in Effervescent Atmosphere 2 (fig. 11) to depict her sense of a pre-nocturnal atmosphere filled with invisible energy and particles.[xxiii]  Light coming forth from the darkness receives a scintillating representation from Pasquale Cuppari in his 2013 oil and mixed media painting Nell’Infinito (fig. 12), where thick, glittering masses representing galaxies and stars pulsate from deep space.[xxiv] The macrocosm of space finds its equivalent on earth in the dark and luminous aspects of oceanic storms. Christie Devereaux’s canvases, such as Argento 21 (fig.13), which change color pitch as the viewer moves from left to right to left, simulates another kind of turbulent juxtaposition of light and dark in nature, this time between water, wind, waterfall and darkness. Her work alludes to the Romantic seascapes such as the 1796 oil on canvas, Fishermen at Sea (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-fishermen-at-sea-t01585) by British artist, J. M. W. Turner.[xxv] In works such as Devereaux’s and Turner’s, the night and the ocean are metaphors for potential physical danger in nature as well as the complexity of human   experience. [xxvi]  Nothing could be more different than the whimsy and delight one feels contemplating George Garbeck’s photograph, Fishing by Moonlight (fig. 14).[xxvii] The innocence of the image is in contrast to the iconic German Romantic painting, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, ca. 1825-30, by Caspar David Friedrich (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.51) where childhood has been left behind and the men are now more purposefully mindful of the Sublime in the natural world.

In other night scenes, women are the protagonists. Because the phases of the moon are aligned with female menstruation, moon goddesses are part of ancient Mayan, Native American, Greek, Roman, and other religions, although many cultures also have moon gods.[xxviii] In western art, depicting women at night often implies a subtle allusion to the moon/female connection, intrinsic mysteriousness and constant change. Poor Romeo as he tries to swear by the moon to confirm his love for Juliet. She knows it is a problematic oath as she admonishes, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb, / Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”[xxix] For Romeo and Juliet, the night provides cover for secrets and love. In Homer’s c. 750 B.C. E. poem, The Odyssey, night is a shield for Odysseus to sneak back into his own home after twenty years of wandering in order to kill all the suitors who are trying to win his wife Penelope’s hand in marriage.[xxx] Non-religious contemporary works of women and the night carry more ambiguous meanings, without the love lessons of Shakespeare and Homer. Saville 2009 photograph, A Girl on the Highline (fig. 15), reveals an evanescent figure alone among the tangled urban weeds. She is caught between of the geometry of the old elevated freight train tracks and the surrounding New York City buildings, which recall the abstraction of Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1927 painting, Radiator Building, Night, New York (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/freed/okeeffe/skyscrapers.html).

In her 1990 primitive-style canvas, Woman at the Window (Mujer en la ventana) (fig. 16), Nicaraguan painter Julie Aguirre Cantarero pairs a woman gazing peacefully at the night sky with a waxing moon high above. The woman, inside, is as unknowable as the moon, outside.[xxxi] In 2009, against a dark background, Rodeiro finished a painting of his wife, Nuzcha in Paris (Duende Nutia) (fig. 17), with an alluring, enigmatic gaze while Saville in 2006 captured the back of a woman in a flouncy yellow dress, tucked covertly, almost seductively, into an oddly lit doorway in Number 39 (fig. 18). Maria Mijares reports that her 1988 acrylic on linen, After the Incident in front of La Concha II (fig. 19), documents a personal episodeThe absence of light in the building, the lack of people, the nighttime Spanish beach with nothing out of place, all seems so vacant and eerie.[xxxii] What could have happened here? Civilization in the dark can exude such different moods. It is unconcerned in Mijares’s painting; exudes wonder and magic in Garbeck’s 2006 photograph, Left Bank at Night (fig. 20), which predates Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris; or appears disjointed and remote in the Jersey City view of the New York City skyline as captured by Saville in her 2008 photograph, Pepsi-Cola Sign (fig. 21).

Nuzcha is Rodeiro’s constant muse but his 2012 painting titled Pesadilla (Nightmare) (fig. 22) is more sobering and shows her contemplating the nightmare of the future death of her beloved dog, Cocodrillo. That animals and insects figure in night paintings is not surprising considering the precedent established by the British artist, Joseph Wright of Derby who, eager to confront the eighteenth century  “struggle of science against religious values,” painted three important paintings showing nighttime experiments in physics, astronomy and chemistry.[xxxiii] The fate of a bird in a vacuum machine is the focus of the 1768 physics painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/143). This haunting work shows nine people gathered to observe the outcome of the experiment when the physicist forces the air out of a vacuum chamber also containing a cockatoo.[xxxiv] Darkness in the room, lit only by a candle in a hurricane globe and the full moon shining into the window, increases the drama of the experiment, and the tension of new ideas.

Other contemporary works underscore the excitement and fear of human/animal interaction, and the wildness of both the creatures and the night world they inhabit. Kay Kenny’s 2010 photograph, Coyote & Rag Doll (fig. 23) documents the midnight ramblings of the animals that lurk in and around our neighborhoods.[xxxv]   Barbara Neibart and Joyce Yamada take a more humorous approach to the fauna inhabiting our world and their art. Neibart’s 2011 rhinocerous in Redshift: Cosmological Constant (fig. 24) is drawn realistically from various points of view except for the one that shows the rhino in four red and orange cowgirl boots and a red bow on her head in front of the night sky in the shape of an hourglass.[xxxvi] In 2009 Yamada depicted the African Sisyphus Beetle (fig. 25) shoving a ball of dung down a hill of debris.[xxxvii]   Unbelievably, the beetle’s mundane clean up task is affected by the Milky Way, which apparently the beetles use to navigate in a straight line as they push their burden along.[xxxviii]

There are clearly many actual and metaphoric ways that “night” can be used by artists working in all different media. Two of the most profound nocturnes I have experienced are intricately intertwined. One is the 2010 unfolding poem/notebook/elegy, Nox, by poet and classicist Anne Carson, whose translation of Latin poet Catullus’s Elegy 101 for his dead brother is the springboard for Carson’s collaged notebook and her attempts to qualify, quantify and mourn her own deceased brother.[xxxix] The other is the astonishing 2010 dance, Nox, choreographed by Rashaun Mitchell and performed by Mitchell and his partner Silas Riener, two former Merce Cunningham Dance Company members (fig. 26).[xl]  The dance is based on Carson’s work. At the premiere of the piece at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in July 2010, Carson read her multi-layered sober, probing text while Mitchell and Riener performed the tense, traumatic, and searing dance of physical and metaphorical pain and death (excerpt: http://vimeo.com/31586533).[xli] In the spring of 2011, I invited Mitchell and Riener to perform the piece for a second time in Dolan Performance Hall at the College of Saint Elizabeth as part of my National Endowment for the Arts funded interdisciplinary project, The Phrase in Art. At that performance, a tape of Carson reading Nox was joined by eerie, haunting music composed by Thomas Arsenault and performed by Ablehearts. Using the seating area walls, entrances and exits of the Hall as well as the stage floor and walls, Mitchell and Riener physicalized the concept of emotional trauma, grief and loss in their 53 minute dirge to the ultimate metaphor of night. Mitchell, sometimes in the role of Death, inexorably draws Riener to him. To paraphrase the great poem by Dylan Thomas, Riener, fighting, does not want to succumb, does not want to “go gentle into that good night.” He rages physically “against the dying of the light,” in some of the most profound and excruciating dancing I have ever seen.[xlii] Subsequently presented in 2012 at Danspace in New York City, the site-specific performance, begins very slowly and simply and accelerates physically and psychologically (excerpt: http://vimeo.com/59756447). Mitchell, praised by New York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay as being “the most riveting dancer in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company,” has also been heralded for his choreography, winning a 2012 Bessie Award for Emerging Choreographer for his creation of Nox.[xliii] Mitchell and Riener are two dancers and choreographers to watch as they further interpret the profundities of the human condition.[xliv]

The theme of nocturnes provides a fascinating window on how wide ranging and remarkable a concept can become throughout millennia of culture and artistic expression. Changing circumstances, concerns, styles, techniques and media reveal the differences, but the consideration of all forms of experience within the parameters and meanings of “night” has produced fascinating ideas and objects to remember, and inexorably links the past and the present.

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About the author:

Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D., is the Director of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery, a tenured Professor of Art History, and Chairperson orf the Art and Music Programs at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. She has curated art exhibitions for over thirty-five years and has lectured and published widely.

© Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph. D.


[i] For a brief discussion of the development of the nocturne see,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturne and for a more in-depth discussion see,

http://taruskinchallenge.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/narrative-development-in-chopin%E2%80%99s-nocturnes/. June 6, 2013.

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturnes_(Chopin) May 25, 2013.

[iii] For a quick summary of night paintings in western art, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_in_paintings_(Western_art) May 25, 2013.

[iv]  Please visit our website for location, hours and directions: www.maloneyartgallery.org.

[v] See http://www.ultravioletweb.com/

(Also, http://old.ragazine.cc/2011/08/ultra-violet-superstarinterview/)

[vi] “Light is the matrix of beauty; worlds of grace are lying in wait to be discovered. I celebrate light, be it celestial or electrical. Light equates energy and truth, illuminating understanding and intelligence.” Ultra Violet, “Apocalyptic Angels: A Message of Light from Ultra Violet,” Ultra Violet: Is Christ Politically….Propehetically….Correct?, Jersey City, NJ: New Jersey City University, 2004, 6.

[vii] In the 60s, everyone wanted to be a Renaissance person. You had to do music and you had to have a band, so I did. I recorded two albums for Capitol Records…”Ultra Violet, “Ultra Violet: An Interview with Professor Hugo Bastidas and Dr. José Rodeiro,”Ibid., 11.

[viii]  Italian Gothic painter Taddeo Gaddi’s 1332-38 nighttime frescoes of the Nativity (http://www.artelista.com/prints/scala/big/7/0001407m.jpg) and The Angelic Announcement to the Shepherds  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gaddi_Taddeo_Announcement.jpg) in the Florentine church of Santa Croce, as well as the c. 1304 -1312 Crucifixion  fresco (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_Cruxifixion.jpg) in the Arena Chapel in Padua by Giotto, Gaddi’s teacher and godfather, are among the first images of night in western visual art. In these frescoes, light in conjunction with darkness functions metaphorically to underscore both the joy and the sorrow in the life of Jesus.

[xii] As a collector of Japanese woodblock prints, which were coveted by many European and American artists in the second half of the nineteenth century, Whistler may have been inspired by the 1858 print, Fireworks over Ryogoku Bridge by Ando Hiroshige (http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/176), one of several similar fireworks scenes in Japanese art.

[xiii] For an excellent in depth article about the Whistler painting and the trial between Whistler and Ruskin, see Olive Wilmer, “The Falling Rocket: Ruskin, Whistler and Abstraction in Art,” http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/wilmer4.html .  June 9, 2013.

[xiv]  See, Lynn Saville and Arthur C. Danto, Night Shift, New York: The Monacelli Press, 2009; and  www.lynnsaville.com June 9, 2013[xv]  www.soyoonlym.com June 9, 2013

[xvi] “I make paintings that depict familiar images; trees, stools, roads, rivers, the sky. My paintings have an unschooled quality. This naïvité is employed in the service of creating an immediacy in the work.  There is an interplay of word and image revealing underlying psychological content. Words are edited ruthlessly and are distilled into the form of poetry. The layering of paint in my paintings suggests the passage of time, the piling up of events.  My work is a valentine to the exquisitely complex emotional lives we humans live.” An artist’s statement sent to the author. See also,  http://stephaniebrodylederman.com  June 9, 2013

[xix]  For more information about van Gogh’s night scenes, see information from the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night at http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2008/vangoghnight/flashsite . May 30, 2013

[xx] http://robbarth.com  May 30, 2013

[xxi] Quoted from Buel Ecker’s Artist’s Statement sent to the author. See  http://www.bueleckerartist.blogspot.com  and http://www.artslant.com/global/artists/show/192977-buel-ecker, June 2, 2013.

[xxiii] “For me the metamorphosis of going from daylight, to dusk, and into the nocturnal night has always been infused with beautiful effervescent energy. How does one translate an ephemeral feeling into a visual offering? This pre-nocturnal piece supposes an atmosphere filled with energy and particles – impossible to see, but imagined with clarity and a sense of effervescent frolicking and wonder.” Susan Holford, Artist’s Statement, sent to the author. See also www.susanholford.com, June 2, 2013

[xxiv] For more night images in Cuppari’s work, go to www.pasqualecuppari.com. See also Virginia Fabbri Butera, Pasquale Cuppari: Mondo Bello, Roselle Park, NJ, 2010.

[xxv]  The caption from the Tate Museum site written in July 2010 says, “The first oil painting Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy, this is a moonlit scene in the tradition of Horace Vernet, Philip de Loutherbourg and Joseph Wright of Derby. These painters were largely responsible for fuelling the 18th-century vogue for nocturnal subjects. The sense of the overwhelming power of nature is a key theme of the Sublime. The potency of the moonlight contrasts with the delicate vulnerability of the flickering lantern, emphasizing nature’s power over mankind and the fishermen’s fate in particular. The jagged silhouettes on the left are the treacherous rocks called ‘the Needles’ off the Isle of Wight. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-fishermen-at-sea-t01585. June 7, 2013

[xxvi] José Rodeiro has written an extensive article about Christie Deveraux’s work and its historical precedents. See Dr. José Rodeiro, “Christie Devereaux’s Buoyant “New” Sturm und Drang Seascapes: The Spirit of the Sea,” Ragazine, 8, 4 (July-August 2012 ), http://old.ragazine.cc/2012/06/christie-devereauxs-sturm-und-drang-seascapes-the-spirit-of-the-sea. June 6, 2013. See also www.christiedevereaux.com

[xxvii]  www.georgegarbeck.com June 12, 2013

[xxviii] See http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/polytheisticreligions/tp/MoonGods.htm for which ancient cultures had moon goddesses and which had moon gods.

[xxix] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2. See http://shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/romeo_juliet.2.2.html

[xxx] In works that involve night, conflict and tension are often increased by the presence of light, whether actual or symbolic.  For example, late in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 8th – 7th century B.C.E.), the onset of night is countered by the stoking of the braziers (by the disguised warrior himself) to warm and light Odysseus’s home, then overrun by suitors for his wife Penelope’s hand in marriage. The combination of night and fire, concealment and revelation, spells metaphoric and actual doom for the suitors, liberation for Penelope and victory for Odysseus as he surprises and kills all the hangers-on. See the discussion in Howard W. Clarke, “Fire Imagery in the Odyssey, The Classical Journal, 57, 8 (May 1962), 358-360.

[xxxi]  “Julie Aguirre Cantarero,” Nicaraguan Contemporary Art, Frostburg, MD: Stephanie Ann Roper Gallery, Frostburg State University, 1991, 11.

[xxxviii] To watch actual dung beetles in action, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ulh31E_-u3E. See also a piece on dung beetles and the Milky Way, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgubmKPFBLw&NR=1&feature=endscreen

[xxxix]  See  Meghan O’Rourke, The Unfolding: Anne Carson’s “Nox.”,The New Yorker , July 12, 2010,  http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/07/12/100712crbo_books_orourke

[xli] Alastair Macaulay, “Translating Poetry to the Stage, With or Without Words,” The New York Times, July 21, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/arts/dance/22mitchell.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[xlii]  Hear Dylan Thomas read his poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15377

[xliii] “For his choreographic candor and carefully calibrated work examining grief, spirits, words and movement in NOX; For his advancement of technical virtuosity; and for drawing out powerful and personal expression from his dancers and designers, generously collaborating and giving them the stage, The 2012 Bessie Award for Emerging Choreographer goes to Rashaun Mitchell.” https://www.dancenyc.org/bessies/news.php?id=35

[xliv] To subscribe to their mailing list for upcoming news of performances, write to rashaunsilasdance@gmail.com.

June 29, 2013   Comments Off on Nocturnes/Virginia Fabbri Butera

Art of the Mediterranean/Jose Rodeiro

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map

This material originated on the interactive Ancient Mediterranean Web site
(http://iamclassics.unc.edu). It is being used under the terms of IAM’s fair use policy.
Copyright 1998 Interactive Ancient Mediterranean 

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A  “CLASSICAL ART”  CELEBRATION

AT THE ADVENT OF SUMMER, 2013

An Art Historical Grand Tour of Ancient Mediterranean Cultures

by    Dr. José  Rodeiro, Art Editor
(Christie Devereaux,  photo-documentor/image-researcher)

Usually, during times of affluence, acquisitiveness, and conspicuous consumption, art worlds (and art demimondes) thrive and bloom.  The artistic opulence of the “Golden Age of Pericles,” the “Golden Age of Augustus,” the “High Renaissance,” the “Roaring ‘20s,” and “The 1960s,” all stand as prime examples of prosperous, historically viable, critically laudable, and aesthetically pithy “well-oiled” art worlds.

So it is that in the spring 2013, as employment figures rise, U.S. stock markets rally, and trickles of wealth reemerge in famished pockets, it is gratifying to observe the impending demise of the global bearish economic malaise,  The Great Recession that has oppressed us far too long.  Hopefully  we are seeing the end of a protracted economic winter, and the resurgence of a healthier 21st Century contemporary art scene, one that  is legitimate, that fosters and nurtures deserving and talented artists who come to it armed with true artistic ability.  Thanks to the thaw, this long anticipated possibility seems each day more feasible, profitable, and on the verge of full realization.

Thus, it is a perfect time to suggest a celebratory and well-deserved art pilgrimage (“trekking” throughout late spring into the early summer of 2013) to visit both the Hellenic and Italo-Latin homes of many of the first great art historical cultural resurgences of the ancient Mediterranean world.  In this journey, travelers will examine key examples of Mediterranean visual art in order to discover the Aegean and Archaic roots of Western Classicism, and ascertain how late-Classicism eventually sprouted divergent Hellenistic and Roman artistic vines, buds, and blossoms.  This proposed “Classic” grand tour is the perfect reward for surviving the never-ending War-on-Terror, almost-ending “The Great Recession,” and a host of tenacious deadly mega-storms.

Hence, RAGAZINE’s somewhat optimistic Art Editor proposes another “soul-refreshing” grand tour.   But, this time, going back “further” in time to explore ancient Greece and Rome, searching for the origins of Mediterranean classicism as well as concomitant Periclean and Augustan Golden Age  “High-Classicism,” which has been often identified as the unplumbed anchor of all Western culture by an array of distinguished art historians and cultural-thinkers (i.e., Fr. Johann Joachim Wincklemann, Comte de Volney, Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugenio D’ Ors, Martin Heidegger, Sir Kenneth Clark, John Canaday, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Jacques Derrida and Alasdair MacIntyre).   For example, while lecturing at the Ecole Normale Supérieur, Derrida, observed that Western civilization is preoccupied with determining a “center” as a normative ideal standard or model — a central core concept that furnishes a foundational base replete (“ideally”) with clear parameters (or boundaries) that serve(s) to restrict the amount (or degree) of possible variables, varieties, chance or play in relationship to what Derrida called “total form.”

As a result, Derrida argued that in the West, all philosophical thinking rises from either a confrontation with or against a core tenet (i.e. Western Classicism), or, on the other hand, during “Golden Ages” (“renaissances”), art and thought either return to, or maintain the central “tenet:” Classicism.   In this same vein, in his shocking book, After Virtue (1981), the radical 21st Century Scottish thinker, Alasdair MacIntyre, suggests that classical traditions do more to support morality and ethics than most of the innovative social ideas generated during the 18th Century Enlightenment.  In agreement with McIntyre, concerning Classicism’s intrinsic ethics and morality, is the early 19th Century pundit Count Constantin François de Chassebœuf  (The Comte de Volney), who proclaimed that, “More than any other cultural force, the cult of Classical antiquity is responsible for the American and French Revolutions.”

Hence, the role of “Classicism” and the “Classical Traditions” in art and culture are sturdy guides for modern life and art as Fr. Johann Joachim Wincklemann advocated, seeing in Ancient Greek and Roman art something innately reassuring, noble yet simple,  dignified and righteous.  For Wincklemann, Apollonian Classicism afforded peacefulness, idealism, and control.  In the 20th Century, Sir Kenneth Clark revealed that Classicism and Romanticism in artists of the first-rank always co-exist in degrees.  Thus, renewed or recurrent classicism in the guise of Neo-Classicism is always a salient hallmark of a “Golden Age,” forever providing guiding aesthetic principles during any and all past and future “Renaissances.”  This law of cultural revival is affirmed by such art-thinkers as G. W. F. Hegel, Heinrich Wolfflin, Alois Riegel, as well as  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who in 1941 in his book The Buildings of Englandastutely calculated that,  ‘Every phase in history has its style permeating all its productions, whether of fashion or finance, agriculture or architecture. . . [everything].”

The primary reason(s) justifying our pressing need for another grand-tour of Western art is found in the December 2012 issue of RAGAZINE, which furnished an illuminating article delineating rare art historical insights into the bold, inspired religio-artistic endeavors that marked the Hiberno-Saxon (“Celtic”) Renovatio of the 7th Century that nurtured The Frankish Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th Century.   In that article (titled “The Gift of Art History”), RAGAZINE readers were treated to a grand-tour traversing Christendom from the British Isles to Rome and back again, visiting key locations, monuments, and artifacts directly associated with Western Europe’s triumph over the murky and barbaric forces of The Dark Ages, http://old.ragazine.cc/2012/12/a-gift-of-art-history/ .   This winter 2012-2013 article was designed to reassure readers that civilization has often valiantly confronted chaotic and barbaric epochs (as in the first decade of this century), and by means of art, ingenuity, resilience and hard work, an unexpected revitalization and path forward  miraculously emerged. Beat Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1958 described this “happening” in his prophetic poem “I Am Waiting” (from A Coney Island of the Mind),  as “a rebirth of wonder”:

“… I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder … ”

No place on earth is more closely identified with an historical rebirth of wonder than the Classical Mediterranean world of Greece and Rome, commencing with the Cycladic Islands: Milos, Delos, Naxos, Paros, Santorini (Thera) and Amorgos, each of which divulges archaeological evidence of an ancient matriarchy via scores of abstract sculptures of lithe and slender triangular-headed women.

These Cycladic marble female funerary figurines are among the most abstract and jose1startling images in western art, suggesting a possible primordial matriarchal culture that flourished throughout the Aegean Islands, between 2500 -1100 BCE. These statues of gaunt women, ranging in size from a few inches to three feet, are always found in burial sites, in which women (“priestess-queens”) were buried.  Please note that male burials are rare, as are male Cycladic images, (although a few marble male musician figurines have been unearthed).  The fact that men were not deemed worthy of burial implies a different societal structure.  All of this is in accord with Robert Graves’s assessments (in The Greek Myths), which were based on his interpretation of ancient Greek texts and legends. Graves concluded that, with the exception of Crete and its colonies, powerful women ruled the Islands of the Aegean (both the Sporadic Islands and Cycladic Islands) around the third millennium BCE, before the arrival of the Bronze Age.  Hence, with both Graves and Homer as guides, a trip to the Peloponnese to visit Mycenae is essential, followed by an “odyssey” to Crete.

Ordinarily, ancient Greek texts allude to Greek Bronze Age cultural events and jose2personalities. These ancient authors convey historical information, which has valuable archaeological portent as proven by Heinrich Schliemann’s use of Homer’s epics to unearth Troy and Mycenae, in the 1870s and 1880s.  In fact, a similar close reading of ancient epics and plays led to Christos Stamatakis’s discovery in 1878 of the Treasury of Atreus (1300 – 1200 BCE) just a few yards beyond Mycenea’s cyclopean walls. This marvelous find was the so-called “Tomb of Atreus,” which is very similar architecturally to the 3000 BCE Newgrange mound at Meath, Ireland.   Both are early attempts at dome-making. jose3Yet, Stamatakis’s Mycenaean royal tomb was probably not that of King Atreus, because the carbon-dates fall short of Atreus’s chronology. A significant text on this type of archaeological scholarship is Emily Vermeule’s Myth and Tradition from Mycenae to Homer, Studies in the History of Art # 32 (1991), 98 – 121.

But close-reading of old epics and mythological legends are not the only useful methods for attaining clues about ancient art history. For example, specific ceramic styles have jose4been used in Aegean art history to determine precise time periods. Usually, these clay objects derive from cemeteries, which help determine exact dates.   Among the finest examples are Kamares Ware from the Middle Minoan II Period, e,g., the famous “Old Palace” bird-beaked clay jug, decorated with abstract images of aquatic fauna and open-shell crustaceans (1850 – 1700 BCE), using blackish red-brown and yellowish-gold pigments. Its unique blackish-red button-like eye distinguishes this piece, which is almost a foot high.

The swelling shape of the jug’s form animates its bird-like features. Minoan vessels of this type are found in great number in and around the “old palaces” of Phaestos and Knossos. But, chiefly such ornate water-jugs are found far away from the Mediterranean Sea, on Mount Ida in the exact center of Crete, within the Kamaras Grotto, which was used for the sacred burial of Minoan royalty. Thus, the pots were used as part of Minoan funerary practices and rituals. Ida was the highest point on the island, and was deemed a divine mountain: the realm of the early Cretan gods.  Fearing drowning even after death, the Minoans favored “on-land” burial, accounting for their selection of Mount Ida’s high-ground for royal-interment.

More than any other ancient imagery with the exception of Indian art, Minoan art always displays energetic vigor and vitality.  By way of illustration, consider the famous Toreador Fresco c. 1500 BCE, from the Palace of Knossos, Crete, which despite its small size 24 ½ inches in height exudes enthusiastic élan.  Even though, the work was undoubtedly retouched by the heavy-hand of Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th Century, there is still something of zestful liveliness in its “animation.”  The scene depicts the central court of Knossos, where acrobatic taurokathapsia (“bull-jumping”) is taking place. This event functioned as a coming of age ritual in which youthful aristocratic debutantes (bull leapers) of both sexes danced almost naked with precarious Cretan bulls, before a vast Cretan audience, including the leaper’s proud parents and friends, who anxiously watched the daring spectacle.

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After the Dorian invasion as well as the chaos of the Sea Peoples’ marauding, the dismal  Doric Dark Age of the 9th and 8th Century produce peculiar and eerie primitive abstract Geometric Art.  Luckily, for Greece, a luxuriant Orientalizing Phase arrived with the influx of the adroit and imaginative Ionian (“Aryan”) invaders who soon developed two significant proto-Classical styles: the Archaic, which by 500 BCE evolved into the Severe Style — the true artistic forerunner of the Classical

During the Archaic period from c.800-500 BCE, rigid free-standing stone sculptures appear depicting specific male personages, who, by means of these (approximately six-foot-tall) austere stone-sculptures were being venerated and memorialized.  The nude male sculpture is known as a kourus or plural kouroi (meaning “youths”) and female sculptures are called kore or plural korai (meaning “maidens).  These statues are directly influenced by Egyptian Old Kingdom standing sculptures.  Within Attican graveyards (i.e., Keratea, Anavysos, Dipylon, etc.), both male and female statues were placed on pedestals.  Nude male sculptures had one-foot striding forward in the Egyptian manner.  These works were used to commemorate as well as mark the location of a deceased person’s exact burial spot, which the statue obliquely, mystically, personified.  Archaic sculpted women are always fully dressed in a peplos and inert, not striding, but also identify burial locations of specific women, or were used inside temples devoted to a specific goddess as representations of that particular deity. Some statues indicated the entrance to a temple or a tomb.  Most importantly, Archaic sculptures’ facial features have many characteristics that evolve into typical Classical visages of human beauty, including the famous thought-provoking Archaic smile, almond shaped eyes, bridgeless “Apollonian” noses, high cheekbones, and other marks of alluring and exceptional Classic facial beauty.  Also, the stone sculptures were brightly polychromed; but, over time, rain and weather erased the color.  Hence, at night under moonlight and starlight, these stiff cold statues standing silent in cemeteries looked like ghosts.

The High Classical style is best exemplified by the Parthenon on the Acropolis, Athens, which stands as one of the greatest monuments of Greek art.  Built using marble from jose6nearby Mount Pentelicus under the careful supervision of the sculptor Pheidias, as well as the architect Iktinos of Elis and the engineer Kallikrates.  It was constructed during the Golden Age of Pericles in 448-432 BCE.  However, Pheidias did not use Pentelic marble on the sculptures; because (with the exception of  the enormous gold and ivory cult statue of the goddess Athena), he and his workshop’s extensive sculptural decorations were carved using Parinian marble from the Cycladic Island of Paros.  After the structure was complete, the sculptures were placed on the building; and then, each sculpture was realistically painted.  This polychroming include the figures on both pediments, the metope reliefs, the Ionic inner frieze, and most importantly (also hued in tempera) the gigantic gold and ivory cult statue of the Virgin Goddess Athena (Goddess of Wisdom), from which the building gets its name: “parthenos,” meaning “virgin.”

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Oddly enough, the building was not a “temple,” because it lacked an altar and priestesses. Rather, it was intended as a unique quasi-religious warehouse. The building was designed to function as a treasure house (bank). It contained vast assortments of precious objects; each item was inventoried on marble steles that identified wealthy individuals, who kept their treasures in ornamented crate-like deposit boxes, within and behind the large cult statue and along the walls of the inner cella.  The cult statue, covered in sheets of gold and ivory with inlaid precious stones as ornaments, itself was the most valuable object in the “temple.” But, it was not the most sacred venerated object on the Acropolis. That honor fell to the ancient wooden statue of Athena that had fallen from heaven, and the ancient sacred tree.  These two highly esteemed objects were maintained by priests of the nearby Erechtheion Temple, which was designed by the architect Mnesikles (430 – 405 BCE).

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ANCIENT AEGEAN ART

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The Parthenon does not have a single straight line; from every angle it either curves or tapers. These unusual linear adjustments were designed throughout the building by Iktinos in order to fool the eye of on-lookers, into seeing the building from a distance as something perfectly squared — at exact right angles. He did these calculated distortions of perception, because he desired something idealized; Iktinos did not trust the false illusion of ocular perspective. In this, he was like the classical sculptors, who attempted anatomical idealization. In certain ways, regarding the falsity of perception, Iktinos is similar to Plato.  For example, in Book 3 and Book 10 of The Republic, Plato was generally suspicious of all forms of mimetic art, distrusting human sensory empiricism, believing that mathematics afforded greater awareness of “pure (ideal) forms,” which alone, for him, were categorically “truly” real in his mind’s eye. But, despite Iktinos’s tricks, Plato would have questioned the reality of anything that was merely physical, including an architectural structure like the Parthenon.

The theme of most of the decorations is either, 1) the struggle between Poseidon and Athena over the control of the Acropolis, or 2) zealous pro-Pericles propaganda.   This war between the gods is illustrated in the west pediment and in the “Battle between Lapiths and Centaurs” on the metopes.  The other key theme is the “Greater Panathenea Festival,” (although it was an ancient rite), in the 5th Century BCE it took on a new meaning, celebrating the 479 BCE victory of Athens over the Persians, at Salamis. The Athenians claimed divine intervention as the cause of their victory and offered homage, in the form of a ritual processions to dress the wooden cult statue of Athena in the Erechtheion Temple with a new peplos (every four years).  This quadrennial parade is depicted on the Ionic frieze, within the Parthenon’s portico. While the east pediment’s “Birth of Athena,” correlates to the fact that the festival was held on her birthday (July 28), occurring precisely one month after the summer solstice (June 28).   Significantly, July 28 was the original date of the Attic “New Year” as well as the date of Athena’s birth —  when she popped-out, fully armored, from her father Zeus’s head, after it was cracked open by her stepbrother Hephaistos’s hammer.

The giant cult statue also played a role during the 28 day mid-summer thanksgiving festivities  (a divine birthday party), when precious gifts were given to the colossal effigy of the goddess.  Pericles added musical contests in 446 BCE in the Odeum theater, that he built for these Panatheneaic concerts. Sporting events also were a traditional part of the extensive celebrations. The 2nd Century Greek author of tour-guides for Roman tourists, Pausanius provides the best descriptions of ancient Greek architectural sights and monuments, since he visited them before their ruin. The Parthenon was destroyed in the 17th Century CE, during a Venetian bombardment of the then Turkish controlled Acropolis. During the earlier Byzantine Period, the cult statue had been taken to Constantinople, where it accidentally perished in a fire.

 

The Greek artistic ideals were not restricted merely to architecture; sculpture also was a vehicle for ingenuity and integrity. The sublime 4th Century BCE sculptures of jose8Praxiteles set a high standard for ideal beauty in art.  His greatest masterpiece, Hermes and the Infant Dionysus was found in 1875 amidst the collapsed rubble of the Temple of Hera, Olympia.  In this dazzling work, Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, carries the newly born god Dionysus (God of Lust, Concupiscence, Orgies, Fertility, Wine, Chaos, Drugs, Beer, etc.) to his aunt and adopted mother Demeter (Goddess of Nature, and sister of Zeus). Hermes is conveying the baby to her, because Demeter has been asked by Zeus to raise his new son Dionysus. The child had recently popped out of Zeus’s inner thigh.  This immaculate birth (i.e., similar to the birth of the goddess Athena) is actually a reincarnation as a god of Dionysus’s human mother Semele.According to Graves, the myth goes something like this: Semele, a mortal princess, had fallen in love with Zeus while he was disguised as a mere mortal (in order to seduce her). Recklessly, Semele desired to love him fully and completely.   But, his spouse, the divine Hera (“Olympia”) discovered their adulterous love and was determined to end it. Therefore, Semele was cleverly fooled by Zeus’s jealous wife/sister Hera (Queen of Heaven) into asking Zeus to reveal his full divinity when next they made love.

Knowing this would kill the mortal Semele, the divine Hera convinced the foolish girl to request Zeus’s unqualified omnipotence at their next tryst.  Thus, through Hera’s bad council, Semele was obliterated, eliminating her as a rival for Zeus’s affections.  Semele, having been incinerated during this sexual encounter with the supreme god Zeus, managed to impregnate the god; when in grief, he had torn open his flesh at the thigh with a golden knife and placed her ashes within as his tears fell on them, then sewing the wound shut with golden thread.  Nine months later, a baby was born. In order to protect the child from Hera, Hermes was asked to wisp the infant away to live with his Aunt Demeter.

Another version (in myths, there are always several versions) claims that Semele’s human daughter Ino was the indentured recipient of child Dionysus. In this reading, this older sister of Dionysus raised the baby until she died.  Then Hermes again was sent by Zeus to transport the child to be nurtured by nymphs on Mount Nysa, who taught him to prefer exaggerated extremes and chaos.  In another versions of the myth, the child was given to the Hyades of Dodoma (the goddesses of rain and moisture), who brought up the child hidden in a cave for fear of Hera, whose vindictive jealousy was insatiable.  It is interesting (and ironic) to think that this stunning sculpture about Semele’s divine son was found buried beneath the Temple of Hera, which was demolished by an earthquake that sadly devastated Olympia, Greece.

On a cosmic-scale, Dionysus, as well as other related Olympians (Demeter, Persephone, and Apollo) served the religious needs of ancient Greek society, by revealing life’s perpetual struggles between contrary forces: good/evil, life/death, joy/suffering, etc.  Through their conspicuous roles in highly anticipated calendar feasts, Dionysus and other gods and goddesses offered ancient Greeks constant divine fortitude for solving intricate cosmic conflicts.  By their supernatural actions and use of certain hallucinogens, foods, fruits and drinks, Dionysus, Demeter, Persephone and Apollo and others supported and maintained human sustenance, political and religious order, as well as a host of essential requirements throughout the universe. For the Greeks, the gods realized their cosmic responsibilities by differentiating their duties, e.g., cultivating Demeter, spring-bringing Persephone, brilliant Apollo, as well as chaotic Dionysus. And this same designation of cosmic tasks can be applied to other Olympian gods and goddesses.  Greek cultures established specific ritual events that required the sacramental use of certain libations and foods, such as, the use of ambrosial drugs within Dionysian festivals at Delphi and at Athens, as well as their relationship to mysterious and enigmatic mysteries and rituals of Eleusis, associated with the goddess Demeter.

As the divine embodiment of certain hallucinogens, foods, and drinks, Dionysus played either a small ‘indirect’ role or a major ‘direct’ role within several Ancient Greek calendar celebrations.  He is central to the autumnal New Year “Ambrosia” at Delphi and he appears in the ‘mystery’ festivals of at Eleusis (a sacred observance of ‘preparations for spring’ conducted in September), and in Athens, he is paramount in the spring “Greater Dionysia” (Whitney 14).   At places like Delphi, ancient Greeks revitalized and preserved life through drug-based rituals that were fundamental to Dionysian worship (Schultes and Hofmann 88), which required the use of certain hallucinogens, foods, and drinks, which helped to spark an awakening awareness of crucial psycho-binaries or psychic-dualism(s), as well as nurturing other sublime or deep insights about the nature of existence, which permeated Greek life, as well as their art (particularly music and theatre).

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PRE-CLASSICAL & CLASSICAL ART

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The first clue into the nature of post-Ionian Archaic Greek cultural aspirations  (according to Robert Graves) is revealed in the frenzied sexuality of the maenads, wood nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, and other followers of Dionysus, who consistently used various Mediterranean magic mushrooms, as well as psychoactive plants like belladonna, and aphrodisiacal mandrake root, as well as fermented libations (wine, beer, ivy-ale, etc.) (Schultes and Hofmann 86 – 89).  The maenads within the orgiastic cult of Dionysus, who ran wild through Delphic and Attic forests with dilated flashing eyes flinging themselves upon men, animals, children, plants and trees in order to ravish them, tearing them apart and then eating them.  The maenads were under the influence of wine adulterated by belladonna juice (deadly nightshade) (88).  In Euripides’s The Bacchae (or The Bacchants), the 5th Century BCE dramatist examines in detail this bizarre and berserk maenadical  rampage as something not out of the ordinary as a Dionysian inspired bucolic female phenomena in post-Ionian Greece.   This play inspired Friedrich Nietzsche to dig deeper hunting for the roots of Western art.  However, the validity of Nietzsche’s numerous Pre-Classical suppositions and assumptions are often dismissed or questioned by 21st Century academics, who “thoughtlessly” favor facts over imagination.

Nevertheless, in the Birth of Tragedy (1888), Nietzsche draws our attention to unique binary phenomena, which he calls the “Dionysian” and the “Apollonian” (20).  Nietzsche offers that in the persona of the great god Dionysus (god of drugs, mushrooms, wine, beer, ivy, and other intoxicants), ancient Greeks devised a “wild” supernatural agent that they relied upon to enhance the quality and energy of their lives, needs, and desires.  Dionysus along with his drugs, and other edibles played the ‘resurrected-god’ role at Delphi in autumn, performing prominent ‘spring-duties’ in Athens, as well as being associated with autumnal regenerative spring-rites at Eluesis.

From its archaic inception c. 600 BCE, Greek theatre derived from rural comic satyr plays, a form of proto-theater, which consisted of repetitious parodies of feral interactions between satyrs and maenads (Hamilton 57) mimicking their wine-induced as well as drug-induced sexual pursuits, romps, and games.  These proto-plays were acted-out, cavorted, or executed as dithyrambic choral-dances were performed around a thumele (an altar) of Dionysus in the center of an orchestra (“a place for dancing”) (Nietzsche 62).  Young male actors played the gambol-roles of both the maenads and satyrs.

Since this dance commemorating Dionysus took place around an altar upon which a goat was sacrificed, correspondingly the chorus was called the goat-singers (“tragos khoros), and their ritualistic song was called the goatsong  (τραγούδι)  tragudi.   Hence, the Greek word “goat” tragos is the source of the word “tragedy” (Shanker 298), as kṓmē (meaning rural-village) is the source of the word “comedy.”   In ancient Greek, the term tragedy originally meant “he-goat song.”  Usually, this “he-goat concert”  was performed before an audience that sat on an accommodating graduated slope of a hill (a theatron – “a seeing-place”), overlooking the assembled narcissistic, histrionic, and  exhibitionistic romping of ritual-revelers chanting and dancing in the orchestra  (Sir Paul Harvey The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 1946 – 422).  In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche suggests that repetitive dithyrambic choral-dances emulated the sounds of natural phenomena (62) and were used to excite the spectators into states of frenzied rapture just before the hero Dionysus would abruptly enter the swelling scene (66) to usher in the feverishly exciting komos: the wild, hysterical orgiastic “carousing” and “reveling” that culminated the goat-play’s final “orgasmic” climactic moment.

An important part of this euphoric and divine komos “earthly” cosmology is the Ionian Aryan religio-cultural connection between two indistinguishable “god-men:” Dionysus and the Hindu divinity Krishna.  The links between Dionysus and Krishna are essential to understanding the Greek world, the Roman world, and Western Civilization.  In his book Ploughing the Clouds, Peter Lamborn Wilson discovers similarities between secret ritualized European “Soma” ceremonies and those described in the ancient Rig Veda (1500 BC), demonstrating how Greek Ionian Indo-Europeans represent a continuation of Hindu-Aryan psychedelic (or “entheogenic”) shamanic practices.

Satyrs were uniquely identified with the worship of Dionysus, which demanded ecstatic sexual revelry, accompanied by wine, beer, ivy-ale, leaves of the atropa-belladonna plant (“deadly-nightshade”), henbane seeds, and the mildly hallucinogenic dung-mushroom (panaolus papilionaceus) as well as a powerful hallucinogen — the Mediterranean magic-mushroom (amanita muscaria) (Graves Greek Myths volume 1, 9).  Graves includes amanita muscaria in the recipe for Delphic ambrosia in the essay “What Food the Centaurs Ate?” (Graves Steps. 319-343).

This mushroom, named amanita muscaria – popularly ‘fly agaric’ – has now been proven by Gordon Wasson’s detailed examination of the Vedic hymns (written in Sanskrit about the time of the Trojan War), to have been the Food of the Gods.  It is there named ‘Soma’. That it is also ‘Ambrosia’ and ‘Nectar’ (both these words mean “immortal”) which were famous as the food and drink of the Greek Olympian gods.” (Graves. Difficult Questions 96)

Yet, Nietzsche argues that the frenzied ultra-natural frolicking of satyrs and maenads was artistically systematized and stylized in comens (rural areas) into nascent forms of proto-theater, which in time evolved into ‘Tragedy’ (Walter Kaufmann’s Introduction to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy 11-17).  These satyr-rituals also developed into theological and liturgical komos (orgies) that marked the autumnal new year (the “Ambrosia Festival”) at Delphi, and then later shepherded in spring in Athens during the “Greater Dionysia” (Campbell 183-184).   So great was Dionysus’s identification with spring that at Eleusis, he was associated via his aunt Demeter and half-sister/cousin Persephone with the Eleusinian Mysteries (Graves 105).  Since, drops of his sacred blood generated pomegranate fruits, which were sacramentally used in the early-September duo harvest festivals and ‘hope-for-spring’ ceremonies known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. (Campbell 58-59).  Of course, the deepest insights into these rituals were provided by Károly Kerényi in his seminal book on the subject: Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter (1962).

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ETRUSCAN & ROMAN ART

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In harmony with Nietzsche’s ideas on the emergence of archaic theatre, as an inherent part of Ionian Pantheistic religion, ancient Greeks preserved the dichotomous nature of their gods and their myths: proffering key binaries: life/death, day/night, light/dark/ order/chaos, good/evil, etc., which identified dual spiritual predisposition(s) within Grecian theology, society, art and culture.  For example, the cosmic juxtaposition at Delphi and Athens of the calm, logical, and perfect Apollo (god of Beauty, Poetry, Divine Inspiration (Illumination), Radiance and the Sun) and his half-brother, the inebriated, illogical, and chaotic Dionysus (god of Lustful Sex, Drugs, Wine, Beer, Orgies and Folly) (Campbell 183-184).

Nowhere is this duality between Dionysian madness and Apollonian sanity more evident than at Delphi, where both Apollo and Dionysus were worshiped (Easterling and Muir 135), for Dionysus’ tomb was allegedly beneath Apollo’s adyton inside the Great Temple of Apollo at Delphi (135).  In the Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer describes that, “ The body of Dionysus was buried at Delphi beside the golden statue of Apollo and his tomb bore the inscription, ‘Here lies Dionysus dead, the son of Semele’”(Frazer 274).  Hence, both gods were closely associated with each other.  For example, each fall near the sacred precinct of Apollo at Delphi on Mount Parnassus’s plateau of Mamaria (95), thousands of pilgrim-worshipers marked the ancient Greek new year’s celebration (“Ambrosia Festival”) of Dionysus, during the months when Apollo abandoned Delphi (each October and November) either pushed out by Dionysus, or voluntarily leaving to visit the Hyperborean Titans.  Overcome by the excitement of the fall new year festival, even the Oracle of Delphi temporarily switched her allegiance, during this Delphic celebration commemorating Dionysus’s death by dismemberment at the hands of the Titans (under Hera’s orders).

Dionysus died shedding his blood for mankind, which sprouted into the first pomegranate fruits (Graves Greek Myths. Volume 1 103-4).  Then Dionysus was revitalized/rejoined through the intersession of his grandmother Rhea, who once again hid him with his aunt Demeter and cousin Persephone, making them Dionysus’s protectors from the wrath of Hera.   Because he had been gravely weakened by his death, suffering from amnesia, Demeter and Persephone re-taught him agriculture and (as a tribute to his courage in relearning all that he had lost) the goddesses adopted the pomegranate as their sacred symbolic-fruit.

After regaining his agricultural skills, Dionysus used his re-acquired abilities to create plants and mushrooms that provided greater awareness.  Wine-production and beer-making are rural activities, which were first taught by Dionysus to Greek satyr-totem peoples and centaur-totem people according to Robert Graves (Greek Myths 9).  In gratitude, the rural (comen) cultures invented performances to entertain their divine benefactor.  Dionysus then enhanced their rural primitive efforts, perfecting the satyr plays by expanding the farmer’s awareness through drugs and other inebriants.  Soon this primal theatrical invention of comedy turned into drama; and then when it reached the great urban centers, it slowly grew as an art form, eventually becoming a high art.  Nowhere was this elevated level of artistic excellence more glorious than in Athens, particularly during the Greater Dionysia.

The Greater Dionysia was an urban festival held in Athens for a week during the ancient Greek month of Elaphebolion (late March to early April). It included a parade and contests for the best theatrical performances. Along with Athenian citizens crowding the parade route and the theatres, this religious festival attracted countless pilgrims from both Attica and other Hellenic regions who gathered to watch the Dionysiac parade from Lenaeon to the Acropolis.  The city of Athens would be splendidly festooned using decorations of Ionion white and gold.  This festival was used to mark the advent of spring, where Dionysus the god of fertility, wine, beer, lust, drugs (the amanita muscaria mushroom) and chaos would be worshipped as the liberator of life from the bondage of winter.

Only the priest and priestesses were permitted to savor ambrosia.  Revelers including priests, priestesses and other devotees of the Dionysian mysteries disguised themselves as his pastoral entourage playing the roles of salacious maenads, satyrs, and other inebriated woodland folk as they marched in a celebratory procession carrying a wooden polychrome statue of the god Dionysus from his official temple within the Athenian suburb of Lenaeon to his small temple-shrine on the Athenian Acropolis.  During the procession and especially in the performances, males took on the guise of both satyrs and maenads, as well as performing both male-roles and female-roles in plays.

All along the parade route garlands of spring flowers would be thrown before the god’s statue, while spectators and revelers (primarily priests and priestesses of his cult) would imbibe liberal amounts of wine, ivy ale, beer, and ambrosia (containing ground amanita muscaria and other ingredients). Various choruses of young boys marched singing dithyrambs, while musical bands played joyful tunes.  The procession ended at the small shrine of Dionysus on the Acropolis where the statue would be temporarily enshrined for six days.

After the annual ritual consecration of the statue, the glory of the festival would begin on the southern slopes of the Acropolis both at the Odeum Theatre and the Dionysian Theatre (Whitney 13-17). The new tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays would take place with lavish expenditure, on three consecutive days. At the end of the event, a board of judges would award prizes for the best plays in their respective categories as well as government officials awarding public honors to deserving politicians and citizens who had done great service to the state (14).  These public awards were done at this time in order to take advantage of the enormous crowds who had gathered to see the plays. At the end of the festival, a torchlight parade returned the wooden cult-statue to its home in the Temple of Lenaeon (Campbell 241 and 324).

Before the festival, play rehearsals, theatrical set buildings for the plays and other preparations for both processions and all theatrical events, filled Athens with the energy of spring (Michael Cacoyannis introduction to Euripides’ The Bacchae vii – ix). But, the fact that merely small handful of  plays by great playwrights survived antiquity – (i.e., Aeschylus (525-456 BC), Sophocles (c. 497-405 BC), Euripides (c. 485-406 BC), and Aristophanes (c. 448-385 BC) – nevertheless, what has survived (for the most part) results from “The Greater Dionysia,” which makes this “racy” feast worthy of recognition today by anyone who has ever been touched by any comedy or tragedy.   Thus, we owe a great debt of gratitude to this wild Athenian festival: “The Greater Dionysia.”

Demeter raised her nephew Dionysus, and twice trained him in the arts of agriculture (first as a child and again after his Titanic assassination. As the goddess of grains (e.g., millet, wheat, rye and corn, etc.), Demeter knew that the ergot-fungus that fed as a parasite on grains was capable of engendering potent hallucinations. In this light, David Stuart claims that these nascent forms of ergot-based LSD were provided during secret sacramental Eleusinian communions invoking the Goddess (187).    Dionysus also participated at the autumnal harvest-festival/”hope-of-spring” rites at Eluesis, since drops of his sacrificial blood generated the red pomegranate fruit.  It is significant that the enigmatic secret nature of Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece also derived from the fact that “red-colored” foods were generally considered taboo (Frazer 205-207).  Greek laws forbade public consumption of all red-juicy foods.  Red foods were associated with divine sanctions against drinking human blood and other forms of cannibalism, which had purportedly dominated primeval  Greece, especially throughout ancient matriarchal island-cultures on the Sporades and Cyclades archipelagos, although long after the Dorian invasion, King Tantalus, the maenads, the Minotaur, and others continued to consume human flesh.

Beyond their Dionysian origins, throughout the ancient Mediterranean, pomegranates are identified as sacred feminine symbols, which are associated with several goddesses of agriculture, from the pomegranate’s namesake Pomona (Roman Goddess of Fruits and Fruit Trees) (Bulfinch 77) to Demeter (Greek Goddess of Nature, Vegetation, and Fecundity) (Mikalson 118 119).  As a preparation for ‘Spring’ in ‘Fall,’ Demeter’s nocturnal Eleusinian Mysteries provided two enigmatic mystic September festivals, involving an annual cyclical Chthonic “capture” and Earthly “release” of Demeter’s, beloved daughter Persephone. (Baring and Cashford 69-76).  These rituals were performed in late summer and early-fall as harvest-home ceremonies guaranteeing the eventual return of spring (in seven months), as well as ensuring next-year’s plentiful harvest.  These mysteries secured nature’s future bounty and abundance (Mikalson 195 – 196).

During these two ‘dark’ Eleusinian ceremonies, pomegranates, cherries, and water were used as religious symbols, connoting Persephone’s winter rape, as well as her Chthonic subjugation by her uncle Hades and then her joyous spring reunion with her mother Demeter, who arranged Persephone’s ‘liberty’ (Baring and Cashford 374-385).   Since, Persephone was fathered by Zeus (the supreme Olympian god) (42-43), Demeter was able to negotiate with Zeus for their daughter’s annual temporary (spring-to-fall) freedom from the Underworld, by convincing Zeus to restrict Hades’s sexual access to their daughter, confining her only in the Underworld in winter (Mikalson 192-193).  In this light, pomegranates and cherries conceivably symbolize Persephone’s maidenhead and are emblematic of her tragic demise into cosmic sexual-bondage, resulting from her loss of sublime innocence and freedom.

Dame Edith Hamilton describes how poor “inculpable” Uncle Hades was unwittingly provoked to rape his niece by the bloom and scent of the narcissus plant, which innocent Persephone had just picked (Hamilton 50).  Hades was entranced by the aroma.  Due to that seductive flower’s aphrodisiac enticements, the narcissus caused Hades to sexually crave intercourse with his niece (50).  Along with various fruits and grains (50), the narcissus was also used sacramentally (as an aphrodisiac) in the Eleusinian Mysteries.  The Romans wisely renamed the Greek goddess Persephone: “Kora” as well as “Libera” (Liberty).  The Roman goddess Ceres (Goddess of Existence and Subsistence), represented the Latin version of  “Demeter.”   Hence, the Greek “Demeter” is the Roman “Ceres.” 

In fall, Romans participated in mother-daughter ceremonies celebrating Ceres and Libera/Kora, a Latin version of the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, occasionally substituting cherries (cerezas) for pomegranates. Nevertheless, in Homer’s Hymn of Demeter, the pomegranate is the very fruit by which Persephone is naively tempted, because she was forced by Hades to eat seven pomegranate seeds, which binds her to him for 1/3 of the year: late-fall and winter.  Beyond its obvious bright red color, the real significance of the pomegranate is its affinity with Dionysus’s sacrificial blood and his Delphic new year resurrection from death, which serves as a perfect metaphor within the symbol of the pomegranate for spring’s resurgence. 

Also, important is the pomegranate’s shape and internal structure, furnishing a unique ‘unity in diversity,’ reconciling a multitude of diverse elements within an apparent unity. Thus, the bitter-sweetness that ensues from Persephone’s Eve-like bite, which seals creation’s cosmic eternal dualities (e.g., Death/Life; Winter/Spring, or Stagnation/Renewal (“rebirth:” primavera), which is apparent in the barren/abundant seasonal cycles that brings about a sense of balance and atonement between the mother figure (Demeter) and incestual rapist/victim lover-figure(s): Hades and Persephone.  Via the Dionysian as well as the Hadean chthonic connections associated with the pomegranate as a symbol of “death” / “resurrection” /  “life,” Persephone exists in extreme juxtapositions between this world and the next (Chthonia: “the underworld”), which generally make Persephone’s use of red-juicy fruits a precious permanent staple of artistic expression, poetic allegories, and ancient transcultural Mediterranean religious rituals.   The eating of pomegranates (as well as cherries) represents profoundly beatific experiences, divulging the godlike sweetness of nature’s sensory world.  Yet, even these sensations are theologically and socially tied to the Greek insistence on duality; especially when you consider that in ancient Greece all red juicy fruits were suspect, poor etiquette, or illegal (Frazer 205-210); despite their divine derivations or because of them. For Greeks, even food incorporated stark binary implications.

This need for strong contrasts in Greek socio-religious life is also manifested in their art, where Nietzsche observed a psychological need for strong contrasts and conflicts, manifesting sublime dualities and primordial binaries.  For example, with its dichotomous roots in the Delphic “Ambrosial Feast” and Athens’s “Greater Dionysia” celebration, in the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche presents two contrasting psychological tendencies that affect art and perhaps human nature: the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian.”   In relationship to his analysis of Richard Wagner’s operas, Nietzsche contrasts these two archaic qualities in the following manner: the Apollonian conjures a dream state wherein art provides clarity, boundaries, conformity, an exterior façade and reflection.

In every way, Apollonian art relies on rationality, restraint, excellence of form, purity, perfection, completion/finish and design (Nietzsche 17-20).  Contrarily, Dionysian artistic expression arises from extreme exhilaration, excessive passion, instinctual natural awareness, as well as innate perception(s).  Dionysian art derives simultaneously from irrational conflicting contradictory experiences that bind opposites, e.g., great joy and great sorrow.  Dionysian art fosters unexpected emotive juxtapositions, which allows art to be both odd and extraordinary, providing an absurd unity in diversity of all things.  In this aspect, Dionysian art is anti-egotistical, because it disposes all boundaries and rules. Like Lorca’s duende, the Dionysian impulse is not concerned with form but with the marrow of form, representing art as itself (merging a human-artist fully with his/her work) – “creation made act” (Lorca Search of Duende 23).  [Also, research this URL: http://duende-art.com/page1.html ].  Additionally, the orgiastic Dionysian spirit in art utilizes destruction as an aspect of creativity (Nietzsche 20).

At places like Delphi, Eleusis, and Athens, wherever Dionysus and his (drugs, food, and drink) revelries played either a small ‘indirect’ role or a major ‘direct’ role within ancient Ionian Greek calendar-celebrations (e.g., the new year or the advent of spring), Greeks preserved through his worship an awareness of the psychic-dualism that surround life, as well as art.   Hence, Nietzsche was right to draw our attention to artistic Dionysian/Apollonian binary phenomena.   As is evident above in the case of Dionysus, ancient Greeks used their gods, divine rituals (replete with an array of drugs, foods, and drinks) as supernatural agents that enhanced the quality and energy of human life, by answering basic needs, and desires.  As the ancient playwright Euripedes described these longings in The Bacchae, stating:

O Dionysus,
We feel you near,
Stirring like molten lava
Under the ravaged earth,
Flowing like red sap
From the wounds of your trees . . . (81)

On a cosmic-scale, Olympic divinities served the religious necessities of ancient Greece by revealing life’s perpetual struggles between good/evil, life/death, joy/suffering, etc., and through the divine resolution of these cosmic conflicts, the gods supported and maintained human sustenance, political and religious order, the universe and all existence.  For the Greeks, the gods realized their cosmic responsibilities by differentiating their specific elemental duties, e.g., nurturing Demeter, liberated Persephone, rational Apollo, as well as irrational Dionysus; and this departmentalization of divine duties and attributes can equally be noticed among all the other Olympian gods and goddesses.

Among the most elegant ceramics of ancient Greece are the Attic white-ground lekythoi jugs that were used for libations during funerals. These objects were often inhumed with the dead.  A lekythos is a wine or oil vase with cylindrical body and long neck. It usually contained consecrated oils to anoint the dead.

The greatest lethythos painter of the 5th Century was the so-called “Achilles Painter,” who is known for his gracious linear virtuosity and subtle tempera colors. One of his finest works is the 14 ½” white-ground lekythos from the Attic tomb of a young girl, depicting a solitary Muse presumably Calliope (singing), playing a kithara on Mount Helicon (445 BCE).  The bird at her feet is symbolic of the departed soul of the dead, who she is serenading; although, there is a strong chance that the divine Muse is actually accompanying the bird as it sings or they are in concert, singing a melodious and melancholic duet. To quote John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,”

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”jose9

Patterns of stylized geometric-volutes cross the shoulder of the lekythos. One of the most fascinating aspects of the piece is an odd and extremely enigmatic inscription from an alleged lover, which is written above the Muse’s head, stating, “Axiopeithes, son of Alkimachos, is beautiful.” Why would this expression of vanity be on this exquisite vase within a young girl’s tomb, why would her lover express his own beauty and not hers? Yet, art history, refers to this odd quote as the “lover’s inscription.” It is true that Greek 5th Century BCE burial ceramics had inscriptions from loved ones that were clearly intended for the deceased.  Perhaps, the quote is not a “lovers inscription,” but the actual signature of the unknown “Achilles Painter,” implying that, “I, Axiopeithes, son of Alkimachos is capable of making things of beauty, like this lekythos” Thus, in this ingenious interpretation, this would be one of the earliest examples of an artist signing his work.   Wouldn’t it be great, if we finally knew the real name of the “Achilles Painter?”

Roman art and culture have left indelible marks on human civilization. In fact, nothing insinuates a sense of long lasting “permanence” as the word “Roman.” And yet, nothing is as indicative of unanticipated “origin” or “end” as Roman Civilization.  In many ways Roman values persist today in the guise of nations like the United States of America, with its Senate, its forums, “Pax Americana,” and its emphasis on world trade, civilization, engineering, violence, Stoicism and respect for the rule of  law.  In a way, “Rome” continues to exist in the guise of the Roman Catholic Church, with its pontiff, its Vatican in Rome, dioceses, and desire for universal accord and faith.  Or, it is disguised within other religious institutions, e.g., the Greek Orthodox Religion, etc.   These facts make the date of Rome’s historic collapse 410 CE seem meaningless. Yet, it is harder to fix an exact date for its slowly evolving origin, around 500 BCE. Prior to that, Etruscan (700 -509 BCE) Civilization set the stage for all that Rome would eventually become and achieve.

 

Among the earliest examples of Etruscan art are the fresco-murals on the back wall of the Tomb of the Lionesses, Tarquinia, which are preeminent examples of Ionian-jose10Etruscan Archaic art (c. 700 – 475 BCE).  Especially impressive in this work is the dance scene, with its ecstatic movements. The male figure energetically dances, holding a large ocher jug. His skin is a dark robust reddish brown, while his curly locks are blond. The female dancer is a brunette with pale white complexion and a flimsy transparent dress, her unique hand gesture, is reminiscent of the Mediterranean sign for the bull’s horns, implying adulterous cuckoldry, which means that the artist was being humorously irreverent at the expense of the dead. A beautiful still life of an urn is in the corner by a trompe l’oeil painted column, (which pretends to support the actual roof of the tomb). Funeral dances were part of Etruscan death rituals. This Tarquinian work is an example of the finest Etruscan art, at its highest point. Its vitality is suggestive of earlier Cretan Minoan art.

The Etruscan joyful approach to funerary art is also evident in the large terra-cotta sculpted sarcophagi that were used for burial in the 6th Century BCE. One of the finest jose11examples is the almost seven foot-long coffin from Cerveteri, it was made in 520 BCE, depicting a husband and wife reclining on a couch, eating.  The work functions like a double portrait, which captures the happy pair in mid-conversation. They almost seem to be getting up, awakening.  Of course, wealthy Romans, as well as earlier Etruscans often ate formal and informal meals in comparable reclining position(s), while conversing with invited guest or relatives. The hand gestures imply eating. Unlike the Romans and especially the Greeks, notice that the image clearly indicates that women are treated as equal partners in Etruscan marriages.

Roman painting traditions began during the time of the Republic; and it is art historically marked by four main stylistic phases, which are referred to as the “Pompeiian Styles (I, II, III, and IV).”  In general, examples of Classical painting from Greece and Rome are rare, fortunately, the eruption of Vesuvius (79 CE) preserved fine examples of all four Roman Pre-Silver Age styles. These paintings are considered among the highest achievements in that art form, in fact the 20th Century painter and educator, Josef Albers told his Yale students to go to Pompeii, if they wanted to learn “everything” about painting. Albers especially liked the geometric patterns that were evident in the 2nd Pompeiian Style.

A small amusing imaginary Roman portrait of the Muse Calliope, holding her tablet and pointed stylus was painted in fresco within a 1st Century tondo, on the wall of a jose12Pompeiian home. The image is remarkable for its cool-tonalities and painterliness, with soft modulations of color. It is an example of a transitional work from the Third Style to the Fourth. Art Historians are fascinated by the young woman’s personality, as she is caught absentmindedly daydreaming, holding her beriboned teraptychon tablet (comprised of waxed-coated ivory pages, allowing for her easy editing of whatever she writes).  Perhaps, she is not a Muse, but a young matron, bringing her husband’s accounts up to date, or she is the imagined portrait of the Lesbian poet Sappho. Her curled hair and hairnet suggest that she was painted during the Claudian or Flavian periods, when hair was worn in that fashion.

Another striking image done in fresco derives its subject-matter from Homer’s Odyssey, showing Ulysses in the Land of the Lestrygonians.  It was painted on the wall jose13of a patrician’s home (50 -40 BCE) in the “grand manner style,” which was invented by Apelles of Colophon in the 4th Century BCE. Apelles was a court painter to Alexander the Great, noted for painting many figures in dramatic narrative scenes. This is to this day, one of the most difficult achievements in painting. Therefore, Apelles is often called “the greatest painter, who ever lived,” although his art no longer exists. Yet, we know of his works, through Roman accounts by Pliny, Lucian and other authors. The “grand manner” concept also exists in sculpture. A wonderful example of this tendency is the dramatic marble relief frieze from the Ara Pacis in Rome (13 – 9 BCE).

Deep in the mountains about forty minutes northeast of Naples and an hour away from Pompeii lies the fascinating city of Benevento, formerly known as “Maleventum” (meaning “the site of bad events,” or some scholars suppose “evil air (or ‘wind’)”).  However, following a Roman military victory over King Pyrrhus of Epirus (Greece) in 275 BCE; the site’s name was changed to ‘Beneventum’ (meaning “place of good fortune”).   King Pyrrhus is the ancient source of the well-known term Pyrrhic-victory,” defining a type of “victory” that is actually a “defeat.”    Recently, your author (Dr. José Rodeiro) visited with the acclaimed artist Christie Devereaux, who lives part of the year near this quaint, but culturally sophisticated and exceedingly historic city.   Devereaux took Rodeiro on a walking tour of the city to see the triumphal Arch of Trajan which was erected by the Senate and people of Rome in 114 CE to mark the forking-point where the Via Appia (Appian Way) splits in two, which locals distinguish as being the “old” road leading to the heel of Italy and the other the “new” road, leading to the toe.    Because of its pivotal importance on the Appian Way, during Roman-times, famous men, and many emperors such as, Nero, Trajan, Septimus Severus, and others made numerous visits to Benevento.   Proceeding down the Via Appia, La Taverna di Orazio rests; where once the poet “Orazio” (aka Horace) stayed during the early-years of the Roman Empire.  Devereaux ended her tour at Benevento’s Roman Theater; a magnificent structure which has endured both wars and earthquakes.  The edifice is still used today; moreover, as in Roman days, spectators must come with a cushion in order to comfortably enjoy performances.

The Ara Pacis was originally built in the year 9 BCE as a rectangular enclosure around an altar, glorifying Augustus’s divinity as well as his role in Rome’s dominance of the Mediterranean world, (which was viewed as “peace” by the Romans: “Pax Romana”).  Thus the title “Altar of Peace.”  It was aligned with a pilfered Egyptian obelisk, which served as a sundial. During the fall equinox, on the exact day that Augustus had been conceived inside his mother’s womb, the obelisk pointed directly at the open door of the altar. This clock-like effect, not only indicated that August controlled both temporal “time” and distant lands (Egypt), it was also ripe with obvious sexual implications.  The Ara Pacis was constructed in Rome on the banks of the Tiber River on the Campus Martius.  Hence, this unique shrine to world peace was conspicuously placed on ground devoted and consecrated to Mars (the Roman god of War), implying that Augustus’s bold establishment of world peace defies Mars’ impetus for war.   The sculptured reliefs that decorate the outer marble walls set the standard jose14for all future Roman art. The main artistic influence on the carvings were clearly aesthetically stolen (excogitated) directly from the Athenian Parthenon’s Ionic frieze.  Countless iconological interpretations by various art historians are associated with the Ara Pacis friezes, e.g., John Elsner and Barbara Kellum’s research into the altar’s narrative.  Elsner’s text is titled “Cult and Sculpture: The Ara Pacis Augustae,” The Journal of Roman Studies, # 81(1991), 50 -61, while Kellum’s interesting title says a great deal, “What You See and What We Don’t See: Narrative Structures and the Ara Pacis Augustae,” Art History, # 17 (1994), 26 – 45.

Filled with “neo-classical” optimism in anticipation of a possible “new” Renaissance within all the arts; a veritable “rebirth of wonder,” overflowing with hope for a brighter future for human-civilization, our artistic grand tour of the ancient Mediterranean world ends upon this late-1st Century BCE Augustan “Golden Age” monumental altar devoted to the possibility of world peace (“Pax Romana” or “Pax Americana”), which is a worthy (yet extremely intangible) aspiration that has sadly and adroitly eluded mankind to this very day.

About the author:

Ragazine.CC art editor Dr. Jose Rodeiro is professor of art history at New Jersey City University. You can read more about him in About Us.

 

Work Cited 

Baring, Anne and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess. New York: Viking Press,
1991.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fables. New York: Heritage Press, 1942.
Campbell, Joseph. The Mask of the Gods: Occidental Mythologies. New York: Viking
Press, 1969.
Easterling, P. E., and J. V. Muir. Greek Religion & Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Euridides. The Bacchae: Divine Vegeance. New York: Meridian Books, 1987.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. New York: Mentor Books, 1974.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Volume 1. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
– – – .  Difficult Questions, Easy Answers. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1973.
– – – . “What Food the Centaurs Ate?” Steps. London: Cassell & Co., 1958
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Mentor Books, 1958.
Harvey, Paul The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, London: Oxford University  Press, 1946.
Mikalson, J. D. Ancient Greek Religion. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage   Books, 1967.
Schultes, Richard and Albert Hofmann The Plants of the Gods. Rochester,
Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Shanker, Harry H. Stage and School. New York: McGraw Hill, 2005.
Stuart, David. Dangerous Garden. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,  2004.
Whitney, Frank The Theatre. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.

 

April 27, 2013   Comments Off on Art of the Mediterranean/Jose Rodeiro

Books/Reviews

lost arts

 

Leslie Heywood
Lost Arts
Louisiana Literature Press
2013
ISBN: 978-0-945083-37-5

 

Running!

Review by Alan Britt

    

Leslie Heywood prefaces her latest poetry book, Lost Arts, with the following quote:

Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world even the ocean can be destroyed, and you, who fought against this illness with such courage and grace, even you cannot survive….       

 — Maria Mazzioti Gillan

So, does her book reference an ecological theme? Specifically, no. Loss, getting warmer. Her opening poem, the title poem, “Lost Arts,” indeed affirming what appears to be the loss of a newborn, her sixteen day old son, Drake, opens with the following lines:

This morning I practice the lost art of dedication,
             My year-old Akita nosing ahead of me her first time
             In these northeastern woods, these trails I know the way
             You always know the signposts home, this rock wall,
             This stump. It’s been six years almost to the day he died,
             These trails where we planted his tree. I stop and check
             And what’s left is a skeleton of branches
             And a slowly rotting trunk, those sixteen October days
             He lived not much shorter than the tree did. (1-9)

What we don’t find in Heywood’s book is sentimentality. What we experience is a hands-on, often literal, barebones diction that is occasionally peppered with the right dose of metaphor.

Heywood continues “Lost Arts” in a language typical throughout her book, a language with a stiff backbone that addresses suffering head-on: “When I couldn’t hold onto him in his hospital crib, / Blue and pink beanie covering the electrodes on his skin,” (16-17).

Many of the poems in Lost Arts often are autobiographical, and indeed the speaker spends much time in and around an environment that seems to offer serenity and refuge: nature, in particular on footpaths that welcome a solitary jog. The persona of Heywood’s poems is concerned with fitness, spiritual and otherwise, by spending hours running, running, running, as evidenced by several poems whose primary subject is running: “Marathon Training,” “Running Holly Hill Road,” “Last Long Run Before the Marathon,” while other poems reference the jog: “I try to do yoga, go running, even read,” (“What Noise”), “I run with my knee on fire / A burn from cartilage rubbed red (“My Father in the Lake Placid Trees”), and the following lines from “Six-Miler in the Bone Yard”:

This morning my knees ache
              Too much to run.
              When I try to stand
              They pop like an old car
              Backfires in the street. (1-5)

Throughout her book, Heywood is at spiritual ease not only in nature, but also with her dogs. She opens her poem, “Cairn,” this way:

As you get older their bodies accumulate, the ashes
              Of the people and animals you’ve loved, or the bones
              Slowly whitening in their graves. I buried my last dog
              On my eight acres of trees, dug the hole
              Outside my cabin so I could see the tip of the gravestone
               When I looked outside. The other dogs are ashes
               Stashed in plastic bags in a Navajo urn, the thin ceramic
               So fragile I’m afraid to sneeze…. (1-8)

Heywood’s subjects run the gamut, but if you want poems that reference a sensibility fueled by the rugged outdoors and beloved dogs, you’ll find them here. However, no less important is family, especially daughters. The second half of Lost Arts in particular includes some beautiful references to Heywood’s daughter. One memory in particular is deftly captured in the tender poem, “Two Year Old Stars,” where the poet recounts her daughter at ages two, three, four, and five. For all her pioneer spirit, Heywood conjures from time to time a language befitting the sensitivity of a loving mother to daughter relationship, one filled with caring and gentle affection:

….Dear daughter,
            What I wish for you is a lifetime of clamoring constellations,
            The stars peeking over your shoulder like friends
            As you reanimate their coldness
            With your own precious light. (23-27)

Even if you’re a statue cast in marble, you can’t help but feel the tenderness in those lines. Lost Arts contains some beautifully written poems guaranteed to course blood and perhaps even wrench an occasional tear from an unsuspecting, marble, concave eyeball.

 

Lost Arts (ISBN #978-0-945083-37-5)
Leslie Heywood
77 pages, 6” x 9”, paperback, full color ($14.95)

Louisiana Literature Press
Southeastern Louisiana University
Box 10792
Hammond, LA 70402

 

About the review:

Poet Alan Britt is Ragazine.CC‘s books and book review editor. You can read more about him in About Us.

Leslie Heywood is the Creative Nonfiction editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about her in About Us.

* * *

 

locke

 

Duane Locke
The First Decade: 1968-1978
The Bitter Oleander Press
2012
ISBN: 0-9786335-7-1

Spiritual Awakenings

 Review by Silvia Scheibli

There are some poetry books that you read to get a sense of shifts in poetic perception: imagery, spiritual awakenings, or far-reaching intellectual wisdom. And then there are those that you read in order to find out the earthly details that make up every day in a poet’s life. The First Decade is somehow both, a book that takes its readers day by day through the pantheistic, sacred landscape of the imagination into a new and exciting linguistic reality and also constructs a broader picture of the callous and inhumane treatment society perpetrates on itself through menial self-deceptions and unmistakable denials. In his own words “On a Cliff in Maine and Everywhere, Locke writes about this inhumanity:

American bulldozers
uprooting the Boi Loi woods
these distant woods
unconcerned with human concerns
but becoming concerned in
our
theirs
or someone’s
or no one’s
concern
Trees
being
destroyed
to protect
a
man
from
a man
man the excrescence

Another remarkable quality of Locke’s huge body of work – over 6,700 poems published to date – is his ability to take the reader into an intimate realm where only the poet himself lives and breathes. Yet somehow the reader is there, standing next to him, feeling what he feels, as in “Baby Sharks,”  where Locke speaks of the utmost love and reverence for the natural world;

            Baby sharks in brown mangrove water
carry in the music of their fins
the rumor of your rebirth
My eyes’ fingers reach toward
the secret tears in their helpless teeth
and feel the beginning of your hand

Besides Locke’s labyrinthine and intense imagery to guide the reader on the path of awareness of man’s slave mentality, Locke shares his philosophy of linguistics in many of the poems in the section known as Immanentist Sutras.  Here Locke clearly outlines the mental processes on how a human being can realize his or her authenticity.

this introduction is a variant on the door who
requires a key and a key’s grandfather and then
requires the key to become invisible and swim
through the leaf of a sword
it is a dove
who was painted on bricks and began to fly
until someone asked permission
immanentism
is a muzzle becoming a horse and a chain
becoming raw ore

Every poem conveys Locke’s genuine confidence in creating a linguistic reality, but none so readily as expressed in his long poem, “Foam On Gulf Shore. Here the poet has been reborn, reborn into a reality that holds far more pain, love, self-awareness and joy than man can possibly strive for. And yet, he speaks for the reader and upholds his tenets in the face of this extreme self-awareness. Locke writes,

As a citizen
I mated my love to my ego
Foam
as a poet
created by animals plants and minerals
I could extend my arm through space
reach inside the moon
take out a bracelet
of hitherto unknown light
to put on your yet unborn arm
and turn your arm of water
into an arm of skin

After reading The First Decade, the reader can appreciate that Duane Locke has invented a new language and by doing so, has invented a new, indispensable and vibrant poetry. The world would definitely be a better place if individuals were “to become friends with divine things / with sand fleas coquinas ghost crabs / and all else.”

Duane Locke: The First Decade
1968-1978
 (ISBN #0-9786335-7-1)
330 pages, 6” x 9”, paperback, full color ($25.00)

Bitter Oleander Press:
www.bitteroleander.com
info@bitteroleander.com

Distributed by Small Press Distribution
www.spdbooks.org

 

About the reviewer:

Silvia Scheibli lives in Arizona close to the Mexican border where she taught English to bilingual high school students. Her poems were translated into Spanish and included in La Adelfa Amarga, an anthology published in Lima, Peru. Her poems regularly appear in magazines and journals both in the U.S. and abroad. She is a participating poet in the We Are You Project International (www.weareyouproject.org).

April 27, 2013   Comments Off on Books/Reviews

Books: Native American Classics

native

 

Native American Classics:

Graphic Classics Series Volume 24

Review by Alan Britt

Editors Tom Pomplun, John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac have produced a wonderful book in Native American Classics: Graphics Classics Volume 24, the latest in an illustrated classics series of books designed “to create books that are enjoyable for adults, yet accessible to children ages twelve and up.” The historical texts in this book are entertaining and educational. This newest production, like other books in the series, is beautifully adorned cover to cover with colorful illustrations serving as backdrops for texts by modern and contemporary Native American writers. The list of authors is an impressive mix of 19th-century through 21st-century Native American poets and storytellers that includes Zitkala-Sa, Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), E. Pauline Johnson, Alex Posey, Simon Pokagon, Handsome Lake, Bertrand N.O. Walker, Buffalo Bird Woman, Carlos Montezuma (Wassaja), John Rollin Ridge (Cheesquatalawny), plus a host of other talented writers. The list of illustrators is equally impressive and includes Bahe Whitethorne, Jr., Jim McMunn, Andrea Grant, Marty Two Bulls Sr., Murv Jacob, Weshoyot Alvitre, Toby Cypress, John Findley, along with other talented illustrators.

The texts comprise a rich variety of storytelling. For example, there is on the one hand the serious tale “On Wolf Mountain” by Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), adapted by Joseph Bruchac, and beautifully illustrated by Robby McMurtry, which tells the tale of how a wolf pack, known as the Mayala Clan of Gray Wolves, were “driven away from their den on account of their depredations upon the only paleface in the Big Horn Valley.” Fortunately, the wolves happen upon a Lakota village and are befriended by the “Red Hunters.” According to Ohiyesa’s story, the paleface lifestyle of sheepherding and cattle ranching is unnatural to the landscape and proves to be potentially ruinous to the lives of both wolves and Lakotas. As the narrative recounts the struggle between the native wolves and intruder palefaces, one cannot help but detect the parallel genocide that Native Americans endured after the European invasion of North America. On the lighter side, there’s “The Story of Itsikamahidish and the Wild Potato,” Buffalo Bird Woman’s story adapted by Tom Pomplun  and handsomely illustrated by Pat N. Lewis, which recounts the tale of Itsikamahidish, who, in the form of a gluttonous coyote, happens upon a serendipitous pile of wild potatoes. One potato warns Itsikamahidish that potatoes, while nutritious, also cause one to experience a copious amount of gas.   Unimpressed with the potato’s warning Itsikamahidish eats his fill and proceeds on his merry way to visit his sweetheart while emitting “poots” of gas along the way. Eventually, Itsikamahidish’s gas “poots” become so powerful they begin lifting Itsikamahidish off the ground, only to have him return to earth with a painful thud. The soft moral of the story is that gluttony can get you into trouble, so the next time a potato offers you advice, better pay attention!

All texts are presented in comics form designed to stimulate and delight both adult and adolescent imaginations. Series Publisher, Tom Pomplun, puts it this way: “The Graphic Classics series presents the works of great authors in comics adaptations and heavily-illustrated text . . . adaptations are written at an adult level, and utilize as much of the author’s original language as possible.” One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time, Native American Classics, due for release March 2013, is already on my gift list, along with several other books in the unique Graphics Classics series. Suffice it to say that the reproduction of texts and illustrations in this book are vibrant and colorful. This beautifully printed and bound book is highly recommended for personal pleasure as well as gifts for adults, plus sons, daughters, nephews and nieces who love to be educated and entertained at the same time.

 

Native American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 24 (ISBN #978-0-9825630-6-9)
144 pages, 7” x 10”, paperback, full color ($17.95)
Distributed by Diamond Book Distributors
Eureka Productions
Tom Pomplun, Publisher
www.graphicclassics.com

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 Another view:

Native American Classics,

Graphic Classics Volume Twenty-Four, 2013

 

By Dale Seeds

 This soon to be released collection of Native American stories rendered in the graphic novel/comic book format features a synthesis of Native American traditional stories transcribed on or before the 20th century with the work of contemporary comic/graphic novel artists. The majority of the artists include in this collection are Native American. We tend to think of the graphic novel as a new creation, embedded in popular culture, cheaply produced for a mass audience no longer interested in wading through a conventional book. However, storytelling with words and pictures, something graphic novels certainly do, is not a new phenomenon. Cave art in Europe and indigenous petroglyphs in Australia, and North and South America all figure from 40,000 to 30,000 years old. In both the ancient and the modern, the narrative unfolds through a series of sequential visual images, much the way traditional stories develop through verbal imagery.

So why not a marriage between Native American storytelling and the graphic novel?  Sounds logical.  Didn’t Frank Miller take the stories of Herodotus and turn them into The 500?  The history of contact between Euro-American and Native peoples in addition to the complex relationship between oral traditions, culture and spiritual beliefs suggests caution.   How do we, some of us as outsiders to the culture, discuss these works?  What qualities do we look for? What responsibilities are inherent in the creation of an anthology such as this? A watershed moment in the development of indigenous comic art occurred with the 2009 exhibit, Comic Art Indigene exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Subsequently, the exhibit toured The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and The Rockwell Museum of Western Arts in Corning, NY.  This exhibit demonstrated a strong indigenous presence within the emerging and often marginalized literary form of the graphic novel.  Native artists are often attracted to the sequential format of the graphic novel, appropriating the western comic form to both tell traditional stories and create new culturally specific narratives. (Chavarria)

As marginalized literary formats, the comic book and graphic novel have a certain appeal to indigenous peoples, they can be mass produced and shared and present a visually exciting way to tell cultural stories through pictures. “exhibit curator Antonio Chavarria stated, adding, “Comics are just another way to tell stories, they are a narrative art form that reinforces the beliefs and symbols of a people and a place.

Native scholars suggest, however, that care must be taken. Stories in indigenous cultures are more than entertainment. They are the means by which the origin, cautionary, and hero stories, along with tribal history and values are maintained and transmitted.  They have often been described as “sacred texts” Many of them, particularly in the Northwest and Alaska are considered clan or tribal property. Unauthorized use or misuse can be offensive and in many ways perpetuates the colonial paradigm.

In discussing Native American Classics, we might first assume that Native stories expressed in comic format strive to subvert the Euro-American settler narrative to produce an alternate narrative that reflects the Native experience and worldview. For example, we might first ask, does the graphic format reclaim or deconstruct stereotypes such as those that harken back to dime novels and serial westerns?  Karl May’s Old Shatterhand stories provide us a vivid example. Do they reassemble the stereotypes to debunk the original stereotypical characters and tropes such as Marty Two Bull’s characters, Frybread Man and Mr. Diabetes, or his selection in this anthology, Wildcat Bill? Similarly, does the adaptation of graphic styles resurrect traditional heroes or create new ones like those in Tribal Force illustrated by Ryan Huna Smith.  This collection, with stories by Jon Proudstar, was the first Native American authored comic book featuring Native American superheroes. Finally, and perhaps most critical and difficult to discuss, is this hybridization of traditional stories in graphic form successful in the ways in which the text and the serial illustrations combine to tell the story in a dynamic, perhaps symbiotic way?  Conversely, does the traditional story and graphic illustration need to resemble each other, or can they exist in some sort of juxtaposition and still work? Finally, is it respectful, does it embody at least some of the functions of traditional story telling? Does it create a new voice or reach a new audience?

Native American Classics is based on the worthy notion to connect with the often marginalized and nascent Native American Literature of the mid and late 19th century. This literature, with virtually no models, was under the surveillance of white editors, who published only what was deemed as appropriate or compatible with Euro-American perceptions of Native peoples. These perceptions viewed Native peoples alternately as noble savages, bloodthirsty killers or tragic vanishing or vanished victims.  For many of the original texts included in Native American Classics, the cultural traditions and concerns of their native authors were carefully, and at times, discreetly expressed. With Native American Classics, the addition of the serial visual images accompanying the text has the potential to change our understanding of these stories.

The original authors and their stories included in Native American Classics represent that early wave of writers, who struggled to survive creatively and break through in print. Many of them were of mixed blood, or had considerable contact with missionaries, and boarding schools, including the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Others attended colleges and universities.  These experiences shaped and often confined their works. The written expressions of the prose, the predictable rhyme patterns of some of the poetry and the guarded ways in which the Native worldview is expressed might seem dated to us today. They do, however represent the realities of a people being forced through assimilation to shift from a rich, sustaining oral culture to a written culture in an unfamiliar language. For example, we might find ourselves uncomfortable with the apparent rejection of traditional spiritual practices as suggested by the text in Zitlala-Sa’s “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” particularly in the description of the Medicine Man, (“ His long strides I have never forgot . . . they seemed to me then as the uncanny gait of eternal death.”  Perhaps more problematic is the captive/abduction narrative of John Rollin Ridge’s “The Stolen White Girl,” with its noble savage Romantic stereotype, mildly erotic Victorian language and stilted rhyme scheme.  The choice of illustration style here is not quite clear, perhaps to defuse the narrative into an innocent love story? Carlos Montezuma’s 1916 poem “Changing is not Vanishing” is one exception however, which anticipates a later 20th century Native viewpoint.  The illustration by Arigon Starr reinforces this, suggesting strength and optimism through a progression of images from a woman in traditional dress to a young man with a digital music player.

Visually, Native American Classics represents a wide variety of narratives and graphic styles from various tribal groups and artists.  Randy Keedah’s cover art resonates as an almost lovingly appropriation of the color and realism of Charles M. Russell and Fredric Remington and seems like a consistent aesthetic with other covers in the Graphic Classic Series from Eureka Productions.  A more thematic cover choice might have been the image of Raven by Michael Nicoll Yahgulannas.  This image, from the author and creator of Haida Manga, presents a contemporary riff on Raven stealing daylight and spreading it to the world. In this image, we see Raven transformed, as a Picasso meets – traditional form-line art trickster holding a cell phone with a copy of Native American Classics firmly clenched in his beak.  For me, at least, this visual image embodies the cultural juxtapositions a collection such as this could aspire to. It also would be nice to see more of Tribal Force’s creator Ryan Huna Smith’s work. Other works pay homage to comic creators such as Marvel’s Stan Lee and Frank Miller (“The Soft-Hearted Sioux,” “The Thunders’ Nest,” “The Hunter and Medicine Legend,” and “The Cattle Thief.”   Similarly, Marty Two Bull’s short and pointedly hilarious “Wildcat Bill” recalls Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural.

The illustrative style of Robby McMurtry’s “On Wolf Mountain,” is especially successful.  With its spare colors and loose, inked images, it looks as if it were created by a 19th century artist sitting on the high prairie with a sketch book and paint box.  The magical vibrant colors and ink of Afua Richardson in “Anoska Nimiwina” create dynamic visual characters that do not rely on stereotyped visual images of Native people. Her use of loose swirling colors and ink to animate the scenes is almost cinematic. The text boxes and dialogue bubbles effectively differentiate between narration and dramatic dialog. The story also includes the character of a native scholar (writer) transcribing the traditional story that is unfolding for the reader. This insertion makes us aware of the processes by which oral stories come into written form.  This self-reflexivity also reflects on the process of “transcribing” this very story into the graphic form contained in this anthology.

“The Middleman,” which is stylistically reminiscent of Chic Young’s Blondie comic series, juxtaposes innocent and playful images with the very devious and fraudulent practices in which unscrupulous land speculators took advantage of the Dawes or Allotment Act to bilk Native people out of their government assigned allotments.  Text boxes at the bottom help to clear this up for the reader. However, this might have been more effective as a Forward. Perhaps a minor quibble, other selections in Native American Classics might have benefited from some inserted information to help place the pieces in a cultural and historical context. Information on the author, date, tribal affiliation, and some background on the origin of the story and its importance could be very helpful to the reader here, particularly those new to Native American literature. Much of this information is, however, found at the end of the collection.

Native American Classics includes strong, heroic women characters in “Anoska Nimiwina” and “The Cattle Thief.” Equally important, the grandmother in “The Prehistoric Race” serves as the Ouendot (Wyandot) narrator and tradition bearer. For example, in the beginning of the narrative she introduces herself as a member of the Big Turtle Clan so as to connect herself and her grandson to a story from which their clan is named.  This would also seem culturally appropriate since women held important governing positions in traditional Wyandot culture. The use of the Grandmother’s written dialect contrasts with the standard English of the animal characters and the grandson. It works as a device to separate the characters, however, one could argue she comes off as less articulate, and the text is a bit slow to read due to its phonetic spelling. The story telling narrator function is also a strong visual presence as the character of Charles Eastman in “On Wolf Mountain” and is alluded to in the previously mentioned example of the Native transcriber in “Anoska Nimiwina.” Women authors are present in the contributions of Zitkala-Sa, Mary Bird Woman, and E. Pauline Johnson, and illustrators Weshoyot  Alvitre, Andrea Grant, Arigon Starr, Afua Richardson, and Tara Audbert.

The spiritual connection between animals and humans is represented again by “On Wolf Mountain,” “The Hunter and the Medicine Legend,” and “Two Wolves”; traditional heroes in “The Thunder’s Nest” and “Anoska Nimiwina.”

Humor is an important and necessary tradition in Native American stories and two examples in Native American Classics provide contrasting approaches. “The Story of Itsikamahidsh and the Wild Potatoes” by Buffalo Bird Woman is a Coyote style cautionary tale, broadly comic with a touch of flatulent humor, about the danger of eating wild potatoes.  It utilizes a visual style that reminds one of the early Walt Disney or Hanna Barbara cartoons. Marty Two Bulls’ illustrations for Alex Posey’s “Wildcat Bill” almost literally turn the stereotype of the cigar store Indian on its head with comic and appropriately just results. Combining these 19th and early 20th century narratives with colorful, at times bold, and perhaps brash visual expressions produces a dynamic hybridization. (Chavarria) The success of this synthesis is clearest in the stories where the written text of the narrative is accurately and respectfully presented within the comic/graphic novel format and that this reflects the Native values and worldview of the author.  Likewise, we need to be open to the possibility that a traditional story and its graphic visual expression might exist in tension with each other, and that this might also be a successful collaboration. “The Middleman,” for example, moves in this direction. Finally, the visual inclusion of a Native story teller within the frames of the story is an important reminder that these stories owe their origin to the traditional performance practices of storytelling, which have been responsible for the transmission of traditional knowledge and culture for thousands of years.

On a personal note, my favorites are “On Wolf Mountain,” “Wildcat Bill” and especially “Two Wolves.” This last story is particularly successful for its tight, sparse dialogue, and the illustration style of John Findley. He combines great attention to detail and technical mastery of the media with an uncanny ability to create visual characters that convey a sense of emotional depth as well as the spiritual connection between the man and wolf. Maybe I’m just sentimental, but there was something emotionally satisfying about the ending of the story. It also provides a strong conclusion to the collection.

The anthology may not be perfect, but it does accomplish a number of things. First, it provides an opportunity for Native artists to connect their work to traditional stories in ways that are culturally meaningful.  This connection to traditional stories also gives their work a visibility beyond the graphic novel/comic genre. In one way or another, all the stories in the collection provide readers with places to start a meaningful dialogue about Native American literature, particularly in an environment such as a classroom.   Finally, the coexistence of verbal, written, and visual expressions of traditional stories sheds light on an indigenous culture and the ways in which it evolves through time in search of its own voices. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of a collection such as Native American Classics.

 

Native American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 24 (ISBN #978-0-9825630-6-9)

Edited by Tom Pomplun with associate editors John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac

144 pages, 7” x 10”, paperback, full color ($17.95)

Distributed by Diamond Book Distributors

Eureka Productions

Tom Pomplun, Publisher

www.graphicclassics.com

Works Cited

Chavarria, Antonio. 2012. Exhibit curator notes. Rockwell Museum of Western Art. 28 Jan. 2013.

http://www.rockwellmuseum.org/Comic-Art-Indigene.html

 

About the author:

Dale E. Seeds is Professor of Theatre  in the Department  of Theater and Dance at the College of Wooster,Wooster, Ohio,  teaching courses in design , Native American Performance and  Indigenous film.  His work has been published in Theatre Crafts, Drama Review, and  MELUS. In addition to his work at Wooster, his design  credits include work for The Abbey theatre of Dublin Ireland, The University of Alaska , Fairbanks and the Dead White Zombies performance group of Dallas, Texas.

 

 

 

 

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Poets’ Guide to America

Review by Alan Britt

John F. Buckley and Martin Ott recently published Poets’ Guide to America, a poetry book “on the states, cities, Poets Guide web coverand the strange places of the United States (and even some of its overseas possessions).” Here’s the thing – they wrote these poems together. That is, each poem was written in part by Buckley and in part by Ott. In Buckley’s words, “Beginning in May 2009, Martin and I began playing what we call ‘poetic volleyball,’ a form of exquisite corpse in which we took turns writing a couple of lines of verse, back and forth, until we had a poem. And then two poems. And then, finally, fifty.”

Is this co-op approach to poetry becoming a trend? We recently reviewed The New Arcana written by John Amen and Daniel Y. Harris, a mostly poetry but sometimes multi-genre, neo-Dadaist book that pushes the boundaries of what most folks expect to see from a volume of poetry. A couple years back Andrei Codrescu and Ruxandra Cesereanu released their remarkable Forgiven Submarine, their “story of a difficult love, from the first signs of tenderness through a life-and-death battle, to a reconciliation made necessary by wisdom,” poetry collaboration. It’s well known Dada poets and artists collaborated often, sometimes on the same stage at the Cabaret Voltaire.

So, this collaboration thing isn’t altogether new, but in this case it does, in the words of Tony Barnstone, “create a great conflagration of vignettes and voyages, characters and crisis, traversing or dissecting America in all its nutty hubris, with miracles at the Dairy Queen, Navy SEALS diving for Godzilla’s eggs, an igloo constructed of Schlitz Malt Liquor cartons, a patchwork country inhabited by vegetable princes and chupacabra kings.” Poets’ Guide to America is comprised of fifty poems, 95% of which are neatly laid out in two, three, four, five or six line stanzas, thus, satisfying the MFA code of quasi-structure. The book often exudes a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into the diverse landscape of America and often in a tone that mimics playful narrators offering up historic tidbits of Delaware, Pittsburgh, Georgia, Boston, St. Louis, Manhattan, Omaha, etc. One jocular poem, “A Tale of Two Portlands,” opens with an allusion to Dickens:

It was the best of lines, it was the worst
of lines. Or so she said the next morning

when our search for her missing underwear
led us to grind to halts and hollers on a beige

antique rug, our newest arena. Where we
whiled away another damp hour, another

stray occasion. We shared the wetness:
toothbrushes, plumbing, childhood tales . . .

Structured as poetry but written in whimsical prosaic style, this book isn’t Howard Zinn’s “true history of America.” What it is, however, is a romp with Buckley and Ott creating their own band of Merry Pranksters combing all corners of the United States. Their poems offer a witty and well sculpted peek into the details that separate Motown from Miami, Daytona Beach from Indianapolis, Los Angeles from Roanoke. Occasionally poignant but mostly improvisational, Poet’s Guide to America provides an enjoyable jaunt throughout the great experiment known as the United States. This mostly lighthearted book is witty and enjoyable. The next time you hop Amtrak or Greyhound to visit your aunt in Atlanta, your mother in West Palm Beach, or your poet buddies in Ann Arbor, take this book along. By the time you arrive at your destination, it’ll feel like you’re returning home.

It takes a steady hand to operate a Cadillac without
power steering and a heart like a crusted nut, he said
without letting the smoke in his craw twitch one bit.

A man should never own a car worth more than
his house, his wife said before following her rusted
catalytic converter of a boyfriend to Appalachia.

Now the strikers’ wives stockpile Kroger’s in the back
of his double-wide, preparing for the possibility, one
more half-willing spasm of labor as contracts turn brown

As the tar on his walls darkening from pure American
tobacco. Sometimes he drives to Windsor to take
a piss, and gives strays rides to see Joe Louis pump

his fist, explaining how Detroit smacked the Nazis
where it hurt and the supreme temptations of
hometown soul got all his girls talking about grit.

(from “Slowdown in Motown”)

 

Poets’ Guide to America (ISBN #978-1-936767-16-8)
110 pages, 7” x 8½”, paperback, ($14.95)
Brooklyn Arts Press
www.BrooklynArtsPress.com

 

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Sky Sandwiches

Review by Alan Britt

 

Lots of praise for John F. Buckley’s Sky Sandwiches. Those familiar with Buckley’s sardonic, quasi-autobiographical poetry are SkySandwiches_covernot surprised by the following accolades: “I love when his youth comes off the page, and I get to relive a Michigan childhood.” (John Brantingham); “Buckley is a well-traveled Bukowski. . . .He explores diners in Michigan, final yard sales and crushed Californian dreams.” (T. Anders Carson); “Here, McMansions, disappointed family members, Walmarts, malt liquor, Blondie, convents, shit tonsils, classrooms, ex-porn stars, mean fertility specialists, and hot sauce melt into an addictive and irresistible Kool-Aid that leaves us panting for more.” (Alexandra Mattraw). An imaginative travelogue heavily punctuated with autobiographical details characterizes this lively book. The poems are packed with seductive details that, as several of the book’s blurbs indicate, invite the reader inside the poems without hesitation. One easily relates to Buckley’s almost stream of conscious journeys to his geographic and psychic haunts that are littered with an amazing variety of details:

 

He told them garum tasted most like Filipino patis, more so

             than   nuoc mam or Chinese fish paste. He liked ice cream,

             MMA matches, posters with kittens, and American Idol.

 

He once became enraged and defensive when they laughed

             at him for rubbing vanilla Haagen-Dazs on his toe wound―

             “Is that Roman folk medicine, ‘Roam-oo-leh’?” Bastards!

 

              Fine! You get dragged to twenty-first-century Livermore!

              It’s confusing! The ice-cream helps, all aches subsiding.

              They wouldn’t give him a concubine, so he had made do.

     *           *            *

              Watch him fret in his Boy Scout sleeping bag, dreaming

              of Italy and cyclotrons, restless, feeling like an unlucky coin

              flipped in the air between someone else’s finger and thumb.

 

Buckley’s language moves at the speed of imagination, that is, it’s delightfully unpredictable. Once Buckley’s launches into his frenetic voice, he could end up anywhere, at a family reunion in “At the Reunion,” revisiting late adolescence in Windsor, Ontario, in “A Promise,” or entering the psychic zone in “Anybody Can live on the Moon.” I say get a good grip on whatever hat you happen to be wearing; otherwise, the verbal tailwind produced in these poems could leave you breathless and straining for balance. But how delightful to be rocking in a verbal tornado that plucks you right out of mundane existence and deposits you somewhere light-years from Kansas.

 

Let’s make believe we’re elsewhere.

              Let’s keep an even keel in the waters of our mind―

              a smooth gliding in a taut canvas canoe

              on a lake of placid equanimity―

              not caught in the crosshairs of status and mishap,

              an escape artist locked in an opulent corner office

              after swallowing the key.

              Let’s not listen to Ram Dass. Let’s not be here now

              in the man’s office for the anticipated meeting,

              the avuncular pomp due to recent circumstances,

              the canning of the human pickle.

              Let’s not discuss the events leading up to this moment:

              a divorce, a stubborn repetition of nightcvaps,

              a morning kiking-in of windows,

              a request to deposit one’s stink away from

              the chaperoned students, first temporarily, then permanently.

(“Avoidance”)

 

Sky Sandwiches (ISBN #978-1-937536-32-9)

97 pages, 6” x 9”, paperback, ($15.00)

 

Anaphora Literary Press

www.anaphoraliterary.com

 

 

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March 2, 2013   Comments Off on Books: Native American Classics

Jack Zipes on Fairy Tales / Interview

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The Storytelling Instinct

or, Why Fairy Tales Stick

 By John Smelcer

Jack Zipes is arguably the world’s foremost scholar of the fairy tale. The body of his writings in the field over 40 years is astounding. He began his interest as a boy in 1946 after an encounter with none other than Albert Einstein, who told him that if he wanted to do well in life, he needed to study fairy tales. When the smartest man in the world gives you advice, take it. John Smelcer, Ragazine’s contributing editor, himself a folklorist who got his start after a similar encounter with Joseph Campbell, is currently at work re-visioning one of the world’s most beloved fairy tales. The author of two dictionaries of endangered Alaska Native languages (with forewords by Noam Chomsky, Stephen Pinker, and the Dalai Lama) and numerous books on Native American folktales, and with training in anthropology, linguistics, comparative literature, and the fairy tale, it was only fitting that the two should meet for this interview.

JS:       Today, perhaps as much or more than ever, fairy tales permeate our culture in literature, music, art, and especially cinema (consider the success of Disney and Shrek). And while we generally think of fairy tales as the realm of children, much of these mediums are for adults (consider Wicked). The question arises, with all our modernity and science and technology, why do fairy tales persist? I realize this is precisely the title of one of your recent books, Why Fairy Tales Stick (Routledge, 2006).

JZ:       If anybody asks me why fairy tales stick, I always respond with a question: Why do we breathe? We don’t know exactly how long human beings have told fairy tales, but we do know more or less that people began telling stories as soon as they were able to speak. They probably communicated with gestures, dancing, painting, and other artifacts even before they could speak. What kinds of tales did they tell? Clearly, they communicated warnings, instructions, explanations, and anything that helped them adapt to their environments and to survive. They also communicated with metaphors. Gradually, they embroidered and embellished their communications with descriptions and learned to construct their stories artfully to entertain, amuse, and instruct listeners. The more artful they became, the more the stories resonated, and since the early humans did not know how to write, they stored relevant stories in their brains. And, just as it was then, so it is now.

JS:       Your comment reminds me of something J. R. R. Tolkien, himself a linguist and scholar of the myth and fairy tale, wrote in Tree and Leaf, “Speaking of the history of stories and especially fairy-stories, we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling.” I agree that language is among our most important survival mechanisms. Noam Chomsky with his Minimalist Program and Steven Pinker in books like his The Language Instinct argue that we humans have not simply a propensity to acquire language, but an instinct to do so. They argue that our brains are genetically hard-wired for language. Like you, I have always conjectured that people began telling stories as soon as they were able to speak. It seems to be rational that our storytelling instinct coincides with and is sustained and transmitted by our language instinct (as far as I know, every culture on earth has a language and a corpus of stories, including myths, legends, and fairy tales—many of which, especially the more ancient ones, I dare say, find their way into the fabric of religion). At this point, it may be necessary to make a clarification. We’ve interchanged words like story, fairy tale, and myth. For this discussion, can we assume that we are broadly referring to the tradition that is storytelling, in whatever its form, realizing that each of these terms has its own definition?

Little Red Riding HoodJZ:       Yes, I agree, and as our capacity to speak and reason has developed, we have sorted the tales in our minds and tended to define them by the way we have employed them in socio-cultural contexts. Over hundreds of years, the sorting has led to the developments of genres of storytelling. In the process we have stored tales in our brains when they have been important for us to adapt to our environments. I have recently hypothesized that the most important stories in a culture become memes. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposed in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) that human beings are not only wired by their genes but also by their memes. Dawkins maintains that there is one fundamental law of life that he believes is undeniable: “the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary planet.”[i] Indeed, Dawkins argues that there is another new replicator that he calls a meme, a unit of cultural transmission. “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, and ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. . . . memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking; the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.” [ii]

JS:       I would add billions of times over. I recall reading The Selfish Gene as a high school student only a few years after its initial publication. I met Dawkins many years ago. He and I both studied at Oxford (though decades apart). I would support that this memetic mechanism may also influence the language instinct; indeed, it may be the language instinct. The ability to communicate ideas—warnings, instructions, and to coordinate warfare, hunting, or farming — would be so advantageous among groups as to necessitate transmission from generation to generation.

JZ:       Much to Dawkins’ surprise, his speculative remarks in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene has led to the flowering of memetics, which has become one of the more controversial scientific theories in the twenty-first century.[iii] The theory of memetics generally maintains that a meme is an informational pattern contained in a human brain (or in artifacts such as books or pictures) and stored in its memory, capable of being copied to another individual’s brain that will store it and replicate it. Susan Blackmore contends that a meme’s major trait is its capacity to be imitated and to replicate itself, and it is also what makes human beings different from all other animals. We copy and change all the time, and we are disposed to copying memes that want to be copied. “Memes spread themselves around indiscriminately without regard to whether they are useful, neutral, or positively harmful to us.”[iv] The memes battle each other for a secure place in the brain, and in order to survive, they must exhibit three major characteristics: fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. A meme must be able to be copied only somewhat in a faithful way; it must be shaped or formed in such a way that many copies can be made; it must be able to survive a long time so that many copies will be disseminated. In time some memes form a memeplex, which is a group of memes that facilitate replication and can be likened to a genre. According to Blackmore, memes co-evolve with genes, often influencing them, or becoming influenced by them. The dynamics will depend on the social and cultural environment.

JS:       I remember speaking to Dawkins about how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena, and specifically discussing his continued theory of replicators in his The Extended Phenotype (1982). At Oxford, Dawkins studied under Nobelist Nikolaas Tinbergen, whose own research interests lay in animal behavior, particularly instincts. Tinbergen was asking important questions such as why should animals have instincts and we have none? How are these instincts transmitted? Memes sound like the correct biological mechanism. About the notion that culture can influence genes/evolution, I recall one of the last episodes of Cosmos in which my friend Carl Sagan successfully illustrated how culture can influence genetics. As a model, he showed how Japanese fishermen inadvertently influenced (artificial) natural selection of the Heiki crab (Heikea japonica).

JZ:        Though memetics remains a hypothetical, if not speculative science, it seems to me that it offers a viable way to explore how the brains of humans function to store and disseminate tales, and among the tales we tell that deal with profound human and social problems are fairy tales which deal with sibling rivalry, jealousy, rape, violence, incest, infertility, reproduction, abuse, etc. The fairy tale is a hybrid genre that has evolved over thousands of years, and it offers a unique narrative mode that has developed and expanded with new means of technology. Today, certain fairy tales can be found throughout the world in startlingly different variants that bear resemblances to one another.

JS:       I certainly agree. Consider the ubiquitous flood myths or Alan Dundes’ (et al) worldwide mapping of the “Cinderella” story and its variations among diverse cultures and languages.

Speaking of languages, I’d like to clarify that while current theories on language acquisition support a universal propensity for all humans to learn languages, the theories are clear to note that this propensity is not toward any particular language. That is, a baby born in France is not programmed to learn French any more than she could learn Swahili or Mandarin or Ahtna (my second language). An interesting, yet highly unethical human subject test, would be to isolate a newborn, provide it with only basic nourishment and shelter, provide no communications of any kind, and see if the child would develop its own language and instinctually reinvent “Hansel and Gretel” or “Cinderella” or a storytelling tradition at all. I suspect that you would agree that fairy tales are not memetically replicated and transmitted in toto, but it is the idea of the tale, its essential archetypal message or symbol, which is replicated and transmitted? It seems to me that such a memetic process would support Jung’s “collective unconscious,” the idea that we share specific cultural memories (the way animals are born with certain instinctual knowledge). In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and The Occurrence in Dreams of Material from Fairy Tales (1913), Freud found fairy tales useful in illustrating his theories of symbols as expressing unresolved conflicts, anxieties, repressions and frustrations, attempting to discern the universal psychology of human behavior and culture. Even Joseph Campbell talked about “Deep Myths,” those stories or story motifs that are so old so as to have become universal archetypal symbols, disseminated over large geographic regions as humanity populated the planet. Perhaps, unbeknownst to Freud, Jung, and Campbell, those symbols they sought to interpret were indeed the memes of embedded cultural information exchange. To be sure, in my own research, I once documented an Eskimo myth from Alaska that appears to be from so deep in human history, that the only rationale for its existence is that its transmission must be memetic in nature.

JZ:       I certainly agree that fairy tales and other cultural artifacts, which may be referred to as memes, are not stored in toto in the brain. Nor are they disseminated with fidelity because we keep changing memetic tales just as we keep changing ourselves as we adapt to our environments. I would also argue that tales as memes are culturally determined and do not always endure if they lose their relevance in a particular society. Some evolutionary anthropologists such as Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Luigi Luca, Cavalli Sforza, and Dan Sperber have preferred to use terms such as cultural adapter, mental/public representation, or cultural character instead of meme to describe a particular cultural artifact that is processed in our brains and is disseminated to provide relevant information, important for the continual formation and transformation of a culture. Their works are grounded in the exploration of cognitive psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and the science of the brain. I am very wary of Jungian and Freudian psychology and don’t believe that they offer fundamental explanations of how tales, especially fairy tales, originate and are disseminated. I don’t use such terms as collective unconscious or archetype because they tend to be too universal and abstract. Tales emanate from concrete experience that stimulates the mind and imagination. They are historically specific articulations of shared experiences that have very different meanings for people in their particular societies. The fact that there are amazing similarities in tale types throughout the world has less to do with a collective unconscious or archetypes in our imagination than with natural and culturally defined human responses and reactions to similar manifestations in environments.

JS:       I’ve always said this about myths, in particular. To me, the reason why there are so many flood myths is because floods happen pretty much everywhere. People tend to settle along rivers and at the confluences of rivers. From a certain perception, a hundred-year flood appears to affect the world (at least a group’s notion of the world based on known geographic boundaries).

JZ:       The exciting thing about tales and storytelling is that they tell us how different we are from one another and how much we are alike at the same time. By tracing their socio-historical origins and studying the cultural patterns they create, we can learn how otherness is very much a part of us and how difference is to be respected. Much of the conflicts and disasters in our world today have arisen because we have tried to efface peculiar and strange differences in the name of rational cultural homogenization. My hope is that our tales and storytellers will continue to leave their imprint on the world by bearing in mind the socio-historical evolution of tales and compelling us to see the uniqueness of all cultural articulations whether they be fairy tales, myths, or legends.

 

Aaron Bennet

 

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References:
[i] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976): 192.

[ii] Ibid., 192.

[iii] For some of the more significant books on this topic, see Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (London: Penguin 1995); Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (Seattle: Integral Press, 1996);  Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society (New York: Basic Books, 1996); Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Robert Aunger, ed. Darwinizing Culture: The Status of  Memetics as a Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) and The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think (New York: Free Press, 2002). There is also an electronic journal, Journal of Memetics, http://jom-emit.cfpm.org, and numerous websites with important information and essays such as “Papers on Memetics,” http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be

[iv] Blackmore, The Meme Machine, 7.

Dundes, Alan. Cinderella: A Casebook. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Smelcer, John E. The Raven and the Totem (Anchorage: Salmon Run Press, 1992): 75-76.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965): 26.

 

About the interviewer:

Smelcer is the author of over 40 books, including Beautiful Words: The Complete Ahtna Poems (foreword by Noam Chomsky) and his short story collection, ALASKAN, edited in part by J. D. Salinger, John Updike, and Norman Mailer. You can read more about him in “About Us.”

October 28, 2012   1 Comment

Sarah Silbert / Creative Nonfiction

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Mondays Can Be Like Sundays

By Sarah Silbert

From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear.

                                 — Virginia, Woolf, “Kew Gardens”

 

Life’s pace feels far too fast. Days and weeks lift like startled birds from a field, disappearing before I’ve barely noticed them. For counterbalance, I’ve been re-reading Virginia Woolf’s short story, “Kew Gardens,” which illustrates an oval-shaped garden bed in a city park with the most un-hurried of descriptions. A grass blade, a spot of pollen, the shell of a snail – each bit of life is an adventure in exploration. Color, texture, shape, and light swirl together so that one’s consciousness becomes engulfed by the garden’s sensuality.

"I am thirty-nine. I have three young children: a seven-year-old stepdaughter, four-year-old son, and one-year-old daughter."

I am thirty-nine. I have three young children: a seven-year-old stepdaughter, four-year-old son, and one-year-old daughter. When I connect to my family as Woolf communed with Kew Gardens, my sense of wonder becomes so intense, I lose all form. Electrons and protons fly off, and I am light, shining out beyond my bones and skin, wafting into the sky and trees around me.

Human life doesn’t make such ecstasy easy. Take my kitchen sink. It is always full of dishes. By full, I mean jammed from edge to edge, as one person after another tries to shove one more cup or bowl in it. People start balancing dishes on top of other dishes, so the sink becomes a physics experiment of towers-that-might-or-might-not-fall. I can clean every single one of those dishes, go to the deck to hang laundry, and by the time I return, the sink is full again, and most likely, peas and raisins and the baby’s corn puffs cover the floor, which needs sweeping as often as the dishes need cleaning.

I am not complaining, merely illustrating why an artistic wonder for life is hard to sustain. Chores need doing, from changing a diaper to lighting a fire. Then add the paperwork of managing health, home and car insurance, taxes, doctor appointments, electric and propane bills. And all these daily duties are done around and beneath a job. For me, that means teaching a four-four load at a community college where students are as busy, if not more busy, than I.

Still, I believe our bodies and minds deserve a chance to sink into the rich and sensual details that make up our organic reality, because only then can we love it fully. I’ll never forget the words of a dear friend: “On your deathbed, are you going to regret not having vacuumed more?” From this perspective, much of what I do is distraction from what I will miss. To keep myself focused on what matters, I am writing about all that makes my heart zing.

Naked Wild Boy and Baby at the White River

People from cities and warmer territories cannot understand the omnipotence of winter in Vermont, when our whole world gets locked under ice. House roofs, yards, rivers, cars, fields and forests disappear under snow drifts as hard as granite in winter’s sub-zero temperatures. Color ceases. For seven months we live in black and white like stars lost in night.

White RiverWhat will always keep me is the drama of spring. This long-awaited season explodes out of the ice, a triumphant “hurrah!” of fireworks streaming red and gold and blue and green. With gigantic gulps, the earth swallows away the snow; rivers and ponds swell to bursting with sluicing waters. People walk along Main Street taking off hats and jackets, letting their faces and arms turn hot pink in the sun. They say hello to people they don’t know and “How-have-you-been?” to people they do.

This last spring, my kids burst barefoot out of the house at first light. Their skin was as white as the remaining snow piles, which they tore into with bare hands and threw at each other (and which baby Grace then ate). It was Monday, and I decided to take the two younger kids to the town park while their older sister Stella was at school.

Beside the park runs the Third Branch of the White River, and in spring, this path of water is a frothing ocean of movement. The kids heard it and smelled it before they saw it. Mix wind with a lion’s roar and the watery notes of blue jays at twilight, and you will know that springtime sound. The smells were of upturned earth, moss, and pine. We picked our way through a three-foot-high hedge of weeds, then clambered over rocks to find a small a beach of sand. I could feel the river’s spray from ten feet away.  Immediately, the kids kicked off their shoes. Clothes and diapers followed. Drew and Grace raced each other into the water, with me screaming behind them, “Beware the current!” Ignoring me, they danced in the water like wild horses kicking it up at the beach for a movie.

From the icy cold of the water, the kids raced back onto the sand, digging numb toes and fingers into its mammal-like warmth. Drew threw his body stomach-down and rolled until he was covered chocolate-brown from chin to foot. Then he embraced Grace so that she, too, was covered with sand. Soon enough, they were rolling in the sand together, with Drew screaming, “We are wild sand people, warm and wild sand people!” After five minutes, the sand people pulled each other up and raced back into the water to rinse off, and then they were diving back into the sand, and on and on it went.

Hours passed. Their exuberance never flagged. Eventually, I had to pick Stella back up from school, and I knew, too, that food would soon be necessary. So I chased Drew and Grace back through the weeds to the parking lot where kids laughed and called to each other: “Look at that naked boy and baby!” I didn’t even bother trying to get clothes on them, just wrapped their sandy bodies in their shirts and strapped them into their car seats, planning to hose them down once we arrived back home. They fought me hard, begging not to go home, pleading with me to let them stay free.

“May you stay free,” I thought, settling in my own seat and turning the key. I vowed right then not to lose the rest of the day to have-to’s. Homework, bills, my three stacks of student papers – NO. Even dinner could be a game of hot dogs cooked over an open fire and eaten straight off the stick. The sand people live on!

Crashing Cymbals and Congas on the 15th Day of Rain in June

June in Vermont means rain. Mist swirls, winds blow, and down it comes. In this fertile climate, weeds grow a foot high in a week. Milkweed and meadowsweet reach like seaweed into waving sheets of gray that swipe over the land.

The kids don’t care: they strip down and run outside naked, splashing in puddles as big as bathtubs and making sloppy soups in buckets overflowing with mud and grass. Eventually, they get cold, their feet white and shriveled, their lips blue. That’s when we pull out the drums from underneath the stairs and set up in the living room.

We’ve got two congas and a full drum set, plus all kinds of pots and pans. Grace loves to balance on her high chair and smack her palms on the congas. Drew likes to take charge behind the drum set, whacking at cymbals and snares as if to break them. Stella is always the dancer, twirling around and leaping with colorful scarves flowing out of her hands.

Between songs, the kids take breaks for dress up. This last rainy day, Drew ended up in the pink tutu. Stella got the pirate pants and hat, and Grace wore butterfly wings and a baseball cap put on sideways hip-hop style.  We played musical pillows, indoor soccer with a beach ball, a little gymnastics, and then Eric walked through the door. He was a professional drummer for fifteen years, so when he settles behind the drum set, the house sucks in a deep breath, getting ready to really let go into some body-thumping rhythms. Forget the rain, forget the gray: when Eric plays, the room transforms as purple, white and gold birds swoop overhead, and all five of us swing arms and hips and hair. We toss toys and catch them over our heads or behind our backs. We call out loud to each other and to our own dancing bodies – “Alley-oop!”

I don’t always feel happy or passionate or even awake. Occasionally, my eyes feel black, and I want to hide under a blanket and pretend I have no job, no kids, no one at all in my life. The drums change all that. My feet move as if operated by a happy person’s strings. I see all kinds of colors, and then I become them, stretching out of my rainy day malaise into a rainbow, believing once again: Yes, yes, the pot of gold is here, right here, right now.

The Wonder of Losing a Bottle Cap in a Couch

Stella was at school. Drew was at pre-school. Eric was at work. The day outside was cold and rainy. The baby and I looked at each other. Sometimes you want a party, and no one’s around! Grace was tired of the animal book with different textures of fur on every page. She was tired of the blocks she’d learned to fit together only a few days ago. She was even tired of Drew’s electric choo-choo trains and told me so by throwing all three off the couch.

“Well, then, what do you want to do, Grace?”

She had no response other than to throw yet another toy off the couch. Feeling a bit blank, I reached around her to grab my water bottle and take a swallow. The top of the bottle was loose and fell off as I pulled it from the window sill to my mouth.

“Ooops.”  I was about to get the top when I noticed Grace. Her eyes were huge, as if a genie had flown out of the bottle. She lifted her hands, palms up, right in front of her face and gave one of her telltale squawks:

“Wenghhh?!”

The gesture she used is the exact one we use when we play ball. I throw the ball, then lift my hands in that exact position and exclaim, “Where’d the ball go?” So now, I asked her, “Where’d the top go?”

She repeated her squawk and held the hand gesture perfectly. I moved a pillow, looked into the depths of the couch. Grace looked with me. And there it was, glowing like an exotic, white orb. Grace screamed. I screamed. Then Grace plunged her hand in and got the top and held it out to me with her eyes shining like two planets reflecting the sun.

I applauded her, then took the top. Grace screamed and applauded me. I tossed the top in the air, and together we watched it rise, fall, then disappear.

Grace: “Squawk” and hand gesture.

Sarah: “Where’d it go?” and hand gesture.

Repeat three times.

Finally, we moved a pillow, then another, until…ahhhh YES! There was the treasured white orb! We clapped hands for a solid minute.

I believe we played this game for a full hour. At no moment during this hour did Grace’s enthusiasm wane. She was enraptured. Here’s the top…Now it’s flying…Now it’s gone…BUT MAMA AND I CAN FIND IT!!!

A feeling of magic began to sparkle inside of me. I felt so lucky to be able to play with my baby like this, in the middle of the day, without any worry or guilt. I didn’t have a thought for dishes or dinner or that long list of professional projects taped to the fridge (highlighted with arrows and exclamation marks). I was as lost in the wonder of that bottle top disappearing in the couch as Gracie was.

When Grace’s older brother was born, I wasn’t so free. His dad was working sixty hours a week sixty miles away, and Drew was either with me at work or in a college dorm hanging out with my team of babysitting students. After our own work day, Drew would be on my back in a pack as I got wood from the back yard and wheel-barrowed it inside to re-start the fire in the woodstove. We’d make dinner, do laundry, and take care of all that stuff one has to manage when caring for a home and child. We were a powerful team, Drew and I, and we had some fun, but we didn’t get to do a lot of hanging out.

Grace and I, in contrast, have had it easier. I’m on sabbatical and don’t have to be on campus all day. Eric is working closer to home, part-time. So I can lose myself in the wonder of my baby’s wonder, and we can play a game. We can watch a piece of plastic disappear, and then we can make it re-appear by moving a few pillows. We learn together: what gets lost, can be found.

Thank  you, Grace, for this moment, two people, so happy, grateful, full of love.

Dates with Drew

Being a big brother can be so hard. Sometimes Drew throws himself across my lap, fingers and toes dangling towards the floor as he sobs. His heart pounds rhythms of pain into my knees; his cries break like glass in my ears. I wish I could give him relief. I run my palms over his soft blond curls and rub his back as he cries and cries and cries.

Before Grace was born, I was all Drew’s, especially the lap-of-me. He could crawl on it anytime, for two-and-a-half years, and then, all of a sudden, a baby was there. And she was there all the time! Nursing, nursing, nursing!

"Drew and I did everything together...."Almost as horrific as the loss of the lap are the toys. The baby’s gotten old enough to take them. She grabs them out of their assigned roles in Drew’s elaborate choo-choo train and tractor dramas, and then she runs away with them, wrecking everything.

She’s also horribly cute. She has red hair and red cheeks and a smile that gets everyone playing with her. It’s sickening, and it’s sad, and sometimes for Drew the whole world sucks.

“Choose three things that are sacred for you and your son,” my midwife told me before Grace was born, “and continue to do them after his little sister comes along. Let him know that no matter how many changes are occurring, you still have your sacred three things.”

I couldn’t think of only three things. Drew and I did everything together. He came to work with me and played with toys in my office or sat on my lap as I typed, and he even came to class. He was also my social buddy, accompanying me whenever I visited friends or went to movies, parties, or concerts. Most importantly, we walked the woods together. Every day, sometimes early, sometimes late, I’d wrap him in sheepskin, give him two Fig Newtons, settle him in his “napwagon” (a jogging stroller), and head out into the woods. We sang together on these travels, a made-up melody with words about flowers and birds or snow and mountains, depending on the season. Eventually, Drew would sleep, and I imagined his dreams full of the forest’s fresh air. When we returned home, we’d bathe, and then we’d do chores or visit friends for dinner. Before sleep, we would read at least ten books, and… How could I possibly choose three things out of an entire life?

What I was able to do was pick one afternoon that would always be ours. Every Thursday, Eric takes the girls, and I pick up Drew at his Montessori Pre-School. In the back of my car is Drew’s “tall” bike, which he rides across town to the cafe, where we eat a pumpkin muffin and read ten (or more!) books. My lap is all his during this time, and so is the rest of me. If friends happen to pass through the cafe, and I say hi to them, Drew puts his hands on both sides of my face and begs, “Please read, Mom!”

When Drew’s ready, we go back outside to bike anywhere and everywhere. My backpack flaps like crazy as I run after my speed freak up sidewalks, across fields, and down slippery banks to the river. We go and go and go until twilight hits and the air gets dark and cold.

This bike ritual must be honored no matter what the weather. When the sidewalks are slick with ice and the wind-chill drops below zero, we’re still out there wearing face masks and boots. If it’s raining, we get soaked, and I bring towels for us so we can dry off in the cafe. Our bike rides have become a part of town lore, and the local paper even ran a colored photo of Drew racing through a puddle as wide as the road. I feel such a thrill running by my boy’s side: we’re a team, he and I, indomitable and joyous and fast.

These dates are sacred also because, in between bike rides and books, we get a chance to talk. Drew opens up about friends, feelings, favorite and least favorite foods, imaginary building designs, toys, places he wishes to travel. Words flow out of him, like bubbles released from an empty bottle held underwater, and I become, again, startled and awake: here is this boy, my boy, thinking and feeling and dreaming his way through our universe! So often, parenthood is too full of trying to feed, clean, influence, and control one’s kids. I treasure this time where I am, instead, free to connect to Drew, exactly as he is, in the midst of our ever-changing lives. You were my first burst of new life, dear Drew, and let’s always zoom off to crazy adventures together!

Love in a Field

Kids are great, they’re a parent’s reason for living… BUT… BUT… BUT…sometimes you have to leave them in somebody else’s care. A million reasons for occasional separations exist, but I’ll focus on the most fervent: You’ve got to have time with the person with whom you made them.

Eric’s birthday is in late May, and we’ve started a tradition of abandoning our little ones with grandparents early in the morning. We pack a slim backpack with water and cookies (No diapers! No extra clothes and multiple baggies of healthy snacks and bug-off and sunscreen and wipes and toys!), and we take off into the woods.

We have always loved to hike together. This early morning, when mist was still thick beneath the trees, we found our way to a river, climbed over one small mountain, and passed through groves of hemlock, then maple, then hemlock again. Our conversation rambled on like the land, touching upon all kinds of wishes – to see Scotland and gallop horses over the moors, to make a map of our territory and give names to all our favorite spots, to sell our novels and give money to our passions (hydro research for him, runaway girls for me). The sun climbed high, and the air warmed. Sometimes we held hands; sometimes we walked single-file. We always felt close.

Around noon, we wound our way back to the homestead, stopping for water and rest in the Upper Meadow. This twelve-acre circle of green has always enchanted me. It’s the first place on the land that made me say, “Yes,” knowing I wanted to live here forever. Far from roads and homes, it is fully enclosed by thick, stately trees at least half a century old. The grass is tall and soft. In the breeze, it looks like a sea cove of gentle waves.

On Eric’s birthday, bright yellow buttercups, orange paintbrush, and cobalt bedstraw were bouncing everywhere. I sighed, sinking down into the tall grasses, pulling Eric down with me. How could I not? Holding hands with a lover in the woods while dreaming like kids is the most delicious form of foreplay. Our clothes came off, and he was inside me as quickly as a starling opens its wings and lifts off ground into air.

And that’s where I felt I was – in air – spinning around and dancing upside down on the sky-blue floor of the world. I could feel the cool earth on my bare back, and then, when we rolled over, a warm breeze embraced me as I rose over Eric. His red curls became green grass, and his eyes closed. We rolled over again, and again. The land held us as we held each other. How luxurious not to be in a rush or behind a closed door! With such an abundance of time, love, and relaxation, every part of one’s body can join in that magical swell of release that lifts two people into the stars right in the middle of the day.

“Happy Birthday,” I sighed, when we lay later entwined on the grass with the wildflowers still dancing. Clouds had moved into the sky, and a few drops of rain started to fall. Yet we dressed slowly and held hands again while walking down the hill to the homestead, ready to grab hold of our kids and re-enter the world. May our birthdays always be magic, just like this.

Peter’s Pond

Late afternoons can be tough. The baby becomes a desperate nursing machine, and Drew needs hugs and lap-time RIGHT NOW! Stella struts in her sarcastic costume, and dinner, oh dinner isn’t ready. It’s not even started, because I don’t know what it’s going to be. Yet it must be dinnertime, because Eric’s here, covered in sweat, diesel fumes, and dirt, exhausted from cutting down a hundred trees and…and…and…I don’t want to deal with any of these people. I want to go for a walk. I want to sit somewhere by a tree. I want to write so the movements of my mind can solidify into language.

Thank the gods for Eric. When he notices that all-familiar desperation gripping me, he places his warm, large palms on my shoulders, leans his scratchy chin near my cheek, and “Want to go running?” he asks. I sigh with such gusto that my breath probably causes waves in the Atlantic. He doesn’t even wait for an answer, just gathers up the kids and lets me hunt for my running shoes.

For some people, running is a have-to. They do it to make their legs and hearts strong, or for some other end. They don’t enjoy it, and they wish that the trial would end the whole time they’re doing it. The opposite is true for me. Running is my relief, my passion, and it’s even become my vice. I want to do it every day, for an hour, or two! And what adult in this modern western world gets an hour or two of time alone every single day?

I gallop up the hill anyway. I feel so light! I hear no human voices, not even my own. There is only the breath of the sky in the trees and the breath of me, one, two, three. I inhale colors – blue and gold and green – and I exhale every single bit of my life, high chairs and car seats and voice mails and emails. I breathe faster and harder, and my legs kick up even more speed, and my arms, too. Eventually the more sticky stuff gets breathed out – the emotional tensions between siblings, between Stella’s mom’s household and ours, between my wish to be a stay-at-home mom and my drive to be a professional writer. I breathe it out, out, out. I’ve been addicted to running ever since I was in high school and learned that frustration and fatigue can dissipate into flight. So I breathe and run, breathe and run. By mile three, I’m more air than flesh, and the bones of my back open into wings. I’m not on the ground anymore. Thank God. I love this earth, but I sure love leaving it, too.

If I have more than an hour, I stop for a moment at Peter’s Pond. This bit of water sits at the top of the mountain, clean as rain. Maybe it’s fifty feet in diameter, surrounded by grass and lupines. I’ve been swimming in this pond for five years now. I first jumped into it when I was pregnant with Drew. He was conceived in December, and once college classes ended in the following May, I began to walk up the mountain every day. A strange fatigue had inhabited me, and I could no longer run. Neither could I be still, though. I had a lot on my mind, and not much of it felt good. Drew’s father and I were fighting terribly, and so were my mother and I. My closest friend died of cancer, and I felt terribly alone without any kind of home or refuge.

The single source of light in my life at that time was Drew. I was utterly enchanted by this growing life within me. I hugged my baby all the time, wrapping my arms around my growing belly and holding tightly. Every morning, I filled a water bottle and took off up the mountain, talking to my baby, letting him smell river water and wildflowers with me. We listened to the mourning doves, the jays, the grouse. I had to rest often on my hikes, and lying on my back in a grassy field, I’d lift my shirt so the sun could sparkle in my baby’s eyes.

When spring became summer, and temperatures climbed into the nineties, that’s when I discovered the blessing of Peter’s pond. Peter had been inviting me to use it for years, but I had always felt shy. Now, I was still shy but desperate enough to let that shyness go. The pond hides about three hundred yards away from the road, so one day in June I just stripped down at its bank and jumped in.

The water made me gasp! I might even have cried out. It was so cold I felt I’d swallowed an ice cube as big as me. My heart beat wildly enough to make waves of its own.

None of these sensations mattered, though, because I also felt the baby kick. And that  sensation eclipsed everything. It eclipsed the pond, me, and the whole world. When at last I was able to climb out of the pond and collapse on the grassy bank, I placed my hands on my goose-pimpled belly and waited for more. “Baby, talk to me again. Morse code. Come on.” I didn’t know Drew was a boy then, so I always just called him, “Baby.” I talked to him often, even before he’d been conceived, but by that pond, with his movements, I finally found an answer.

Every day after that first dip, I swam in Peter’s pond until Drew was born. I did somersaults in the water, floated on my back, dove down deep to plunge my hands into its murky bottom. My mind was so tied up with fears and hurt, but my body felt delicious. So I stayed there, in my body, in Peter’s pond, talking with my baby, the two of us swimming in God’s waters together.

After Drew was born in September, I took a short break from the pond, but by spring, I was back there again, this time with Drew asleep in the jogger. We’d run up the mountain together, and I’d dive in the pond to cool off, and then we’d run back down. Sometimes dragonflies and butterflies would perch on Drew’s arm while I swam. He always seemed so serene in his stroller in the shade of maples.

Peter’s pond has continued to stay with me through even more changes. Eric and I no longer feel like separate entities: we are pledged partners, and his daughter Stella is a consistent and beloved presence in our household. Grace is with us now, too, and our family of five feels like a magical five-pointed star.

More changes are that Eric has brought animals to our land. We have pigs and ducks and cows and turkeys now. Other animals may arrive in the future. (The kids are begging for bunnies and goats.) The gardens have expanded dramatically, and we’ve planted three fruit trees and a red oak. The little clearing and cabin I created eleven years ago has become a lively, even stately homestead.

Family changes are not the only ones to have occurred over these last years of my first becoming a mom. Three presidents have been in charge of our country; wars have ended and re-begun. Gas has tripled in cost, and food seems to have doubled. The stock market has crashed, and so has the housing market.

Everyone’s life is in flux; it’s good to have a touchstone. Standing beside Peter’s pond, then swimming deep into its core, I’m able to feel and even be familiar to myself, no matter how much change has occurred in my life or family or country. And from that place of familiarity, I’m able to see the changes clearly and to evaluate them. I open my arms to the dark waters. I give thanks to all who helped this season exist exactly as it has for my family and me. I don’t stay long. I can’t wait to hug my kids, my man, my home, my life.

 ………………………………………………………………………………………………….……………………………………

About the author:

Sarah Silbert lives and writes in Vermont with her partner and their three children. She serves as an associate professor at Vermont Tech, where she specializes in creative writing and service learning and coordinates a community literacy program for elementary school children. She has published essays in The Sun, Ploughares, Agni, Hope Magazine and other journals.

 

August 25, 2012   Comments Off on Sarah Silbert / Creative Nonfiction

The Social Disconnect/Culture

 

Recognize this?

 

The Postmodern Economic-Social Principals

of Why Everyone Is Such a F**king A**hole

 

By Scott “Galanty” Miller

 Myth #1: As a society, we’re closer than ever now because of the Internet and other forms of mass media. We’re all “connected”.

Define “closer”. Define “connected”. Millions of people are “connected” to Kim Kardashian. They follow her on Twitter. They watch her television programs. They wear her clothing line. They read about her personal life. But are they “close” to Kim Kardashian? No. They’re not. I watched Kim Kardashian’s wedding on TV. I didn’t see you there. You weren’t invited. You and Kim Kardashian aren’t close.

The Internet connects us in superficial ways, via the exchange of information. But yet the Internet pulls us farther apart emotionally. It separates us. Why? Because it’s big. It’s vast.

Have you ever had to relay sad news to someone? It’s difficult. It’s an emotional experience. But now let’s say you had to give sad news to fifty people today. It’s difficult the first time… and then the second time… and maybe the third time. But by the time you’ve reached the fiftieth person of the day? Your emotions and compassion and your ability-to-empathize have faded. And your feelings of “I have an emotional connection to this person” shift to “I have a craving for burritos. Is Taco Bell still open?” By the time you’ve reached the fiftieth person of the day, you’re just phoning it in. Hence, we have the expression “phoning it in”, which means, essentially, “lacking emotional interest in whatever activity in which you are engaged”. And the Internet is – figuratively and literally – a big cell phone.

Myth #2: As a society, we’re more compassionate than ever now because of the Internet and other forms of mass media.

A story came out about a dolphin that lost its fin in an accident. So engineers built a prosthetic fin. That’s compassion. A Disney movie was produced, based on this true event. And that’s nice. But this is an individual example of the human spirit, our species’ biological ability to feel and display compassion and kindness. This is not “society”. Society is much more powerful than ‘biology’. Society guides us. It teaches us.  Society is “The Cove”, a 2009 documentary film about the annual, inhumane dolphin slaughter inJapan. Biologically, human beings have the ability to understand – to “feel” – this cruelty. So then why are people such a**holes? Because we’re being guided by a corporate “Internet” society. And this technological economy has no compassion. It can’t. The economy doesn’t have the biological ability to “feel”. Our economic system doesn’t even have a biology.

Compassion requires an emotional connection. All human relationships require an emotional connection of some kind. Otherwise, the relationship is not of humanity. It’s just a “goal”. The direct and indirect interactions we have with other people within the massive global economic system are not relationships. They’re goals. If one purchases a picture frame from Amazon.com, there are several people involved: the customer who wants to buy the frame, the Amazon employee who puts wraps the frame and ships it, the subcontracted worker in some factory in a foreign country who makes the frame. These people are superficially connected, but they don’t really have a “relationship” with each other. Instead, they each have a  goal. One person’s goal is to buy the frame. Another person’s goal is to ship the frame. As it relates to achieving their goals, these people have no emotional connection to each other. They don’t know anything about each other. As it relates to achieving their goals, they don’t really think about one another’s existence. And you can’t show compassion towards someone if you don’t know they exist.

The Hallmark Company employs writers to come up with generic words of sympathy. And they’re nice words. But do these writers actually feel anything when they string together these words? Can you mass-market sympathy for people who may or may not even exist? (I suspect that while Hallmark sells many sympathy cards, many of those same cards never wind up getting bought or used.)

Now, of course, within our own private social media world, we are aware of the people to whom we’re technologically connected. But they’re not so much living, breathing human beings as they are pictures and words on a screen. And so the compassion we show is a façade. If one announces the death of his or her mother on Facebook, hundreds of Facebook “friends” – many of whom the person hasn’t seen in years, if ever – will respond with words of compassion. But can they actually feel compassion here? Perhaps. But how authentic can this sort of compassion possibly be? One of my Facebook friends was the victim of domestic abuse. She updated her status to announce, only minutes after the real event occurred, that her husband had been taken away in police custody. Dozens of her Facebook friends added “like” to her status. “Human compassion” now amounts to the 1.5 seconds required to press the “like” tab.

Myth #3: Corporations can operate with compassion and heart.

No. Corporations don’t have compassion. Corporations don’t know compassion. By definition, any human emotion interferes with the goal of the corporation. A corporation isn’t a human being. And now, a corporation isn’t even a building or a logo or a product. Corporate America – this landscape ruled by technological machinery – is a system whose only goal is to maximize profits.

Think of it this way. How does a calculator work? A calculator is designed to achieve its goals. Any sort of “human emotion” would interfere with this goal. If you input “2+2=” into a calculator, the machine is designed to achieve its goal, which is to find the mathematic answer to the equation. (The answer is “4”, by the way.) The calculator doesn’t think about why you’re inputting this unsolved equation. The calculator doesn’t have the ability – it isn’t designed with the ability – to “think” in this way. And even if it did have the ability to think in this way, it still wouldn’t take time to ponder the “why”. Because that would slow down the process… of achieving its goal. The calculator doesn’t make moral decisions about the equation. Perhaps you want to find the mathematical answer to “2+2=” in order to help you plan out a bank robbery, or a quadruple homicide. It doesn’t matter. The calculator doesn’t care. The calculator doesn’t make moral judgments. The calculator can’t have a “morality”.

Now, human beings have emotions. And human beings are using the calculator. They are operating the calculator. But this makes no difference to the system by which the calculator achieves its goals. Whether a person is nice or mean-spirited, compassionate or heartless, the calculator still operates in the same way. The way by which the calculator solves “2+2=” is the exact same. The speed by which the calculator solves “2+2=” is the exact same. A human being’s emotions are irrelevant to how the calculator functions.

When a driver cuts you off in traffic, he or she is generally not basing this action on emotion. Rather, you are simply in the way of the other driver’s goal – which is to reach their destination as quickly and conveniently as possible. Think of a calculator as that driver. The calculator is a selfish a**hole.

The economy guides society. This is inescapable. Even if you live in isolation, you’re still under the influence of the system by which K-Mart and Burger King and ‘Bed, Bad & Beyond’ operate. The economy guides human beings. And the economy is a giant, global-reaching calculator that controls us.

 

Group Size vs. The Postmodern Corporate System

Have you ever been the first guest to arrive at a party? (That happened to me once. And, as it turned out, I was also the only guest at the party. This was not a good party.) When you’re the first guest at a party, you converse with the host. And if the host is a good friend, this one-on-one conversation is sometimes very personal, emotional. Maybe your mother has been ill. The host will ask you about your mother. And you’ll spend a few minutes discussing how this illness has affected you personally.

Then a couple more people arrive to the party. If you don’t know them, you’ll introduce yourself. And so now this group of four people – you, the host, and these two new arrivals – is having one united conversation. (“2+2=4”) At this point, you will have stopped talking about your mother’s illness because it’s too “personal” to share within this bigger group, especially since you barely know some of the people in the group. As the group grows, you’re already losing personal, emotional connections.

This group of four people generally engages in conversation in the living room or the kitchen. At parties, guests tend to gravitate towards the kitchen.

Then three more people arrive at the party. Once again, even if you don’t know them, you’ll introduce yourself. And now there are seven people at the party. Yet, the party still consists of a single, united (though larger) group. And the group still engages in one united conversation. And the group still forms a pseudo-circle, with each individual knowingly taking a spot within the perimeter of the circle. And the group remains in the living room or in the kitchen.

After the ninth or tenth person arrives at the party, though, that big group starts to break down, figuratively and literally. The big, united conversation transforms into several different, separate conversations within the group… usually depending on the distance the guests are standing from each other. Partygoers become disconnected with the people in the group that are farther away. Guests begin having individual or smaller conversations with the one or two other people standing next to them. Also, guests start exiting from the original party circle; they leave the living room or kitchen and go to different rooms and areas, where they continue with their individual conversations.

There is a reason for this party dynamic. It’s not coincidental. Rather, it’s impossible to sustain a human connection with ten people at one time. It’s impossible to connect on any sort of real emotion level with ten people at once. Because not only are you talking to nine other people at once. But those other nine people are also talking to nine people at once. And this amounts to thousands of different interactions.

This party dynamic explains the corporate takeover of global society. This party dynamic explains Wal-Mart’s rise to power. And within this corporatization, human compassion has given way to emotionless goals.

 

Dyads and Triads 

A dyad is a social group between two members. A dyad is, by definition, the smallest possible social group of human beings; it’s the smallest possible “society”. Less than two people is just one person. One person by him or herself is not a society. Rather, it’s social isolation.

A dyad is, by definition, the most emotionally and personally intense and intimate social group that can exist. It’s the most emotional. It’s the most intimate. It’s the most personal social group. But a dyad is almost the most unstable social group. It’s the least stable.

A marriage is a dyad. A marriage consists of two people: a husband and a wife. (Or a ‘husband and a husband’ or a ‘wife and a wife’, depending on which state you live.) A marriage is very personal, emotional, intimate. The kinds of things that you do with your spouse behind closed doors is much more intimate and personal than the kinds of things you do with, say, your co-worker. But yet a marriage is also very unstable. Because if just one person leaves the marriage, the marriage will disintegrate. Hence, the divorce rate is so high. (See? All topics always come back to Kim Kardashian.)   

Two friends together make up a dyad. And two friends together are more intimate, more personal, they’ll share more secrets… than if a group of five friends are together. But a dyad is unstable. For example, if you’re meeting just one friend out to dinner, and that person cancels at the last minute, then there is no dinner. On the other hand, if you’re meeting five friends out for dinner, and one of those friends cancels at the last minute… then you’ll still go out with this group of four other people.

A triad is a social group consisting of three people. In other words, a triad is bigger than a dyad.

A triad is more stable than a dyad. But it’s not as emotionally intense. It’s not as personal.

If a married couple is meeting with a marriage counselor, this is a triad: a husband, a wife, and the marriage counselor. Of course, it’s not as personally intimate as a dyad. A married couple isn’t going to do the same things behind closed doors (or, for that matter, even argue with as much emotional passion) as they would in their counselor’s office.  But a triad is more stable. For example, if one of the spouses gets upset during the marital consultation, and he or she leaves the office, a group still exists: the other spouse and the counselor.

A family of three – a husband, a wife, and a child – make up a triad. The emotional atmosphere is not as intense as if the couple were alone. The couple is not going to do and say the same sort of things in front of their child as if they were alone. But this group of three is more stable. Because if the father walks out on his family, the family still exists: the mother and her child.

The point? As a social group grows bigger, it becomes more stable. But as a social group grows bigger, it becomes less personal. A triad is not as personal as a dyad, but it’s more stable. A group of ten people is not as personal as a triad, but it’s more stable. Thousands of people together are not as personal as a group of ten, but “thousands of people together” is more stable. A corporation is “thousands of people together”. Hence, the biological aspects of human compassion, emotions, are irrelevant within a corporation. Hence, a corporation isn’t really human at all.

This has been the basis for economic change over the past 30 years. Corporations – giant, unfeeling groups – have taken over the economic landscape, leaving smaller businesses irrelevant. Individually-owned, independently operated businesses, “Mom & Pop Stores”, were personal. Everyone working in the store knew each other by their first names. But those small stores and businesses weren’t stable. Wal-Mart isn’t personal. If you work at Wal-Mart, you don’t know the other two-million employees within the corporation. You’re not going to know their names. You can’t know all of their names. But Wal-Mart survives for this very reason; Wal-Mart is big and stable and it is guided, not by individual emotion, but by its system, it’s goal.

Take, for example, a small, individually-owned business: “Joe’s Diner”. The purpose of “Joe’s Diner” is not to grow larger. Rather, Joe, the owner, operates the business with the goal of maintaining a steady, consistent profit margin and keeping the diner afloat. Plus, Joe, a human being, probably has other goals irrelevant of profit. For example, perhaps Joe wants to cook and prepare the food in the way he thinks best. Or maybe he enjoys maintaining the aesthetics of the diner’s interior; he hangs up photographs and wall art that have special meaning to him. And maybe Joe works to keep his business alive because it has a history in the community; all the folks in town have fond memories of eating at Joe’s place, and this is important to Joe. This is human emotion. But today, as a necessity to how corporations fulfill their singular goal – to be as profitable as possible, as efficiently as possible – these goal must take precedence over any real emotional, human connection.

Corporations are becoming more and more automated and impersonal. And as the economy guides society, human lives become more impersonal. The economy – this aspect of society – is, in the bigger picture, changing who we are.

The world of “Joe’s Diners” is fading. McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Pizza Hut have taken over. Take, for example, McDonald’s. McDonald’s is, by definition, a robotic system in which corporate stability comes ahead of people. McDonald’s, in order to maintain itself as a profit-making system, must keep corporate stability ahead of the individual needs and emotional of people… because people are always leaving McDonald’s. Low-level employees are constantly leaving McDonald’s. Middle-managers are constantly leaving McDonald’s. Not even the McDonald’s CEO remains the same. But yet… McDonald’s remains stable.

Conduct a five-year social study. Today, go to a nearby McDonald’s. The restaurant will have a certain “look” about it. The system used within the restaurant, like how you order your food, will be very specific. The food will have a certain taste. Five years from now, go to that same McDonald’s. The staff will be different. In five years, many, if not most, of the employees working there now will be gone. But, yet, five years from now, the restaurant will have the same generic “look”. The system used within that McDonald’s will be the same. The food will still taste the same.

“Joe’s Diner” has a certain look. But if Joe retires and someone takes over the restaurant, it will start to look different. The new owner will add his or her own personal, human touch to the diner. The new owner’s human emotions will play a factor in how the diner operates and changes. (And if the diner, now under new management, doesn’t change, it is will mostly likely be in honor of Joe. But, still, the human element plays a part.) If Joe dies, and someone else takes over the restaurant from him, the food will start to taste different. The new owners, the new cooks, will add their own personal food-preparation touches.

At McDonald’s, all of this is irrelevant. If McDonald’s introduces a new CEO tomorrow, then McDonald’s hamburgers will still taste the same tomorrow. And all corporations – all the goods and services that we use – operate in this way. Corporate stability takes precedence over humanity.

This is not to say that corporations don’t engage in charitable endeavors. But even this charity lacks any sort of human element. Corporations donate money, for example, based on how the donation functions within the corporation’s system of purpose. In other words, corporations aren’t created for the purposes of making donations to charitable foundations.

Here’s another way of putting it…

Corporations don’t give money to charity based on any sort of human element within the corporation. Pizza Hut donates a certain amount of money each year. The Pizza Hut CEO is irrelevant of this aspect of the corporate system. If Pizza Hut introduces a new CEO this year, the charitable aspect of the restaurant chain won’t really change. Pizza Hut will still give essentially the same monetary amounts to essentially the same charities as it did the year before. The new CEO’s emotions, his or her own interests and creativity, doesn’t play a factor. So when Pizza Hut donates to charity, it is reminiscent of people pressing the “like” tab after my Facebook friend’s abusive husband was arrested. It’s fake compassion. There is no real human element to it.

This “like tab” culture is socializing and affecting us – all of us. Regardless of whether you eat at McDonald’s, we’re still unable to escape the corporate element that it represents. We see it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re engulfed within it. And we’re becoming a robotic people numb to new ideas and afraid of change and without any creativity. We’re changing as we’re being guided by this alienating economic system.

 

“Everyone is a F**king A**hole Now” vs. The Corporate System


Ask anyone if they ever worked in a small, individually-owned store or restaurant or business. If they did, ask them if they knew the name of their boss – not their manager, but their boss, the person who owned the business. Ask them if their boss knew their name.  In all likelihood, the answer to these questions will be “yes”.

Now ask anyone if they ever worked in a big-chain, corporate business, like KFC or Target or Bank of America. If they did, ask them if they knew the name of their boss – not their manager, but their boss, the CEO of the corporation. More times than not, the answer will be “no”. Then ask them if their boss knew their name. The answer will almost always be “no”.

Let’s say you have a job, you work for a business, and you get sick for a month. If you and your boss know each other, if you and your boss know each other’s name, then of course your boss will be more understanding of your situation. That’s humanity. We feel compassion for those to whom we are emotionally connected.  Now, if you get sick and your boss has no idea who you are, and he or she doesn’t know your name, and he or she never even sees you… then he won’t care and he’ll have no problem replacing you. That’s human nature. We don’t care about what we don’t know exists.

Of course, giant corporations generally have some sort of employee health plan. But this health plan works within the structure of the system. It’s a necessary aspect of the goal of the corporation. There is no individual human emotion to any corporate health plan. There is no corporation inAmericatoday whose health plan includes a personal visit from the CEO, just to “see how you’re doing”.

If you’re close to someone – if you’re in a dyad relationship – the person means something to you emotionally. If you’re not close to someone – if you’re living within the system of a corporation, surrounded by millions of coworkers – then the person doesn’t mean anything to you emotionally. This is the nature of human beings and all living creatures.

In order to fulfill this goal, corporations must continue to grow. Corporations must continue to get bigger and to grow more powerful and to multiply their profit margins. The corporation is, by definition, a system of economic growth. The human beings that occupy the corporation are irrelevant. The individuals within the corporation come and go. But the system remains. Only a human being can say, “Our profits are growing at the expense of the environment, so let’s change the system and slow things down.” Only a person can say, “Our Corporation’s goal is causing the social ennui of this community, so we should change our goals.” Without the human element, the system remains.

That corporations have become global enterprises is simply an inevitable product of the corporation’s growth. And every corporation is global now. Every corporation is part of the international community now, if only indirectly. Perhaps there are no Wal-Marts, yet, in third-world nations around the world. But Wal-Mart’s influence is still felt world-wide. Most of the products sold at Wal-Mart are not domestic. Wal-Mart merchandise is made throughout the world, sometimes under hazardous conditions, by people none of us will ever know or see. Do you know the name of the person who made the oven mitt you bought at Wal-Mart? And make no mistake about it – these people do work for Wal-Mart. The foreigners making this merchandise are basically indirect Wal-Mart employees. And these employees are not working under any kind health plan from Wal-Mart. That’s because to offer healthcare coverage to workers, when it’s not legally or socially required, when it doesn’t harm the public relations of the corporation, contradicts the profit-making system set into place. (It’s not entirely impossible that the CEO of Wal-Mart would visit one of the company’s stores in a different state and meet with some of the lower-level employees. But I’d bet Kim Kardashian’s fortune that no CEO of any major American superstore has traveled oversees to visit the workers in the subcontracted factories who are making the stuff that his American stores sell for profit.)

Now let’s say one of these foreign Wal-Mart employees accidentally cuts off his or her hand while operating an unsafe factory machine. Of course, the worker has no healthcare coverage. Do you care? Well, in theory, of course, decent human beings are saddened by suffering. So then why don’t you care? Because you don’t know that this worker exists. You don’t know them. You don’t see them. There is no personal touch, no human element, to the products that they make – that we use. These people don’t have names. And, regardless of how compassionate a person you may be, we still can’t have compassion for what we don’t understand exists. That’s human nature.

* * *

“Why is everyone such a prick?” is not a rhetorical question. There is an answer. Human beings are social creatures. We’re not “biological” creatures. This means that we’re dependent on society, on our social surroundings. And society is teaching us to be unfeeling and uncaring. Society, which is now a vast global corporate system that is virtually impossible to escape, engulfs us. The Wal-Mart worker who cut off his hand and has no healthcare coverage? That happened. This person exists. That suffering is real. And we’re all surrounded by this reality. When you’re surrounded by kindness and compassion, you’ll be kind & compassionate. When you’re surrounded by suffering, it affects you, It affects all of us – subtly, subconsciously, indirectly. You don’t have to know a person’s name, you don’t have to know that suffering is happening, to be affected by that nameless human being’s suffering.

In other words…

If we have no personal connection to people, then we’re not going to care if something bad happens to them. But if bad things are happening to people, and nobody cares, then the world becomes a lesser place. And when we live in a lesser place, we become lesser people. We become, for lack of a better term, a**holes.

The other day, I read an article about high school Internet bullying. We keep hearing about children committing suicide due to the harassment they endure on-line. It’s not that on-line bullying is worse than physical, in-person bullying. It’s that it’s less emotionally-connected.

If a child is bullying a classmate in person, on the playground, in the parking lot, and then the victim takes out a gun and he or she puts it in his mouth, well… I suspect that at that point, most bullies would stop what they were doing, at least at that moment. (It doesn’t matter if the bully feels compassion or not. Rather, the bully is going to stop because they can see the severity of the situation. They don’t want to get into trouble.) But if a teenager is bullying a classmate on-line, on Facebook, and the victim has a gun in his or her mouth… well, the bully doesn’t know that the victim is about to commit suicide. The bully has no emotional connection to his or her victim. So the bully isn’t going to stop the harassment.

Technology and the corporate growth have brought us all together globally. Indirectly, we’re all interacting with each other. But if you don’t know the people with whom you’re interacting, if you have no emotional connection to them, then you’re more likely to take advantage of them. In other words, drivers don’t cut their friends off in traffic. Those a**hole drivers? They cut off strangers, people with whom they have no emotional connection. Indirectly, on a global scale, we’re interacting with people with whom we have no emotional connection, with people we don’t care about.

Now, you might not like your friends. Maybe you can’t stand them. But you’re not going to cut them off in traffic… and you’re not going to leave them dying in the streets. But if a foreign worker loses their hand in a factory accident, or if something bad happens to someone you don’t know… well, we don’t have time to worry about that. We don’t have time to think about that… because we’re too busy watching “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”. But of course this is affecting us – subtly, subconsciously, indirectly, gradually, and negatively – because we’re all part of the same society now. And this society is teaching us to live without compassion. And it’s turning us into such f**king a**holes!

 

Note #1

Actually, because of technology, Americans aren’t even emotionally connected to each other through the media anymore. In the past, when a popular television program was on, folks would gather around their TV sets at the same time to watch it. This “shared” time helped to unite the country. Now everyone is watching that TV show at different times: on DVR, on Hulu, on DVD, etc. Hence, we’re losing that unifying connection.

It’s rarely noticed that Facebook users post comments, and then respond and react to each other’s comments, at different times. Or, here’s another way of looking at it. Think of the last time you had a deep, emotionally intense, personally intimate conversation with another person. What if that interaction was broken up into different time periods? For example, you said something. Then you went out to the store for an hour. Then you came back and the other person responded to your initial comment. Then that person met another friend for lunch. Then the person came back, and then you replied to their response, etc. The conversation loses its emotional intensity; it loses that “human connection”.

About the author:

Scott “Galanty” Miller teaches sociology at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is also a contributing writer for the award-winning Onion News Network. His website is at www.scottgalantymiller.com.  You can follow him on Twitter at @galantymiller

 

 

December 25, 2011   Comments Off on The Social Disconnect/Culture

Road Trip Diaries/NARAN, Pakistan

©Zaira Sheikh

Green fields and pastures on the way to Abbottabad.

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Naran: To Forget Or Not To Forget

By Zaira R. Sheikh

Off To Naran

We took a long day’s drive from Islamabad to Naran. This valley is in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which was formerly known as Northwest Frontier Province (N.W.F.P). Naran is one of Pakistan’s best tourist attractions. It has such amazing scenic beauty that I suggest you witness it with your own eyes. If you do, you’re bound to encounter Kunhar River wherever you go, because it runs all along the valley. I recommend visiting anytime between June and September. When winter arrives, all paths are covered with snow and communications are near impossible.

Huts and guest houses on the mountains in Naran Valley.

We saw some interesting places on our road trip from Islamabad to Naran. The farms, green pastures and animals only add to the picturesque landscape. I couldn’t stop clicking the shutter.

Leaving Islamabad to enter Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, we passed by Hasan Abdal: a small town in northern Punjab named after a saint. Hasan Abdal holds a lot of significance for Sikhs. Around 1520, the founder of Sikh religion Guru Nanak resided there. This is why Gurdwara Sri Panja (one of the most sacred Sikh sites) was built in Hasan Abdal. It’s visited by Sikhs from all over the world.

Like I mentioned earlier the routes in Islamabad and in the northern areas are quite well developed and it absolutely fascinates me how the workers are seen building the paths for a larger part of the year. Unlike many other countries of the world, in Pakistan such labor is quite cheap despite the dangers associated with the kind of work these poor people do.

View of a hut in Naran.

We also passed by Abbotabad District. Does the name Abbotabad ring a bell? It’s the infamous place where Osama Bin Laden was discovered and then killed with the world knowing little more of what happened. I find the entire Bin Laden murder episode quite strange and unbelievable. A man with such a terrifying persona, as portrayed by the western world, hiding in a compound right under the nose of Pakistani military headquarters for so long and yet no body in Pakistan knew. Next, you hear is that the US forces entered a foreign territory as if a grand party was going on there and Mr. Obama announced they have killed Osama on TV (the way Obama announced, it seemed as if he himself killed the man). And then the cherry on the top was the rather quick sea burial of Osama. All of this just looks like a fairy tale to me at least.

No, we never visited the sacred compound where Osama Bin Laden was killed. In fact, just for information purposes that area is sealed and is not really a tourist spot as yet. Anyway, coming back to Abbotabad, it is also the transit point to all major tourist regions in north Pakistan such as Naran, Shogran, Nathiagali and other awesome destinations.

We crossed the small town of Balakot, known as the gateway to the beautiful Kaghan Valley. Balakot was completely destroyed by an earthquake in October 2005 during Pervez Musharraf’s era. Although the town has redeveloped, none of the new constructions have cement roofs as per government order.

I recalled the devastation caused by the quake and the sadness that overshadowed the nation. It was a strange sight to see the nation becoming so united to help the earth quake victims. My question only remains, why do we have to wait for some catastrophe to take place to unite as nation.

As blunt as it may sound, Pakistanis should get used to natural calamities by now. A rare earthquake in 2005 is followed by heavy floods every year now. Most of these disasters are man-made (deforestation, industrialization etc) and no precautionary measures are ever taken. Pakistani authorities don’t consider planning way ahead of time. And once the disaster has hit the country, all the so called saints wake up and start asking for donations and charities to help the poor. The mis-management and lack of interest on all levels is only leading to more devastation in the country. The common people and poor in general are the ones who suffer.

If one would just look back and see how the locals themselves contributed to the deforestation in the northern areas, it speaks volumes of ignorant behavior as these basic acts are the root cause of natural calamities.

Arriving in Naran by 5 PM, we were still looking for a hotel by late night. The one we’d booked was sickeningly dirty. No hygienic person would stay there. We drove through a market flooded with motels, hotels and inns. They all sucked in all honesty. The locals seemed greedy and knew nothing about courtesy. Since it was peak tourism time, they doubled the rates without negotiation, no matter how shitty their accommodation. Furthermore, it’s not difficult or expensive to get to Naran, so it was choked with crowds especially on weekends. Thus, our first Naran impressions were simply BAD!

There are decent hotels, but they’re expensive, and one must book rooms a month in advance to be safe. However, we were in the middle of shit with no turning back. We had to find a room somewhere before our bladders exploded. We found The Trout Land Hotel. It was big with a nice view. Yet, their loo was gross to the core. They didn’t believe in changing bed sheets or pillow covers. Plus, how could I forget this one key detail: the toilet flusher was perpetually out of order. I don’t know how we spent two days there, but we did. There was no other choice.

A beautiful view of the clouds and mountains from Lalazar, top, and tourists trekking.

Incredible Lalazar

The next day, we took a 4×4 safari jeep with an expert local driver. That’s the best way to travel the bumpy regional mountains and see the major attractions. Our chauffeur was a young boy who knew the routes well. He had excellent control and was one of the finest drivers I’ve come across in my life.

Our first stop was a hill station called Lalazar, 20 kilometers from Naran at 10,200 feet above sea level. It’s breathtaking with flowers, green steppes and mountains everywhere. The best thing about Lalazar is that it’s still unknown to most tourists and is therefore quite clean. Trekking is an absolute must here. Photographers will especially love this divine work of nature.

River Rafting In Kunhar River

Rafting in Kunhar River is yet another adventure to try your hands at. Foreigners usually opt for the roughest sections, while most Pakistanis prefer smoother stretches of water. We chose a mid tier section for rafting and the charge was Rs. 500 per person. We were lucky to meet an expert guide who made us feel extremely comfortable and told us about the area in detail through his travel stories. I loved every bit of our river rafting experience. One more thing you should go for in the area is a manual trolley ride over Kunhar River. If you’re scared of heights, choose one at lower altitude. The ride costs only Rs. 25 (which is peanuts), and this is serious Pakistan fun.

Views of Lake Saif-ul-Muluk.

Breathtaking Saif-ul-Muluk Lake

Probably the most famous Pakistani tourist attraction is Saif-ul-Malook lake, 10,500 feet above sea level. The sad part is that visitors in general are trashing the place. There are garbage cans everywhere. Yet, people don’t use them. They throw empty wrappers and bottles into the lake, which is ignorant and absurd. However, observing both the literate/illiterate and the rich/poor in Pakistan it is not so difficult to realize that Pakistanis are a lost nation in more than one ways. More sadly, they don’t even know that something is wrong somewhere.

Apart from the weird crowd, I saw a lot of animal abuse going there. Ponies carry heavy tourists on their backs and as I looked at them closely the poor animals looked so sad. They were suffering for sure and yes since we have no animal right laws here in Pakistan, not much can be done about such animals. One more disappointment was the fact that the locals have polluted the natural beauty of the lake by having unimpressive wooden boat rides just to make some money, which is dangerous, stupid and ugly.

Lake Saif-ul-Muluk

For now, the glacier adds enough clean water from above to flush the filth out naturally. However, unless measures are taken, crowds will succeed in polluting this wonder within a few years. In addition, men at the site surreptitiously make videos and snap pictures of women, which is a total turn-off for me.

So, this is how I spent two very hectic but exciting days in Naran. My take on Naran is simple. It has some amazing tourist attractions (but it is a bit over rated since I’ve seen similar places that were far too peaceful and relaxing with brilliant accommodation) – Lalazar was my personal favorite but the people are as greedy and selfish as the size of Godzilla. Pollution is part of the aura and deforestation is obvious, which is a dangerous sign. Having said all that, I still recommend all foreigners to take out some time and visit these places. Every year, people from all over the world come down to these amazing places. The smart way to go about it is to plan things well before time to avoid any glitches once you’re there.

Zaira R. Sheikh is the author of “Pakistani Media: The Way Things Are”, available through Amazon.com, and “If Mortals Had Been Immortals & Other Short Stories.” Sheikh is a writer, blogger, human & animal rights activist based in Karachi, Pakistan.

 

 

 

October 27, 2011   Comments Off on Road Trip Diaries/NARAN, Pakistan

Michael Parish/Observations

Vignettes


Introduction

Michael Parish’s series of vignettes on our strange contemporary relationship to the natural world — and the way our daily consumption habits and practices transform it and ourselves — provide a bit of a Brechtian alienation effect that lets us stand back and see ourselves in action.  The everyday activities of work, eating, and landscaping are shown in a kaleidoscope that the quirky narrative voice guides us through our activities and makes them momentarily strange — and therefore able to think about doing them differently.

— Leslie Heywood, Creative Nonfiction Editor

By Michael Parish

On Picnics

To picnic is to party, in a field, in the woods, under the sun. Bring a blanket, some wine and cheese, and don’t forget the bread that crunches like the sound of leaves when we break it. Picnicking combines two of the simplest pleasures in life, being outside and eating, and though I’d like to partake in both everyday, most days, I have to go to work.

I sit at a desk in a room that has no windows. As I program, my mind runs the same track over and over again like a toy train racing around a Christmas tree. If the time is 11:34, I think 7:34; I add eight hours because in eight hours I am guaranteed not to be at work; I will be at the supermarket or eating dinner or out on my porch reading the book I have been reading.

During lunch, I sit in my car with the windows down; it is impossible to find a place near work to eat at outside. The nearest “natural space” is a playground/park with a backstop and a soccer field where in place of the grass, something else exists. The stuff is like a carpet, like the floor of every miniature golf hole that’s ever been putted on, and sometimes, I squat and move a flat palm across the top of it, trying to figure out what astroturf smells like.

It doesn’t smell like a picnic, I can tell you that.

On Buffets

The all-you-can-eat buffet is a simple solution to a complex problem. It would seem like providing a person with an almost unlimited amount of food choices come mealtime would make things easier when trying to solve the Western dilemma of eating three meals a day and deciding what exactly those meals should be. But this is precisely why buffets do not work: special occasions aside, eating should never be treated merely as an excuse to stuff our faces, and food should not be treated as an abundant, homogeneous commodity that can be purchased for a flat price (say, $9.99 per person). Yet so many of us fork over our ten bucks so that we can eat until we are unable to move. When we eat at buffets, we sacrifice sound food choices for the sake of convenience.

Treating food as an unlimited resource breaks down our connection to its provenance and production. At a buffet, our knowledge of how the food underneath all of the red heat lamps got there is limited to an occasional glimpse of the dolly heaping with trays that is periodically trucked from the kitchen to the food bar. The country of origin, the specific variety of the fruits, vegetables and meats that comprise the ingredients [1], the date the food was harvested and who did the picking, when exactly it arrived in the kitchen of the restaurant, and how many times it was processed before it arrived in our mouths, are all details that are rendered invisible through their anonymous presentation.

To most buffet enthusiasts, none of these details matter. All that is important is 1) being hungry, 2) eating as much food as possible to ensure you get your money’s worth, and 3) being hungry. In America, the one price, all-you-can-eat buffet seems like a setup, a con or trick combining one of our basic needs (the need to eat) along with our thrifty, “consumer values” (the hunger for a bargain). We’re duped into overeating because we can’t resist a bargain.

At an all-you-can-eat buffet, faced with mounds of fried and fast foods, the feeling that pervades the atmosphere is that food can be wasted without consequence, either by sampling small portions of every entree and trashing the leftovers or by eating healthy portions of everything in sight. The first is downright wasteful – throwing away good food simply because it is extra – while the second is a bit more covert. The two main reasons to eat are for energy and pleasure, and the best method usually involves finding the most agreeable way of combining the two. To force yourself to eat so much that you feel like you’ll lose it in the backseat on the car ride home is just excessive. It’s also insulting to your internal organs, to farmers, to plants and animals, to people waking up in other parts of the world who worry not about eating, but about whether they’ll live through another day.

I’m not saying when we get together with friends for a potluck or a holiday that it’s wrong to enjoy ourselves. Such events celebrate life and the joys of eating and, every once in a while, there is something very satisfying about overstuffing yourself. But most of us attend buffets without considering the huge amount of labor that goes into amassing such a bounty of goodies. If we had to grow, harvest and prepare all of the food, would we ever come up with the idea of putting together a buffet ourselves?

Perhaps I have been a bit harsh in my assessment of buffets, but the following anecdote may help illuminate why. When I lived in Albany, my friends and I frequented the lunch buffets at the Indian restaurants downtown when we wanted a break from eating on campus. There were times when we ate so much that I thought I would never eat again. We would leave the restaurant and walk a few steps to the park and beach ourselves on its knolls like whales, our bloated stomachs becoming sunburned in the afternoon sun. As we gradually passed out, people dropped change on us, mistaking us for derelicts because we were muttering obscenities to ourselves and farting loudly in public, drunk from having eaten too much food, rolling around in the grass, pressing our faces into the earth, our brains eventually induced into a coma state because it was the only way to save us, system capacity breached, system failure, system shutdown. And there were weekends where we never learned any lesson, waking up on Sunday morning bright-eyed and recovered, ready and willing to do the same thing to ourselves that afternoon.

If our Rome ever falls, it wouldn’t surprise me if the all-you-can-eat buffet has something to do with it.

On Walks and Walking

Leisure walking, perhaps the simplest and most enjoyable activity known to man, is becoming extinct. Humans have walked since long before they were called Homo sapiens; anthropologists thank evolutionary ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, for foraying into bipedalism. As the earth flew around the sun, we became a race of runners, (pun intended), who chased down prey at a steady pace over the course of many days, tiring it to the point of defeat and exhaustion.

Today, due in large part to our big brains, we no longer have to run after anything. When we do see people running, usually from the air-conditioned cockpits of automobiles, it strikes us odd why anyone would willingly put themselves through that.

But forget running. Most people don’t even seem to walk anymore. We’ve become a culture of sitters.

With a laptop computer and a helpful relative ready to fetch the occasional meal, splash of water, bedpan, etc., it is possible for one to lounge in bed all day and still participate in the 9 to 5 workweek. A respectable standing in social circles can also be maintained from the bedroom command center, and up to the second local and global news is always on tap. Movies, music, shopping, dating. All can be delivered instantly. Why go anywhere if it can all come to us?

The world we now experience is one experienced by proxy. It is an endless stream of images and information, floating past our eyes and unable to be accessed without the aid of a computer. It is a world we cannot touch and the world we seem truly invested in. We are literally detached from it yet call ourselves “connected.”

One wonders, then, how to get closer, how to get inside the machine. Advances in computer generated images could possibly dictate the future of the human relationship with computers. The only question that remains is: how many terabytes will you take up?

What makes walking so appealing is that it is something that can be done now. One has everything they need from the moment they push themselves up from the carpet as a baby. There is no need for special devices; one’s own sense of accomplishment comes from oneself. And just like runners, who run to achieve the euphoric rush known as runner’s high, walkers, too, benefit from endorphins flooding against the blood-brain barrier.

There are some that say walking is boring. To this I say there are a lot of boring people out there, ready to let the world be imagined for them. The world is always outside, waiting to be explored.

So start walking. Any direction will do. Look around, listen. Feel the rhythm of footsteps, watch the thoughts come and go. Focus on every breath, for in every breath lies the secret to discovering the world anew.

On Convenience

In the modern world, convenience is king. Often, the quickest, cheapest and easiest way of getting something done is the most used, sought after and marketable. Humans are inherently short-term thinkers; having evolved from a hunter-gatherer mentality, we only realized the benefit of planning ahead when we started planting our own food some 9,000+ years ago. Prior to that shift, a lifestyle of living on the run had been wired in us for millions.

We engage in convenient behavior because it satisfies our immediate needs. Rather than take some time to cook our own meals, it’s a lot faster to hit the drive-thru at any burger joint, the awnings of which are red and yellow because those colors induce hunger. When convenience is on the line, it starts to seem like the whole world plays on our instincts and desires, inviting us to spend our money and consume.

While some decisions we make on a daily basis, such as ones about what to eat, are convenient on the short-term, many bring unexpected consequences. For instance, during the early 20th century, a pair of scientists discovered a way to synthetically produce nitrogen as a means of creating explosives. The Haber-Bosch process, as it has come to be known, has proved to be a decisive creation; in addition to its wartime uses, the process can also be used to fix large amounts of nitrogen, an important element in plant growth, into the soil. Basically, the same stuff we once used to make gunpowder is the same stuff now used to fertilize crops. As a result, the human population on earth since World War II has skyrocketed.

While the immediate result of using synthetic fertilizers is beneficial, (more plants = more food = more people), these fertilizers actively destroy the environment. Decades of concentrating such a powerful substance over the same area wears soil out. The Midwest, home to some of the best topsoil the world has ever known, is in the middle of one of the biggest wash-aways due to erosion, effectively dumping its fertility into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Nitrogen fertilizers, while convenient on the short-term, are changing physical aspects of the environment that can never be recreated. The toss up is that right now we are experiencing food booms and an increase in population, but somewhere down the road, someone is going to face the adverse effects.

Of course, this is only one example of convenience. There are many aspects of convenient technology that benefit mankind. Air travel, cars, fast food, microwaves, computers, cell phones, GPS, the Internet: all of these things make modern living a breeze. But each do come with hidden costs that aren’t always considered on the short-term.

The question of whether life gets better with increased convenience is a sticky one. It matters during what time period the word “better” is defined in and whose life is being taken into consideration. If one day, convenient aspects of our lives were suddenly to disappear, I’d like to know I’d be okay living in a world without them.

On Lawns

What the hell is a lawn, anyway? Who came up with this notion of having millions of tiny blades of grass surrounding one’s domicile? What does it do? Surely, it must serve a purpose. Or do lawns just “look nice”?

It turns out that modern lawns originated with our Medieval brethren of the 14th century. Castles were the epicenter of feudal life and for good reason. They were a controlled structure that could keep who you wanted in and who you didn’t want out. Lawns aided in this purpose.

Imagine a castle. In your imagination, what is the castle surrounded by? What does the landscape look like? Most likely, there may be a few streams and some happy little trees, but what you’re probably seeing the most of is a field of green.

That’s right. Castles were home to the largest front, side and back yards known to man. The reason? To keep on the lookout for invaders.

It’s pretty easy to spot an approaching army of thousands of marching men if all they’re marching across is grass. Flash forward to a few thousand years later. Though the scale has changed, the layout has pretty much stayed the same.

The mailman is really our only potential adversary: Jehovah’s witnesses are pushovers. Imagine having a front yard that was completely wooded, that was so dark on a sunny day that when you looked into the trees, you saw nothing but black. Anything could pop out: a cool breeze or the sound of crinkling leaves. While most of today’s visitors are harmless, if anyone appeared on your doorstep out of a darkness like that, they’d probably scare the shit out of you.

Lawns are another one of these outdated practices/activities that humans still participate in despite having any good reason. Sure, some people derive pleasure out of lawn care, but the whole idea of what lawns are has become completely convoluted. Some use a lawn’s health as a status symbol; they hire troves of Hispanics to do all their hard work. The landscaper armies must really be raking it in.

Lawns are one of nature’s last hold outs. It’s as if we’re paying homage to Pan by worshipping a patch of grass. Keeping a lawn trim and proper is the goal to be achieved, as well as very, very green. I find it interesting how right angles don’t exist in nature, but that’s all we humans tend to make, perfect squares or rectangles or rhombuses to showcase our appreciation of grass.

If I’m ever lucky enough to own my own house, I’m going to let the grass grow wild. I want it so tall and thick and nappy that animals and small children get lost in it. Once in a while, I’ll get out the scythe and do some pruning, (to work out my arms, mostly); let the tumble weeds roam the neighborhood as they might. Or maybe I’ll just light my lawn on fire every couple of months, like the blazes of the great Midwestern prairie during electrical storms, tell the neighborhood kids ghost stories around it and roast marshmallows on it with them at night.

On Garbage

Garbage is everything and nothing at all. Everywhere we look, garbage can be found, in our streets, in our homes, in our hearts. Thoughts can be garbage and nearly everything we touch will some day become it, thrown out by ourselves or trashed by somebody else, maybe on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday morning.

In nature, there’s no such thing as garbage. There are cycles of growth and decay and the two are not separated. But in fall, some people maniacally rake leaves, bundle them in black plastic and toss them on the curb. Tossing black plastic on the curb is the international sign for garbage, and like magic, this black plastic disappears.

While perfectly manicured lawns “look nice,” what would be best for lawns would be to let the leaves disintegrate and recycle back into the soil. Recycling exists in nature, but as far as making something disappear completely, that’s simply impossible.

New York City alone produces 24 million pounds of garbage each day and all that garbage needs to go somewhere. Most of it is shipped out on cargo trains and buried in Ohio or Pennsylvania or some other less populated state willing to store it.

In a lot of ways, garbage is like memories we don’t want to keep. Garbage is like a past we can’t forget. Garbage is what you get when you need a new cell phone every month and garbage is what I will get if this essay becomes anymore cynical.

Our sense of worth gets distorted when we view everything as garbage. We can never really value anything. Rather than try and make and buy products that will last, we are content with buying the cheapest pieces of garbage on the market and then throwing them out and replacing them with more cheap garbage after they become what they inevitably were in the first place: garbage. Garbage, garbage, garbage.

Some of the things on the curb are garbage: stuffed animal race car chairs for children, plastic dartboards, furniture once the wood finishing strips peel off to reveal the pressboard underneath, light gray and squarish computer mice from the 1990s, the headphones that you use for free on an airplane, microwave cookbooks and ab rollers, just to name a few. But some things, like old fans and lamps and other household appliances, can easily be recycled back into their constituent parts.

One idea would be to pass a law that requires everything that a company makes, once it’s past its prime and ready to be thrown into the trash, to be returned to the company for a specified amount of cash or for a voucher good toward another item made by the same company. The companies themselves would be responsible for taking apart and reusing what they created and would be required to accept all returns. If products were made and disposed of like that, there’d probably be a lot better products out there and a lot less garbage.

What happens when one item turns into a massive amount of garbage instantaneously, when one technology supersedes another, like the millions of VHS players sitting in hot attics this very moment?

Garbage is something we will always create but never something we will want to keep. The only keeping involved is in keeping it far, far away.


[1] Can you believe that despite the existence of several varieties of chicken, most of us have only eaten one nameless variety? Further, the average piece of processed chicken is probably the product of dozens of different birds and therefore, simply calling it “chicken” is more accurate than specifics (which we probably don’t want to get into in the first place).

About the author:

Mike Parish, a graduate of Binghamton University,  gets his car crashed into in Queens, NY. His first chapbook of short fiction, You Can Finish This Later, is available through On Lives Press.

December 23, 2010   1 Comment

Lucy Wilson Sherman

CNF Editor’s Notes

Lucy Wilson Sherman’s “The End” is aptly named, a story about the second law of thermodynamics — entropy.  Her love of the life force, especially the way it is manifested in animals, motivates the collection she assembles at Grey Ghost Farm, but she soon finds that exuberance is always tempered.  “Life runs downhill,” the “phenomenon of irreversibility in nature” — the chaos, the falling apart, the loss of life that Sherman’s narrator does her best to fight off and restore each day — isn’t a principle any of us can fight.  Sherman’s attempt to come to terms with this, in her life, her work, her writing, makes for a piece that is full of black humor, sadness, and resignation, but that nonetheless stands as its own mark against entropy, the writing, the record, that is one of the few possibilities homo sapiens has for leaving something of this kind of perpetual motion behind, and giving it a meaning, and thereby a life force, that others can discover and hold onto themselves.

— Leslie Heywood


THE END

“The most that any one of us can seem to do is to
fashion something — an object or ourselves —
and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it,
so to speak, to the life force.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death,

We’re down to five goats, two dogs, and four cats, now, but at one time our farmstead supported a full complement of pets and livestock—24 animals in all, if you counted the nine hens.  The newest additions to the menagerie were a pair of husky/hound dog puppies, given to us by our neighbor Sal two summers ago.

“How’d you like to step back in time ten years?” Sal had called out the window of his car as he drove up to where my husband, Henderson, and I were stacking wood.  We walked over to the car to see what he was talking about.  The puppies were entwined in a big cardboard box on his back seat.  I lifted first one and then the other, and melted.

Same thing ten years ago: big box on back seat, me goo-goo eyed over the two German Shepherd puppies therein, whom we named Fanny and Teddy.  Toby, our Labrador retriever who has since died, was elderly, but we didn’t need three dogs then, and we certainly didn’t need four dogs now.  But I’m a sucker for a puppy face.  Caramel-colored Dalton, with his blue “watch” eye, and his sister, timorous gray Waverly, came on board.

With their addition, the accumulation of animals at Gray Ghost Farm ended and the long attrition phase began.  I had to face a fact that had somehow escaped me until then: With 24 animals under our care, all 24 would die on our watch.  Either that, or we would die, and who knows what would happen to the animals.  Or, some of them would die under our care and then we’d die, and then, eventually, the rest of the animals would die.  In any case, as much as there had been lots of life on our farm, from then on there would be lots of dying.

I did not expect it to begin so suddenly.  That spring, Dalton discovered he could squeeze under the fence that surrounds the dog yard.  In a burst of adolescent exuberance, he ate his way through the entire brood of hens.  Each day for a week I found newly mangled bodies scattered about the upper yard and into the woods, their stomachs rent.  I could peer into their bellies and see already-formed eggs, shells and all.

Each time I found a dead chicken, I walloped Dalton, but because I never caught him in the act of murder, his eyes seemed to search my face in bewilderment.  A local farmer said to tie a dead chicken to his neck.  I did this.  Dalton flattened himself against the ground and accepted this fate with what seemed like genuine remorse.  Then he liberated himself by biting through the baling twine.  He wagged his tail and pranced about, eager to regain my approval.

It was difficult to stay angry at so otherwise simple and guileless a dog, but in order to kiss a face that had killed chickens, I had to fashion a philosophic attitude by ranking the two species by preference.  Which did I feel greater kinship with—canis or Gallus gallus?  All the chickens were dead by this time, so the point was moot.  I believed Dalton would outgrow the habit.  It never occurred to me that he and Waverly would take on larger game.

That March, as we were loading the car for a weekend out of town, Dalton and Waverly slipped out under their fence again—a fence we had repeatedly patched, you should know—and they streaked off toward the woods.  I called them back sternly.  I called them again, using my most imperative tone, but they merely paused, looked back, consulted each other, and agreed, “Nah, she’s not serious.”  Dalton was the ringleader.  I could almost hear him call back over his shoulder to Waverly, “Psst, Wave, quick.  Follow me.”

We knew they’d return home eventually.  All we were worried about, at that point, was that harm might come to them in our absence.  We were gone only overnight, and when we turned into the driveway the next evening, they crawled out from under the porch, wagging and wiggling and twining themselves around our legs, and we greeted them with relief.  Mature Teddy and Fanny were wiggling and wagging, too, from behind the fence.

The next morning, I looked out an upstairs window into the goat yard.  Capricorn, our 12-year-old buck, was lying on his side motionless on the cold ground.  His head lay in a small rivulet that had been released by the spring thaw.  “Sleeping,” I hoped for a fleeting moment.  Hardly.  A goat would not rest his head in water.  Capricorn had been losing weight for months and was hobbled by arthritis in his back legs, but he enjoyed my daily brushing and, aside from his obvious discomfort when walking, still seemed interested in living.  I did not think it was time for the vet.
As I approached his body, I saw tufts of hair and hide scattered on the ground around him.  His groin, the fastest way to his entrails, had been chewed.  I don’t think it was the chewing that killed him—the skin was abraded but not ripped open.  I think the cause of death was a heart attack brought on by the terror of being selected, taunted, chased, and inevitably run down; a heart attack because he was an old goat, crippled and in failing health; a heart attack because he was forced, in those last moments, to comprehend the inevitability of the hoof prints on the wall.

But even after this, I didn’t turn against the dogs.  “Capricorn would have died soon anyway,” I told Henderson.  “Dalton and Waverly merely culled the herd.  It’s in the nature of a hound dog to hound and dog a weaker animal.”  The puppies wiggled and waggled and licked my hands and face, and again I discounted their dark aspect.

A few months later, though, they struck again.  They’d gotten loose, but this time we were home, pruning some pine trees below the house.  Suddenly, we heard loud, anguished cries that we recognized immediately as the blatting of a terrified goat.  The dogs had cornered GG in the orchard, one on each side of her, barking.  She had stumbled, trying to face both attackers at once, and fallen.  She was struggling to rise, and she was bellowing.  It’s not a sound you can easily forget, and it’s not a sound you want to hear on your farm—the sound of one of your beloved goats being bullied by your sweet, now vicious, puppies.  It did not take a full minute this time to know which species I favored.  Dalton went to the pound the next day.

I spared Waverly because she was an ingratiating omega to the older, alpha dogs, Teddy and Fanny.  I figured that she had merely succumbed to pack mentality.  If separated, probably neither of the dogs would have attacked alone, or the one more likely to would have been rough-and-tumble Dalton, not my sweet, shy Waverly.

***

That November, Henderson’s uncle died.  When relatives phoned Henderson’s father to tell him that his brother was dead, they got no answer.  The phone rang and rang and rang.  Finally, they drove out to the house and banged on his door.  Still no answer.  One of the men climbed in through a window and found Alexander dead on the living room floor from a heart attack.  The coroner said the brothers had died on the same day.

In February, my 61-year-old sister Julie, twin to our other sister, Penny, was diagnosed with ALS, the wasting disease Lou Gehrig died from.  She first noticed something wrong when she found she needed to reach around with her left hand to help her right hand turn the key in the car’s ignition switch.  Now, a year later, her right arm flops at her side—she can’t wash her left armpit, can’t dress herself, can’t wipe herself.  With her left hand she can still spoon food into her mouth, but she can’t fold laundry, pare vegetables, wash dishes, carry a cup of coffee or a glass of wine across the room.  Her legs are going, too.  There is not a chair in her house she can get up from without her husband’s assistance.  She’s had to retire from a long acting career at Theater Three on Long Island, where she played lead and supporting roles since graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the same class as Robert Redford.  She can’t turn the pages of a script.

The usual course of this disease, which has no known treatment and no remissions, is progressive muscle weakening leading to death in two to five years, making it likely that Julie will not reach 66, the age at which our mother died of cancer.  In all likelihood, Julie will predecease our 90-year-old father, whose heart, despite a stroke six years ago, steadily sloshes blood to all the necessary organs without sign of fatigue.  Paralyzed on his left side and wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, Daddy keeps eating the three servings of unidentifiable mash they put in front of him each day, vowing to live to 100.  He survived Mother’s death by 22 years.

I was surprised when Mother died, then angry at myself for being surprised, for being so naive at age 33 to think that all the deaths I’d heard about on the news had nothing to do with me.  How could a piece of me still think my loved ones and I would get out alive?

Now that I’ve let death in, everything else I hear or read tears the membrane further until death is everywhere.  It lurks under every moment.  But I know that spring is just as true as death.  In a few months I’ll be mowing the lawns and weeding the gardens, performing the ultimate betrayal—exercising my muscles as Julie’s are atrophying.

***

In April, 12-year-old Teddy stopped eating.  The vet drew blood, diagnosed him with extensive liver damage, and didn’t hold out much hope for the antibiotics he sent us home with.  Teddy, thin and very sweet, slept most of his final days.  His back legs wobbled when he stood up, and his body swayed.  Shortly, his legs would buckle beneath him.  All day Sunday and Monday I read beside him while he lay on his side, occasionally lifting his head with difficulty, looking at me.

When he could no longer stand and everything had shut down—nothing in, nothing out—we put him on a quilt in the back of the Subaru and drove him to the vet.  Henderson told the receptionist we were in the parking lot while I waited on the tailgate beside Teddy.  Tailgate euthanasia means less hoisting and schlepping of the ailing animal.  It means not having to walk in through a crowded waiting room with a live dog and then walk out, a few minutes later, with a dead one.

After a time, the vet came out with the equipment.  The previous week, Teddy had bolted when the same vet inserted a needle to draw his blood, and we’d had to hold tight to keep him from squirming off the table.  One week later, he didn’t even raise his head as the catheter entered his ulnar vein.

The vet asked me if I would like to inject the serum.  Yes, yes, I would, I said.  Two syringes were to be emptied into the catheter.  The first, a tranquilizer, slowed Teddy’s breathing perceptibly.

Then, weeping steadily, I kissed the side of Teddy’s long nose and told him how much we had really loved him.  I slowly pushed in the plunger of the second syringe, which was filled with a cheery, Pepto-Bismol-pink serum.  He was gone instantly.  We brought him home and placed him in the deep grave Henderson had dug on the hill above the house.  As the sun set, we filled in the hole and drank to Teddy, Capricorn, and our first dog, Toby.

***

September 15: GG, the goat, can’t stand up.  It has nothing to do with the dog attack.  For weeks, she’s not been eating her grain.  She’s been losing weight, and now her belly is bloated.  She has collapsed on her side in the barn doorway.  I tried lifting her front end, but her back legs don’t work, and she’s too heavy for me to lift both ends at once with my arms around her middle, sling-like.  For now, I take a lawn chair and a book and sit beside her.  I wrap my vest and windbreaker more tightly around me as I stroke her bony head and neck.  The autumn breeze is brisk, and when the swift white clouds scuttle across the sun, the temperature drops noticeably.  I zip up my jacket and keep on stroking.

Although GG is not one of my favorite goats, she has an agreeable, if bland, personality.  She’s a follower—somebody has to constitute the herd.  She’s prone to bloat each spring after eating the bright green, protein-rich shoots of early grass, and to relieve her, we stick a fat syringe in the side of her mouth and squirt mineral oil down her gullet.  I massage her belly, the way Henderson and I do for each other, encouraging the gas bubbles around, down, and out.

September 16: Yesterday, when Henderson got home, we made a temporary sick bay by enclosing one corner of the barn with upended pallets.  GG can’t rise even to evacuate, so after a day of her lying in her own urine we must drag her out, sponge her off with warm water, and prepare another corner, Cloroxing the concrete floor in the first.  Her urine is foul-smelling and caustic, probably the result of ketosis, a byproduct of starvation.  We roll GG onto a large piece of cardboard to use as a sled.  Her belly, taut as a tick’s, doesn’t collapse to the down side, as it normally would, but stays mountained up.  Her eyes bulge and roll back into their sockets, showing mostly white; her mouth drops open, exposing her bottom teeth; her tongue lolls out.  I think she is going to die here and now.  The pain of being moved must have taken her breath away, for she doesn’t utter a sound.  I quickly douse her belly with warm water and roll her back.  We haul her into the new corner so she can dry on a thick blanket of hay.   GG’s rumen must be filled with tiny gas bubbles that she can’t belch up, and spasmodic dry retching has failed to bring up her cud.  Her digestive system is kaput.  To Henderson I say, “Enough.”

September 17: The vet has come and gone.  He brought his pistol, he told me, in case I preferred that method.  If we went with the poison, he said, we’d have to bury GG at least three feet under.  Buthanesia is so virulent and long-lasting that it could kill any wildlife—or our dogs—if they dug her up and ate her.

Until now, I’ve enjoyed the idea that all the animals will be buried up on Hoof Hill, but it’s a romantic notion and something of an indulgence.  Because I don’t have the strength in my arms and shoulders to dig a deep grave in our rocky soil, Henderson has done it while I de-rock the hole with my hands, but it’s not considerate to give a man such a chore when he comes off an eight-hour shift of heavy lifting down at the recycling plant.  So, because the grave could be shallower, I considered the pistol method.

“You’d put the gun right next to her temple?”

“No,” he said, “into her eyeball.”

“Oh,” said I.  “Let’s go with the poison and you can take her body and cremate it.”

***

The vet and I enter the barn.  Belinda, Ivy, Rosemary, Daisy, and Sweet William come to greet us.  In her pen, GG raises her head, her ears twitching forward with the curiosity so characteristic of goats.

I went to a livestock auction once.  When the gate between the holding pens and the bidding arena was opened, the first group, the sheep, huddled in a logjam in the doorway and had to be prodded forward.  But when it was time for the goats to be auctioned, each one trotted forth smartly into the arena, curiosity and perhaps an inclination to trust humans overriding caution.

I kneel down beside GG in the hay and cradle her head in my arms, gently pulling it up and toward me so that the vet has a clear shot at her jugular.  I press my cheek against her nose and softly croon good-bye.  In the seconds it takes to empty the syringe, her head slumps in my arms.  The membrane separating life from death is so very, very thin.  There are final spasms and exhalations, but the vet assures me her brain is dead.  If you can put your finger right on the eyeball, he says, and the animal doesn’t blink or pull away, she’s dead.  The other goats are milling around, munching hay, untroubled.  I like to think of GG meeting up with Capricorn at that great grain bin in the sky, as Henderson calls it.

The vet delivers a cursory post-mortem diagnosis: caprine arthritis encephalitis—goat AIDS.  Joint swelling and pain, loss of appetite, and wasting are symptoms.  As we’re no longer selling their milk or breeding the goats, we’ll be their rest home—they’re all over ten years old.  Knowing that their ends will likely be as swift and painless as GG’s, we can enjoy their remaining years without a cloud of worry over their final days.  I dearly wish we could say that with certainty about our human loved ones.

In fact, I would prefer death to come to all of us from the tip of a needle, a toxin-filled needle that, ideally, I administer myself.  So far, no vet has agreed to slip me a few prefilled syringes for home use.  Buthanesia (a barbiturate given in overdose amount) is a controlled substance for good reason.  If I ever get my hands on a vial, I’ll put down my husband, when his time comes, and if my time comes before his, I’ll put myself down.  I’m going to figure out a way to do it, anyway.  Watch me.

***

So we’re down to five goats, and, from the looks of it, going down fast.  The very next day after the vet left, Ivy began favoring her left leg.  I checked to make sure there wasn’t a stone between her toes.  There wasn’t, but she’s been limping steadily.  And Sweet William spends too much time on his bent front knees, as if in prayer.  His legs must be arthritic and, given his great hulk, standing must be painful.  It’s as though once recognized and named, this virus has gained more than a toehold.

I’ll be sorry if Ivy should go next—before, say, Daisy.  Daisy has a vanilla personality stippled with black moments of sheer meanness toward the other goats and toward Ivy in particular.  She’s nice enough to me—I have a photo of Daisy and me stretching our noses toward each other, practically kissing, that was taken by my sister Julie when she visited a few years ago.  Daisy has the most perfect breasts, a full, pendulous udder with firm, symmetrical teats that are squeezably, milkably soft, delightful to handle.  And Daisy is Henderson’s favorite goat, perhaps because she’s not my favorite.  He had to stake his claim somewhere.  But if she and Sweet William were to die, I’d still have my three favorite goats: Ivy, Rosemary, and Belinda.

Typically, the goats gather around me when I come through the gate, but if I make a sudden move to stroke their noses, they jerk their heads away, indicating that they’re not like dogs, slavishly groveling to be petted.  They come to me and, gently, I can go to them, but sudden moves and great demonstrations of affection are politely discouraged.  This is true for all the goats except Ivy.

Here’s a video of my relationship with Ivy: I am striding across the hayfield, home from my morning walk with the dogs.  The goats are browsing in the orchard, under the apple trees.  As I move toward them, they look up and acknowledge me with soft guttural hums.  Then, one goat separates herself from the herd and begins trotting toward me across the field.  It is Miss Ivy.  The morning light diffuses, the image blurs, violins commence a tremolo.  We are that romantic couple in the commercial of a man and a maiden approaching each other in slo-mo from opposite sides of the screen through the lilies of the field.  It is Ivy and I, running toward each other—at any minute, I think, she’ll grow alarmed as my size increases and will veer off—but she keeps trotting toward me, her flanks bouncing like saddlebags.  I fall to my knees, spread wide my arms, and throw them around her neck as she runs into them.  She stands there, panting, while I stroke her and hug her and kiss her in the hollow between her eyeball socket and her ear (my favorite place because, being out of the way, it’s less likely to be dusty).  I kiss her cheeks and she whispers in my ear that she could stand like this forever.

Rosemary, the goat I nursed, I mean bottle-fed (close enough)—Rosie’s been known to get up on her hind legs and point the top of her head (where her horns used to be) at you, which is not a friendly thing to do.  She did it once to guests who were house-sitting and several times to Henderson.  She’s never done it to me.  I can’t blame Henderson for cooling toward her after this, though I suspect he was never going to love her because she was “my” goat from the start.  I think Rosemary still considers me her mother.  She plunks herself down beside my lawn chair and lets herself be gently petted, but I have to tame my ebullience with Rosie; I can’t lovingly manhandle her the way I can Ivy.  But of all of the goats, Rosie’s still seated at my side when the others have moseyed on to lusher grass.  It’s not the high romance I have with Ivy; ours is a natural blood bond.  Or we’re an old married couple, so grounded in love that we don’t have to display it by running through the fields.

The herd queen, our first goat, is Belinda.  Each morning, Belinda sets out from the barn on a foraging trip up the hill, leading her family single-file into the meadow for browsing, her alpine nose thrust forward, her lean, strong body graceful and deliberate.  She leads with purpose, as if she knows exactly where the grass will be most nutritious on that particular day.  After an hour or so, she lifts her head and, with equal certitude, leads them back to the barn to digest in the shade.  It’s easy to imagine Belinda as a grand dame, a lady.  Never silly or frivolous, never begging for attention, she stands soberly beside my chair allowing her nose to be petted.  If I stop, though, she moves in closer and hangs her head into the V of my open book until I’m reading Belinda.

I’ve noticed a mean streak in Belinda that I tend to forget when extolling her noble attributes.  She has it in for Ivy, her one remaining daughter.  She seems to look for opportunities to ram Ivy in the side, and Ivy, defenseless and perhaps not very bright, is invariably caught completely by surprise.  I scold Belinda and swat at her, but she smartly ducks away.  I vow to carry a fly swatter with me to extend my reach, but I don’t.  I’m trying to allow some aspects of nature to take their course.  Besides, do I really want Ivy’s welfare to depend on my intercession?  I’d have to be in the barn 24/7.

Including this prickly characteristic in the mix that is Belinda gives me a different take on her queendom.  Perhaps she’s not even aware that the herd’s following her.  Perhaps, in fact, she doesn’t give a damn.  She’s not “leading her family”; no maternal instinct here, just total concentration on her own gastric needs.  She’s taking herself up the hill to greener pastures.  If the others follow, so be it.

This makes me wonder if, over the years, I myself have become like Belinda, if my fierce independence isn’t more a certain ruthlessness.  I’ve noticed in the last few years that I lack generosity, lack the interest I had in saving mankind.  My days could be characterized by a narrowing of focus, and in that way I am like Belinda.

Each morning I awaken impelled by a feeling of urgency, a powerful sense that time is running out.  I don’t waste it.  I march through life as though there were a deadly seriousness at the heart of it, as if it really mattered that I milk some satisfaction from each day.  It does matter.  It really is time-limited, life.

The ruthlessness, if that’s what it is, conceals what I’ve always known made up my gelatinous essence—wobbly self-doubt.  Yet, even about my own neurosis, I lack generosity.  I can’t be bothered trying to recreate dark childhood incidents that would explain a lifelong commitment to self-criticism.  Even if I could, my allotment of insecurity would probably turn out to be no greater than yours.  My parents were happily married for 41 years.  I grew up in material comfort with intelligent people who deliberated their decisions regarding our upbringing and provided us with consistency and stability.

Daddy was charming, courtly, agreeable, funny, Harvard-educated.

Mother had a bristly personality, but I alone of the three daughters reacted poorly to it.  I, alone, felt undermined by her judgments.  Maybe she judged only me.  Maybe she was a different person by the time I was born.  Raising twins for six years could change a person, knock some of the patience out of her, sharpen her personality.  Who knows?  All I know is that by the time I was on my third or fourth psychiatrist, I was able to articulate my deep conviction that I had done something dreadful as a child.  Killed another child.  I’ve gone through life believing, as I know many people do on some level, that if “they” really knew the truth about me, I’d be in for the full-scale condemnation I surely deserve.

After reading hundreds of memoirs, my complaining about Mother’s domineering disposition and her subtle censure sounds like whining.  She had a personality, is all.  I reacted badly to it.  If I developed corrosive self-doubt, well, I had to acquire some sort of personality as I grew up, and this is the one that evolved out of the particular alchemy of me in our family.

Besides, how could the message that it is unwise to show vulnerability have been grooved so deeply and as early as infancy?  And has all the growing up I’ve done since been merely to calcify scar tissue over an original wound?  Could it be that I haven’t transformed any of it into wisdom but merely buried it in layers of personality?  Are we all permanently skewed by parental misdeeds in the first few years of life, living out the rest of our days as our branch was first bent?  The inexorableness of this, not to mention the inevitability that my own mistakes as a parent have indelibly scarred my daughter, is overwhelming.  It’s enough to make me think about putting a pistol to my eyeball.

***

How is it I can speak so easily about killing myself when, on a bright fall day like today, I am so very pleased to be alive?  Because if I were to kill myself it would be on a rainy day, not on a day like today.

Then I realize that if I were dying, I’d be dying on the glorious days, too.

***

Every death takes a bite out of you until, by the time you’re old, you’re emotional Swiss cheese.  Death is the dirtiest trick in the book, and frankly, it gives me pause about life.  It makes me loath to play the living game if these are the rules.  Of course, most of the time you wake up and find that you haven’t died, and that nobody you know has died, which lulls you into the false impression that it’s an ordered universe and that you’re in control of your life to some measure.  And that is not entirely untrue.  You do postpone your death by taking care, fastening your seat belt, looking both ways before crossing, not running with scissors, etc.

But to be sure the end of my life is under my control, a subterranean part of me considers killing myself now.

So here’s a video of my relationship with death: I am running just a few steps ahead of death with a knife in my hands, ready to plunge it into my heart the moment death signals me.  I turn and taunt the cloaked shape behind me.  “Aha!” I grin.  “You thought you’d get me.  Watch this.  Watch this.  I’ll get myself!”  (My life’s metaphor—say all the bad things I can think of about myself before anyone else can, inoculating myself against censure.  Immunity, after all, is a kind of control.)

So there I am, and death is marching toward me.  I’m holding the knife high over my head, ready to thrust it into my abdomen.  Death marches on, inexorably.  Death seems to be looking at me, but in fact he’s looking at the person just over my left shoulder, and there I am grinning madly, the knife trembling in my hands.  Death picks up speed, now, and dashes toward me, and just before he veers off to tap the person on my left, I plunge the knife into my belly with triumph.  As he scurries past, he gives me a look that says, “Jeez.  What a loony!”

***

In Intoxicated by My Illness, Anatole Broyard quotes Ernest Becker as saying that we achieve immortality by being “insistently and inimitably ourselves.”  I don’t know if immortality is achieved, but when we are our most essential selves, we are most fully alive, and that, at least, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from death.

Belinda is insistently herself.  It may be comfortingly anthropomorphic to imagine her as the herd mother—we want our mothers to have our best interests at heart—but it is probably more accurate to see her as an individual committed to her own interests.  To my sometime distress, Mother was insistently herself, too.  It was difficult to be the daughter of someone who was insistently herself, but perhaps because of Mother’s example, I am resolutely drawn to become my own inimitable self.  What I call ruthlessness in Belinda and in myself instead may be a sort of whittling away of what is not-us, a paring down to our very pith—stripping away distractions, killing off occasions for trivial emotions.  What’s essential to me now is very simple—walking with the dogs and sitting with the goats, soaking up the colors of one more autumn, reading, and writing my self into existence.

Here’s what I picture: Becoming as concentrated as a diamond.  Lest that call to mind immoderate self-regard, the word nubbin is as graphic.  After all the fluff’s gone, I’ll be a kernel, thoroughly myself through and through, reduced to my least divisible self, an adamantine core.  All that can be divided has been divided and what is left is the number one—the irreducible I—the only thing with which to assert life against the bleak inevitability of death.

***

You wouldn’t expect to receive one of life’s great lessons during a regular dental prophylaxis, but a few months ago I found myself in the dentist’s chair, my mouth open, tears leaking into it.  My hygienist was describing the recent death of her beloved dog.  It was the same week Teddy died, so my tears were ready.  For weeks after putting down her old dog, my hygienist had grieved.  Then one day, her husband, a police detective in a small city outside of Binghamton, New York, a man with uncommon perspicacity, brought home a puppy.  His wife reached out eagerly to accept the wriggling Springer spaniel.  Her husband held the puppy back for a few seconds and looked into his wife’s eyes.

“There is a beginning and there is an end,” he said gently.  Then, placing the plump ball of flesh and fur in her arms, he said, “This is the beginning.”

About the author:

Lucy Wilson Sherman is the author of the memoir “Laying Foundations: A Year Building a Life While Rebuilding a Farmhouse­,” the story of an unlikely couple—mismatched intellectually, socially, racially—who renovate an abandoned farmhouse in northeast Pennsylvania. She is also the author of Uncommon Appetites, a collection of personal essays.  She holds an MFA degree from Goddard College. She lives with her husband on the farm they rebuilt in Susquehanna, PA, where, after twenty-five years of nearly continuous home improvement, they are launched once more on a whole new renovation project.

June 20, 2010   Comments Off on Lucy Wilson Sherman

Jose Antonio Rodriguez

Excerpts from the Memoir
of Jose Antonio Rodriguez 

 

Burning Garbage

Cada quince días, says Amá when I ask her how often we burn our garbage.  The cloud rises and covers some of the cacti in soot.  But the cacti are very hardy and they never burn.  They keep swaying slowly even in smoke.  Clorox bottles take the longest to burn and it’s dangerous to get the burning plastic on your skin because it becomes gooey and it sticks and you won’t be able to take it off and it’ll burn like nothing you’ve ever felt before.  But the leftovers of our burning aren’t interesting; we already know what was in there.

The neighbor’s, though, that’s fun.  They live in a pretty yellow house with potted plants in front, flowering plants at that, and toys strewn in the front yard, like the kids don’t even like them that much.  Sometimes I wonder if they’ve completely forgotten them, if the toys have become unwanted, unclaimed.  But Amá says you can’t just go around picking up someone else’s things.  The garbage they burn, though, that’s clearly unwanted stuff.  So when the fire is done, my sister Morayma and I go and sift through the ashes, look for things we can save.  Sometimes there’s nothing but the remains of Clorox bottles or half burnt cardboard boxes.  If the boxes were whole you could use them to fan yourself or to fold into something, but because they’re made of the same thing as paper, the fire eats them up before anything else.  And we come and ask Amá to rinse our feet that are the color of a cloudy sky.  And she gets angry sometimes, but just a little.

 Today though Morayma finds a coffee cup and I find a toy car wheel and a wooden block with a letter on it and those things we save, bring inside.  Morayma feels the smooth surface of painted clay, beige with little orange flowers that would form a circle if the cup was complete, and I spin the one tire from the wire axle like a top.  Then I place the tire on the ground and imagine the entire car.  It would be a truck actually, one of those yellow ones and the truck would be so complete, so like the real thing, that I would never get bored running it along the ground or just holding it.  I could place the wooden block with its perfect sides on the box.  It could even hold Morayma’s cup.

 When we’re done, we place the things in a corner.  Amá says we’re just collecting junk but she doesn’t throw it away.

 At the end of the day with the sky almost orange again, little black flakes start to fall from the sky, like singed leaves of grass, black and light as a baby chick’s feathers.  They feel like paper, like the paper of the big dolls hanging from shops in the city.  The frills in all sorts of bright colors adorn the large dolls everywhere and beautiful because the paper is thin and the light shines through.  Amá says the dolls are called piñatas but when I ask her what they are for, she keeps quiet.  Yes, this is what they look like but black.

¿Qué es?

Caña, alguien está quemando caña, says Amá.

Somewhere far away someone is doing something, burning sugarcane, and something other than smoke has risen to the sky.  It has traveled from far away because fire leaves only the light part of things.  The heavy part disappears.  The little flakes are falling over me and it makes the evening magical.  Now I know why we can burn garbage in the back of our house, why the neighbors can do it, and never run out of space, because the wind takes away the ashes, carries them and lets them fall far away.

 

Beans

After a long time of running around chasing after lizards I get a headache and go sit by Amá who’s kneeling outside in the shade by the house.

Te va a salir sangre de la nariz, she warns.

I stare at the pot of beans because it seems it should fall, tip over, as it sits all shaky on the grill that looks really similar to the corner of the box spring of a bed.  The coils are rusted.  They give under the weight of the pot.  Amá keeps adding water to the pot.  Next to the pot is a comal where she lays each tortilla that she makes perfectly circular with the tortillera.

Tengo hambre, I say and she takes a tortilla, adds a pinch of salt, and rolls it up into a perfect little flute for me.

I smell the tortilla first.  I love the aroma, but I’m scared of the fire pit in the ground.  The flames are always kicking up and the heat flashes out from the tips like sheets of hot wind against your cheek.  You have to stay away a little.  Also, the burning wood smokes up and leaves a layer of soot all over your face if you sit there long enough.  Amá always looks a little gray, her eyes watery, unless the day is windy.  If it is windy, having a fire outside is dangerous and so she has to use the stove inside, and that uses gas from a tank.

I wait until the beans are ready and she serves me a few in a plastic cup and I spoon them out and take bites from a tortilla.  And then I run off to chase after lizards, the only animals out in the noonday sun.  All the other animals stay under the shade in the hottest part of the day.  We don’t have any horses or cows but I see them sometimes by the side of the road when I have to go run an errand.  And if it’s very hot, they’re always resting under a tree.  I should learn from that but I don’t.

A little bit later I’m in bed with a nose bleed, pinching my nose to coagulate the blood that just pours out.  Amá is angry because she told me this would happen from running around all day under the sun in the heat and I didn’t listen.  I wonder if all the kids I see from far away under the sun are also bleeding now in their houses.  She says sometimes talking to me is like talking to a dog but who would talk to dog?  That’s just silly.

I can feel the blood running down my throat as I swallow but I don’t taste it.  And I think myself lucky that I don’t have to taste blood.  Then I must have slept because when I get up, the house is noisy with the voices of my brothers and sisters who are back from school or work.  I get up and go to the kitchen.  Amá is ironing, which means I have to be careful around the iron because once, it tripped over and the hot part of it landed on my foot and it hurt worse than a headache.  I was also running then.  She stops for a second, takes a wet rag and wipes my hands which are splotchy with dried blood and my face which I figure must also be splotchy.  I walk outside, play marbles with Juan.  It’s not a lot of fun because we only have a few marbles and so the game is over right away.  The best part is making the little hole in the ground for the marbles to land in because the dirt is cool just a little under the surface and it feels good on the fingertips.  Lizards skitter by but I don’t chase after them. 

Vengan a cenar, we hear.

There’s only like three chairs in the kitchen so most everybody stands.  She places a plate of beans before me, refried and the hint of lard grease makes my mouth water.  I take a piece of tortilla and scoop up a mouthful of beans, always careful to stay on one end of the plate because the other end has a hole in it and we shouldn’t be wasting food by letting it squish through the plate.  When I am done, I have another glass of water, then I sit under the door frame that faces the sun that is leaving.  The sky is turning shades of orange and pink and blue.  The weeds and the trees are already ringing with the songs of cicadas and the early chirping of crickets.  A goat is bleating but the sound is soft, like it is hiding behind all the other sounds.  It must be somewhere down the road in some other house.  Maybe it’s tied to a tree or sitting inside a pen.  When goats bleat up close it’s really loud.  I used to think they bleated because they were tied up or trapped in a pen but no, they’re always bleating, even when they’re out grazing on anything they can find.  Even when they are not tied or inside a pen.  Still, it always sounds sad, like they’re crying out for something.  And I wish I could ask them, but they wouldn’t understand me.

I tell Amá I need to go to the bathroom.  I’m scared of the dark so she tells my sister Aleida to go with me.  We go out behind the house, close to the ebony tree.  I pull down my shorts and squat.  Aleida stands a few feet from me.  We say nothing.  When I’m done I grab a corn cob within reach and wipe myself. 

I go back to the door frame.  Just as everything is becoming darkness, somebody nudges my shoulder and leads me to bed.

 

Chickens are Nosy

 I hate it when the chickens come around because they’re hungry too.  The tank for the stove is out of gas and so my sister Mari cooks potatoes out of a dirt-filled barrel outside.  It’s different to eat outside, exciting.  The kindling is mostly little sticks and torn pages from my older brother’s comic books, pages with so many big-chested women and angry-looking men lying in bed together and kissing but not how relatives kiss us when they come visit.  Amá is not here, she’s on the other side visiting Apá, who’s working hard.  The potatoes are half raw because we’ve run out of kindling or because my sister got tired of stirring.  I don’t know, but I don’t say anything.  I just keep eating.  The chicken’s run out of worms, I guess, and comes around wanting food, sneaking out from under the cactus bush.  Its white feathers look so pretty against the pale gray green of the cactus bush.  They ask with their beady yellow eyes, I know the look.  It remains just a little longer than usual on the thing it wants.  Then it moves on to other things, the look, but the chicken sticks around, walking in circles, pretending, like we’re not going to figure it out.  They walk but never leave, hoping for something to fall from our hands, slip out of our potato tacos.  I don’t think they like potatoes but they’re hoping they might.  The chicken zig-zags.  My brother Juan hits it with a stick, too hard, the chicken wobbles.

¿Juan, qué hiciste? shrieks Mari.

Nada.  No’más quería asustarla.

And it’s true he only wanted to scare it away.  I can tell he feels bad because his head hangs down a little and he eats more slowly.  We’ll have to nurse the chicken back to health or kill it.  And we don’t want to kill it, it’s too young, mostly bones, not enough meat.  That afternoon the chicken is still kind of wobbly, slow.  Mari crushes a mejoral in a spoon and dilutes it in a cup of water.  I wish the mejoral was for me because when Amá gives us one when something hurts, she mixes the crushed mejoral with a little bit of sugar.  It tastes a little mediciny but still kind of like candy.

Mari lifts the chicken from the ground and it doesn’t even flap its wings.  Mari dips its beak in the water.  I hold the cup but it’s not really drinking.  It doesn’t know the water has medicine that will make it better.  I wonder if the mejoral would help it anyway.  It helps me sometimes when I get headaches, like something is pressing against the inside of my head.  Amá says it’s because I’m too much out in the sun like a lizard, that I have to come in and be in the shade once in a while.  And I try to remember this but I always forget.  I think the chicken’s going to die because she hasn’t clucked very much today and she’s got sleepy eyes.  I think we’re gonna have soup, but not a lot.

  At the end of the day the train makes a stop and whistles loudly.  It always hurts my ears but it also means Amá may be coming so I run to the side of the road, wait for her.  The train is the only way in and out of this place where we live if you don’t have a car.  And very few people have a car.  When one of us is very sick and has to go to the doctor in the city, Apá has to find a ride.  Or he used to.  I haven’t seen him in a while.

Amá walks up the pathway with several fat bags.  She stops and hands me a little wind-up monkey playing a drum.  It’s ugly.  And it doesn’t matter that this is the first new toy I’ve ever gotten.  It’s still ugly.  She can tell I don’t like it.  She’s upset like ahh, forget it.  She walks past me, goes inside, lays the packages on the table in the kitchen and sits, slumps on a chair.

She says we’ll be leaving soon, far away to the other side, to a place called the United States.  I don’t know why it is the other side.  I imagine it’s somewhere on the other side of the canal that runs close to the houses around here.  But I’ve seen the other side of that canal and it looks the same as this side, with little houses and little potted plants and swings made of car tires. 

¿Y Apá? I ask.

Bien.

¿Lo vio?

Sí.

¿Dónde?

En el puente.

¿El puente que crusa el canal?

No, otro puente.

¿Cuál?

Uno lejos.

I’ve never seen any bridge other than the one that crosses over the canal.  But Apá is across another bridge, one that is far away.  Far away.

When you stand on the railroad tracks and look down at a wooden plank and then the next one and the next one, it gets so that you can’t count anymore and the planks keep going away from you in a straight line.  Then you just end up looking at the sky because far away it looks like it touches the tracks, the clouds not above anymore, just down there with the tracks.  I wonder if where Apá is he can see the clouds around him, he can touch the sky.

 

Mapas

I look at the sheets, see the splotches of dried urine, my urine, the edges always threatening to seep further across until they cover the entire surface of the bed.  Zorrillo, Amá calls me like joking but also a little angry or tired.  It’s hard to tell.  She says the sheets are covered in maps.  This means she has to clean the sheets more often, which is more work and she’s always cooking or washing, cooking or washing, cooking or washing.

I run outside because I don’t want to look at those maps anymore.  I’m not sure what maps are, but I seem to make them.  I run to the tall mesquite and climb it.  Then when I get bored of that, I go stare at the flowers of the cactus, one layer of yellow petals, simple flower, like the simple cactus that looks like huge thick leaves growing out of each other.  No trunk, no branches, but still managing to work their way off of the ground into pretty patterns.  Sometimes my sisters take the insides of the flowers and press them to their ears like earrings, but if I do that they get angry.  After that I go to the pig pen where a pig rolls in the mud.  I wish I could roll in the mud but Amá would get very angry cause I’d have dirtied my shorts.

After a while I get tired and go sit indoors.  Sometimes Amá bathes me – I stand on a rock outside and she pours water over me and it feels cool – but not always.  Sometimes she just looks at me, looks down at the dirt caked around my ankles humid from the sweat that trickles down my legs making odd shapes as it works itself over and around the layer of dirt that coats everything, everything that moves and everything that doesn’t.

Más mapas, says Amá and she means my body.

 

It Happened Again

She said it again, ya no te quiero.  I don’t know how it happened that I forgot that she could stop loving me.  But there it is, she’s said it.  I’ve really ruined everything now.  How could I be so stupid?  How could I forget to behave?  The dirt, the dirt everywhere is hard and oily from all the bare feet.  There is a hole in the ground in the corner of the room and a little snake pokes its head through.  It looks at me, sticks its tongue out and then dips below and disappears.

She comes around this time, bends down to me.  Anda, sí te quiero, she says in a soft voice.  And I am happy again.  But around her face everything seems a little out of place. The walls seem crooked, the sky peeking in through the door is not the right blue.  The chicken walking around stares at me too long, one leg suspended off the ground.  It should be looking at the ground for kernels of corn or rice or worms.  But it keeps looking at me.  Amá took pity on me, sure.  That’s why she said she loved me again.  But I don’t know if she really does anymore.  She confuses me with her threats, her words that change, her face soft one minute and hard the next.  She loves me though.  She loves me.  She loves me.

I run out and there on the ground is a lizard the color of dust.  Its neck expands and contracts.  It is breathing and its glossy eyes see me.  But it does not know where I have been.  It knows nothing, only that it runs and hides.  I tell myself, remember to listen, remember always to listen and obey.  Then I run away, climb the large mesquite tree behind the outhouse.  I hold one to a branch and close my eyes.  The tough bark scratches my thighs, irritates my palms, but right now I am only the swaying branch, like a lizard, green this time.

 

Refrigerator

One night I was in the house in my usual bed and the next I was here, in this house that must be what a palace looks like.  Amá says some friends crossed us over in the night, me, Morayma, Juan, Aleida and Mirella, that we were sleeping and so don’t remember.  And Apá is here and I can hardly believe it.  He carries me and kisses me and it is like he never left.  I feel bad though that I never got to see the bridge, the one Apá crossed, the one he never crossed back. 

I’d never seen Tía Ninfa before but Amá says she is her sister and so I have to be respectful.  She’s rich.  Her house has so many rooms I can’t count them.  We sleep in what Tía Ninfa calls the garage, which is supposed to be a room for cars.  Why would cars need a room? Why would they even need a roof?  The only concrete floor I’d seen up until now was in one little store on the other side and in the city of Río Bravo.  But here this house has concrete everywhere.  Amá and Apá sleep on a bed, and the rest of us sleep on the floor.  We sleep on sheets of foam with blankets but it’s still hard.  It’s like sleeping right on the concrete, which is way harder than sleeping on dirt.  But it doesn’t matter because it’s only at night and the garage is warmer than the house on the other side.  The coldest part of winter is leaving but it’s still cold outside.

The house has three rooms with beds and little rooms in them called closets.  A separate room for clothes.  Again, why would clothes need a room to themselves?  My tíos’ bedroom has the largest bed I’ve ever seen.  It’s gigantic, so big their bodies could move around all night and never touch.  My boy cousin has his own room too and my two girl cousins share another room.  There’s a large area at the center called a living room and it seems larger than our entire house on the other side.  Next to it is the largest table I’ve ever seen.  It has eight chairs around it.  And I count only five people in Tía Ninfa’s family and I don’t know why they have so many extra chairs.  And there are glass doors that slide open leading into what Tía calls the backyard.  The sliding doors though, I’ve never seen those, not even in Río Bravo.  You can see outside, see the sunlight, but you don’t feel a thing.

The strangest and best thing is that I’m not cold when I’m inside the house.  It smells great too, like perfumed because it smells different than outside and I’ve never been in a house that had a different smell then outside, except maybe for a kitchen or the doctor’s office.  This is where we’re staying now.  This is where, until we find a place to live here on the other side.  That’s what Amá said before she gave me the big speech about not being a pest, not hanging around the kitchen, saying no thank you if I am offered food, not playing with anything that is not mine, not touching anything, not asking for anything.

Why can’t we hang around the kitchen?  Because it’s not our kitchen, she said.  And we need to be nice and behave.  I asked her if I could ask for water.  And she said yes, you can ask for water, and I felt better.  That’s how it was, then she had to leave for something and we all stayed behind.

All the objects in Tía Ninfa’s house sparkle like they belong in a store, like I’m in a store.  A hissing noise comes on and off during the day and I know not to ask what it is.  These things called lamps sit by small tables next to a long chair for several people that has big soft cushions.  It reminds me of the long chairs at the doctor’s office in Río Bravo.  My cousins call it a sofa.  They have a television set in every room.  I don’t know why that is, why they need more than one television set and if the same show can be seen in all televisions.  The kitchen has a faucet with running water, indoor water.  I guess they don’t need a well.  The kitchen also has rows of little doors up high where I can’t reach and down close to the floor where I can but I don’t know what’s behind the doors or why they have so many of them.  It’s beautiful, though, like a little fort.

The refrigerator is huge and it has doors side by side.  I know what that is because I’ve seen something similar in the store on the other side, where they kept Cokes and chilled treats.  It is beautiful, white and tall with smooth rounded corners.  My cousin Criselda opens the thinner door and it is filled with boxes of treats and ice cream.  They’re practically falling out of little white wire baskets, even more treats than in the store on the other side.  And packets of frozen stuff that looks like meat.  She opens a box and pulls out a little plastic wrapped thing.  She asks me if I want one like she’d be happy to give me one, and I’m not sure what it is but I say no, thank you.  Okay, she says, then she open the package and reveals an ice cream popsicle shaped like a round face with big dark brown round ears.  I don’t know why but the face looks familiar.  The face is vanilla and the eyes and smile are chocolate and the ears are covered in a hard chocolate film.  She holds it from a smooth even little stick.  When she bites an ear I see the inside of the ears are chocolate too.  The dark chocolate film crackles between her teeth.  And she’s licking and biting and the popsicle is really thick and it seems like it’s too much ice cream for her.  It begins to melt down her hand, around each knuckle.  I think of telling her that it’s dripping but I don’t because I shouldn’t be staring.  That’s another thing I’m not supposed to do.

When she’s done, she licks the stick clean and the stick was smooth all the way up, rounded at the edges, no sharp corners.  She throws it away in the waste basket and walks away down the hall.  The refrigerator is silent.  No, the refrigerator is humming.  There is a motor of sorts, like the ones that make cars run, and it is keeping everything cold and everything else frozen.  It does not move.  I think of opening the thin door, taking an ice cream popsicle.  But I can’t, she offered and I said no and the offer is gone.  She should have insisted.  I’ve seen grown ups insist to each other.  Maybe if she would have insisted, I would have said yes, not knowing what I was saying yes to and thrilled to discover the surprise.  But Amá said nothing about people insisting and what to do in that situation.  And it doesn’t matter anymore, except that the door is there and it is not locked and not heavy to open.  I can reach the handle because it runs all the way down the edge of the door so grown ups and kids can open it, I guess.  And I am standing before it.  And it hums and on the other side of the door is something soft and sweet and cold.  And I start to pout and I don’t know why I’m pouting because nobody is laughing at me, nobody is making fun of me, nobody is chasing me with stones in their hands.  Still, my lips tighten and stick out and I’m glad nobody is watching me.  I walk outside, out back.  A chain link fence encircles the backyard, and I know not to ask why the house has to be fenced.

 

José Antonio Rodríguez is a graduate student in the English and Creative Writing program at SUNY- Binghamton and editor of the literary journal Harpur Palate.  He is the recipient of the 2009 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award.  His work has appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Connecticut Review and elsewhere.

December 20, 2009   1 Comment