Eternal Memories in the Eternal City

Eternal memories from the Eternal City, Rome, 2018, from the weeks we were lucky enough to spend in Testaccio. That year, religious holidays fell at the same time — Passover Seder was finishing as Easter bells began to ring.   In the days before the holidays, I got swept up in the emotional intensity, the cresting of passions in theatrical and religious Rome. I was fascinated with the intricately woven histories and texts of two great faiths.   I found some journal notes where the timeless ritual makes appearance in the living moment.  I share them: 

Last night the Trevi fountain, with its gaudy excess, the water lit to resemble tropical Hawaii, was crowded with holiday tourists.  Groups of long-skirted priests walked by, disappearing into the dark streets.  Two steps away, a church that seemed carved out of grotto rock, opened its doors. Inside a few worshippers were sitting in pews alone.  A nun began to strum a little guitar, maybe ukelele, and in a high voice slipped off, then refound her key and wavered with naked vulnerability. 

At six this morning, a group of worshippers stood at the back of the neighborhood church  chanting what sounded, in its open repetitions like the Kaddish prayer.  Aramaic speaking to Latin?  Probably not, but the cultural overlaps were beginning to seem like the point.

For our Seder, I read about long history of Italian Jews: as many as 20,000 Jews had been brought as slaves after Rome conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD.  I read Edda Machlin on her country’s venerable culinary traditions, about the excitement of returning to the community’s matzah oven, chiseled into the wall of a cavern; once a year, it was cleaned of spider webs before bringing down matzah meal and eggs. The traditional Seder dishes were baby goat, polpettoni d’agnello – lamb loaves, or turkey breast pie which must have been brought by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition.   

For our Saturday night Seder, I made artichokes Roman-style, fish with pignola nuts and raisins, puntarelle salad and almond macaroons, the recipe from cloistered nuns in Jerusalem, we leaned out on the sills of our apartment, imaginining how early community in the Jewish ghetto would hear the Dolor  — dolorous bells were tolling after midnight Easter mass.  

I wrote a longish poem which dwells on the human pain of crucifixion — but was struck by the end which I excerpt.  Although faiths have their own version of redemption, the echoes and repetitions are notable — the cry of anguish – My God, why have you forsaken me? – belongs to both Jesus and Davidic Psalm 22.  This is a story of layerings more than parallel lines coming together, ending with a sly spin on universal praise.

At least everyone can agree on one thing:
After midnight, shutters thrown open
and people down in the piazzas shout
with the complaint of braying goats,
or like a mondial harmonium,
My God, why have you forsaken me?

we Jews will tempt the cresting Sea,
red from the lash, locust wings, 
hot sand in the whorl
of our ears, going for broke 
while clutching oppression bread

the effervescent suck of death
between great waves 
so close, when all is given up
a song flies from us

all tongues, everything that brays
and breathes, 
the eyeless fish
plankton, dancing women 
praise Jah

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Speak, Kafka: What the Maxwell House Haggadah didn’t share

The Jewish way of telling things is famously contentious and fractured; stories get started, then start again differently (doesn’t an Origin story imply a single origin? Think again!)  The surface is not linear, stories grab you, then leave a key part untold. Interpretations move about restlessly from different points of view. When trying to piece together a whole, holes emerge which, if you’re into words (who isn’t?) becomes very exciting.

I was reaching into imagination and thinking of Haggadot, the story’s interpretation, not yet heard, not yet seen.  For instance, where is the hand-written Haggadah Kafka brought to his family Seder table, wanting to offer a fresh take on this meta-narrative, with no beginning and no end? Where is these yellowing paper with folds, imprinted with the wings of an insect?  Where is this anguished take on God’s gift, the wordless cry, the emptiness in a journey where God hovers as an absentee landlord? Folded into the pages of his own stories, obviously.

I’m ready for Haggadah of phenomenology, where everything has a voice — every person, every thing.  Already decentered, in this story we give equal voice to the midwives Puah and Shifra, we flesh out the anonymous people, Pharaoh, the Egyptians.  We voice the animals — “Let all that have breath praise Yah” — fish, mules, snakes.  All things — the dry land, waves, the sea, the tambourines. This is where wise ancient texts, already rich with choral vocals, meet the new. It’s part of the command to see the radical in the traditional, for if the original hadn’t been radical to begin with, it wouldn’t have survived.

Back to what we might find at my table, I’ll mention narratives in which we acknowledge personal obstacles that keep us “in narrow places” (Mitzrayim/Egypt).  But give the last word to the imperative of justice at the heart of the great ur-tale and its charge that liberation is ongoing.  Abraham Joshua Heschel tells it from the 1960s as he could tell it today, the same with difference: “At the first conference on race and religion, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses…the outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. Exodus began but is far from complete.”

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That Old Keen Darkness

Rooster consciousness,
the rooster that sees light in darkness
rooster announces the light while submerged in darkness
from the deepest place as it’s starting to turn

soon we’ll be in light, you can feel it
it teases, it plays in spring dazzle
that exhilaration, that rush forward
to leave everything behind

We have been staring into darkness
We have been shown darkness

Gingerly, carry that darkness

stirring to its strange voice
its story

carry it in your pocket
rub it like a stone
take side glances at its face

all our transformations
in that stony face
looking towards the light

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Topsy Turvy Holidays during an Inverted Year

Welcome to the Dionysian spring holidays — Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Purim, falling in love — that turn things upside down during a year in which everything has been turned upside down.  It makes for fascinating spatial — and metaspatial — thinking.  If I turn upside down while I’m standing on my head, am I right side up?

No, but it opens the imagination up to all kinds of interesting propositions! What kind of reversals or forays into chaos would you induce to find some new stability, some reemergence of order?  The rabbis back in the day allowed all kinds of forbidden habits to happpen, even commanded them. The faithful get dead drunk, so that their utterance is completely and totally confused.  Up is down, he is she, heavy is light, mourning is celebration.  Surprise breaks into the expected to shatter fixed concepts of reality.  Inside that reality was a little miracle lurking all the time, another divine reality, a seeming opposite joined by a hinge to a larger unity.  

What seems like happy confusion is a whole field of philosophy, naturally, with twists and turns through the nonduality of mysticism and literature. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, illustrates simultaneous difference and sameness with the famous aphorism: 

“The road up and the road down are the same thing.”  It’s a succinct vision to hold as we approach the anniversary of the pandemic. 

I’m rarely so clear-sighted. I’m in the camp of Artsi Ifrach, an Israeli-Moroccan fashion designer who said, “All those phantasmagorical connections might seem odd to certain people, but for me they create an inner, quiet logic.”

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World Valentine

This Valentine’s Day, my object of love is the world, and what kind of a clear manageable object is that?  

I could narrow it down, focus, make it a simple object, like an oyster, and use all of my five senses to explore its delicate being, its opalescent color, its sand and pearly shell  

I might complicate things by thinking about the ocean, and how many people die in it every year, and how many sailors and fishermen have perished over centuries, how many in the Middle Passage, and wonder if I can still love the ocean

or that oyster that is its product and essence of the ocean itself

and I might be eating the oyster as I am listening to a roll call, to documentation of a country falling apart

eating at itself, indulging in fantasies, imposing fictions on phenomena that is watery and impossible to fix or order

and I might wonder how I can love that project too 

or the oyster raised in a tainted original colony  

but since I’m past the point of infatuation, not holding the world 
to promises that it would laugh at if ever charged, I’ll keep witnessing, in all flavors and registers

all beauty and monsters that comes from the ocean

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BHLIG!! At-home Peace and Conflict Studies

This morning I started doing my own peace and conflict studies before tea, before I was awake. I’d startled myself when I realized that the word “conflict” shelters “con” — a warm and fuzzy prefix meaning “together”  or “with.”  I had the sudden bright idea that there was a unifying element lurking at the word’s root, that the enemies were not enemies at all but two players joined by a hinge, taking two parts of an open door.  And it all was lying in plain sight, in the words, and we just have to perform them properly, the way language, which maps it out, tells us it was meant to be.

A quick check of etymology told me yes and no.  Yes, two wrestlers move their heavy feet to circle around each other but no, they weren’t usually doing it for fun. More often they would do the Proto-Indo-European thing that we all sometimes need to do — BHLIG!  That’s strike in ancient talk, a word that should be in a comic book bubble so perfectly it is termed. Later it becomes “fligere”, strike, armed and military conflict.

As companion to conflict, the other across the hinge, I meditated on peace. Peace is also an action word.  Before the Latin pax there was the Proto-Indo-European “pag” or “pak,” meaning a cord or as a verb, to fasten.  Lasso me, bind me, fix me in agreement — engage me in an act of making pact that is, in fact, performing peace.  It attempts to hold, to bind, to secure peace as a continual human effort to fashion and fasten ties.  Through words, we have a performance of language again.  

With that done, I pour myself another cup of tea. 

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What Augurs, Biden?

A smart observer once said about our new president: “If you ask me who the luckiest person I know, it’s Joe Biden.  If you ask me who the unluckiest person I know, it’s Joe Biden.”  As a lover of paradox, a light went off when I first heard it.  It seems like a joke, a mocking play on reason, a Woody Allen wisecrack that one knows immediately is smart, and later profound. The way an oracle would speak and we wouldn’t understand it, though we’d count intuitively on its deep truth.

Biden’s biography fills the blanks of the paradox – his success as a debut politician was followed by the deaths of wife and daughter.  He would have died of a brain aneurysm, ignoring his health and stumping away on the campaign trail if hadn’t been forced to drop out of a presidential race on charges of plagiarism.  His son, Beau, died young of a brain tumor.   After eight years as Vice-President, he’s fulfilled his ambition — in the most wrenching stretch — of becoming President.

We live in paradoxical times.  We’re lucky – the election went our way. We’re unlucky – part of our poltiical body tried to burn down the house.  I heard, as the inauguration neared, people were nervously organizing and ironing as women due before they’re about to have babies.  Nothing is guaranteed, and the successes of America the literal, the exceptional and idealist must open to the shadow life of paradox.  The biblical Isaac survived a binding, but his shadow death walks alongside him as a human. Experience of tragedy is just on the other side of exuberance, suffering clings as a double. If we’re lucky, as a country, we just might mature enough to hold a truer sense of absurdity, to admit that success is willed only to a small extent, if at all, and chance plays the major hand. Between the two forces, a reminder to be human. It depends how we play our hand.

*Ted Kaufman quoted in Evan Osnos’ biography of Joe Biden, “The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now.”

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Stuck in the Stalls of History

In Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, his sprawling novel of poets, revolutionaries and Pinochet, I remember most vividly the scene of a poet trapped in a stall of the bathroom as riot police entered her university.   Where else would she be?  She is Auxilio Lacouture, poet and auxiliary individual, manic monologuist.  She is bound by the ordinary, which becomes extra-ordinary, in spite of and because she’s a minor actor in the stream of history.  She missed megaphone calls to evacuate because she was reading poetry in the can. Thus she becomes part of the surreality of reality overlaid on the streets and in her own vivid consciousness, as public and private eruptions, of multiple narratives over several days of her own obsessive confinement.

Lacouture recalls: “I lifted my feet like a Renoir ballerina, my underwear dangling down around my skinny ankles and snagging on a pair of shoes…I saw the soldier who was staring entranced into the mirror, the two of us still as statues in the women’s bathroom…I heard the door close…

“I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day.  And I knew what I had to do.  I knew.  I had to resist.  So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.” 

My daughter and I were burning onions for a French onion soup the day the insurrection took place.  We witnessed the coup by play-by-play accounts, by a torrent of words as we were darkening onions.  We were pouring broth over heaps of caramelized onions stuck to the bottom of the dutch over, scraping up the brown bits when the coup was going down.  We are part of a river and it’s going somewhere and we don’t know whether we’ll be judged for some other bit of goodness that we did, or didn’t do.

Where were you? 

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2020: Opera Extraordinaire

I was given to lying prone on the living room carpet, pencil in hand, contemplating my topic sentence. It was a strange luxury: the blank page and a sentence-to-be.  In my mind’s eye, I knew it had to be multiple. There couldn’t be just one angle, one point of view or concept to explore on a sixth-grade paper.  It was a good thing I had a stack of paper handy.

Skipping ahead, how many voices, or topic sentences would we need to write about 2020?  The mind splits under the pressure.  It’s been a behemoth of a year, and any rational attempt at “making sense” is a slippery, doomed adventure, without multiplicity. 

Better to imagine the year as a screaming, overstuffed, opera, exhausting in its sheer number of plot lines and tonal shifts.  You didn’t want to cry but there you were crying at something sentimental that now rang true.  There was sacrifice, there was love against all odds. Death always in the background, or on the other side of the flimsy stage door.  That’s what made the singing so moving, the sorrow, even in love songs, so poignant. 

When the opera quiets at intermission, you are soaringly happy, with inner circle, with friends.  I was happy with a square of grass, a flower, a word.  When I listened to the mute language of things. 

Sometimes from all the screaming and confusion, my mind got fuzzy.  I seethed from the cage of futility.  I raged, scoffed, then laughed at national farce.   I bled, then tried to be nourished by things as they are.  The same image of my physical self on a film strip would be repeated, with only the color radically shifting according to mood.  

One thing I’m grateful for: to have been saturated with emotion, saturated with experience.  Things mattered.  Chaos mattered.  At the edge, we did small things, though we were charged with personal accountability.  We found lightness at the center.  When we pack our suitcases to take forward into the future, they should be lighter and filled with an open weave of memory and desire, of fierce attention, of strong beauty.
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Solstice, burning bright

Solstice, winter, covid: we are close to the dark.   Those winter days that swing between flat gray and blindingly bright gray work a subtle palette. 

During insomniac nights — at 3am, at 4am — I am close to the darkness too.  As I lay awake, I go deep into it. I riff:
Darkness, my compatriot, my friend, my pain,
my swan dive, tail in the air, everything inverted.
My color palette, everything contained. 
Darkness, all swirling imagination, all nourishment, all foundation.
All restart, light, recognition of what is outside me, 
of darkness inside me that leads to the beyond.

Everyone is talking loosely, wildly, glibly of light, something we lack and thus want desperately to lure.   The electrified trees, the candles that never drip though they burn in every window every night, the bright rafters — all speak to a desire to light up in “unprecedented” fashion.  These are rituals of continuity, myths of faith that lay the way to see in darkness — considered “old-fashioned,” they are back with a bang.  As if we thought they could be replaced with bulbs!

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