Discovery

This morning, an alumni retreated into the courtyard from the locked gate of Branford College.

“How do we get out of here?” she pleaded.

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The answer can be simple.

You put on your running shoes.  You wait until someone enters from the outside.  You slip out the gate.  And you set out for parts unknown.

While in school, my attention (perhaps our attention) was turned inward toward whatever adventures and drama were insulated within those many stone courtyards.  Rarely did I venture beyond the bounds of the residential colleges.  And if I did, only a few blocks distant to a late night falafel joint or a beeline to the pizza at Wooster Square.

But I was rarely driven, nor did I incite myself, to truly explore.  It was impressed upon us that beyond the moated buildings of our campus lurked threats and dangers.  It was better to stay safe.

On this morning I ran out on Chapel Street.

To my chagrin, I was reminded that I never learned the cardinal directions of this landscape.  I lived here for four years and never thought to contemplate the prevailing winds or through what tributaries and estuaries the water flowed.  I didn’t know how the neighborhoods and town functioned.

Today on this run I learned that there had once been a blizzard in 1888 that had dumped 52 inches of snow over three days.

I learned that double streetcar tracks once ran out into the countryside, far beyond any point that I could imagine.

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On several corners I saw connects hanging out, waiting for their peeps.

I saw Seventh Day Adventists dressed up and walking to worship.

I discovered a wetland laced with paths and trails.

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I saw a monument to the Spanish American War, but stripped of it’s memorial plaque.  I wondered about pyrrhic victories and what would drive someone to remove the plaque, and was reminded that every victory implies another person’s loss.

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I discovered a skate park.

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I found a boy who could ride a wheelie for a very long time while spinning his front wheel in the air like a top.

I learned that cattails are native to the wetland, and that they are under constant threat from the advancing phragmites.  If you look closely, you can see them preparing for onslaught, amassing in the distance.

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I remembered that the world is ripe for teaching if we choose to learn.

I was reminded that the victor always controls what and whom we choose to memorialize.

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And perhaps, in this case, that the victory was premised not on an absence of slavery, but on the promotion of an economic arrangement that merely privileged slavery in a different form.

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I learned that Joan Baez and the Doors had once played in the New Haven Arena.  In it’s stead, an FBI building now stands.

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I learned that there once was a man named Camp.  And he played football at Yale Bowl.  He developed the snapback from center and the system of downs, things of which I still have scant inkling.

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I learned that a network of rail lines once filagreed throughout New England and that this network capillaries once promoted all manner of human interaction and communication.  I longed to travel and engage in that way.

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I saw how community is woven from the most frail and ephemeral of connections.  And that connection may be that thing for which, in whatever way possible, we must constantly strive.

 

I realized that although Yale may have been my whaling ship, it was an ever beautiful and ever imperfect vessel indeed.

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Day 3 Maui in Two Elements

IMG_3066Wind and Water.

That’s what the masseuse Laura said as she did some Lomi Lomi thing on my back yesterday.  Double-triple Aquarians (whoever they are) have a really hard time on these islands, she said.  They just kind of float out into space.  But you need land.  You need to be grounded.  And there’s not much of that here.

Laura’s Lomi Lomi, I guess, may be immaculate proof of that.

So two days ago I threw up that post about, what?  Bill Graham. Running.  A dead body on a path.  Switching out of a hotel.  I need to be writing about troop movements in WWII, and instead I was punching the keys on all that other stuff.

It really was a string of non-sequiturs, a string of non-sequiturs that had an audience of precisely. . .zero.

So post it I did.

Then some people read it.  And one person in particular, Poppy Davis.  (Some day ask me for the Poppy story).  And Poppy shared the post with some of her friends.  And then things kind of blew up.  Because one of those friends happened to be Laura who in a former life had worked for Bill Graham Presents.  And so the post went to her FB and then to all the former Bill Graham staff and acolytes and that all apparently turned into a conversation.  And it turns out that Laura is here on Maui.  Not only is she here on Maui, but she’s, like, two blocks away from our new hotel in Wailea.

And not only is she two blocks away, but she just worked a benefit that involved Jackson Browne and Wavy Gravy among other musicians and they had all come to Hawaii and were booked at….you guessed it….the hotel from which we had checked out.

And like us, the talent couldn’t take it. They found the environment strangely strange.  One singer left to stay somewhere else.   Wavy Gravy was weirded out (and that guy comes pre-weirded.  I imagine it might take a lot to further weird him out…)  Who knows on what dark and lonely road Jackson Browne set himself trudging.

So that’s how we ended up with Laura the fantastic traveling masseuse from Na Alii Massage in our hotel getting fantastic complimentary massages.  Laura wanted to make sure that I got all the dead body ju-ju out of my system.  Which she certainly did.

And on the way, I learned where to get good fish tacos.  And about Laura’s husband who is way into history. In particular WWII history.  And in particular what went down in Eastern Europe and precisely who’s village was slaughtered by whom.  And about an elder relative who in her 80’s had nowhere to go until she heard from someone that in New Mexico you could live in University dorms as long as you attended classes.  So this ancient woman enrolled in some classes, moved into the dorms, hoarded shit to the ceiling, and all the other freshman students kind of looked after her.  It went on for years. And about how one  can be trapped (by addiction, by life, by whatever) and the discipline of self that can help one break free.

I also learned about the second-to-last-Jewish-refugee kid to be adopted from the Army barracks in upstate New York.  And a little more about why a man who should have been so reviled was in fact so loved.  “Bill Graham single-handedly created the system,” Laura said.  “He was the one who built the socket that allowed millions of people to plug into the Universe.”  The Dead on their own? They couldn’t have done it.  They were the channel, but they needed this huge system – a system of Graham’s devising – to make it happen.

In 1988 soon after Anna and I started dating we went to a New Year’s show at the Oakland Coliseum.  Anna had confessed that she didn’t really like the Dead.  She said that she would have preferred watching the The Tom-Tom Club comprised of the leftover members of the Talking Heads.  That night they were playing their own New Year’s show at the Warfield over in San Francisco.  But there we were, in the Oakland Coliseum, waiting for something to happen.  There was some warm up band that I can’t remember.  They left.  Then the lights went down.  More folks walked on stage and picked up there instruments.  It was none other than the Tom-Tom Club.  And they began to play.

That was Bill Graham.

So floaty floaty we’ve been the last few days.  If you asked me what exactly we did after the massages, I’d be hard pressed to tell you.  Give it up to the wind and water.

Except for one more thing.  Remember the pig boat to Moloka’i?  Well when we didn’t get on it, we had to call Anna’s friend on the other island and tell her we weren’t coming.

No worries, she said.  She would just get on a plane and come here.  Soon, very soon, the wind and water will carry me (and by extension you) into her story.

Stay tuned.  It’s a good one.

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Day Two Maui in 4 Stories

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Today’s rout includes stories about running, smart phones, strongmen, and choices.  And also about the screwed up way that we roll when we travel.

The facts?  Severely non-interesting.  We ran in the morning.  We bought some fruit.  We read on the beach at Ka’anapali.  We floated in the water.  We drove south and checked into a hotel in Kihei and switched rooms once and hotels once.  I walked in the dark to Wailea.

We had a few conversations with other people.  But I had at least four thoughts.

1.  Andy’s Philosophy of Running.  When you run, you’re mapping your body to the landscape. My favorite kind of running is just running around: – the kind where you don’t know where you’re going and you go down that path until it intersects with this path and then you follow a trail to just see where it goes and sometimes you double back around and find yourself in some totally unexpected place.

It’s exploration by running.  In the process you feel the air of the place.  You feel the different and ever changing texture of the volcanic and coral ground.  And spiderwebs in the face.  And the sounds and fragrances and cast of light that are unique to every place and each sliver of the day.

It’s a great way to get around.

2. Seeking.  A few weeks ago Mazie wanted to get rid of her smartphone.  I keep looking at it, she said, expecting to find something inside that’s never there.

It’s as true a statement as any.  We have wedded ourselves to a device of wanting, one that leaves us perpetually leaving the moment and physical space that we presently inhabit to go find something somewhere else.  I believe the Device has reinforced us as a nation of dissatisfied seekers.  At every moment we have the somatic experience of wanting to fill “dead space” by peering into an object for something that is not there.

At the same time, we enter the Device because we want to be anchored in certainty.  We look at the Map app to know exactly where we are.  We go to Yelp to make sure we go to a good restaurant.  In an idle moment we tap on Google News and scan the headlines so we know exactly what may be happening elsewhere in the world  at that moment.

Yet the more we outsource our native intelligence to a smart device, how more dumb do we as individuals become?

So here’s the embarrassing confession. On this trip we’ve tried (and sadly it does take trying) to disengage from the devices. In any given moment, rather than turning to the device for the answer, we’ve had to turn back to the world and back to people.   That’s where a lot of the conversations have come from.

Sadly, the feeling is strangely revelatory.  And even more strangely, this was how we would move through the world as recently as a decade ago.  It changes everything.

I used to pride myself on my sense of geography and direction.  And in the brief span of the Device Era, I’ve all but lost it.  So over the last few days when we drive and we haven’t known where we are, we’ve had to look around and think about it for a moment and let the landscape tell us.  Or we just go and hope to get to where we’re going.  Or we ask someone for directions and listen closely to the landmarks they mention because those are the keys to finding your way around.  I begin to feel like myself again.

We ask people on the sidewalk where they would get a good cup of coffee.  Random people on the street tell us where to run or to find the best poke.  We look for signs and pieces of paper.  I’m craving paper.  Paper newspaper.  Paper maps.  Paper paper.  Something that feels material and textured.

There’s still MapMyRun (I do it because the maps are kind of totems and when I run around randomly it’s nice to know how far I’ve gone.)  And there’s the Facebook (a lot of times I feel like just some guy floating out there and FB provides a feeling of connectedness).  But even these things it may be soon time to ditch.

3.  The Benevolent Strongman.  This is not a non-sequitur!  Rather it’s exactly the sort of thing one can think about while lying on a beach in Hawai’i.

The man in the White House and Bill Graham are/were strongmen.  Why, I wonder, do I detest one and have an abiding love and appreciation for the other?  Strongmen are usually damaged souls.  Bill Graham certainly was – as damaged as any soul that has ever been.

It’s one of my favorite stories that I never mind retelling.  So for those who don’t know:

Wolfgang Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931 during the restoration of the Reich.
When his father died shortly after, his mother kept him and his five siblings alive by selling fake flowers and costume jewelry in Berlin markets.
In 1938, the year of Kristalnacht, his mother placed him and his sister Tolia in a children’s home to save them.
His mother and remaining siblings would later be gassed on the way to Auschwitz.  He would never see them again.
At the onset of the war, Wolfgang and the other orphans would be evacuated to France.
In 1941, when Paris fell to the Germans, the International Red Cross escorted 64 children on foot and by bus to Lyons.  Wolfgang’s baby sister Tolia became sick with pneumonia and was left behind in an infirmary.  Grajonca would never see her again.
The 10 year old boy then walked to Marseilles and from there he was carried to Madrid.  And Lisbon.  And Casablanca. And Dakar.  He was placed on a boat to America and survived on cookies and oranges.  When he arrived in New York Harbor on September 24th, 1941, he weighed 55 lbs.  Of the original 64 children evacuated from the orphanage, only 11 would arrive in America.
Those refugee orphans were taken to Army barracks in upstate New York.  One by one the eleven children were adopted by families who were paid 48 dollars a month to take Jewish children.  There Wolfgang waited for nine weeks.  He was the very last child to be taken.

And I’m fairly sure that somewhere in that time, deep in the core of that little boy, that is when he decided that no one.  Absolutely no one.  Would ever.  Ever.  Fuck with him again.

That’s when he became Bill Graham.

I believe he understood people in a fundamentally profound way.  He knew that, after a Dead show let’s say, when you have a whole lot of people not in their right mind, that all those people needed somewhere safe to go.  So in this case, he set it up so that no one would have to leave – they could all stay camped out in the parking lot for as long as they needed.  But (and this is important) he also understood that in order to have the parking lot, you also needed rules.  And for rules to work, you also need an enforcer.  And if you operate in a world of the vain glorious and narcissistic and among those who lust for power (which was the world of rock ‘n roll) – you needed someone who was willing to fight back and fight back hard and was not afraid to leave bodies and hurt feelings in his wake.  He didn’t care.  I believe he was fundamentally driven by a misanthropic view of humanity.  Yet (and this is where he may differ from the other guy), I believe he genuinely cared for other people – he longed deeply in a way that he could perhaps not articulate for something righteous and good. “This.  is. Your. Fucking.  Job,” I imagine him saying.  “Do. Your.  Job.”

Once at a New Year’s show, my brother-in-law Vaughan was standing on the floor and looked over to see Graham standing right there beside him.  “Yo man,” someone asked.  “What are you doing here?”

Graham shrugged.  “I wanted to be down here with the the freaks,” he said.

In a sense, Graham was a kind of Holden Caufield:  the wounded soul who struggled angrily – sad and valiant – to catch the innocent as they tumbled into that field of rye.

4.  Where You’re At.  Anna got up at 2 am the other night so she could finish up a boatload of work before the close of the weekend.  She sat there at a wooden table in an old Lahaina hotel while the drunken loudly caroused home in the street below.  “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing where you’re at,” I reminded her.  “As long as you’re where you’re at.”  Which is another way to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of a computer screen at two in the morning if that computer screen is on a wooden desk in a delightful old room in Hawai’i.

And with that said, yesterday afternoon we checked  into the Maui Coast in Kihei.

What we had imagined:  Anna’s conference was in Wailea. No rooms available.  But whatever.  We’ll be in Maui.  We’ll stay in Kihei and each morning we could ride bikes to Wailea and what delightful mornings those will be.   When we arrive they have no rooms readied, but no prob, we say they can take their time.  We are absolutely fine.  Mary the reservation lady, visibly relieved, suggests that we check out the strip malls down the street.

My heart begins to sink.

We ask about the bikes.  Turns out we have limited use.  Wailea is four miles away uphill.  And we can’t use the bikes past 6:30.   My heart sinks further.  But a room becomes available.  Second floor.  The window basically looks out at wall.

We head back to the front desk.  This time Manny the super nice supervisor greets us.  “Any chance we could have a different room?”  we ask guiltily.  Everyone is so terribly nice.  We are totally willing to wait.  Manny punches the keyboard.  “Complimentary upgrade.” he says.  Now we find ourselves on the top floor in a suite.  Big soaking tub.  Windows looking out over the mild sprawl of Kihei. Anna takes the car keys and heads off to the conference in Wailea.

I lay down on the bed.  I flip through one of those weird vacation activity guides. I stare up at the ceiling.  And that’s when I realize that this is exactly the kind of room where a person kills himself.

Feeling my lease on life growing rapidly shorter, I head downstairs and start walking toward Wailea.  I walk past the strip malls.  I cut over to the beach and walk on the sand as the sun sets.  The beach runs out and I pop up a trail and walk cliffside in front of a line of condos, vacationers outside grilling on the barbecues.  In the growing darkness I trudge through a park past a lone bagpiper playing an aching ode to the crashing waves of the Pacific.  I walk and I walk and I walk through the darkness.  Now on a grassy shoulder I cross over to a sidewalk.  The road curves up into what appears to be a posh neighborhood.  I take a narrow street that deadends and then a concrete staircase down to a beach, hardly a couple feet of sand gently pounded by the black surf as the night tide comes up.  I continue walking along the white liminal sand and then through water and then rocks and over driftwood until there is beach no longer.  Just me and the surf.  I detect a narrow sand trail that cuts up through some undergrowth and I follow that maybe 20 feet and there on those narrow trail in the darkness I see a naked body lying in the sand blocking the whole trail – and I mean a Sumo wrestler size body just lying there – and in a split second I think, ‘okay.  This is either a) some dude who’s probably sleeping and I need to carefully step over and around him and risk some kooky altercation, or b) he’s dead.’  And either way, even just in the process of finding out, I got a problem on my hands.

So I wind back down the pitch trail and back into the inky surf and along the night shore and the rocks and the driftwood trees until I find luminescent beach again and then back onto the road and into the posh neighborhood.

The phone rings.  It’s Anna.  “Where you at,” she asks.   “I’m on a grass island by the side of the road,” I tell her.  I sit down on the grass, but it smells faintly of sewage and gray water.  I stand.  “Never mind,” I tell her.  Come find me, I’ll be walking on the road to Wailea.”  I walk on up a long hill through the darkness beneath a line of towering and twisting banyon trees and eventually a car pulls up slowly beside me and I climb in and find myself sitting beside Anna.

“I don’t think we can stay in that hotel,” I tell her.

“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she says.

It’s nine at night and we drive on to Wailea and up to a Marriott Residence Inn within true walking distance of the conference and we talk with Kody the super nice desk clerk.  He can set us up.  It’ll cost us an extra few hundred bucks for the week.   Anna and I get a beer and go sit in the darkness by the blue glow of the pool to sort it all out.

We take some time to do our figuring (It seems she and I spend a lot of time figuring). We agree.  The Coast is a perfectly nice hotel.  And we can drive into Wailea each morning together.  And I can hang at the whatever whatever resort in whatever lounge chair and write.  What difference, really, does it make where we lay our head at night?

Well, there was something vaguely soul destroying about Kihei.

We don’t need posh.  But we want to be some place.  And unfortunately these days too many rooms and too many spots feel like no place.  Perhaps it was an absence of greenery or an abundance of stoplights.  Or the pizza hut on the corner.  Or roads and distances best trafficked by auto.  Or the inclination of the light.  Who knows?

But some differences do make a difference.

“If we decide to move,” I ask Anna, “Is that a good choice?”

“It’s absolutely a good choice,” she answers.

Day One Maui in 5 Conversations

We roll in yesterday, 36 hours little sleep trying to forge our way out of Sebastopol.  We stop for repast at a shrimp truck and lemonade stand on the side of the road outside of Kahului.  And then the slow meander over the saddle and up the coast to Lahaina.

We’re all gling glong. We grab a sixpack of bikini blonde and a stack of raw fish and settle in on the porch of the Lahaina Inn.  Nap and up to Ka’apalani to throw ourselves in the ocean at sunset.

What do I love about conversations?  They’re all fundamentally false. They’re basically stories that we tell one another.  And for the very same reason in the deepest sense they are absolutely true.

Conversation #1.  Ten at night at Cheeseburgers.  Surf crashing on the sand beneath us.  Sitting at the table next to us a guy, Del who grew up in the Fillmore in the sixties.  In Maui for the first time.  He’s been there for a week with his girlfriend who he flew out from Buffalo.  Come to San Francisco, he told her, and I’ll take you somewhere warm.   He lived for a long time in North Carolina working as a general contractor building golf course homes and then his ninety year old mom begins to slip away so he went back to San Francisco, back to the Fillmore with his boy, and then he was going to stay and take care of his mom and his wife was going to join them.  She shipped her stuff. And three weeks before she was to get on the plane she died.  He and his boy never saw her again.  Flash forward a year and his boy, seven years old, he sees his dad so sad, and he’s so sad,  he goes onto on online dating site (Seniors Dating dot Com) and he makes a profile for his dad and one night he goes up to him and he shows all these pictures of women and he’s weeping and he says “How ’bout that one, dad?  Or how bout that one?”  And together they set on a few and he calls this woman in Buffalo.  She has a couple grandkids of her own. She works the night shift in a tire factory and they talk every morning on the phone.  It’s been three years now. She’s come out twice before and now Hawai’i.  And we tell her he must like her a whole awful lot and she starts to laugh this big full laugh and she flashes her finger and asks, “Where’s the ring then?” And he starts to laugh and he looks to us and he laughs even harder and I suddenly feel happy for him and I feel happy for the world because without any further information  I trust what’s coming.

Conversation #2. 6:30 am  dawn breaking over the harbor.  I trudge to the coffee shack adjacent.  Espresso girl not there yet.  But they got drip.  Bank card thing not working yet.  You staying round here? the owner asks.  I nod my head next door. You can pay later, he says.

Conversation #3.  Anna and I running south on Front St, to get to the courthouse banyan tree and the beaches, and then up and over the curb plows a dude in a wheelchair, he has a stump of a leg, he’s attired in an immaculate vintage black suit and a pressed t-shirt with South Park style characters.  I turn back.  “Yo,” I say.  “Who’s on your shirt?”  Dude does a split quick pivot – his thin face gnarled and smiling and tweaked –  “Cheech and Chong,” he says.  “Cheech and Chong.”  “Where’d you get that shirt?” I asked.  “I saw it on a dude,” he said.  “And I said, ‘that’s my shirt.’  And he gave me the shirt.”  “That’s a good way to get a shirt,” I said.  We bumped fists and went our separate ways.

And I thought, this guy was  basically a peg leg pirate.  Except that he didn’t even have a peg leg.  He was blazing through Lahaina in a suit in a wheelchair and was about as empowered a person as I’ve ever seen.

Conversation #4.  We run along the breakwater, crowds lining up to board the whale watching excursion boats and we stop at the Hawaiian Ocean Project booth and have a word about Snubaing with Eric.

He struggles to be polite, but then confesses that he’s a free diver and he doesn’t particularly like the Snuba thing. You’re stuck in that 10-20 foot range, he tells us, and even as an experienced diver the breathing is kind of tweaky at that depth. You can’t really breathe until you go deeper.  Which of course leads to conversations about where we’re from.  He’s from Mill Valley, he says.  He use to own a string of car washes. Palo Alto, Marin, Fairfax, but he lost it all in the divorce. All of it? I ask.  All of it, he says with a full smile.  962 grand worth.  I said she could take it all if I could have custody of my boy.  And that’s what I got.  Day after the divorce, I went with my baby to the San Francisco Airport and asked when the next plane was leaving for Hawai’i.  Lady told me 12 hours.  I told her I wanted one one-way ticket and she handed it to me and I never looked back.

His son?  Healthy as an ox.  He surfs.  Grown up in the Caribbean,  Virgin Islands, Maui, this island, that island.  Sixteen years old, had an amazing life and he’s an amazing kid.  Still thinks his dad is as cool as his girlfriend.  And in all that time, not once has his mom asked to see him.  I got the better end of the deal, Eric says.

Conversation #5.  Walking past the boats to the beach and Anna spies a set of baby pigs all crated up.  They’re adorable. Picture twelve little Wilburs.    Three dudes standing dockside.  Where you taking them? Anna asks.  Moloka’i, one guy answers and nods to a pint size cat boat half the size of the Minnow.  Moloka’i? Anna asks.  Could we hop on?  We have a friend living there and plane fare is a hundred a piece, but it’s only 45 minutes by boat.  Could these guys take us there?  The three guys, nice guys, shrug and laugh.  It’s up to the captain. It’s his boat, one guy says.  Pigs though get priority seating.  Nice guys.  Would be a fun trip.   We go back to the hotel, grab an extra shirt and toothbrush.  Girl at the coffee shack says it’s kind of gnarly in Moloka’i.  We might have to hitch a boat to Lana’i and then take the ferry boat back from there.  Back dockside captain has shown up.  Tough dude.  As he should be.  It’s his boat.  The vessel and all manner of life and limb are under his command.  A hundred bucks, he says.  A fair price.  But not fair enough for us, knowing that we were shanghaiing ourselves and might not even make it back.  Some things best saved for another day.

Anguish

anguishA few days ago a friend asked if the ravens in my Facebook banner ( Albrecht Schenk’s painting ‘Anguish’ which now hangs in Melbourne) were “mean”, and generously offered that those black birds might work in solidarity with the lambs. I considered a quick reply, but held back. We know enough about ravens to know they beg no simple answers. And the seemingly simple question about ‘meanness’ is actually not so simple. It smacks a bit of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” To which Dorothy frantically answers, “Why I’m no witch at all.”  She’s just Dorothy and she wants to go back to Kansas.

And then, of course, we are left with the not so small irony that for Dorothy to complete that journey back to the world of black and white, she must in turn become a slayer of very bad witches. Which of course makes her simultaneously both a bad witch as well as one who is good.

In the Middle Ages or perhaps even long before that, the raven was perceived as a portent of death, of imminent and profane destruction. When villagers would see a dark unkindness of ravens approaching on the horizon, they knew that the armies would soon follow. Ravens are omnivores, but most of all they are carrion birds. They dine on the dead. As well, they are sentient. They have sufficient cognition to recognize men bearing arms as armies. And that armies are for one thing: the making of death. The shedding of blood. The leavening of slaughter.

The Raven does not do the killing. But his arrival serves the advance warning. And then he bears witness. And here, at least in Schenk’s image, the unkindness evokes the sadness wedded to communion.

Whenever we eat, especially when we partake of bread and wine, we are taking the flesh and blood of the Host – of the sacrificial lamb – into our own bodies. In this act, we acknowledge our own complicity in his death, and the subsuming of his power, his humility, and his promise into our selves. In the Host’s death we find our own sanctification.

The raven was born to be a sentinel. And when there’s nothing left for which to be warned, the bird must fly so that it may dine on the burnt offerings. That is his task.

When I posted that banner image just after the election I actually wondered where in that picture I figured. And today I realize it is everywhere. I am at once the bleating ewe, the falling snow, the fallen lamb, and the raven in waiting.

Perhaps ask yourself where, if anywhere, do you find yourself in the image?

dine-on-fallenGermany, February 1945

After my family left Latvija in 1944, they walked across Poland and Germany a day at most ahead of the advancing Russian troops. They were accompanied by  family friends who in turn travelled with a wounded Russian soldier. His name is now lost, but the families valued him. Though disabled he had served as a kind of farmhand. He looked after the animals and he scavenged food and he did what he could to care for everyone. One day in Germany, under the Allied bombardment, he gathered potatoes that had fallen from train cars on the side of the tracks. He lost his footing and he fell down and was crushed by an oncoming locomotive. The train would have been bearing German soldiers, or food, or even the final bodies to be executed in Bergen Belsen.

In these days, especially in the smoke and mirrors and confusion of the last few weeks, it bears remembering that there can be a world in such chaos and moral ambiguity that one can be a victim even while dining on the fallen.


img_2809The German painter Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 on the eve of the burning of the Reichstag, would grow up in Dresden during the rise of National Socialism.  Distrusting the reality of received information, he would later say that “style is violence.”

What did he mean by this?  Style is ideology. And ideology, by definition, is visionary.  It is declarative and absolute. At an extreme, it depends on discounting or even silencing the opinion or worldview of others.

When we condemn entire classes of people with blanket words – terrorist, bad hombre, enemy of the people –  without any consideration for their discrete truths or histories and life stories, we deny the complexities of reality.  We deny fundamental humanity.

This is violence.

Authoritarian ideology frames the world in absolutes: A total disaster. A complete mess.  Police and society become militarized to ward off an impending and, more often then not, exaggerated or even fabricated danger.  The urban bourgeois become enemies.  People who are different, perhaps with darker skin or a foreign bearing, are framed as “an infestation.”

Mass spectacle replaces discourse and reasoned argument.

Authoritarian ideology begins by declaring outsiders or others as terrorists, foreigners, or criminal elements.  It leads to the infliction of suffering and, if left unchecked, unspeakable acts of violence.

img_2806This happens under a veil of social confusion, but also a tragic normalcy.  Heinrich Himmler himself, the architect of the Final Solution, actually considered himself to be a good father and a Good German.  He felt quite genuinely that he was restoring his culture by ridding it of an infestation, of other strange identities, of a decadent cancerous rot.

After the war, notions even as simple as “family” or “nation” or “good” become strangely indeterminate.  A fundamental distrust of the world and even language itself may be the hallmark of those whose understanding of reality has been shaped by authoritarianism.

What can we learn from the people who in other times fell inexorably under the sway of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies? Ideology and emotional or physical violence come at a cost. Who bears it and what does it look like?

We might turn to the enveloping canvasses of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born a few months before VE Day and the close of the war. While Richter came to us during the convulsive birthing of Nazism, Kiefer’s infant eyes received it’s horrible conclusion.

To sit with Kiefer’s pieces is to be swallowed whole in the terror of the rounding up and of the rousing of the dogs of war.

Kiefer’s mucked and unruly residue is the inevitable outcome of the pattering martial tattoo.  It’s the consequence of a seething resentful voice that declares that he will do something to North Korea, to Mosul, to Syria.  The world exists as a being that has wronged him.  And for this, he will inflict violence and war. He will eradicate his enemies, however he defines them, from the face of this earth.

img_2829In the presence of Kiefer’s paintings you immerse yourself in the ashen remains that are left after the blistering attack.

Have no illusions as to what it looks like and what will follow. There is nothing pretty, nothing kind nor valorous, nothing redemptive about it.

It is straw caked in black tar.  It is burnt feces.  Fields after a dark harvest, barren of life and able to offer no feeding. It is a world set ablaze.

The fields harrowed in the winter by tanks are sown in the spring with blood. Horses we are. Gaunt frames.  Ribbed chests exposed. Grown from this ground, we dine on dirt and broken straw.

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img_2837And here, at last, we return to our raven.

In this case, the carrion bird’s leaden wing falls upon a burnt and destroyed landscape. And yet it offers a bleak shred of hope.

Is the Raven mean?

No.

He offers a bleak promise of regeneration;  of the alchemy that comes when he feeds on rotting flesh and transmutes ruined matter into language and dark winged flight.

After the murdering has been had, the very sad truth is that there’s nothing more that can be done.  Nothing will bring back the dead.

The Romanian poet, Paul Celan survived the invasion of his country by the Soviets in 1940 and in 1941 the butchering of the Jews of Cernauti by the German Einsatzkommando.  In his poem Todefuge, he would later write

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.

img_2813Yes, we can and should try to stop it.  I would really like for the ravens to join with the lambs.  And in a sense they do.  They fly ahead of the advancing armies and their squawk fills the air as if to say, “Please. Listen.  Bad things are afoot.  Fight or flee, the days are numbered.”

And if there’s no listening, then the birds are left only to bear witness.

 

 

 

img_2841In Keifer’s Sulamith, the artist leads us to the entrance of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers.  But this hall, designed by the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis and intended to commemorate the perpetrator, under Kiefer’s hand instead transmutes into the terminus of the iron track and the burning flames of the oven.

We find ourselves descending into hell.

“What would you do in this moment? Would you turn away from something so dark?  Or would you intercede? Would you have the strength to gaze deeper and to feel it?”

Kiefer’s expressionism and experimentation of form is neither decadent nor abstract, but rather cemented in an amorality and horror unlike any the world has ever seen. Even more disturbing, it emerged in the very cradle of modernity, in a technologically advanced Western democracy not dissimilar from our own.

img_2818A Holocaust is not necessarily savagery in a some other savage place, but quite the opposite: savagery wrought by us. Richter perhaps challenges us to detect the darkness and violence inherent in the seemingly placid sea.

To experience Kiefer and Richter, one can learn from a generation forced to ask where their parents or even they themselves were when these things happened.  How could they stand by and tacitly allow others to be hurt?   What did they fear?  What did they have to gain?  How did they not see it coming?  How did they come to believe the propaganda?

Where do you find yourself in the picture?


When presented with Gerhard Richter’s Lesende (The Reader), the German writer Luisa Beck asks who is this girl?  And what does she have to offer?

Beck’s answer?  She is a German. And she is us. And the look on her face betrays something important. That inhumanity can be born from and live commensurate with normalcy.  As with our relationship to the raven, if ungood comes to pass and if we survive it, what will be our relationship to this girl?  If we ourselves become war borne, how will we reconcile our own inhumanity with this profile and with this face, so lovely and so hardened?

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And This is Why

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Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.

Today I turn 52.

History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.

Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.

This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.

The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.

In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.

He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.

On this day I turn 52.

—-

I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.

A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.

As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.

But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.

It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.

It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?

It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.

In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.

It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.

The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.

Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.

Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.

Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.

Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.

Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.

Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.

Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.

Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.

Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.

Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.

Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.

Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.

Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.

—-

The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.

You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.

And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better.  You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous.  And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.

I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.

Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.

And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.

Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.

Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.

Not on my watch.

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