Monday, November 5, 2012

meetings with remarkable men

Actually, what I was after was a meeting with just one remarkable man. I had questions. He had answers.  Not answers in the usual way, but he could expound, he could encourage.  He could inspire. Influence. I could be bathed in his charisma. Be brought to tears by his wisdom. Stand in awe... Sit at his feet... You know the drill. Just your usual meetings with remarkable men.

I do have a rebbe who inspires in this way. And I heard him speak recently at a week long workshop at the Islamic Center  in Oakland, California. Yup, he's that inspiring. You heard me right. The Islamic Center. This is what makes him so inspiring.  The rabbi at the Islamic Center. It was also his birthday. He was turning 88.

He was more frail than I had ever seen him.  He was aided by a tall Shaikh with an exotic name.  There was even a zikhr in my rebbe's honor—an Islamic (Sufi, really) shared invocation of the Divine Name that can bring participants to trance, or tears, from the beauteous repetition of the holy name.  For me, it brought me to both.  Trance and tears.  To be in the presence of this remarkable man.  To think that I might not see him ever again.  To realize that the zikhr still holds so much power over me. And in the flickering contemplation at the back of my mind (or perhaps my heart) of the long-felt secret desire to convert to Islam, if only for the purifying effect of the zikhr.

But the power of my rebbe was such, that there was no need for conversion.  My rebbe himself practices zikhr.  He himself is a Shaikh. A Sufi master.  He practices something he calls multireligiousity, and advocates it mightily. Why limit yourself when there's so much out there in traditions not your own?  I'm pretty ambivalent about such a position. My Native American friends think it's dangerous horseshit. And they're pretty vocal about it.

But the argument is valid. Why should we be limited by the narrowness of our own natal traditions, when others are so (or equally) powerful?

My rebbe's not talking about appreciation-of-the-Other. Not talking about acceptance or tolerance. Or visiting each other's holy places and houses of worship. Not talking about broad-based scholarship. Not talking about fieldwork among. No. He's talking about practice. About becoming. And holding all of it (yours, his, mine), holding all of it in the same thimble. Drinking all of the medicine down. Becoming. Being. Experiencing.

My little rebbe and the tall shaikh are on the same page in this regard. You should have heard the shaikh's yiddishisms! A miracle, indeed.

But that's not quite what I wanted to say here.  What has brought me out of my long silence, after the death of my mother. Strange how her death brought me to a virtual paralysis of the fingertips.  For almost a year, I have hardly been able to write a word.  Strong mojo, that woman.  I still don't understand it. I had so much to say, and it was just washed away in the shock of her departure.

No, what brought me back to my keyboard was waking up to a dream this morning. And thinking that it was still happening. That I was still there.  It was one of those dreams. Hyper-real.  How could it not have happened?  It clobbered me. It shook me up.  Wagged its finger at me in admonishment. It taught me a lesson.  I'll show you, it said. You know. The usual dream stuff.

I needed to see Reb Zalman. I needed to confer with him about something urgent.  It had to do with the Biblical Hebrew word את in the first lines of Genesis.  It had to do with an important point in the film I'm making.  Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi had been too frail and exhausted to meet with the many of us who had wanted individual consultations at the workshop.  And I don't blame him.  It's the nature of remarkable men that we pull at them, that we want their baraka (or their bracha)... We followers must be an exhausting lot. But he nodded graciously at me, his acknowledgement. A little twinkle in his eye.  That in itself was precious, he was that holy in my mind.

But in the dream, I was given access. Here's the time. Here's the place. Here's the room number.

I took the elevator up to the 7th floor, and looked around.  The Organization up there was all in the service of the rebbe. I was definitely in the right place, and so I wandered around. Read the literature. Waited. I'd come early, of course, hoping for more time. My questions were just that urgent.

After waiting my fair share, I went up to the Reception because I couldn't find the room.

"You're on the wrong floor," the neo-frummish woman told me. "He's in Room 6.1, which is not on 7."

I had gone to the wrong floor. Written the wrong number. Was in the wrong place. Was going to be late for my coveted and hard-won meeting.

I wasn't worthy, after all.

The elevator didn't stop on the 6th floor.  That was a floor that required special access, and I seemed to have lost my privileges. The elevator no longer worked for me, although it would have earlier apparently.

I took the stairs.

The stairway door was miraculously slightly ajar. I was on the 6th floor at last.

And there, as I walked the hallway looking for 6.1—I saw every door somewhat ajar. And in every room sat a holy man or holy woman. Every different color. Bearded and unbearded. Gray haired and dark hair. Turbaned and veiled and uncovered. All. Waiting. Every door was open, every saint or shaikh or rebbe, every lama, every monk. Every insurgent rebel. Every learned practitioner. Every intuitive. Every tzaddik. Waiting there. All I had to do was walk through any door. Or all of them.

All, save 6.1. That one wasn't there at all.

I woke up this morning to a time change.  I'm still not quite awake, really.  Did time move forward or did it move backward? Or maybe it stopped entirely, and I don't have to teach my class. And what would I teach them, anyway?

There's this door, and there's that door I suppose.  And, okay, yes—they're all more or less open. And what's strangest of all—is that my students most definitely walk through mine.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Okay. I learned a new word. And I'm not sure what I think about it.  In the past I've been downright incensed at the theft of indigenous spiritual practices by white wannabes.  True, my outrage is for the most part borrowed.  My indigenous friends just about foam at the mouth over this one.  Especially when the appropriated song or ritual or practice is used by the wannabe at the wrong time, at the wrong place, and for the wrong purpose.

How can you, they inquire, take my song and abuse it this way?  You took our land and our language. You stole our children and shipped them off to Christian boarding schools —and now you want our spirituality? Spiritual theft, indeed.  I get it.

Remember the Cherokee elders who heckled Felicitas Goodman one year when we were all in Tempe, "The Creator made you a Presbyterian," they shouted.  "Go back to church!"

My indigenous friends make the case for pure systems.  Or for trying to keep them as pure as possible given that these 'systems' are by now long ago polluted with otherness, or almost completely wiped out anyway.

I understand the indigenous complaint.  I'm sensitive to it.  My own people are practically extinct as well.  And I'd like to say that I don't beg, borrow, or steal from the traditions of others.  Surely I don't  practice anyone else's religion. I mean, I barely practice my own.  No wonder it's dying out.  So there should be nothing to complain about on that front.  And I've learned to be super careful about not inviting guest lecturers to speak in my classes if they're folk who are immersed in someone else's tradition, no matter how knowledgeable or devout or sincere they may appear.

But then there's Zalman.  Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, my mentor. Reb Zalman, whose teachings helped me reconcile my love for Islamic cultures with holding on to my own unshakeable (nearly extinct) Sephardi identity.  I had it all worked out at one point: I mean after all, it's because of the Ottoman Islamic State that my people survived at all.  And before that, we thrived in Islamic Spain.  It all sounds so rational when you put it like that.  I mean, it's not like I wear a hijab (though I think they're pretty elegant), and I certainly don't perform Islamic prayers five times a day. No.  I just appreciate Islam. It makes a lot of sense to me.

I hadn't seen Reb Zalman in many, many years, but here he was, giving a symposium for Star King at the Islamic Cultural Center in Oakland.  Three days of Zalman!

And the service had everything in it.

Just name a religion, and it's tradition was in there somewhere.  No pygmy chants that I recognized, but you get my point.

The word of the day was 'multireligiosity' —and the Star King folk, they practice what they preach.  And it was pretty stunning.  Each sentence was peppered with the weaving together of traditions. And so were the songs that were sung, and the gestures, and the clothing.

I want to call it syncretism, but it isn't.  It's something more personal that that.  For it seemed that every person in the hall had a different combination of religious affinities. And the lectures and sermons encouraged more of the same.

And to tell the truth, it was pretty neat to hear the Jewishisms coming out of the mouths of Muslims, and the Islamicisms falling out of the mouths of Jews.  It wasn't forced, or enforced—it was merely comfort and familiarity with the Other.  Or, no, not that—for Otherness had disappeared from their vocabulary.  It was fairly seamless.

Reb Zalman spoke of the virtues of being in-between the strict adherences of the isms.  He encouraged all to cultivate the larger tapestry.  What kind of religion serves best the healing of the planet? Go and practice that.

It was three days of religious liminality.  But it wasn't just about appreciating the Other, it was about practicing the practices of each.  The symposium wasn't just merged wordings—there was ritual too. Performativity.  And this is something I'm profoundly uncomfortable with.  But Zalman encourages participation (and sure, it's part of anthropological methodology as well) (and so, deciding to be a good sport, and put my bloody notebook down and stop taking notes) I found myself in —


—crying my eyes out, as we chanted and bobbed. The rhythm is exactly the type that moves me, or maybe moves everybody.  Look at films of zikr and you'll see just how entrancing it is.  And it made me feel instead of making me think.  Which is exactly what it's supposed to do. And exactly what Reb Zalman wants me to do.  After all, he's a Jewfi.

Two zikrs in three days can bring on an addiction for sure. It's precisely the practice of religious ritual that is so powerful, not the intellectual appreciation of it.  I'm still going to chalk it up to participant-observation, this time, at least.  But deep down, I'm not so sure.  I believe I'm in grave danger of wanting more.

And maybe of going out and finding it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

writing and seduction

"Have you written anything for me lately?"

Well, no.  Nothing at all.

So. What's the problem?  And actually, I want to solve here a larger problem.  The problem of bad writing altogether, especially that of undergrads.  And maybe a few grad students as well.  Or.  To be honest.  Maybe a lot of grad students.  

And then I'll solve the teaching problem too.  But not till the end of the post. Or next post, if I don't get around to it.  But I think I will.

No.  I haven't written anything for you lately.  I've been too busy sleeping with you. Camping with you.  Doing the being-together thing with you.  I haven't written a goddamned word.  Cooking. Doing the laundry.  Emptying the trash.  Muzzling the barky dog. Unmuzzling the quiet dog. Setting up the new computer to start writing.  Clearing off the desk.  Picking up the dogs shit.  Working out, for god's sake!

Anything, anything at all but writing.  

Which spells for me a stage of life that might be called 'post-seduction.'

It's that easy (still early enough) part of a relationship in which just picking up someone else's dog's shit is still kinda a kick enough to be fun.  And done out of love and reciprocity (I pick up your dog shit, you pick up mine), and has not descended into resentment, or even worse—rage. Horrors. Don't get me wrong: it doesn't ever need to go that way.  I think I like this stage of post-seduction. I like the mutuality of it.  The minutiae of it.  It's pretty easy.  But I'm not sure it's quite enough.

Because writing is a powerful seduction.

I don't mean the kind of writing written explicitly in order to make a million bucks or two.  I don't mean strategic writing. The porn of how he gets laid every X number of pages because you think that sells. That's not seduction. That's ambition. And I'm not talking about ambition.

The Story of O didn't make those big bucks because it was trying to seduce a large well-paying audience. Anne Desclos (Pauline Réage) had only an audience of one in mind.  Everyone else has been just eavesdropping on a very private conversation.

And that's why it works.

The best writing has a sense of urgency as well as a very clear sense of audience.

Desclos knew what she was doing.  As did Genet, when he sat in prison pleasuring himself with words. The stuff just pours out (the words, I mean—though with Genet, that would be both), because there's no way to dam the flow.  Compelling writing is like that.  And it doesn't have to reach everybody.  It just has to reach that one person.  The eavesdroppers come along for the ride. They're a freebie, if you will.

Undergrads primarily write out of obligation.  Coercion.

"How many pages do you want?" they ask in dismay.

They're not all like OMG, can you believe it, I GET to write something... I am so jazzed...  

Think about it, students (if I may address you as such, just for a moment, one last time). When school is finally over, it is very likely that no one will ever give you the opportunity to take the time and just pour out your words ever again.  For some of you, it's very likely you'll never ever write again. At least, that's what you've told me.

And you've forgotten, it seems, that someone has to read this crap you've flung at us as pages filled.  Student papers have to be read (unlike that porn, the NYT, or any other written word).  Someone has to read them.  And that someone used to be me.  But no, no more.  With luck, I will never read another student paper ever again.  

So. I'm gonna say this straight out (and with all due respect)—and I hope it helps.  And maybe I should have said it in class. But no, you'd have taken it all wrong—

The best papers are a seduction.

They're written with words put together with that one specific 'audience' in mind.  Beautiful combinations of words. Just for me, for you, whomever. A topic filled with three parts desire for every part called eloquent.  Seduction trumps eloquence any day.

It doesn't matter what the topic is.  

Write about-the-economy-stupid. Write about Romney. Saddam (curious unconscious transition there). Write about whether to fund (or weaponize) Syrian rebels. Or how to get your name on a crater of Mars. Write about daffodils in the very early springtime.  Drought mid-summer. What you had for breakfast this morning (and why we should care).  Write about the gods. It's never ever about the subject anyway.

But if you're writing for that goddamned grade (or to make you that fortune you think is there)—you've missed the mark.  You've got to be turned on by your own writing.

Seduce yourself, first and foremost, no matter the topic.

There's a flush, a blush in those students who fall in love with their own work.  Their cheeks blossom, their eyes twinkle.  They're not being strategic, they're being excited by the material at hand.

I haven't written for you lately.

I've been too busy doing anything but writing. 

Because my own writings were missives to death, love songs to the dead and dying. Remembrances, lest I forget. Tales to my children, lest they never have the opportunity to remember. Stories that will be forever gone if I don't write them down.  No one else can do it.

In the face of death and dying, I seduce myself with words.  Genet was ever my best teacher.

Ah, but here's the rub.  Let me not put this all upon the student who writes because he feels he's forced. Because the-system's telling him to jump through hoops, crank out those pages. Because he's stuck with an English class (or god-forbid, Anthropology) and he's an Engineering student. And shit, I have to in order to-get-outta-here. Goddamn it, when they resent their being in school, it drives me mad!

This goes for teachers, too, you know.

Teaching is seduction, too.

A prominent psychoanalyst told me that one time when I complained to him of such.

Not a seduction of the person, but of the material at hand.  If you as you lecture are in love with your topic, that is the best seduction of all.  (In truth, that's not quite what he said.  To an analyst, it's all about the person).  

Topic doesn't matter. Ancient Greek or Pleistocene dentition. The fall of the Ottoman Empire. Black holes. Who cares?  It's all seduction-worthy.

Blow on those embers and makes them glow.

I've been doing laundry, not writing. Cooking for you. And eating your own exotic meals.  Camping out, and hiking trails. Studying pig roasts and fishin' holes. Walking dogs and bagging dog shit together. I've been doing chop wood, carry water of late. Pouring out a simple kind of love and not seduction.

In other words, I started just to live again. And started leaving all those stories far behind.

School is starting in a week or two—and for the first time in my sentient life I won't be there to greet it.  For me, school is finally, finally over.

But life is not as much fun without a little seduction now and then.  Time to pick up that quill again, and try my rusty hand.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

aliens ... with guns (for real)

Ok.  So I'm sitting here with the girlfriend and we're talking about camping with her parents in Montana.  And I'm like, fine, I can't wait.  That's good.  Haven't been camping since last summer, and I can't wait, and we're all equipment-ed up, because we're both camping-equipment whores. So. we're all set.  And I've cleared it with my Chair:  he says it's ok to quit my job after I get back instead of before. He's a good boss.  (Actually, there's no way I can clear out my office before then anyway.  Just want you to know I'm not a shirker or anything).

So.  Everybody's schedule finally fits.  Except the girlfriend's kitties need a good sitter.  But surely that'll work out.  Right?

So.  We're going.  Or rather, we're talking about going.  And I've never been to Montana.  But I hear it's beautiful and somewhat wild.

And she says that when camping with her folks each person makes a meal.  And she tells me what I should make.  And I think, you're joking, right?  Sephardi food isn't for camping.  But whatever,  it's my default setting, and if they like my yaprakas maybe they'll like me too.  Okay.  I can do that.  And we'll haul the ingredients all the way from California.  And she says I should make my grandpa's— well, it's a secret.  But I'm not sure you can get Bulgarian feta while camping in Montana, so that's gotta be packed up too.

I wanted them to come to us.  Big Sur. Pfieffer Beach.  You know the drill.  One of the most beautiful places in the world that's close by and drop dead gorgeous.

But there's nothing to kill around there.


There's nothing to kill, and the timing I suggested was just right for killing pheasants and maybe grouse or some kinda upland bird season, something like that.

And I thought, well shit.  Every lunar cycle of the year has something to kill if you're an outdoorsman.

And the girlfriend says, I can't wait until you have this conversation with my dad when we're camping.

And I say, well no the fuck way.

Because there's an argument to be made for being able to hunt and fish your food all year round.  And I admire it.  It's one of those post-apocalyptic skills that I wish I had, but don't.

Right this minute, the girlfriend is firing up the smoker and filleting this enormous (wild) salmon. Great for the Atkins diet.  That's what Californians say.

But here's the sad part.  We bought this beautiful salmon at the fish market in well-appointed yuppy Montclair 'Village.'  (I'm not sure when Montclair became a quaint village.  When I was a kid, it was just rich, not adorable).

And now I'm feeling guilty about purchased meat, when there's a killer in the family who can supply the needs of a rather large extended family all year round, right?

This is not how I grew up.

You want meat?

You call the kosher butcher.

And he sends the butcher's son around to deliver the lox or brisket to your house so that the son can catch your daughter's eye, and maybe there's a shittach down the road.

That's kosher meat for you.

My father, the tzaddik, never killed anything in his life.  And while Mrs Tzaddik was good at throwing things, she never killer anything either.  Or certainly not something you could eat.

I think this is all the reason I tried to be a vegetarian.  But then there's Atkins.  And you'd end up living on eggs and cheese pretty much.

I've decided I'm ok with all the killing, when accompanied by eating.  And I'm in awe of the skills required.

But once, just once, I'm hoping there's an off season for everything on earth that can be shot or fished or snared or whatever.  And that I can get the girlfriend's parents camping California style.  In my beautiful Big Sur, with a stride down Pfieffer Beach, with nothing, nothing for miles around to kill but time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

ten signs of life, in no particular order

I'm still paying her bills.

She's still telling me what to do.

I've still got lemons from her tree.

Her mail keeps coming (then again, so does his).

There're fragments of poems in her notebook that she's clearly still working on.

Her friends still call and some come over.

I see her, especially at the opera.

She still gives wild and sometimes lavish gifts.

The Sunday NYT is on the doorstep with alarming regularity.

There's no stone or plaque or any other sign of her departure.

Monday, June 25, 2012

ding dong the witch is dead —

Ding dong the witch is dead — and Malkah cried some, but mostly was in shock.  Malkah was sure she'd live forever, in her witchy way, casting evil spells to disable opponents and take your breath clean away.  Her magic was formidable.

If you told her about a new girlfriend, finally one you'd thought she'd finally approve, she glared and gave her curse:

You'll only hurt her.

And from her mouth to God's ear, that would become the truth.

If she asked you, well, when she's dead do you promise to live in the house and keep it exactly as is, everything in its place? And you're evasive, and talk about how beautiful the dome of the Great Room would be with the ancient Egyptian goddess Nuit painted across the ceiling along with deep blue sky and gold and silver stars — she'd respond with her signature,

I'll curse you from the grave.

Scary shit.  Because when she said it, it sounded really real. Not something you could laugh at.  Not something she'd smile about afterwards.  More like you better duck right now because the sky is falling. Or it will be soon.

She liked to assert preemptive control from the afterlife a lot in those days.

But then, something strange happened as she lay dying for a few years.

She got nicer. Supportive.  Still scary. But scary helpful, instead of scary scary.  She insisted on helping.  On being there for you. On healing you. On telling you how to heal, like you had no idea how to take care of yourself.

Imperious never went away.

Demanding. Penetrating. Glaring.  Regally holding court from her hospital bed.  Looking all the queen of heaven and earth.  She glowed as she reigned. She captured and she captivated. And she still cursed, of course.  You don't give up power like that so easily, right?

But she softened.  Or rather, she let her soft side show.  Well, maybe not to everyone, but at least to Malkah, who was shocked beyond words.  She gave Malkah compliments.

Who knew you could be so competent? she'd say.

I can't believe you're still here taking care of me!  She'd say. Expecting her daughter to up and go poof any second now.

In truth, she had cause not to expect Malkah's care for her at all.  How many of the hired help had up and fled in tears after her rebuke and wildfire rage?  And these were trained professionals, or well, some of them were, with experience of the abuses the elderly can mete out on others.

Ah, that wicked wicked tongue! She was so proud of it.  She boasted of it. Repeated to Malkah over and over some nasty thing she'd said to some good friend or other. And Malkah always wondered why those folks they stuck around.

She loved cursing them. In writing, especially.  How many people have kept copies of her loquacious and lengthy curses?  She was a poet after all. She had a well-oiled facility with words.

Abra-ca-dabra.  I create as I speak. Just like God, the poet uses words to bring evil and good into the world. Which is why it's good idea to keep your mouth shut no matter what just in case you can't tell the difference.

I was silent.  For months on end, I could not write nor speak a word.  I was stunned at her departure.  Yes, I put my shovel full of dirt upon her grave, as did we all, still expecting her to rise once more. To direct me. Forbid me. Coerce me. Condemn me. Demand of me. And to critique my posture, when she just couldn't think of anything else to say.

And then suddenly she was nice. Just like that.

It wasn't her seductive nice that she saved for handsome men.  No, it was the nice that comes from just plain letting go of forcing the world into her mold, her blueprint and requisite dimensions.

Well, okay, I overspoke.  Suddenly she was nice to Malkah at least.

I wonder if this is what Confession is for in religious traditions not my own.  Does letting go bring purity or relief? Especially at the end of life?  I have no idea.  But she let go. She cut the umbilicus that tethered Malkah to her rages.

I'm left here with an emptiness, a dearth of evil.  It seems to be entirely gone inside my being.  No curses from the grave (not even mild admonitions) press down upon my shoulders.  The world feels emptier now.  And emptiness became a theme upon her exit from her gilded stage.

I emptied out her house and gave away or sold her things.  I took the orphaned plants into my garden and watched them up and bloom.  I got a lot of help dismantling her universe. The emptiness feels almost Buddhist in its peaceful glory.

Malkah sold her house to a family of Egyptians.

I'm hoping they'll paint the ancient goddess Nuit upon the dome of that extraordinary Great Room. With deep blue skies and gold and silver stars twinkling from above the vaulted hall.  Bringing peace on earth, of course, and good will to absolutely all.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

the tzaddik and the auction

I never really understood the tzaddik's obsession with auctions, but if I ever were going to, now would be the time.  As we speak, the last of the tzaddik family possessions are being auctioned off at the very same auction house from which the tzaddik had purchased so much of it.  End of an era.

You'd think I'd have kept this stuff.  But no. It's just not mine.  Somehow, it just seemed right to send it all off back into the world from whence it came.


Let these things inhabit someone else's home for a while, and let the pattern start all over again.

I think this is why I liked the movie The Red Violin so much. Here was this object, so lovingly created by a master craftsman, passing through quite different hands in different countries, generation after generation.  Objects have a life of their own long after their fabricators (creators?) are dead.

So. This stuff.

Mostly gifts that the tzaddik brought home to Mrs Tzaddik that she either accepted or rejected, claiming that he had paid too much (though to his credit, he generally fudged on how much he'd really paid).

And now, somehow, unbelievably, they're both dead.  The tzaddik and his wife. I just can't believe it.

End of an era.

But the stuff just keeps passing into someone else's hands.

There's this chair I sent off to auction.  The tzaddik had actually gotten it for me and not for her.  I saw the receipt many years later.  It really had been a bloody fortune.  Also from Clars Auction.  I loved that gaudy chair. Hand carved in impossible detail. Almost 200 years old. Beautiful!  But my kitty loved it way too much and the seat was getting wrecked.  Let someone else have the pleasure.

Then there are the Arts and Crafts beds that Mrs Tzaddik was sure were worth their weight in gold.  But nobody else seemed to want them after we were all done with them.  Back to the auction house.

Redge, the head of Clars, assures me that everything, everything finds its place.

Online bidding was something the tzaddik was unfamiliar with, being entirely computer and internet illiterate. Instead, he'd go to the auction previews the day before, case the joint, and leave a slip of paper with his bid on it.  If it looked like the thing might be Jewish, you can bet the tzaddik could find it a home.  His apartment had been cluttered floor to ceiling with those pieces that had not yet been adopted out.  After his death, it took almost a year to find homes for all those orphans that my father loved so dearly.

I finally get that Mrs Tzaddik was telling the truth about the tzaddik. That she got him to marry her in order to give her child a father.  And he, in his tzaddikhood, agreed to the deal.

He was a great adoptive father!

Not just to me, but to every unloved, homeless (primarily Jewish) object he encountered. He had a whole museum full of the stuff.  An apartment full. A car packed full with orphans looking for homes.

"I have something special for you," he'd say. "Come out to the car..."

All that junk. Treasures all. He'd research their secrets, discover their histories, and tell their stories. They were alive to him.

But the really beautiful objects, they all would be brought directly to the queen herself to pass judgement on each and every one.  If Mrs Tzaddik accepted a little found treasure, the tzaddik's face lit up in relief.  And if she rejected it with a scowl or a shout, back it went into the trunk of his car. To be figured out later.  Sometimes she changed her mind. Sometimes she didn't.  Sometimes he'd try me out next. Sometimes he didn't.

The problem for me was that most of the stuff that Mrs Tzaddik liked was breakable.

I can't stand breakable stuff.  It's breakable.

So. He used to bring me only unbreakable orphans.

Books. And brass trays. I was okay with that.  They're useful. And unbreakable.

But for her, the more delicate and fragile (and breakable) the better. Figurines of beautiful women from the '40s. Marble statues of beautiful women from the 18th century. Textiles of beautiful women from the pre-Columbian period.

Beautiful women.

She saw herself in all the beautiful women that ever walked the earth, in myth or real life.

I can't stand that stuff.

And then there's the delicate and fragile pottery. Art glass with hand painted scenes, iridescent lamps, vases with improbable glazes.  Each one having found it's home in hers. Orphans with special privileges. Adored and daily dusted and coddled.

Do not touch.  Her house was more museum than the museum was. Every orphan had found its precious home and should not be disturbed.

But there they are again. At Clars.

Should I feel guilty about this? Was I supposed to keep them all? Preserve them in their preciousness, preserve her beloved breakable things?

What I love is redistribution.

The notion that one's 'place' is only temporary in the world. Call it home for a while, and then it's time to move on. We adopted souls know no place is really home unless we've made it for ourselves. On the other hand, maybe we orphans are supposed to stick together.

No. It doesn't work that way.

I took the plants. They were the only ones I really felt sorry for.  I gave them a new home, and you know what they did?

They bloomed. Just like that.

Next step, the books.
Come one, come all.
Take these orphans all...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

in the land of the ice giants

I've been visiting the castle of the Ice Queen in the land of the Ice Giants. Anthropologists do things like that.  Spend time. Get to know the natives. Learn the language. But this time, it's a language made up of primarily vowels. O's with lines through them, and the like. My mouth can't capture the language at all.

The castle is tall, and I feel like Alice. Need to drink a bottle of grow-me in order to reach the kitchen cabinet for a cup or a dish. The plates weigh at least three pounds each. The bowls are papa-bear bowls.
And there are all these machines I have no idea how to use—but that's not to the point.

Everything's in black and white and chrome. Scandinavian designs or with a capital D as well. Sleek bleak and shiny. White paint. Black leather. Shiny chrome fixtures.

Anthropologists love such places. Cultural identity on every surface. And in the frig and freezer. The Ice Queen knows who she is. She celebrates her identity. Maintains it in this Nordic diaspora. Even her sweaters speak to her identity. The ring upon her royal hand. Her— well, her everything.

In this, she's just like me.

But I'm a short Jewish person. With short Jewish icons in my house. And short Jewish foods. Like yaprakas (stuffed grape leaves). Doesn't get any shorter than that.

We both eat lox, however.

So. Here's the deal. Anthropologists are committed for the long haul, despite the impossible vowels. But what we want is to immerse in the other in her native ecosystem. That would be: delight in the land of the ice giants. Participant/observation in the castle of the Queen. I mean, how lucky can you get to have a gig like that? I myself am used to peasantry.  Short peasants. Not that dissimilar from me.

While we anthropologists have long observed that there are no pure cultures (or not any more, at least) (and likely never were) (diffusion, and all) (and trade) (etc etc) this comes as close to anywhere I've been to studying an intact culture.

And, miracle of miracles—she's basically doing the same with me.

Mutual exotification.

She laughs when I call her exotic. She's more used to hegemonic. Blonde and blue eyes and white and all that goes with it. Guns and alcohol and hunting-and-fishing. And baseball hats. And Christian of a certain persuasion. In my book, she's a rare species of bird.

I laugh when she calls me exotic. I feel more the global norm. Dark. And dark. And darkness. We peasants ought to stick together, right? But no. I'm drawn to the Ice Queen.

You know the old adage. It's straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. Tevya. Get the lilting accent right.

"A fish may love a bird, but where would they live?"

We're okay, if she's the native and I'm the anthropologist. We're okay, if the Ice Queen's slumming it down here where the short Jewish peasantry resides.

But build a home together?

Disrupt and taint pure systems?

The only way to even think about that is with a sense of humor. Whimsy, crinkly eyes, and a great appreciation for the eclectic. Celebrate diversity, and all that. Syncretism. Heterosis. Mix it up and depurify.

It's the dream I had when I first learned about genetics and evolution. Fifth grade, as I recall.

All the people of the world would blend together. No more pure-bloods. No more this-land-is-my-land/this-land-is-your-land. Lift the borders, mix it up.  And we'd all be merely human.

But that would mean no more ice giants, no more Ice Queen, and no more short and zaftig Jews.

I've never been able to figure it out. Have appreciated those who know their own identity. Who celebrate the intactness of their heritage. How wonderful, right? But I've admired more those who have the courage to let go. Not the ones who steal indigenous ways and take them for their own. But those who bring together the best of multiple ways—and live it.

I'm balled up inside the argument. Ambivalent at best. Pure systems lead to prejudice and outrage. But syncretism makes a mess.