Thursday, April 26, 2012

But for Two Bits!

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. There are neat loops in the structure of life that culminate in an ending sufficient unto the moment. But sometimes, oft times, we begin our stories with no sense of where they're heading, let alone where we're going.

Some twenty plus years ago I was given a soapstone chess set. My Dalmatian puppy took off with one of the pieces, and having devoured it, I presume, came back for yet another. He was half-way through it by the time I found him. And though the misshapen bit was kept on hand as a reminder should the opportunity arise to replace or to have the errant two pieces remade, that set remains to this day, unfulfilled. It had no game played on it, near as I recall. It has not been displayed. And though the soapstone board has featured in one of my large paintings, the pieces, pawn, bishop, rook, king, lie snug in a purple bag packed off in some shoebox. Without the whole, things are incomplete.

In Victoria, yesterday, near the corner of Johnston and Douglas, there was a chess set in the store window that we passed on another quest. And we did not stop and we did not ascertain its value, hurried as we were. I noticed only that its various pieces were in an Arthurian motive, I thought, made perhaps of pewter, and that they squared off on a raised board, inlaid with brass and copper. Quite striking. Each piece stood about the size of the length of one's thumb. And as is my wont, I conceived of owning it, of havIng such a nice set for the den-table, now that I do not have a dog to go running off with odd pieces. Besides, the set was second hand, since the store was one of those Antique Sales type deals, and I expected to get a reasonable price. Besides, yet again, it's my birthday in two months, and since my wife was walking beside me I hinted, "Nice chess set in that window we just passed. Would like to see how much it is!" But we were rushed; my power-chair was in top gear as we zoomed along. My wife walks fast!

Today I was driving the car. I had some extra time since my friend asked to be picked up at 2:00 p.m., and I already had made two stops. One to drop my wife off at her office, the other to get gas since it too had dropped to $1:22. Now, with a full tank and some twenty minutes to spare, I decided to drive the few blocks to go see just how much that chess-board might 'set me back', as the saying goes. But stopping at that store proved difficult. There was a long red line for the bus zone right in front, and the only parking had a red Honda Civic taking up the space. So I circled the block, but the Civic was still there, and any other likely space further along was far too far for me to walk, since I can only manage about two minutes, unassisted. But then I noticed there were some spaces on the opposite side of the street, and naturally I wondered if perhaps there was one directly across from the store. I check my mirrors and pull a magnificent, silent, quick, smooth, U turn. Right into the face of oncoming traffic! So I speedily U turn again. Thank life for handing me no traffic ticket! Thank life for keeping others safe! And carefully, I go for yet the second time around the block. But that Civic remains. So I pull up illegally beside the red line, stop right by the store window, and leave my car running as I hobble quick as I can around it and then peer at the set in the window. There is a sign! The life-like figures look great. The Knights are horsed! (I do not even have time to register that all the pieces are actually Roman). And the sign says: "Two pieces missing!"
         Two pieces missing. Now what's the parable to be made of that?

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Fiver of Virtues!

Dreams are made to be realized. We sometimes may believe it not so, and then a miracle happens. Mine were most certainly to be crushed, small though my wishes might’ve seemed. For almost a year, or perhaps even more, I had my senses fixated on a shiny material object; a small Oscar sized solid brass knight in the window of a video store. "It's not for sale," the pretty clerk at the counter unequivocally reaffirmed. Sigh. My wife, some six months ago, tried to purchase it for me as a Christmas gift. She had received the same message: "It's not for sale."

There are “twenty seconds of bravery”, as articulated in the 'We Bought A Zoo' movie that I watched just last night. Those words galvanized me. I had wanted that brass knight for almost a year! And now, passing the window yet again, I decided I at least had to try.

The knight stands firmly, but carries no sword! His arms hang down by his sides, and his visor is down, but it is not as though he is defenceless, nor as if he is vulnerable. He leans back on his left leg, his right a bit forward, relaxed. His shoulders are broad, but relaxed too. He is a man prepared for the world. And he hearkens me back to my childhood, when I was very much inspired by the Pentacle of the Knightly Virtues. A pentacle; like the prefix to my own name. And five knightly virtues; essential values to aspire to in the quest of The Holy Grail. Somewhere deep inside me I knew that such a grail was no mere object, no golden chalice. I knew it as a metaphor for the insight and wisdom that eludes us all, and that no attainment of it would allow it to be solidified, put on a shelf for others to see, to be owned. A bit like this knight now, standing in the window. Unobtainable.

So I wheel into the store on my trusty metallic-blue steed, make my way to the familiar clerk and, after she tells me yet again, "It's not for sale!" I look her four-square in the eyes and say: "Everything is for sale." And I ask her for the manager and ascertain that he owns the store next door and so I wheel over there, but to the wrong store, and have to go back past the video store and around another corner to yet another store and speak to the clerk about the knight in the window, and even he says: "It's not for sale." So I ask to speak to the manager and the clerk turns and indicates at a door, just as the manager walks out of it. So we meet. And this man, Mike, says he's not sure what I'm talking about so he walks ahead of me and out of his store and around the corner to the video store, where I stay outside to point out to him the article in question through the window, and he hoists it up and palms it over and over, and heads back toward me. "So, you want to buy this?" he says, speculatively. I nod, expecting now that I may after all have to decline. Even dreams have a limit on their price! And now that he knows my rather keen interest. ... "How about five bucks?" he says. Five bucks!

As we make the transaction I tell him why. Those five virtues are Frankness, Fellowship, Courtesy, Compassion, and Purity of Thought and Deed. And now, as I write with my bronze knight before me, I know exactly what to call the fellow. That kind store manager exemplified all five of those virtues in one single deed. Why, I shall call my knight exemplar: Sir Michael Fiver!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Gratitude for Genies

Genie of Generosity

We are presumptuous when claiming things are achieved by our own making. Even the paintings I've painted have their origins in the paint, brush, canvas, and stretcher makers too, never mind the images that have come to me as a result of the myriad influences in my life. Where does one nowadays claim to have a truly totally original creation, thought, or expression? The very language by which we perceive or name things was given to us by others. So too for our achievements, advantages, promotions, and accomplishments. That which we are, that which we can show as a plateau of present growth, that which we can look on with pride, or even that which we can claim as done solely by the self has its origins in the kazillion forerunners that led us unto the specific moment. Let the surgeon then be grateful for the scalpel, the writer for his pen, the artist for his brush, the cook for the invention of fire. Let's thank our Genies!

Solo accomplishment is unlikely. A series of precedents provided the means to an end. Dr. Christian Barnard, the famous South African heart surgeon who performed the first heart transplant was the person who taught me that. He spoke in the assembly for our Pretoria Boys High School (where his son Andre was a senior) and he never once, near as I recall, used the word "I". It was all about "my team", or "we did this and then we did that". Not being a true scientific type I do not recall the specifics between a mitochondria or a myocardial of his explanations, but I do recall that he was impressive, significant, yet essentially humble. The year might have been 1968, or maybe 69. And with that influential visit I recall our Solomon House housemaster, Mr. Jones, taking pains to remind us that the essence of a great man lies not in what he brags about having done, but by what he continues to do. To live in gratitude for the help of others, it struck me, was a noble way of being. We cannot readily ascribe our accomplishments to the self.

The great teacher is defined by the students who recognize her talents. She may well teach for years without a specific student deciding to nominate her for an outstanding achievement award, let alone another staff member, or administrator. (The recent TV show of Undercover Boss often reveals workers who've spent years unacknowledged, or under appreciated.) One still works well, anyway. It was Mother Theresa's central tenant, do the good thing anyway! And for each of us, as we practice our manners, do our chores, gain our rewards (or not) and continue on with our individual ways of being, it does the soul good to be in a state of gratitude. It keeps one humble, grounded, aware that even one's very flights of fancy are utterly dependent on the pilots, the plane, the engineers, and the dreamers who conceived of us arising from being mere groundlings in the first place.

The Genie in the lamp of wishful thinking is very real. Past. Present. Future. Our very existence is co-dependent on the intersection of our energy with others. It is their help and talent and interest and care and consideration and thoughtfulness and effort that sees the moment, the day, the achievement through. Each person who cheers us on, who gives us affirmation, who contributes however minuscule to the cause, is adding to the eventual lift off of an idea, the attainment of a dream, the ability for one to have a magic carpet in the first place, however metaphorical. Just Genies? Indeed. Thank God!


                                                                  [photo permission: ???]

DOVE : (a true memory of childhood, evoked by seeing this lovely photo)

At the sudden flap and flutter ahead I skid the bike to a halt. A ring-necked dove, wing broken, gyrating awkwardly in the dust, stills at my hovering. I catch it in my clawing fingers and clutch it up. Its little heart beats wildly. “Don’t you worry. I’m going to fix you,” I coo, removing my shirt, a free hand at a time, and gently bundle it.
            As I at last let myself in the house, Ouma’s voice arrests me. Hoekom het jy nie jou hemp aan nie?”  She stands firm.
            “I’m sorry, Ouma, I took my shirt off to protect this bird. A dove. I want to fix its wing. May I keep it, Ouma? Once it’s better, I will set it free.”
            Her eyes shift focus. Her chin lifts and the corners of her mouth turn downwards, while she shakes her head. “You can try. But it is going to die! Why not just kill the thing now? You don’t know how to fix it in any case! And you have nothing to keep it in. But if you must experiment, then don’t waste any of my bandages. Now go make me some tea. And hay, make sure that you wash your hands first, hay!”
In the kitchen I gently put the bundled bird down on the chair, but while waiting for the kettle to boil I try to get a closer look. It struggles so much that I fear it’ll get free.
           As soon as I’ve delivered the tea I scoot back, but my shirt lies a little unraveled, like hollowed bread. The bird … gone! 
              I cast about, and then I see it. Huddled in a disheveled fluff of feathers it ducks, but freezes as my palm lowers over it. Yet as soon as I relax it’s off again, flit-flutting brokenly away. 
             At last I clutch it down. Carefully, I gather it up. Its tiny heart beats with severe little thumps. Gently, I extend its broken wing. “Now, little one, let’s see what we can do for you,” I say. But as I tenderly feel for the bones, the bird goes stiff, and begins to cool.
            Silently, I kneel beside it; my jaw clamped tight.
Then I rise, carefully cradle it in one hand, shrug back into my shirt, and let myself ever so quietly out of the house. Awkwardly, I mount my old bicycle, and pedal quickly back to the spot where I first found it.
  And bury it. But there are no tears. Not then.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Crocodile Tears

Given this picture [by whom, please?], it made me think of this chapter from my novel:

Early one morning, with me on one side and Aikimbo on the other, nine or more excited kids from the servants’ kraal team up. “You can call me Boet,” I invite. “Just don’t let the Bwana or Madam ever hear you!”
            “Hau! Boo-et!” Aikimbo teases. “No more Bwana Adam-Boet. But just Boo-et?”
            “Eyah!” I affirm, despite the hint of condescension in his tones.
         “Boo-et! Boo-et!” The kids mimic, taking a perverse delight in it. After all, Boet, an Afrikaans nickname, really means ‘Brother’. Even when alone with them I was called Kleinbaas, Small Boss, or Inkosana, Young Boss, or sometimes, if I deserved it, most respectfully, Bietjani Zimba, the Little Lion.
            With little two year-old Tobi up a two-foot ledge of the river bank, safely out of range, we begin the war. Taking sides along the soggy water’s edge, with Aikimbo up in the tree as first guard against the crocs, we pluck clay-clods in gooey fingers-full up from the mud, and plonk them like marshmallows on the ends of our supple wattle sticks, then gleefully whip the missiles at each other. We do not think of other dangers besides crocodiles. It’s just a game.
            While the others mercilessly pelt each other I bend for more mud. A viciously heavy clod lands with a furious wet splat between my shoulderblades. I look up to see a grinning Aikimbo, makeshift spear in one hand, wattle-stick in the other, reload.
            “Boe-oot!” he jeers.
            My anger bursts. Ienie lo n’daba ka whena? What do you think you’re doing? Whena lo ‘Lookout’! You’re the lookout. Blala lappa lo post!”
            “You stay for to be at the post!” he shouts back. “Here, you’re not for to be my Boss, Baasie Boet! So, Boet, you go for to be up there! Or go for to be going back to the Big Seas for where you to be coming from!”
The other piccaninnies advance uncertainly, aghast. No black, not even their parents ever defied a white person, not one! But perhaps, what with the new ‘Zambia’ the Bantu are speaking of, Aikimbo knows better? Older than them, older than me even, he did spend his time nowadays visiting at the freedom talks of the Compound. Unlike them, he didn’t care if M`dhalha had told them that they should stay away from there. Now here is a thing to see! Yebo! There is something very strong about this new Aikimbo as he faces their smaller white master. But, they also see, even so, Aikimbo is trembling.
            His spear jabs down and sticks up in the mud in front of me. A wrestling match? I’m astounded. Never has any black person ever shown me open defiance. I advance on him, my finger pointing at the tree. “Get back to your...!”
            And the crocodile launches. It bursts out of the froth of the shallows like an angry dragon snapping its way up from a boiling cauldron. Silvered spray showers off its dark scales, and jaws agape, whipping its broad tail in the deep mud of the lower bank, it begins to churn its thick short legs toward us.
            Screaming, we boys scatter. Aikimbo, leaving his spear still stuck in the ground, hurtles off, overtaking the others.
            I spin to check the croc’s progress, and then whoop with delight. The beast is stuck! The clay is too deep for it. Then my breath holds. “Tobi!” I shout, and at once run for the two-year-old, yanking up Aikimbo’s sharpened rod of mopani limb as I go, but the spear feels useless; its weight won’t penetrate or even waylay the crocodile.
Tobi turns to see the strange creature. Its great tail lashing, it slowly advances. He totters to his little bowed legs, and then just stands there, cheerfully giggling. And then, to my horror, he takes a stumbling step forward, and falls off the embankment, barely ten feet in front of it.
            Both crocodile and I lunge forward.
            But the crocodile, gaping wider and wider, is slowed by the seeped clay. Just in time, I yank Tobi up. The croc’s teeth clack to a close. Gobs of the ugly thing’s drool spray my leg. But as I retreat I’m hampered by the bank behind me. Then the beast’s short hind legs jerk free and, grunting open-mouthed, it claws straight at us. Within inches of sure death, and now with the kid’s struggles weighing me down, I know that I cannot escape. So I raise the toy spear, fragile as a toothpick, and catapult it right into the crocodile’s wide-open throat.
            Taken aback, the creature seems to gag as the rod’s sharp wooden point drives deep. It flings its head about, rears on its fat hind legs, and emitting grunts of pain and frustration, flails its thick armor plated tail and scrapes at the earth with its snout until the spear, protruding like the shaft of a lance, snaps. Then the beast spins, propels itself back into the mud, and begins churning back toward the river.
            I look about. “Aikimbo!” I shout for him, hoping to gain his favor. “Where are you? Upi whena? Here’s your brother. Here’s Tobi! He’s safe!”
            But Aikimbo is nowhere to be seen.
[For a link to the novel at please see: ]

photo by Mandana Mobki 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Vociferous Vacillations

(A Discourse on Presenting at the Denver Convention for Dabrowski, or not)


Cognitive dissonance stews in one. It keeps you awake. It batters about the brain. The state of indecision is a chaotic interference of variables, barely able to be buttoned down in any given moment. What to do?

Some of us are silent with our deliberations. Others of us are very noisy. And some, of course, slip about somewhat unnoticed in-between. The silent one mulls over the probabilities until there is a clarity of decision. The noisy one involves everyone else (possibly as I am doing by writing this much) until the wealth of other's opinions produces a more secure path than going it alone. And for those of us slip-sliding more quietly between the proverbial pros and cons of the decisions we have to make, there is, for me at least, a series of sensitivities to the symbols that may direct my course, as well as a whole gamut of metacognitive check-ins. Just what am I thinking; why am I thinking it; who will benefit; when will it be validated; what is its purpose; and where shall I be, psychically, morally, spiritually, physically, and fiscally by the time I've made the decision? Of them all, that last is most often the stumbling block. Can I afford it?

The choices we make define our moments. We live within our predilections. If I choose to buy this thing then the money I apportion to it cannot also be shared among other things. So too for my very energy. And when I decide to spend my resources on this, instead of that, then I must content myself that my choice suffices in the moment, or I shall live with a constant regret. Once the toaster has been purchased, best not to keep checking the prices of other toasters! One would soon be toast indeed, ha!

Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration has it that there are five fundamental stages of developmental thinking, or states of being, through which we progress, or not. First stage is the choosing of left or right. Even within those fundamental choices we fall into two factored camps. In factor one we are entirely self-serving; or at a factor two level we continuously choose between the lesser of two evils, the higher of two goods. Whatever choices we make, in a stage two state of being we are constantly insecure, neurotic even, and vulnerable. In stage three we are secure with who we are, and are concerned for and complementary toward the whole. In stage four we are considerate and compassionate and fulfilled without need for the approbation of others. In stage five we are utterly selfless. Problem is, Dabrowski  contends that the vast majority of mankind cannot get past stage one, factor two. Vacillation, vociferous or not, is at the root of our very existence.

To be or not to be? To go or not to go? To phone, write, speak out, contact, make reference, purchase this or that, spend on this rather than that, order this and not that, or to be inviolable? We are creatures of choice. The depth at which we make these choices is up to us. Who, what, where, why, how, when, and with whom attends us, or not. Sometimes we just throw all caution to the winds.

As for me? I shall arise and go now, and go to Innesfree. There I shall, a moment by a moment, make my way. And now, as for thee?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Baboons! (an excerpt from my novel)

7)      BABOONS :

When morning comes, I suggest: “The other kids have no way to go to school, Mammie, but maybe we could give them a lift? It’s the baboons, Mammie Kassie, êna makula stêrek, they’re really strong! You should see the branches they can tear off.”
            Kassie, her arm gesturing in the direction of the car, begins to speak when Pappie Sarel interrupts. “Jus` don’t tease them, Boet, and I tell you they won’t tease back. I’ll send a kaffir with you kids, starting today. Old M`dhalha will do. He seems to take an interest in you. I’ll give him the shotgun. That’ll scare the hairy-backed buggers off.”
            At 7:00 a.m., this time with M`dhalha standing to one side, I wait as usual atop the big round ‘sleeping-buffalo-boulder’ beside the dirt road, directly across from the van Wyk’s dairy.
            Two other boys, kicking stones, saunter up the road toward me, a roly-poly fellow of eight, and a thin stick-legged taller chap of twelve. “`Lo, Boet,” the chubby one greets me, nudging at his thick glasses.
            “`Lo, Varkie,” I smile. “`Lo Piet,” I greet, and jump down.
            “I see you brought your old kaffir,” Piet teases, then picks up a stone. “Hey, Oink,” he challenges at Varkie, “let’s see if you can hit the van Wyk’s signboard from here!” and he throws so hard that the rock clangs and ricochets.
            “Eina! Wat die hel!” a voice hollers from up the driveway.
            “Sorry, Alex!” Piet shouts back, laughing, as fifteen-year-old good looking Alex, trailed by his reedy eleven-year-old brother, come into view. Meek little Mark holds his neck.
            “You hit Mark!” Alex blazes. “I’ve told you to look before you throw!”
            My head comes up. “Mark? You all right?” 
            Mark rubs at his neck, but turns his eyes away. “Ja man. Jus` nicked.”
          Piet, looking straight at me, teases, “See, if I’m so good with a stone, who needs your bladdy kaffir along, hey, Boet? I’ll get the baboons!”
            But M`dhalha’s quick glance silences me.
            The narrow trail disappears into the seemingly impenetrable curtain of soft fern and ropy lianas and towering teak, but comes out on the broader swath of the natives’ footpath. Even here the treetops inter-link. It’s like walking within a magically paved tunnel of waving delicacies of lace, the leafy canopy pouring down liquid patches of gold from giant slivers of sunbeams. In here we usually meet no one else, since most of the blacks from the Compound leave very early to be at work, but at times a laden-down woman, some with children in tow, or an older man, or even a group of young men would be discovered. They’d stand pressed into the shadows of the leafy undergrowth, saying nothing until spoken to. And always, no matter how rude we whites might be, the blacks were most polite. But of such inequalities between white and black little is ever acknowledged. It comes by way of the birthright of each group, by the way we all are being raised, as it always was, and for some of us, as it always should be.
            But on this day, all we boys meet up with are the baboons. As usual, I am the one who sees the slope-faced apes first. Respectfully, I whisper, “Jambo Umfuzi! Hamba! Hello Grandfather! Time for you to go!”
            Umfuzi, seeming to nod, disappears. The forest goes still. All remains hushed, ominous.
            Piet runs up, demanding, “Where? Where’s the bladdy thing?”
            I point away. “Daar! There!”
            Alex, his voice an urgent whisper, calls, “You kids, wait!”
            We stop up. All around us in the path with its paving stones of golden yellow light that spears down in gothic shafts from the winking canopy of lace, there is a cathedral hush. But there is something ugly about that quiet. Usually when we come across the pack there are about twenty or so of the dusky creatures, chattering and entertaining with their marvelous acrobatics amidst the branches. And then one of us, usually Piet of course, would begin goading at them with grotesque facial gestures and weird noises. The apes inevitably respond by barking back insults and sometimes hurl seedpods and shake the branches with their antics. Ha!
            But now? I feel goosebumps.
            M`dhalha calls softly, “Stay long, like a string. We must be a python, not a puff-adder.”
            Piet spits. “Puff-adders are lethal. Pythons slow. Just shoot the hairy bastards, kaffir!”
            But I’ve had enough. “Piet. His name is ‘M`dhalha’. M’dhalha. Respected One. Hear?”
            Piet advances, hands balling. “Yeah, Boetie? Does it now? M`dhalha this and M`dhalha that! You’d swear that the kaffir was your own fuggen father, you little Back Seat Brat!”
            My eyes firm. He is taller than me, but I stare, determined to show no fear.
            Piet’s eyes glisten with uncertainty, but he goads, “Come on, Boet. Come on, you fuggen little kaffir-boetie, fight!”
            Then the baboons explode. From the sudden maelstrom of the swirling canopy a furious hail of broken branches, bouncing fruit kernels, boomerang-hard sausage-tree seedpods and gobs of smelly yellow raw dung pelts down.
            We rush for cover. M`dhalha snaps the .410 up and an orange belch blasts from it with an echoing Boom! that sends rustling shivers through the leaves.
            A second of silence.
            But the apes, seeing that none among them are actually harmed, begin quickly reappearing. A little chastened, a lot more wary, they perch and chatter and argue over the matter of exactly what next to do.
            A young female, her baby clung tight to her side, descends to within a stone’s throw and commences a screaming lecture, full of insult.
            Spattered in stench, I begin to laugh, but then Piet angrily flings a stone and hits her so sharply that she drops her child. The tiny body, almost naked of hair, screams as it crashes to the forest floor.
            “Los! Leave it!” M`dhalha shouts, reloading, as Piet runs into the ferns, yelling, “Grab it! Grab it!”
            Above us the baboons erupt. They tear off the green and heavy seedpods, break larger and larger branches, hurl things down.
            Varkie, squealing in fear, waddles further away down the path, and breaks into a run. I shout! But Umfuzi, the old watchman, springs.
            Whump! The sound of it is distinct. The impact of some ninety pounds of infuriated menace catapulted from a great height instantly flattens the pudgy youngster. Dust clouds swirl. Even so, on all fours both boy and baboon almost at once back off, the ape to gain advantage, the boy in dazed bewilderment as he scrabbles for his glasses. Wet blood drips from his shredded ear, spouts in raked reds from the gashes to his shoulder and thigh. Strangely though, he makes no sounds.
            M`dhalha tries to trace the circling baboon in his gun-sight.
            I notice the mother, to one side, go quietly to rescue her baby. Her child clutched precariously to her chest, she howls defiance as she clambers back up the tree. Her voice goads the monstrous male into leaping at Varkie’s neck, but just then the boy stumbles for his yet again dropped glasses, and the baboon rips him from forearm to wrist. The ape screeches and howls, bares finger-sized fangs, begins circling again, and looks for the killing leap.
            But then, flashing as it hurtles end over end through the air, M`dhalha’s great knife impales itself in the ape’s back, thwunk! The baboon falls face down, spread-eagled, still.
            “Sawright, Basie. Sawright,” M`dhalha clucks at Varkie, gently prying the heavily bleeding kid up from the dirt. “Bring the knife,” he tells me.
            I somewhat tentatively tug at the heavy steel from the still warm threat of the back of the huge baboon. It is, I realize, the first time I’ve touched the weapon. And from that moment, I want a knife just like it.
            Varkie begins to whimper. M`dhalha wordlessly turns with him in his arms and lopes back toward the van Wyk’s place.
            That night I yet again overhear Mammie Kassie on the phone. “That’ll teach the bladdy kids a lesson! But to think they say we come from those bladdy baboons? Let me tell you, I don’t think so!”

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Existential Homage:

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky
A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
He climbed for it,
And eventually he achieved it --
It was clay.

Now this is the strange part:
When the man went to the earth
And looked again,
Lo, there was the ball of gold.
Now this is the strange part:
It was a ball of gold.
Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold. 
Stephen Crane

Monday, April 9, 2012

Birthday Bounty

Excitement begins early for your birthday. If not in yourself, then in me. Knowing it is your birthday month I watch the calendar and in the background my mind runs a time clock of anticipation and fear of procrastination. Will I make the post in time? Will I get the date right? Will I get the right card or the right present or make the phone call at the right time of an international day? Will I say the right things? After all, thousands of people are having a birthday on your birthday too, so how does one not be platitudinous or vacuous or plain? How to make the moment special? Authenticity of tone and feeling and meaning is not guaranteed in a card; I've received the same card from different people. If there are no unique words within, why, what's so special about that?

Specialness is a feeling one appropriates around a birthday. Many a youngster has proclaimed things such as, "28 days to my birthday!" Many a teenager has mouthed things like, "I'm so glad the 5th is on a Friday, not Saturday; I get to be at school and have the class sing to me, get my locker decorated, have my teachers wish me happy birthday; the party is on the weekend. It's like having two birthdays!" And then of course there is the opportunity to show off the new bracelet, the new watch, the new cell phone or iPod or.... Specialness is the feeling that one is recognized. It is difficult for us not to be recognized on our birthdays. Some are even surprised when it's someone else's too.

Billions of people are birthday people on this planet. Each day someone somewhere is feeling the sense of the date, the magical 26, or 18, or 21, or ... TODAY! It's a magical date in a momentous month to be a marker of years spent living, age proved maturing, or, for some as we get very much older, years left likely to be living. And the specialness we feel is, after all, deserved. There is no one like you. On March 26th the world was invested with your presence. (And if the date is right on your birthday is there not a delightful sense that this indeed was really written just for you?) As such, invested with your unique presence, our planet evolved by virtue of each other person you influenced, impacted, loved, gave of yourself, and contributed toward. Indeed, others have been born through you, in every sense of the word.

To isolate the molecular self in a massive sea of mankind and within the momentum of universal flow thereby appropriate unto oneself a specialness of pinpointed time on a day made differentiated by one's birth in a given month is an essentially human undertaking. (Only man makes birth days.) After all, your birthday may well be half over by the time you read this. And the six months after a birthday is not quite the same as the six months before. Why not celebrate monthly? (Gift lovers like THAT idea!)

Birthdays mark the day on which you were born. So simple a statement. But more than that, they are isolated in the flow of general time to celebrate the very uniqueness of yourself and the great gift of your life to others, to this planet, to our universe. We pause to acknowledge the marker in your life, to let you know we think about you, care for you, love you. In that case then, may there be a birthday bounty of assurances of such for you each birthday, every month, and indeed, every day. But if for today? Happy Birthday!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Deliberating Death

We do not like the subject of dying. A friend told me she had cancer, a long long time ago. She invited me to come sip sherry on her deck. I never went. Another friend told me he was soon to die; I asked him about his symptoms. Angrily, he told me in gross detail. I never visited him either. I was young then, in my late 20's. Already I had seen death, on both sides, in the border war of Rhodesia. I had also encountered death of all sorts as a child of Africa. I was directly responsible for an old servant's death, due to my boyhood selfishness. And then too, not yet a teenager, I was responsible for our dog's death. Death. It hovered in my consciousness as a thing to be feared, a thing to be avoided, guarded against, cautious of, and even hated. Until I grew older. And then one day it all seemed so inevitable, so natural. I wondered why I had not just accepted it as part of what is going to happen to all of us, anyway.

"Every day, have a little bird that sits on your shoulder and asks, is today the day, am I ready? Am I being the person I want to be?" That's what 'Tuesdays with Morrie' is all about. And then there are very many other platitudes we each could bring to the subject, as well as the euphemisms. At issue is the relevance of the immediate. We know we have to die, eventually; it is not the same as being told by some authority, or by one's very disease, that there is only so much time left to live. Well, that's what my friend has very recently told me, and now as his days dwindle down I find myself grieving through the  Khubler-Ross stages: disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They come naturally, but not equally. Learning of cancer in a loved one will do that to us.

How to offer anything other than platitudes, especially when far away. I've been at the bedside of some of my dying friends, especially recently. I've heard the last gasp, seen the last flutter of light in the eyes, witnessed the body loose energy. These are very hard experiences to have, especially if one is guilty of the death in some way. My selfish disobedience as a boy, my ineptitude in the army, my.... Easier to accept the death of sick friends, especially if they're significantly older than oneself; they have lived a full life. But my friend who is counting his days, who lives so very far away, happens to have been born in the same year as me. There are too many of my old school friends who have already 'passed on'. At our recent forty-year reunion, sixteen names were read out. Some had been dear to me at one time; all had been dear to others, all the time.

How to reach out across the miles and tell an old friend that you care, that you think of him as constantly as you breathe, yet find yourself almost startled to realize you have happiness and participation in the moment by moment existence of your own life while his is so evidently winding down? Does it suffice to say that you feel regret for his condition, feel loss for his absence, feel concerned that something will be left unsaid, undone, even unfelt? Death is confusing. We can only surmise what it would be like. We cannot empathize with dying itself; we can only empathize with the bereft.

My friend is dying. I write because I cannot reach him, cannot assist him, cannot hug him, cannot get to care for him, cannot give him much more than words. And because this is such a generic essay, rather than specific enough to name actual names, it is about he, she, you, and me. Death. We realize that, uncaring of particulars, an end will eventually reach each and all of us, earthen voyagers; what we do until then... is to live!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Being Bound In Being

All the world's a stage and a person has seven ages, or some such goes. For mankind too. In the long history of mankind evolving from sheer survival, to family groups, to the sway of warlords, to adherence to socio-political constructivism, to commercial lordship, to paradigmatic inclusions, to integration, man indeed performs through seven ages.

First there is the mewling infant. Our dependence on the immediate takes precedence, and we have little empathy or instinct to sustain anything or anyone beyond ourselves. Even at the sinking of the Titanic, men barged ahead of children. But most of us are no longer predominantly affected by survival (until we think of all without, so far from here).

Then the whining schoolboy. We belong to a family, a group, a club, and we abide by its wants and dictates and demands. We will fight the stranger's ways. We will avenge our brother even though he got shot robbing the bank while holding your sister hostage. We will sublimate our individuality and take an oath of fealty; stave off a foreign incursion.

Next is the soldier, he who buys into a greater glory than his family. His ego he crows up against the masses. Unproven, he declares himself victor. He puts down the vanities in his enemies, judges the inferior, the lesser, the weaker, the bankrupt. He is at his most dangerous, invincible; at his most foolish, intractable; at most glorious, unconquerable.

Then the lover comes along, tempers his own vaingloriousness, yields to a greater self, and sacrifices his selfish wants to his self-serving desires. He gives up his personal freedom to a larger group, a larger ideology, a larger socio-political entity, and draws a moral line of affirmation, or of negation, in the sand. He will invest in the culture of his belief system. He fears not being in. He fears being left out. He responds well to fear.

The lawyer is more circumspect. He bends the rules and breaks the bonds and looks for loopholes in the constructs of circumstance and chance. He takes advantage. He yokes the multiplicities of mankind and warps and weaves them to his secular advantage, and hires and fires and judges and condemns those who do not see things, who do not do things, his way. His wit is sharp. His knowledge profuse. His empathy... judicial.

The pantaloon disavows ambition, disavows hierarchy, disavows divisive commentary and fragmentary inequality. Those who are deemed not to agree are fools anyway. The desire is for harmony of outlook, singularity of purpose, honor of action, and integrity of apprehension. For everybody! Fools, idiots are the rest; he'll hoist them on his petard.

But the seventh age of Shakespeare, sans teeth, sans taste, sans ears, sans eyes, sans everything? It is no dolt, no sad Alzheimer's patient alluded to here, but rather the realization of a lack of absolute need, a lack of uttering utter preferences, a lack of myopia, a lack of proving certainty, a lack of being irrefutable. There is certainly nothing that such an one, sans everything, can profess that is totally right, for the world is too full of possibilities. Even heaven, in all its waiting, waits until he's leavened, ready, free.

Perhaps there's then an eighth age, a mercurial infinity, never beginning, never ending? And yes, it's the twist in the middle, the transition through life, 'twould seem, that binds.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Liking Loving

Teddy bears, pet rocks, Barbie dolls, and puppies are not alike. Puppies love us back. In the childlike years of our growing up we learn to like reciprocation, to expect a return, and we make friends, deem our own worthiness, and love more intensely those who love us back. Even mature adults find it difficult merely to give love. We want it back. Parents have abandoned children because the child does not sufficiently contact them; does not show interest. Brothers and sisters become estranged. Friends no longer 'love' because they have lost contact, or the one has somehow hurt the other. Couples no longer love because their marriages are unfulfilled. In adulthood love is no longer an easy feeling given to cuddly teddies and zoomorphized rocks or anthropomorphized dolls; yet it is something we give to the taste of coffee, the look or feel of a car, the house we live in, the clothes we wear, or even the film star we've never met. It is a word we bandy about easily. But when it comes to saying "I love you" to people that we know, whether close to heart or those we do not like, it is a word that can stick in the craw.

How does it go again, Corinthians? If love can be a feeling of unconditional acceptance that emanates from the self, independent of proximity, touch, communication, return, appreciation, approbation, acceptance, or even knowledge by another, then love has a completeness, for it wants for nothing, expects nothing; it is its own source. Love gives.

Liking is another word.

We choose the pet rock, the teddy bear, the doll, the watch, the cell phone, the car, the house, our our clothes based on initial preference. And once acquired, we start to love it if it does not hurt us, disappoint us, cost us discomfort. Then we love the thing. We can feel really sad, upset, at a loss, betrayed, robbed, grieved when the thing is broken, stolen, misplaced. We have a reciprocity with it, a dependence, an expectation, an attachment. It's the way we've been raised to look after things, to value things that cost our parents money, to appreciate things that have been given, passed on, made yet more valuable by history, sentiment, and relevance. A lock of hair. A tea-set. A picture. A ring, broach, or tie-clip. One's cell phone. We are given to love the things that make our lives richer. But for things that distress us, it is most difficult to love, let alone to like.

Liking and loving; they are concepts worth examining. If we accept love as the essence of the universe, the verb that enlivens life, then to like or dislike is a feeling aroused by the many particulars. Love as an essence comes with no attitude, no preference, no expectation. Love ideally is entirely integrative. Whole. Love is what the poets sing, the literature examines, the priesthood professes. Love is independent of the negative. No wonder love is so difficult for us simply to feel. We are quite bound up by, cultured toward, and predicated upon the relevance of negatives. We do not love things we do not like. We do not like too much otherness, too much verbosity (ha!), difference of contention, things that are wrong, abusive, hurtful, hateful, or distasteful. It is natural to dislike. It is not so natural just to love. We are bound up in particulars. We find it difficult to understand the mother who loves her murdering son; the wife who loves her cheating husband; the forgiver of the intentional transgression. To like or not to like is a verb; to love includes all grammatical forms. Love is everything. We are love, like it or not. Ha!