Saturday, February 26, 2005

My God Mammon

In a rare moment of candor, 2008 presidential hopeful, Mormon elder, former venture capitalist and current Massachusetts Governor-Despite-Himself Mitt "The Mitthead" Romney

whose remarkable resemblance to Dr Bob Dobbs of the Church of the Subgenius

is a phenomenon whose significance has yet to be fully deconstructed, took a break from gay bashing ("They're even having CHILDREN ! Ewwww !") during a recent Utah speech to declare that

"America's culture is also defined by the fact that we are a religious people,"
Romney said. "We recognize our God not only in our Declaration of Independence, but even in our currency."

There is much grist for the theopolitical mill in his weighty words. Is God "in the currency" or, transubstatiated, "the currency" itself ? Will capitalism undergo a quasi Protestant/Catholic schism over this issue ?

It Was Lost

And now it's found.

(It had been hiding in plain sight at the very bottom of my backpack.)

Cleansing The Doors of Perception

Without their little one-year's-worth plugs of wax that I flushed out last night, my ears are letting in the most incredible sibilances. Faucet water, rustled paper, the recoiling keyboard space bar, cloth against cloth when I walk -- a whole stratum of high, crisp, thin, hissing sounds floods back. I didn't know what I was missing. The sonic world seems almost intolerably bright. There is a little nimbus of hiss around every sound. Like backlighting. Tinny, tinkling. I find my fingers stealing earward, my eyes squeezing shut against the glare. I quail in terror at the thought of wind passing through winter oaks.

These low, lush, matted, tangling blades of green were present last winter in the same spot. I have no idea what they are. They are, though, a balm to the winter-scoured eye: sinuous, lively, plump. In great contradistinction to all the spiky, bleached, skeletal, gray-brown-beige winter thicket. I've been photographing this bit of riverbank wood and meadow land for about a year, now. One would think that would be enough, or, at least bring a sense of closure. But it's not enough. My curiosity pushes ahead to the next botanical year, to the next cycle. What variations will it bring ? A year is not enough.

But, on the other hand, even a single moment is enough. A photograph is a moment of light, captured and fixed. Does a photo have, or signify, duration ? Does a photo of the moon exposed at a one second shutter speed have more "duration" than a weed shot at 1/500 ? What about star trails left on film exposed for hours ? Is a photograph a record of a "present moment," that elusive ne plus ultra we're always "trying" to live in, as if we could live otherwise ? The photo as an artifact has its own present moment. Just as memory is a phenomenon that occurs in the present.

It's still cold. There's been more snow, and there's more predicted. The bright morning gives way to a scrim of clouds and filtered light. There are so many doors.

The way in is the way out.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Supra Dig

I am struck by the dignity of weeds. In keeping with etymology, they are worthy. Worthy of my regard, of my camera's regard, of your regard. As in, Francophonetically, Regardez !

Look. Take. Show. That's a complicated sequence. Fraught. It takes an intimate moment and shatters it. Makes it public. Disperses it. The eyes (minds) then have it, or a simulacrum of it, to do with what they will. It's more a regradation that a degradation, but it's that, too. A transformation of a living moment of seeing, honoring, loving, into a static image. One image among the world's billions. (One weed among quadrillions.) We are prolific text and image makers. Myriad things, each with its painted cake. What a bakery ! What a takery ! What a fakery !

From that maternal, adoring moment of holding, of sheltering, a weed in my regard (re-guard) to this: a trafficking. Dispatching the flattened, pilfered instant of light out to sail aloft on the world's image-stream. As decidual and doomed as I am, as it is. Farewell ! But how can it fare well ? Maybe I should say fadewell.

Deeper within dignity is the sense of being fitting: proper, right, appropriate to context. Back to the forest: the bleached, brittle upraised winter twigs. The dark, leaf-ribbed compost underfoot. Weeds are what they are. They lead lives. Like I do. I walk among them with as much care as my clumsy, booted incarnation can manage. It is a delicate operation. I hold my breath and mutter warding invocations: Bezoar ! Podzol ! Potting Soil !

Then I notice a galaxy of asters -- hard, white, shiny, gold-tipped stellate little flowers. Or a grape tendril, loop-de-looping in the air. Or the vague, dry gold of evening primrose pods, so different from the summer's thin, yellow petals.

And I submit, eagerly, to seduction. I am prisoner, love slave, in the seraglio of weeds.

Have, dear little beings, your weedy way with me.

Friday, February 18, 2005

On Losing My Hat

I realized, today, that I'd lost my hat. My big, red and slate-blue, fleece hat, flat on top and round as a layer cake. I felt more than a frisson of chagrin: I liked the hat, and dislike hat shopping.

But I was on holiday and, dispatched on an errand to the post-office in the upscale suburb where DK's composers' consortium does their bulk mailing, I decided to visit the nearby upscale mall. I was feeling that sanguine. Imagine.

So I strode boldly through the Filene's cosmetics department, past all the mysterious potions and creams and pots of color, dodging the white-coated clerks all hell bent on squirting me with their atomizers, and into the mall itself where I'd remembered there was an Eastern Mountain Sports.

It was gone.

OK. Fine. A lesson in transience. I could dig it. So I turned tail and went back through Filene's, taking a brave detour through DRESSES. I am not completely free of material desire. I am not an entirely unnatural woman. I could do a little shopping, eh ?

I was caught up short by a mannikin. A cadaverically thin headless torso of a mannikin. Or, to be charitable, an Audrey Hepburn-thin headless torso of a mannikin. It was up on a pedestal, and its hips were thrust forward at eye level. It was wearing a beautiful dress -- a summer dress, white, clingy, covered with colorful, airy, almost abstract prints of Parisian street scenes. Very 1960's, in a good way. On the mannikin's long, sleek legs were pale, green fishnet stockings, and on its feet, elegant green suede high heels.

She, it, was lovely. I gazed, helpless, strangely enraptured.

Then the thought ran through my mind: There is only one purpose for obtaining such a costume, and that's mating. Attraction. Seduction. Procreation.

I imagined myself wearing it. It felt like a transvestitual, practically transexual fantasy. Oh, sure, I'm thin enough. But bony in all the wrong places. Scrawny. Wizened. And the lank gray hair ? Oh, man. Where were the cosmetics mavens when I needed them ? Shouldn't they be flocking around me in their quasi-medical vestments, offering first aid, offering extreme unguents ?

If I was not shopping for fuck-me clothes, what was I shopping for ?

Grave clothes, proposed my increasingly melancholic brain.

So I wrenched myself away from the lovely, headless siren, veered past a rack of beige, elastic-waisted polyester slacks marked CLEARANCE, and, hatless, fled to my car.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Lush Life

Phragmites. Common, roadside reeds. Beautiful, undulant banks of them filling hollows by the highway. A single one flowered by the river this past summer, surrounded by smaller ones that did not sprout seedheads. The big one disappeared in a gusty, early winter rainstorm. The little ones remain, their leaves extended like stiff, spare banners.

I once spent a long stretch of a road trip fishing for the word "phragmites." It was on a particularly blighted stretch of highway skirting little ocean inlets and salt marshes just outside Boston. Some other "ph" word kept coming up and shoving "phragmites" aside. My brain felt like some kind of jammed, deranged file cabinet. Finally, probably while I was looking the other way, out popped "phragmites."

Now I can't remember the other word. Pharoah. Phalanges.


Bittersweet. I was enamoured of this pretty vine, once, and desired to obtain some to decorate my house. It was years ago, maybe even during my first marriage. I'd pass masses of it by the highway and dream of bringing armloads of the beautiful red and orange-studded branches home. I'd imagine where I'd place it, and how beautiful the elaborate little red and yellow berries would look in our apartment. I'd picture myself in the woods gathering it up, harvesting the beautiful vine with the beautiful name. I was always on the lookout for it, and could spot the brightly studded tangles instantly. Did I ever actualize my bittersweet fantasies ? No.

This may (or may not) be a parable of my spiritual life.

Is it that it's so close to dinnertime and that I'm hungry that the shiny, brown clustered seeds in the heart of this involuted, snowbound Queen Anne's Lace remind me of pecan pie ? I never much liked nuts as a child, but I loved the dark, dense, thickly sweet filling of pecan pie. It was restaurant food, of course, far too exotic for my Mother's rotation of desserts (Jello, harlequin ice-cream, butterscotch pudding).

My Aunt's glamorous friend, Helen T., ate pecan pie. She had flaming red hair, and wore green chiffon dresses. She had "perfect teeth," mink stoles, and was brassy and loud. She had a round bed. Her husband, a weasly little clothier, slept around. And around. And around. And around. I loved Helen. Her taste in pie seemed extraordinarily sophisticated. She'd stir spoonsful of vanilla ice cream into her coffee instead of milk. This, too, I found cosmopolitan, even sexy. And, of course, there were cigarettes and endless rounds of drinks. Cocktails. There are pictures of Anne Sexton that have always reminded me of Helen. They both had a long-limbed, cool, wounded elegance. Helen died of lymphoma more than thirty years ago. There is a snapshot of her at a New Year's Eve gala, head thrown back, cardboard-and-spangles party tiara in her glorious hair, perfect teeth bared in a wide smile, bright green chiffon swirling Sufi-like around her legs. Her neck bulged with lymph nodes big as eggs.

She looked ecstatic.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


The dox- in doxology means glory. The dox- in orthodox means opinion. The third doxy -- beggar's wench or harlot -- is said to come from "docke," archaic Dutch for doll. The postmodern version comes in soft, inflatable plastic, complete with open, receptive, and brightly painted mouth.

I've been rereading the final volume of Thomas Merton's Journal. He was increasingly impatient with lifeless, petrified, orthodox forms. Commenting on an article he'd just read entitled "The Monk in the Church," an article he found pedantic, absurd and legalistic, he writes:

The Church is a big sacramental machine. ... The whole thing is sickening. The mechanical, cause-and-effect, official machinery of Catholicism. Dreadfully dead, putrid. And yet people are committed to this insane validism, this unchristian obsession. ... And how can you tell them anything else ? It is the whole hang-up on magic: following the instructions of the bottle to get the infallible effect. A monastery is a place where, though there are more detailed instructions on the bottle, we follow them all meticulously, and the whole Church turns on with our magic tonic. ... We do this because we think it makes us respectable: we are fully justified by Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline and by blind obedience to the ascetic Dad no matter how absurd. The Church is a great treadmill, and when you turn it, it churns out an ineffable substance called grace, and he who gets his pailfull is hereafter untouchable, impervious to everything, neither man nor God can tell him anything. He is justified. He is right. He has a right to bash your head in if you even think of questioning it.

-- December 24, 1967

Of course, Merton was also profoundly, irrevocably, traditionally Catholic. And his writing reveals the glorious heart of the Church, the beautiful, mystical core that suffocates under countlessly accreted layers of culturally-determined opinion and the scandalous corruption and degeneracy of its priests using young children as sex dolls.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, for example, he writes

The biggest paradox about the Church is that she is at the same time essentially traditional and essentially revolutionary. ... The living Tradition of Catholicism is like the breath of the physical body. It renews life by repelling stagnation. It is a constant, quiet revolution against death. ... And yet this tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached. To those who love money and pleasure and reputation and power it says: " Be poor, go down into the far end of society, take the last place among men, live with those who are despised, love other men and serve them instead of making them serve you. Do not fight them when they push you around, but pray for those who hurt you. Do not look for pleasure, but turn away from those things that satisfy your senses and mind and look for God in hunger and thirst and darkness, through deserts of the spirit in which it seems madness to travel. ... This is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached: in fact, it is the only true revolution, becuse all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the man who, for all practical purposes, tou have come to think of as your own self.

Stephen Batchelor, writing from a Buddhist perspective in Living With The Devil, says

As religions grow from humble beginnings into churches and orthodoxies, the narrrow path turns into a brightly lit highway. The risk of embarking on a journey into the unknown is replaced by the confidence of setting off on a well-planned excursion. Homelessness starts to feel like home again. The freedom of the open road is replaced by the drudgery of repeating a cycle of routines. As we proceed along the well-trodden paths of Buddhism, Christanity, Judaism or Islam we may begin to weary of their certainties. Perilous trails that branch off the main track and peter out in the anarchy of wilderness catch our attention. We realize that the path we are taking might disappear into a pathless land.

But what about those of us who start out in the anarchic, pathless land, and whose circuitous way -- barely distinguishable from being lost -- crisscrosses first one, then another well-traveled road ? Passersby, some in Sunday best, others with shaved heads and rakusus, draw back in alarm from the wild-eyed creature crashing out from the underbrush, lurching across the macadam, and plunging back into the woods on the far side of the road. Who or what was that ? Some sort of demon ?

"Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior ?" cries a figure waving a white leather HOLY BIBLE high overhead. The sun reflecting off the cover's gilt "I" is blinding.

"The lost are like that ... but worse." calls another, kindly, trying to comfort.

A third stands at the roadside and quietly says, as if addressing the thicket itself, "To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to actualize the myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no trace continues endlessly."

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Every image maker has a persona. wrote the text maker, clambering into the barrel of my camera's lens, crawling through the half-cocked diaphragm (set to f3.5 for the narrowest depth of field), then leaping, ever nimble, from from mirror to mirror and diving out through the viewfinder, right through astigmatism-correcting plastic, twice-scratched cornea, aqueous humor, lens, vitreous humor until, finally, he lies panting, tangled in the remarkably weed-like wefts of my retina.

I must find the text-maker's weed persona, I thought, sitting down, opening another light-box, poring over image after image.

What shall it be ? Something from summer, late summer, something ripening, open and still opening, something straddling birth and death, at home in both. Something dark, but surrounded by light like a word on a page; something elegant, eloquent. Complicated. Astonishing. Prickly.



Saturday, February 05, 2005

Sic Transit

Either Bus 70 was late or I had misread the schedule. By the time its headlights crested Main Street's long incline, my feet, pinched in their too-narrow Payless vegan boots, and steeped half and hour in slushy roadside water, were nearly numb.

It was just past rush hour on the eastbound Boston route. The bus was hot and half full. I sat down on a small aisle-facing bench near the back of the bus, a three seater. A woman was sitting one seat away, obliquely, her legs -- long, thick, and packed into impossibly tight jeans -- were crossed. She jiggled the top leg, cantilevered into the space between us, continuously, nervously. I peeked at her from under my hat. She was clutching a cell phone in one mittened hand. Her face was pale and flat. She looked annoyed, almost angry. She crossed and recrossed her legs.

The bus smelled of wet wool, oil and worse. The man in the seat in front of me was somnolent and flatulent. His head, cushioned by his thick, wool watchcap, rested, bouncing a little, on the window. Other sour, human smells circulated on competing drafts of hot and freezing bus air.

The molded plastic seat was cold and hard. The composite human for which it had been designed did not included my somatotype, and, no matter how straight or slouched I sat, the knobs of my spine knocked uncomfortably against its back. I sat there, perched and prim, my backpack on my lap, and looked straight ahead. The reflection of my face floated in the dark window, bisected by a bar. Fronds of gray hair stuck out on either side. I changed the depth of field and looked out at the night.

The city streamed past. I never tire of the sight. I wished for my camera, and for chops enough to capture what I was seeing. Traffic, smears of neon, shops -- tiers of doughnuts in a bright bakery, a turquoise pick-up truck, suspended midair and surreal in an auto show room, clothes spinning in banks of silver washers in a laundromat. I thought of the people coming out to wash their clothes -- the weight of wet cloth, the smell of hot soapy water, the whirr of the machines -- and was moved by this necessary, small human activity as if it were some kind of sacrament.

Then we passed the old Arsenal, now brightly retrofitted for offices and businesses, where my dear, late Uncle Peter -- amateur philologist, botanist and photographer -- had worked in World War II. I queried the air for his ghost. Sensei I called, inwardly. There was no clear reply. Just a little perturbation. A little dip in space time, barely distinguishable from the lurching of the bus. Subtle as the footfall of an ant in an earthquake.

Even the mall -- a typically, vulgarly awful one, but done up to match the old arsenal's industrial brick -- seemed beautiful, set back deeply in its parking lot, overwritten with strokes of broken neon.

The bus pulled up to a stop and a teenage couple boarded. Each had a cell phone affixed to their belt in a little holster, and they were talking animatedly to one another, close pals, lovers maybe. They sat across from me. She bumped my toe; we both apologized. He was voluble, flamboyant, a pink gem in each ear. She was neatly, even drably dressed, and addressed him in a tone that was alternately fond and scolding. They fussed with their cell phones, which bleeped and played little snatches of music. She loves you, yeah yeah yeah . She called her mother. He turned his over and over in his hands, admiring it, almost preening it.

I noticed how many passengers clutched cell phones. I listened, a little drowsy now, to the comforting, ambient conversations of the strangers around me.

I'm on the bus I'm coming home now !

All the union and reunion ! I sat there, ever the solitary, my own cell phone dormant in my backpack. Whom would I call ? What would I say ? And why would I want to ? I like the mild irresponsibility of being in transit, beholden to nothing but getting from place to place. Incommunicado, unreachable, out of the loop. A stranger's stranger, if not walking, at least riding the earth.

The bus jerked to a halt. A large, swarthy, ill-shaven man carrying several bags got on and approached, looking from side to side for a seat. I glanced his way, and moved left as if to say: sit here . He sat, heavily, then leaned forward and adjusted his bags. His leg, in loose, wide-waled tan corduroy, was warm and thick against mine, both unnerving and reassuring. I could no longer see the nervous, jiggling woman. I glanced at the man. His grizzled face seemed pre-occupied, even sad.

I looked back at the window. We were in Cambridge now, approaching Central Square. I peered down the narrow sidestreets, little more than alleys, still snow-filled. The crooked porches of the old wood duplexes and triple deckers were still draped with christmas lights; scattered lit windows, half occluded with blinds and shades, allowed glimpses of cluttered rooms. A few blocks later there was a subtle, palpable shift. The world had been rehabbed. The windows were wider, the lit rooms more elegant and austere: bookshelves, plants, something on a wall in a frame.

Then I heard a clatter. The pink-gemmed boy had dropped a pocketful of whatnots on the floor. He laughed, swore. She giggled. He reached down, then extended one long leg under the seat in front to retrieve a little square object. I watched his foot strain toward it, snare it, pull it toward him. He leaned, and, with a small crow of triumph, picked it up.

The girl turned to him in mock horror.

I hope you're not going to eat that !

With a devilish look, he unwrapped a small, pink sweet and popped it into his mouth.

The man beside me, who had also been watching the little drama, turned to me, his face now illuminated, radiantly transformed, by a smile of absolute delight. Conspiratorial, and in a thick Spanish accent, he whispered:

Sugar !

The bus pulled into Central Square and I got off.

How lovely is thy dwelling place, oh Lord.