Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Letter to my students

Letter to my students

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night's sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where'er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
            From Adonias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

There is a break in the storm, and although the ground is muddy and water seeps from the rock, I run with Chico up the North Rim of Bidwell to watch the sunset in the post-rain clarity of the valley.  I often will find such areas in my life to watch the day end and stars emerge.  Yes, it feels nice to get a vantage point of the place I live, to rise above it and try to take in this town and the people in it; this is home.  In dusk-quietness cities come alive.  However, even more, I like watching the sunlight fade and the heavens open.  Sometimes I think night is more real than day, the blue doesn’t seem as infinite.  The blue sky is the shadow of our existence.  The stars, the sun, the moon, they move with such pattern and perpetuity; they make sense.  As Chico and I take pictures (well, he just sits there looking at me) of the sun moving behind the Mendocino Mountains, clouds shift colors, and the darkness of the storm comes down from the heavens; lightning begins to shutter to the far north of the valley.  Open exposed ridgelines are not the best place to be in a lightning storm.

            A storm can feel chaotic, lightning strikes unpredictable; however, I know that I must come off the ridgeline.  Collectively, as a human race of people forever exploring and seeking understanding, we know enough about lightning to know to seek shelter.  There is so much WE know.  For thousands of years we have gathered the passed down knowledge of ancestors through stories and poems, then books, then programs, and podcasts.  Right now, we are at the solstice, but perhaps even bigger, we are at the end of the Mayan’s 13th baktun.  These are all systems of order, systems studied for generations of people to understand.  I am no expert on the stars, but I have spent my time staring at them.  I love watching Orion rise in the winter sky; the great hunter symbolizes those long winter nights.  I have watched him hunt Taurus, or chase the Pleiades across the sky.  Mostly because of axial tilt, because of the long cold nights as the earth wobbles away from the sun, because the sun sets far south and the days short, and me, cold, calling it early nights, I would crawl into my sleeping bag to watch the parade of the zodiac across the night sky and relive the stories told by ancient ancestors to explain existence.
            It is sometimes hard for me to imagine someone like Hipparchus, each day and night, measuring the movement of sun and stars.  His astrolabe and equatorial rings monitoring the movement of the heavens.  Research of many lifetimes, he might have noticed the sidereal year not matching the tropical year the first time he measured it, and then doing it again the next year, and then the next, painstakingly predicting the precession of the equinoxes.  Humans have spent hundreds of years building pyramid structures to align with the stars, the order of it all humbling.  It takes 25,800 years for all twelve zodiacs to start back at the beginning, the end of the earth’s axial precession.  I bought my nieces and nephew a gyro this holiday thinking about this same axial movement.  We have such faith in the design of the universe, Hipparchus himself was said to throw away his calculation for orbits when they didn’t come out as perfect circles.  Certainly creation must be perfect.  The stars have become a message from the gods, a coded glyph with the answers to all our questions.

            Some have argued that even the story of Christ is one told, not in human reality, but in the stars and the movement of the sun because it was the end of the age of Aries and into the age of Pisces.  The star in the east pointed to the coming of Osiris, where the sun will rise, and the three kings are the stars of Orion’s belt following Sirius.  The sun reaching the furthest north, for a few days seems to sit, to not move, until slowly it begins to move back north; this is resurrection, the sun is born again, the days lengthen, spring and summer are coming and hope and growth comes with them.  In the stars I see the stories of our humanity.
            As Chico and I run down off the ridgeline, the night sky ignites the dark clouds and ripples of light tear the heavens.  I stop to watch and take pictures at a somewhat safe spot.  It seems impossible to predict where lightning might strike.  I leave the shutter of the camera open for 5 seconds at a time, the lens absorbing all the light it can.  I feel lucky each time the camera captures a bit of this nature, this raw and powerful nature, the imbalance of the skies, the movement of energy, the bolt of Zeus, the power we can only fathom of gods.  Fulminology is the study of lightning, and there is much we don’t know.  It is the sky seeking balance.  I am amazed that I can capture such magic with my camera.
The camera is an amazing invention, and the evolution of technology to get where it is right now is a library of lives.  Although the storm might feel random, the pattern of the jet stream and the cycle of storms spinning off Alaska are predictable.  The ecosystems surrounding me are built off these patterns.  I see this in the bare boughs of trees, in the rivers scouring the banks and clearing paths for Spring running salmon, the resurrection of flowers, the budding of leaves, the fruits of winter, the return of the long heat of summer, the worship of Adonis.  The systems of our lives are bigger, more complex, and barely measurable because of humans’ limited lifespan; the movement of lands on tectonic plates is older than most ecology.

            Still, perfection is a human invention.  It is an idea and a value we create.  Words are at the heart of all our stories, words to convey emotions, words to share experiences, words to unite communities, and words to tell people we love them.  A friend wrote recently that the Mayan 13th baktun coincided with our suns movement below the galactic plane, a crossroads where our solar system moves below the equatorial plane of our galaxy, the sun dipping below the dark rift, below the black hole at the center.  The sun travels the road to Xibalaba, the road of fear and death.  Of course, that measurement is not precise.  The plane of our galaxy is a measurement, and possibly off by a few hundred years, small measurements for galactic systems.  Much like the precession of the equinoxes, some argue we are already in the Age of Aquarius, some say it won’t happen for another 500 years.  The zodiac signs weren’t told with the precision of modern mathematics, they were stories told around campfires as people came together.  The lines of constellations are imagistic devices to record knowledge.  Perhaps math simply adds another level of complexity to the metaphor.  All stories are part of our collective knowledge as a race.  We have leap years to fix minor movements that don’t coincide with our calendar.  Prophecies and revelations from prophets re-interpret our times.  The Mayan calendar just turned over.  Time is a tricky concept.
            I often think about time; the passing of time is what it is all about.  Star time, sun time, lunar time, galactic time, the changing seasons, the drift of continents, the subduction of plates, the rivers tearing down mountaintops, the long-shore current carrying sands, the equinox, the baktun, the clock on my phone.  It was an amazing feat of the human race to bring the world together under one time, to create zones that could relatively match the turn of the earth and the rise of the sun.  Thirty days in a month…give or take some adjustments.  Time is a language like math.  We don’t feel time the same way, but under the guise of efficiency, we can easily share the exactitude of a certain type of time.  Class begins at an official time.  Learning doesn’t always follow the same precision.
            During the semester we learned that you are not you.  Not in some precise measurable personhood, but the conglomeration of past and present.  You are an asterism in a constellation in a galaxy in a universe, spinning, vast, and almost unfathomable.  We exist through the stories we can tell because the past is gone and only artifacts remain now.  Interpret those to create who you want to be.  I exist in a location, on a small speck of spinning rock and water on a far arm of a spiraling galaxy amongst the stories of gods and demons, light and darkness, growth and death, and you are near.  We exist as members of many communities, groups of friends where we share experiences in places on this revolving planet.  With me, in the stories we tell, in the stories you have learned, in the words in which you give meaning, and in the friends in whom you give your love, you co-create this world.  The greatest myth perpetuated by our race is that you are ever alone, even when you stop and look out at the abyss of space, you are part of a story that only makes sense when the sentences are complete, the paragraphs connected, the chapters aligned, and the end is nowhere close…despite what some think the Mayans predicted.

            Yes, sometimes as I watch the lightning careen across the sky and it feels daunting to be an active member of this community of human beings, but what else am I going to do?  To be active doesn’t mean you have to stand up and fight, because what would you fight for?  No, to be active means to seek connection, to find out where our stories intersect with the rest of humanity—to love.  Every moment on this earth you take in a story, you see something no one else can see except you, and your job is to share it, to add to our collective knowledge.  On my books shelves at home are not just stories, they are the lives of people.  In the stars, I see millions of people watching in awe as our world spins, millions of humans across the epoch of time.

            As the storm envelops the sky around me, the rain begins to pour.  We need the rain because it waters the crops that sustain our lives.  I love the water cycle.  I load Chico into my truck and drive over to my friends’ house.  They just bought a new camera like mine.  They are pregnant with number two.  Their son walks around and slowly his eyes are opening to the words we give to the objects around us.  “Shoooeess” he says as I remove my muddied boots to come inside.  They photograph him as he stumbles around the house learning to overcome the gravitational pull of our gyrating earth.  He is a physics genius as he slowly learns the arc of an object in flight, the energy it takes to move mass from one place to another.  He points to Chico and says, “dog.”  The world we share is opening to him.  Language welcomes him into our community.  Oh, I can’t wait to hear the stories he will tell.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Feijoa fruit

Feijoa Fruit

Today, for the second time in two weeks, I have bought the feijoa fruit from the old man selling kiwifruit at Farmer’s market.  I had five dollars left.  I bagged up the feijoa fruit I wanted and it equaled two dollars.  I asked if he could just sell me the last three dollars in kiwis.  I never noticed his one hand was deformed until I watched as he felt around the kiwis for me and picked them out with ease and tenderness.  He picked mostly from the giant odd-shaped rejects.  I heard him last week defending them, talking about how much more flesh you get.  As he handed me my bag of kiwis and feijoas, he told me, with a bit of pride, that a few of the kiwi were really ripe and ready today. 
I walked home with my bag of goodies from the market, Mr. Cheeks in full fluff sniffing his way.  The silver maples in the last senesce of the season.  The gingko leaves, like an alchemist dream, turns the sidewalk to gold, and my arms ache as I switch the heavy bags filled with beets, carrots, potatoes, squash, broccoli, and my bag of feijoas and kiwis from arm to arm. 
I get home and don’t think much of my purchases, put them away where I can fit them in the fridge or counters.  However, tonight, before going to bed, I opened the bag of feijoa to inhale the aroma, there intensity intoxicating.  Most people simply eat the insides, but I eat skin and all.  I then ran my fingers through the kiwis the old man put into my bag and felt one that was soft and tender.  The kiwifruit is a Chinese fruit, a berry that grows on a vine. Known as the yang toa in China.  I dipped it under the faucet, cut the top and bottom off; the skin almost collapsed of the fruit.  I quickly gulped the whole orb of sugar into my mouth and then it melted.  It melted like cotton candy…no…that wasn’t the feeling at all—it melted like a peach from my tree in Utah.  As I am sure I don’t have to admit, I ate every single soft kiwi in the bag right then.  There is something strange heading into winter, slightly settled, without a freezer full of summer sun, or cans of sugared shine.  But this, exotic fruit from foreign lands sold by a small, local farmer, odd fruit ignored by many, brings me alive with earth.  It is such strange hope.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Un-Civil War

The Un-Civil War

November 4th, 2008

Walking my dog under streetlights—this night—

like every other night, except

the last of the leaves sleep on the asphalt,

hushed like wet cardboard boxes and old news-

papers after too much downpour.  Clouds clear

to a cold night sky through the now

bare boughs, both the streetlamps and starlight shine

in hope’s space, even as temperatures fall.

The Last Moments with George W.

Tonight, at the end of 8 lingering years, we celebrate along the line of bricks demarcating what was once West and East Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate.  There are too many other places where lines have been drawn in such ways.  The shivered air ignites with colored light, rockets curve to explosion, smoke lingers in the warm air inversion created by fire and people, and every where we funnel through crowds in the sulfuric air.  We travel the haunt of real bombs, real rockets, and the once scorched soil.  Very little, including the trees in the parceled forests between villages, have more than 60 years of life—repatriation and retribution. 

Next to the Reichstag, the finale of fireworks appears to encroach into my eyes as the crowd moves into ecstasy.  It is raining shredded paper and ash.  Every small village and city we visit speaks about what remained after the years of bombing as if by grace something still stood.  Is it easier to speak about the remains rather than the losses?  When we hiked in the Taunus everywhere stood groves of monocultured trees planted after defeat and in hope.  In Germany, they used to line streets and paths with Birch trees with white bark; a crescent moon could still shine a path; and in remnants, like everything after war, a few still stand along the roads and paths in the countryside.  Perhaps nobody knows everything that was lost, and that is lost, during times of war.  My mind is on the Middle East.  I don’t claim to know what is fair, not amongst people fighting ideologies.  I look to the land, even in the places we call deserts we destroy with artillery and shells—bombs melt sand into glass parabolas reflecting back up to the sky. 

In the first hours of this New Year, we walk under the lit Linden trees in ankle deep trash; a small group huddles near a fire that burns the remains of cardboard firecrackers and bottle rocket sticks.  We pass all the museums, some new, some patched, and the bombed out church kept, not as some artist’s rendition, not a representation, not to signify, but to haunt the night skyline, to loom.  Earlier, in an antique store in a Turkish district of Berlin we bought a beer stein made in West Germany, and purchased a cane adorned with medals from the places that a person once visited in the Harz Mountains, all of them come from the East, and only the East.  Where there was no wall, one side poured strips of white sand to see, and shoot, deserters trying to flee to the other side.  In the Jewish History Museum it strikes me how they stress that every person killed in Auschwitz or Dachau, whether by disease, starvation, gas or bullet, were murdered. 

The throngs of party-goers herd towards the U-bahn.  The news said over one million people were in the streets celebrating—still not more than those murdered, pushed onto trains, forced into labor with just enough calories to stay alive.  No memorials, no plaques, no museums, no monuments stand anywhere for Hitler; his body burned, supposedly cremated and cast into the river as a covert mission just for the purpose to avoid martyrdom.  His place in history relegated to pure evil, and yet I can’t help but see him, looking out the window to Eva sunbathing naked, smoking cigarettes, reading a magazine he banned from everyone else in his country.  Did he think he owned her like he did this land?  Who doesn’t want a sane death, not cyanide and gunshots, not bombs and gasses? 

In Gaza, as the US has and does, Israel proclaims war on Hamas, a terrorist group of people without country launching rockets into the land they want.  Is it the land they love, or the people they hate?  From here, in Germany, a town where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, I watch the scant news reports of deaths in Gaza.  Israel accepts the collateral damage as a means to peace.  I don’t know if Hitler ever dreamed of peaceful times.  As he watched Eva bite down on the cyanide capsule, perhaps he held on long enough to watch her collapse to the ground, look peaceful in the way her breath slowed down, maybe she dreamed for a few seconds.  Can we allow him to love her?  The bullet through Hitler’s right temple must have kept all those dreams, the fear of nightmares, away from him. I can’t sympathize with him, only hate the model the world keeps following—death, death, and more death.  And when we can’t kill them, and sometimes I even wish they were all dead, though I am not sure who they are, we build walls.  All the religions, ideologies, beliefs, governments slaughter, the blood, growing ever more toxic, pours into the storm drains eventually washing out to sea.  How can you not see it, feel it—mourn.

What is worth anything—not gold, not oil, not numbers on a computer, not notes of promise because none of it can we eat or drink.  They have no real purpose, and those things have value only because we allot that to them.  I can’t imagine that we will ever redistribute land to the small family farmer.
As Erin and I fall off to sleep to a New Year, the sounds of bombs going off all night keep waking us, even after the morning light slides into the window in the fourth floor flat we rented above the U-bahn.  All night, I wake with each blast, and remember that people on both sides of Berlin (we are sleeping in the East) celebrate with explosions and light.  It seems very strange.