Thursday, June 1, 2017

Friendly Strangers

I arrived at Cape Town International Airport early one morning in March. I’d arranged for a car to be delivered from the same rental company I used last year: Allen’s Car Hire in Kirstenhof (highly recommended).
The car rental guy waited for me, holding a sign with my name on it. My brother and his wife, who were on a different flight, came through first and saw the sign and so gave him a message to give to me. It was a bush telegraph of sorts, and handy because my phone wasn’t working. Then I came through and the rental guy and I recognized each other from last year. On the way to the car, he asked me, “How are things with your daughters?” He remembered the car ride to the airport last year where I sat next to him for an hour, sobbing, and told him my life story and how I’d messed up so badly with my girls. Now, I told him, things are still a challenge but that I went to my older daughter’s wedding in Austin and it was wonderful. “I’m daring to dream of reconciliation one day,” I said.  “That’s good,” my friendly stranger told me, “it’s a good start.”
Friendly strangers are everywhere. I know not everyone is interested in engaging with a stranger, but it’s so great when something clicks and friendship happens unexpectedly. Just before coming back to SA, I met a real soul mate in the Virgin America lounge at LAX and ended up inviting her to visit us in Cape Town—she is going to try! And a few weeks before, I met a young woman in Union City near San Francisco, who works at Gallus Pot Restaurant and who, when she heard my barking cough, brought me warm refills of their healing soup and a special honey and lemon hot toddy that tasted like a gift from my late mother. If you are suffering from what my brother is calling the 2017 International Flu and you are close to Union City, go get that soup—I think it’ll cure anything!
At my sister’s house in Cape Town, she gave me directions to get to her hairstylist the next day (I was stealing her appointment, she understood my need was great). She said I’d better pay attention or I might get lost. I listened carefully as my sister gave me the directions to the road we grew up on … too jetlagged to completely get her joke and vaguely wondering why she thought it was going to be so hard for me to find my way home.
Anyway, so I’m still wandering the planet seeking joy and wisdom and purpose but for now I’m on a road well-traveled, where I was greeted by the mountain, the ocean, and a friendly stranger in my hometown. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Turning Locust

Normally the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) lives the peaceful solitary life of a tantric Buddhist monk. He chants, eats, drinks, and even has sex in slow, purposeful, meditative moderation. But if you rub him up the wrong way by overcrowding him and touching the back of his thigh too many times, he and his cronies—all former monks in the monastery—will renounce this life of cooperative loving kindness. They’ll exchange their soft green robes for a black and yellow uniform and turn into one of the nastiest, greediest, most obnoxious gangs on earth: a plague of locusts.

In humans this switch from nice to nasty is a gradual process. It comes from losing confidence that our descendants will have the resources they need to survive. If another tribe is doing better than us—even if it’s our own fault we aren’t doing so well—we feel scared our descendants won’t have enough; if they are doing worse than us, they feel scared their descendants won’t have enough. Sometimes we’ll attack them and other times they’ll attack us. The cost of war is so great, though, that we would have evolved a much better way to build confidence, like we did with farming, if the spiritual leaders hadn’t taught us that waging a war against evil, greed, cruelty, hate, and jealousy is the highest duty. Because of this, as we evolved we came to think of war as a fight against evil instead of a way to obtain the resources we need to build confidence. But what you think is evil depends on the stories you hold in your ancestral memory. If you go back far enough you’ll see that sometimes your ancestors were right and sometimes they were wrong. If we want to heal the world of war, we need to find ways to build confidence in the collective consciousness so that we don’t turn into locusts in the first place.
Deborah June Goemans The Amaranth Bloom

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Cathedral of Junk

The Cathedral of Junk in Austin, Texas, is exactly what one might expect to find in Austin. Something different, decidedly odd; certainly disturbing. It is what its name implies: A cathedral entirely made from bits and pieces of junk.

I asked the artist about his vision for the cathedral. His response was snarky. “Would you ask Van Gogh what his vision was?” And then he pointed to a side room where newspaper clips and photographs described his journey from his childhood in Santa Fe where he started collecting crap, to his home in suburban Austin, where he has created this, well, the newspapers didn’t speak about a vision, but let’s call it his “Starry Night,” his insane obsession.

The Cathedral of Junk brought to mind a story related to me by a good friend. Like all good folk tales and urban myths, my friend had read the story written by someone who had heard the story from a friend, who had heard the story from someone, who had heard the story from William Butler Yeats himself. Yeats had apparently spent a day with an old woman, Mrs. Connolly was her name, who knew all the old Irish folk tales and was kind enough to share them with him. Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote about the encounter in his book called Provincializing Europe.

One day, in the period of his extensive researches on Irish folklore in rural Connemara, William Butler Yeats discovered a treasure. The treasure was a certain Mrs. Connolly who had the most magni´Čücent repertoire of fairy stories that W.B. had ever come across. He sat with her in her little cottage from morning to dusk, listening and recording her stories, her proverbs and her lore. As twilight drew on, he had to leave and he stood up, still dazed by all that he had heard. Mrs. Connolly stood at the door as he left, and just as he reached the gate he turned back to her and said quietly, “One more question Mrs. Connolly, if I may. Do you believe in the fairies?” Mrs. Connolly threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, not at all Mr. Yeats, not at all.” W.B. paused, turned away and slouched off down the lane. Then he heard Mrs. Connolly’s voice coming after him down the lane: “But they’re there, Mr. Yeats, they’re there.”

Truth be told, I did feel a mystical presence in the Cathedral of Junk. It was not unlike the itchy unworthiness I always feel amidst the incense-dusted air and the leaded coffin prompt of the organ keys in the grand cathedrals of Europe. Here in this homage to the outgrown, the unwanted, and the unloved, the washing line of crucified smurfs hanging in the doorframe holds the promise of malevolent volition, or even soul snatching, come nightfall. A toilet bowl filled with dirty-yellow rubber ducks, a chalice of the forgotten and outcast. The soft tread upon the rubber tire steps up into the belfry creates an oddly spectral feeling of floating into stark revelation. Inside the upper room, a canopy of re-purposed wire and throwaways juxtaposed against sky and cloud, claims you into circle of the rejected, the unforgivable. Like Mrs. Connolly, you know they’re there, the wicked creatures—every mistake, the dark and ugly and broken within and without.