Diary of a Detour

This book-in-progress began as a blog to update friends when i was undergoing chemo. It revolved, initially, around cancer and chickens. But, as the journey continued via many detours, it morphed into a series of bloggessais about many things.  You can read the pieces in any order but if you want some orientation try reading the first post,”Chickens Saved My Life,” first.

Blue/Shimmer

Blue, Sydney blue, blue sky, blue sea

Through the glass, a flash of blue. Material calling out to be touched, a frock waiting to be slipped into. Though it is composed of different fabrics, they shimmy together, stretchy t-shirt cotton and scalloped silky edges. Deep indigo, patterned like African prints, and delicate ribbon inserts: A splash of burnt orange and a streak of perfect ultramarine. You could wear it to the beach or to the opera. A Sydney frock, incarnating the blueness of Sydney.

We are in the Queen Victoria Arcade in Sydney, a flaneuring paradise, ornate and elegant. We have moved from Yum Cha in China town into this late Victorian Romanesque phantasmagoria of delights. I am in search of a shop called Von Troska which was not there when I went this time to gaze in its window in Oxford Street. The door and windows were closed, the interior empty. Oxford Street: once glitzy and gay and buzzing, old-fashioned greengrocers rubbing shoulders with shiny bars and bookshops and old pubs and chic boutiques and the aroma of coffee. Now Oxford Street is tawdry and sad, I presume because of the gigantic Westfield mall built in Bondi Junction. When I lived in Sydney here is something that often happened: after seeing a movie in the Chauvel cinema located in the old Paddington town hall, or visiting Ruark around the corner, and gossiping and arguing with him, and before hopping on the 380 bus and heading back to Bondi, I would find myself before Von Troska, gazing in the window. Then, skating on air, I would shimmy in to fondle the fabrics, bury my face in luxurious silky folds, try-on-for-fun dresses designed on the cross, falling in folds, or cut austerely, marveling at how Von Troska conjured unlikely colors and textures into a simple frock or scarf. I have a silver jacket from Von Troska, bought long ago, it shimmers, at once excessive and austere, singular, no adornments or tricky curlicews. Now I find that Von Troska herself died of cancer a few years ago, but her shop continues, relocated to the Victoria Arcade. And there is a sale. So Julie and I peel off from the large China town yum cha gathering and after a stop for Julie to purchase dried pandanus leaves at a Thai market we enter the fray of hopeful, pugilistic shoppers thronging the streets. It is Boxing Day and thousands are fighting to get to the sales. In the Victoria Arcade the crowds are slightly subdued and when we find and enter tiny Von Troska it is like entering a shady luxuriant fern canyon.

I try the frock on, it’s perfect. I look in the mirror and see a blue woman who has never known a day’s illness in all her long life.

Sydney blue, quintessentially captured in Brett Whiteley’s painting, Sydney by Night, also called The Balcony 2 (1975). You might say it represents a scene, a sort of seascape, a bay view. But it’s blue, the blueness of Sydney, that the painting lets rip. Blueness flies out of the painting into the world. “Windsor and Newton Deep Ultramarine oil colour has an obsessive, ecstasy-like effect upon my nervous system quite unlike any other colour,” said
 Whiteley. And he found a way—through lashing on the paint, in this work over a base layer of black—to effect a transfer, to transfer effect into affect. When I visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see another show, with Rosemary, I sneak a peek at Sydney by Night, overwhelmed by its hugeness and by the way that in the flesh, framed, the blue is concentrated and distilled. Wherever I live away from Australia I have a postcard of this painting propped by the computer, but the colors are fading in the San Diego light and so in the gallery shop I buy a new supply to take home.

Sea and sky – a continuous saturated blueness. A heron zips across the blueness of Whiteley’s painting, leaving a trace, a flurry of whiteness. A small wrought iron balcony protrudes into the frame suggesting a perspective, someone looking out from inside, out at the water, beyond the skyline. No sense of direction. Though if you know Sydney, if you know that feeling of looking out on the harbour perhaps you imagine looking south east.

I replenish too my Margaret Prestons, postcards of her woodcuts, “Harbour Foreshore” and “Sydney Heads.” Preston made these woodcuts in 1925 after a visit to Japan to learn the craft of wood block printing. She quotes Hokusai and others in her blue washes but against the subtlety of the Japanese model her blueness is intense, visceral. “The colours,” she said “should not be put on subtly. It is better to use them in simple crude masses to match the key blocks.” Norman Lindsay accused her of “violent crudities of pure colour.” Where Whiteley’s painting is huge and made for a gallery wall, Preston’s woodcuts were small, sold at a price that flat dwellers could afford. As postcards the Whiteley and the Prestons are the same size.

I grew particularly fond of Whiteley and sought out more of his oevre as I got to know Thirroul, a lovely seaside town on the south coast of New South Wales. Whiteley topped himself here in a seedy motel in 1992. Then Thirroul was just a name to me, but some years later a friend had a shacky cottage on the cliff where I would go to write. And now Sarah and Derek live close by and so I got to spend a night there in December, to watch a sulphur-crested cockatoo attacking with great vigor the magnificent Gymea blooming in their garden, to walk down to the beach past chickens for a swim before breakfast.

I was introduced to Margaret Preston by Meredith Counihan who took me to see her (her prints and paintings) in the National Gallery of Victoria when I first came to Australia in 1976. This is where I saw my first Gymea, Australian rock lilies, wheelflowers, Manly pines, flannel flowers, banksias, Sturt’s peas, Waratahs, Australian Ti Trees, Western Australian Gum Blossoms, Australian coral flowers, Australian Glory Flowers, Christmas bells, bottlebrushes and angopheras—not in the bush but in the prints and paintings of Margaret Preston. The harbour paintings represent one tendency in Preston’s work: a modernist tendency that looked to the city, its industry and views as well as to the domestic realm. But there is another tendency that existed in tension with this, against the internationalist and urban impulse of modernism, a turn towards the nationalist, to Australianness, to an affiliation with the bush, a desire to bring the bush into the apartment. But above all, manifested in an increasing incorporation of what she perceived to be Aboriginal colors and designs. An unusual embracing of indigenous culture this, at that time in white Australia. But not without problems, and over time this impulse for incorporation, viewed as an act of appropriation, has provoked considerable criticism.

“It’s like speaking in a French accent without speaking French. The accent is there, the intonation is there, but the meaning is not.” This is what Hetti Perkins, the curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the gallery, says about Preston’s borrowing of images. “The narrative [in Preston’s work] isn’t clear for an indigenous person.”

I sneak a peak at the Whiteley but am actually at the gallery to see another show. We walk through the cool and magisterial, even pompous, halls of the gallery, and into another, utterly unexpected world, the world of the Yirrkala Drawings. Color explodes here, shimmers, in arresting patterns and shapes—blue, brilliant blue, but also red, yellow, green and black. These drawings were done in 1947 by a group of senior ceremonial leaders and bark painters in Arnhem Land, in collaboration with two anthropologists, Ronald and Catherine Berndt. The anthropologists provided butcher paper and colored wax crayons and the artists adapted their skill at working with pigments on bark to the process of drawing on paper, to illustrate and elaborate their Wangarr (Dreaming) stories. As a depiction of their country and the details of Yolngu life the drawings were an extension of songs and oral stories—a material manifestation of Yolgnu culture. This, some years before the transfer of traditional skills to working with acrylic paints, and the development of “dot painting.”

To my untrained eye these are mostly abstract drawings, though more like paintings, combining an extraordinarily vivid color palette and stunning design sense. Though there are occasional representational and figurative elements (turtles, fish, water, human forms….), my eye is drawn by the sheen of the crayons, by the geometric patterning, by the intricate and varied combination of diamonds, triangles, straight lines and curved, circles, squares, zigzags. But the narrative isn’t clear to me, a non-indigenous person. “If you can understand the paintings, you can understand the landscape,” says Baluka Maymuru, son of Nänyin’ Maymuru, an artist in the show. But I can’t understand the paintings, they are marvelous to me but they also confront me with what I do not know.

Luckily, however, I don’t have to swim around in the abstract quotation of Preston’s era. The show has been curated in close collaboration with the Yirrkala community and is attentive, through a range of documentation, to the context and location of the drawings, to the individual artists, to the “mapping” not just of place but also and simultaneously of cultural inheritance. This show, occurring in a different century and after Margaret Preston worked, is alert to difference as well as to continuities. The show includes, for instance, a display of contemporary bark paintings, ḻarrakitj (hollow logs) by the descendents of the crayon drawers, which throws into relief the fine cross hatching in graphite pencil which some of the Yirrkala artists deploy in their crayon drawings (Narritjin Maymuru, in Connecting Munyuku and Manggalili estates for instance uses sharp pointed lead and colour pencils to outline, and to produce fine-lined cross hatching).

Rosemary and I leave the gallery. Nothing looks the same as it did before we entered the world of the Yirrkala drawings. We have experienced a flash of light: this we know, though what to make of it we do not know. I return to San Diego and try to write about the show, but cannot find the words, the language. The sensations, attenuated ideas, simmer as I pore over the beautiful catalogue. Then, five months later, I hear Deborah Rose Bird at a conference speak about “shimmer.”

Bir’yun, brilliance or shimmer, is the word used by Yolngu artists to describe an aesthetic effect and to evoke the process and Ancestral power summoned in that effect. The process of making a painting (and to some degree of perceiving it) involves an initial elaboration of a base design—underlying patterns and figuration, over a single color wash. At this stage the painting looks dull. Then comes the crosshatched infill, and suddenly the painting shimmers. Bir’yun refers to intense sources and refractions of light, the sun’s rays, and to light sparkling in bubbling fresh water, as in

gong ngayi walt1 bir’ yu-bir’ yun marritji ray

its sun scintillate-scintillate go the sun’s rays scintillate

As applied to paintings bir’yun is the flash of light, the sensation of light one gets and carries away in one’s mind’s eye.

Although much of the explication of the term shimmer is used in relation to process and the key component of crosshatching, shimmer can be evoked through many shiny materials, and through the intensity of effect that is achieved when various techniques and systems are brought into a relation. The creative transformation of matter that occurs when wax crayons are used clearly generates a sense of brilliance, a sensation of light.

The artists used the potential of the new medium to produce bold geometric patterns, a clarity of form and brilliance of color patterning so that the paintings seem to vibrate, to dance on the surface, to scintillate. But it is not just a matter of technique and nor do the crayon drawings materialize out of the blue. They continue a tradition in which painting (it could be on bark, on a body, on a coffin lid or incorporated into performance) is a manifestation of spirit, of ancestral power, of nature, of country. At once a complex incarnation and emanation. As Waka Mununggurr writes in the preface to the catalogue, “Our art is not just a bark painting or a crayon drawing – it talks about the relations between land, sea and people. When you look at this art, it is not just a thing of beauty – it discusses the environment and nature, the secret areas for Yolngu.”

The complexity, the semiotic richness of these paintings, of the world they incarnate, is fascinating to me but also, and necessarily so, elusive. I mostly don’t get the narrative, even when it is explained, but I begin to grasp the play between figuration and abstraction, the sense of a different kind of story telling that it is non-linear, that interfolds presence, mapping, and a totally different kind of time.

Water and land, images and sensations, linear time and Dreamtime, words and things.

“You can hear their language within our own”

A surprising and intriguing element of the show is the strong presence within the drawings and supporting documentation of Makassan culture, words, things. “You can hear their language within our own,” says Laklak Ganambarr, a female descendant of the artist Mungurraway Yunupungu. She is referring to the Macassans. The Yolngu people have a long history of trade and intermarriage with the Macassans, people from the land we now call Indonesia. Before European settlement of Australia, from as early as 1640, the seafaring Makassan from southwest Sulawesi established trading contact with Indigenous communities in northern Australia, arriving with the monsoon season each December. They constructed outdoor factories to process trepang, a type of sea cucumber (which they took back to Indonesia to trade with the Chinese), but did not establish permanent settlements in Australia. It is estimated that as many as 1,000 trepangers arrived each year.

Until 1906, when the South Australian Government, then responsible for the Northern Territory, passed legislation effectively banning Macassan mariners from entering Australian waters by imposing oppressive license fees. But some of the Yolgnu men who drew of the Macassan presence are said to have first hand memories and some are thought to have made return visits to the Port of Macassar. The schema of the Macassan port and the Macassan exchanges remained alive in memory, through reenactment, through ceremony, and through art. Words from the Makassarese language (related to the Javanese and Indonesian languages) can still be found in Aboriginal language varieties of the north coast. Elements of Macassan culture remain today including ceremonial flags and dances, stones, coins, pots, swords, songs, steel knives, rupiah (money).

“[T]heir story is still alive today as it was from the old times…You can hear their language within our own, and the Yolngu taught them ours,” says Laklak Ganambarr. “We can call up the things that Macassans give us – calico, eyeglasses, hats, machetes – all of the names were incorporated into our language and young people know these as such. The Macassans showed us how to make the canoe.” Whereas, “White people came and teach Yolngu people a word called Australia.”

Macassan culture was incorporated into Aboriginal Dreamtime, the past, affiliated to moieties and clans and given a place in the kinship system. Yolgnu art, in various media, materialized the Macassan presence in ceremonial performance as well as everyday life. Yalpi Yunupingu, in an interview speaks of the way his father (Bununggu Yunupingu whose Ceremony with Macassan influence is densely imagistic) used crayons to depict spirits with names from both Yolgnu and Macassar ancestry: “these beings had the power to travel over deep waters of the ocean.”

Most popular histories of Australia represent first contact as an encounter with the whites from the South. Captain Cook and his fleet arriving in tall ships, with weapons, from across immense oceans stretching between incommensurate land masses. The sea a conduit, providing a way to get from one place to another, rather than being a place, a place continuous with the land. As though Australia only ever only existed in the south east, in this encounter. As though there never were people inhabiting the top end, living by the sea, a sea that linked them with the land and also with another country, at its closest point only a hundred and twenty five miles away.

blue/shimmer

In a drawing called Port of Macassar by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu there are ships, at once huge and smaller than people. The ships are blue. When I tell Fabian about this he says perhaps this is an example of Hypalagia, a rhetorical trope where the quality of one object is transferred to another. The blue of the water to the ships. He sends me lines from Neruda where the poet writes of sadness:

… La noche está estrellada,

y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.

… The night is starry

and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.

The stars are blue. The people are blue too actually. In various drawings fish and shark and platypus and crocodile are blue, but people too, or rather – figures that are human-like. Though sometimes, and sometimes in the same drawing, there are also red figures as in Canoe travel from a distant island and black, as in Influence from a distant island (both drawings by Bunung Yun). I don’t know whether blue is associated with water, or if color is detached from a referent, or has a materiality of its own, though in a different schema. Perhaps the colors serve to differentiate spirits and human beings, Aborigines and Macassans. But then why are animals blue too on occasion? While it is surely a stretch of the imagination to think of these paintings in terms of a western rhetorical trope, deployed mostly in poetry, nevertheless Fabian’s suggestion opens a way to thinking about what happens, what sparks fly, what scintillations occur when colors are indeed detached from customary referents, when ways of seeing the world are reconfigured. When, for instance, patterning (genealogical patterning, say) matters more than classification, as in Ceremony with Macassan influence. Intricate networks, in which fresh water and salt water interflow and are connected, are interconnected with the land and all creatures (as in the marvelously evocative for me Larvae of the Rhinoceros beetle at Ngyapinya, a tracing out of something like the web of life in paler, delicate colors).

Blue/shimmer. Is the sky always blue, does blueness invariably signify water? I begin very tentatively to discern the presence of water in the drawings (supplemented by videos incorporated within the show), an element integrated into the country. But it is not Sydney Blue. No, it is the blueness of the sea and the sky over the Timor and Arafura seas and the waterways meandering through land.

“We are all connected through the mixing of waters there at the river.”

Water water everywhere: Dams, water holes, rivers (on occasion green, as in Birrikitji Gumana’s River at ngan), fish traps, a water hole, saltwater country, spring- fed flood plains. Water creatures and things: Dugong, fish, trees, lizards, goannas, turtles, possums, sharks, platypuses, Macassan ships (praus), canoes, the ancestral whale (who, dying, came in to fresh water and, furious, destroyed a fish trap). Yalpi Yunupingu says, “So, two different styles to our sacred paintings: saltwater and freshwater.” Yet these distinctions generate further variations. Water is not just water. And not just blue. In Wonggu Mununggurr’s many grid-like paintings of fishtraps and floodplains, in particular in Differing states of freshwater where “differing colors signify the differing states of water: running, still, low, agitated.” In Marawili’s Fish Trap at Baraltja there is “a sense of movement, that has references to the interwoven structure of the dam and the water flowing down stream.”

The sea, the sea. The land, the land. The Timor Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpenteria.

Where does the sea begin? Where does the land end? Who has rights to land, to sea?

In the Yirrkala Drawings land and sea are connected in a single cycle of life. The sacred designs in the crayon drawings, integral to Yolgnu society, and for the first time—through extensive regional negotiation and agreement—brought into the open, represented the clans’ rights in land. They were an important stepping stone in the process that eventually resulted in the Yolgnu gaining recognition in the rights of land, a precursor to the Yirrkala Church Panels, but also a precursor to the Saltwater collection of large bark paintings which were instrumental in the Yolgnu gaining recognition in the rights of sea.

The Saltwater Collection consists of eighty bark paintings made by Yolŋu artists that share their sacred knowledge of sea country. The catalyst for this collection was an incident in 1996: the illegal intrusion of a barramundi fishing party at Garrangali, sacred home of Bäru the Ancestral Crocodile. The fishing party had not obtained permission to go to this special place and had further offended by leaving rubbish lying around. But the thing which upset Yolŋu custodians most of all was the discovery of the severed head of a crocodile, left to rot in a hessian bag.

After this desecration of Bäru Yolŋu people began painting a series of barks that demonstrated the rules, philosophies and stories of their region that related to the coast, rivers and waters.
A selection of these barks were presented as evidence of Yolŋu connections to saltwater country in a 2008 High Court case. The court verdict gave precedence to Indigenous rights and use of the Arnhem Land coastline and coastal waters over commercial interests and fishing.

The Yirrkala drawings and the Saltwater Barks bridge two very different traditions of law by explaining and sharing ancestral stories with non-Indigenous people.

Here, where I live, the border between the US and Mexico, San Diego and Tijuana, seems solid, but at Playas the border fence simply runs into the ocean, disappears in the water. There used to be a Park that spanned each side of the fence at the beach, called Friendship Park. People – often families, separated – could speak through holes in the fence and touch fingers, but when the new fence was built the area between the two fences, the old and the new, formerly Friendship Park, became a No Man’s Land.

“We are all connected through the mixing of waters.” Six centuries of trade and intermarriage spanning sea and land. Boats have come and gone carrying people and goods.

But even earlier than this, as long as 45 or 50 thousand years ago the first crossings were made from Indonesia to Australia. Imagine an archaic time when the sea represented a barrier, an uncrossable expanse between land masses. And then something happens unprecedented in the annals of human history. An Afro-Asian group of people from the area of Indonesia develop new technologies and skills for building and navigating sea-going crafts. The people of this first sea-faring society become fishermen, and long distance explorers, and traders. These skills enable them to reach and settle Australia, to become the original human inhabitants of the continent.

But now the boats carry items that cannot be traded. Between Indonesia and Australia the sea is highly contested.

The recent history of relations between the two countries has been fraught to say the least. At the end of last year (2013) just before I arrived in Australia a scandal rocked the country when Indonesia recalled its ambassador and suspended security co-operation with Australia after revelations by the former CIA analyst, Edward Snowden, included evidence that the Australian government had been spying on the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Shock and horror. Of course, but surprise? Governments, even allies, gather intelligence and routinely spy on one another. Such is the nature of spying. In fact the spying imbroglio is symptomatic of a much more festering tension played out on the ocean, and the scandal is less about spying than about Australia’s conception of land and sea rights, of human rights and, less obviously but nevertheless implicated, the rights of whales and other creatures that live in the ocean.

Think of all the praus in the Yirrkala drawings, boats that would come regularly from parts of the Indonesia archipelago, to the Northern part of Australia. Today boats that arrive from Indonesia are being towed back by Australian naval vessels to the edge of Indonesian waters. Indonesia refuses to accept these boats. These boats—old, leaky, overcrowded, improvised vessels—are dangerous to travel in. They carry people: Asylum seekers who are prepared to undertake a dangerous journey in order to escape persecution and unbearable conditions at “home.” The asylum seekers come mostly from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa; they use Indonesia as a transit point to make the dangerous boat voyage to Australia.

The asylum seekers are also called, in Australia, “boat people” and “illegal immigrants.”

Where does the sea begin? Where does the land end?

A maritime boundary exists between Australia and Indonesia, and both countries have been concerned to definitively delimit that boundary. It exists within a larger schema of agreements between the two countries: concerning trade, fishing, aid, defense, security.

The term “boat people” entered the Australian lexicon in the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War, when boats carrying refugees from Indochina began arriving in Australia. The asylum seekers who arrived by boat were processed on Australian soil and many were resettled in Australia (although not welcomed by all – the Darwin branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation called for strikes to protest the “preferential treatment of refugees”). There were no substantial changes until Paul Keating’s Labour Government introduced mandatory detention of non-citizens arriving by boat without a valid visa in 1992.

And then came, in 2001, the dubiously titled Pacific Solution.

In August of that year a red ship appeared on the horizon—a great hulking red presence, there day after day, never getting any closer. This was the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa that had on board 438 refugees (mostly Afghani) who had been rescued from a stranded 20 meter Indonesian wooden fishing boat. What ensued is referred to as the Tampa Affair. The Australian government would not allow the media or even the Red Cross on board and so “the image remained that of a large imposing red hulk, often shimmering in the heat on the horizon.” An affective image to be sure, but one that also raises the question of when and how shimmer emerges, how its affective force circulates, how it may be exploited.

The Australian government refused the ship entry to Australian territorial waters. The ship’s captain, questioning the legality of the order, refused to comply. The Australian government responded by dispatching Australian troops to board the ship. As the crisis escalated the government enacted the Pacific Solution (and it’s popularity ratings rose within the Australian electorate).

The “solution” incorporated a number of policies but the lynchpin was the disallowing of asylum seekers to set foot on Australian soil. Instead they were transported, using Australian naval vessels, to detention centers set up on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean (2,600 kilometers northwest of Perth, 500 km south of Jakarta, Indonesia), Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, east of Indonesia and north east of Australia, and the island nation of Nauru in the South Pacific. The transporting of asylum seekers to detention centers was enabled, in the first instance, by excising islands around Australia from the migration zone, effectively meaning that any asylum seekers who did not reach the Australian mainland would not be able to apply for refugee status. In the second instance it was enabled by Operation Relex that authorized The Australian Defence Force to intercept vessels carrying asylum seekers, and turn them back to Indonesia.

The Pacific Solution was largely dismantled with the election of a Labour Government under Kevin Rudd in 2008. But four years later there was a changing of the Labour guard, a coup which installed Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. The Solution was back. The Gillard Labour government reopened Nauru detention center and Manus Island detention center for offshore processing. Then in 2013, another changing of the Labour guard. Kevin Rudd was back as Prime Minister and this time announced, “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.” Asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia were now to be detained indefinitely.

The other place under Western jurisdiction where this—indefinite detention—happens is Guantanamo Bay.

Rudd’s government did not last long. In a national election Labour was defeated and Tony Abbot, Leader of the conservative Liberal Party, formed a Coalition government in August 2013. This government sees the boats issue as a central matter of Australian sovereignty and national interest. Operation Sovereign Borders was an election policy and a vote winner, and commenced on 18 September 2013. The operation is a military-led attempt to address issues surrounding “people smuggling.” The emphasis is on turning back the boats.

As I write this (February 25, 2014) Australia has returned its seventh boatload of asylum seekers to Indonesia, since the Coalition’s policy was enacted.

After three days and nights at sea the boat entered Australian waters and was intercepted by an Australian warship, the 26 people aboard were transferred to an orange lifeboat and “turned back” to the southern coast of Java. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, has repeatedly attacked the Abbott government’s policy of boat “turn-backs,” warning the practice would damage relations between the two countries.

“As I write this … ” I write these words over and over again, and each time the date is different, the present tense belies coherence. “Now” was February, and now “now” is august. Over the course of eight months I search for words, and the grizzly scenario keeps unfolding. It is not as though I am waiting to see what the future brings. But neither can I write definitively in the past tense. Jenny Lloyd writes to me from Sydney a few days ago (august 4th): “Asylum seeker policy continues to get worse even as it seems that surely there is no “worse” to reach. But I seem to have been saying that for a long time. I’m reading a biography of Hannah Arendt and am struck by the repetitions of history in refugee policy.”

Maritime law experts have voiced concern about the legality of Operation Sovereign Borders. If Indonesia wanted to, it would be within its rights to take Australia to the International Court of Justice over the matter. Although, as yet Indonesia has not indicated that they are considering a case. Interestingly, Australia is no stranger to the International Court of Justice in relation to maritime issues, as it has recently (March 2014) won a highly publicized case against Japan for whaling offences (hailed, internationally, as an environmental victory).

I’m all for the whales. But the narrative isn’t clear to me, I can’t figure out how whales and asylum seekers fit together into a broader canvas, where there are also boats and islands, natives and foreigners, and different kinds of waters, sea water and fresh water.

It is not only Maritime law that is at issue. Amnesty International, refugee rights groups, and sections of the public concerned about humanitarian issues, have said that Australia is failing to meet its international obligations, both moral and legal, and have questioned whether it is the Australian government that is in fact breaking a number of international laws.

‘Here the word future is not a word’

These words—“Here the word future is not a word”— are spoken by a refugee on Nauru island. What language is there to describe the inhumane conditions in these offshore processing centres? From the beginning facilities have been appalling, but as time passes overcrowding exacerbates conditions. A law enforcement approach to asylum policy guarantees poor services including intermittent electricity and fresh water, poor medical facilities, inadequate protection from the heat. The impact of detention on people in these conditions is exacerbated by the sentence of uncertainty, not knowing when and if they will be given a hearing. A friend who works with survivors of torture and trauma writes that even if people were not traumatized when they arrived in boats, they undoubtedly become so after spending time in these Detention Centers.

Between Australia and Indonesia, over the centuries, boats come and go.

We may have all come on different ships But we’re in the same boat now.” Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Painted in black handwriting on a wooden board. Posted today Tuesday March 11, 2014

Under the blue of the painting there is black paint. The grotesque flip side of The Saltwater Collection of Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country is this conception of a land-sea continuity, one couched in terms of sovereignty and prevention, of legality and immigration, of war. Although Tony Abbott presents the current situation in terms of war, the war is not really between Indonesia and Australia. Needless to say Australia’s assertion of sovereignty has implications for Indonesia’s sovereignty, but Indonesia is less concerned than Australia (and Indonesia arguably occupies a currently more significant place, politically, in the global arena than Australia). Moreover, it is not in fact surprising that Indonesia is not preparing to confront Australia head-on, since there exists a strong and murky history of alliance and complicity between the two countries, stretching from the last century into this.

During the cold war the Western powers fighting a war in Vietnam viewed Indonesia, with the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union and China, as the last domino. On which side of the divide would it fall? In 1965 the country witnessed a coup that toppled Sukharno, the figurehead of revolution and independence, and installed Suaharto. This “coup” turned into one of the largest mass atrocities of the 20th century. Up to two million people were massacred in this purging of supporters and thousands of alleged supporters of the PKI (the Indonesia Communist Party). It was not a highly publicized genocide, in fact it was passed off as a civil war by those Western powers that had knowledge of the events, and indeed that were actively complicit in them. Suaharto’s dictatorship lasted until 1998, during which time he enjoyed the support of various Australian governments, including Labour. Since then the genocide has not only been unacknowledged in Australia, the US and the West, but also within Indonesia, where “forgetting” has been institutionalized.

A small boat in an ocean of impunity

There is in Indonesia now a growing civil society movement, with survivors playing a key role, to “fight forgetting.” In the absence of an official truth commission the Coalition for Truth and Justice (kkkp.org) is conducting its own truth-seeking process, organizing public hearings across Indonesia, gathering testimonies into one database, and producing a final report— “A small boat in an ocean of impunity,” writes Galuh Wandita.

Just as both the Labour and Liberal governments in Australia today have contributed to the construction of islands of inhumanity between “our” island nation and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea so in the past both parties/governments supported the Suhuarto regime. Paul Keating, as Treasurer and Prime Minister, did much to open Australia up to the world in terms of trade and finance, to a recognition of its place in the region, to save it from the imminent fate of becoming a “banana republic.” But his 1994 assertion that “No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia” was underwritten by his exoneration of Suhuarto from blame for the genocide. Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser  met Suhuarto in October 1976, offering de facto recognition of the Indonesian invasion and annexation of East Timor (the eastern side of an island in the Indonesian archipelago).

Just as the history of relations between Australia and Indonesia prior to European settlement cannot be encapsulated in histories which only use the proper names of countries as we now know them, so the postcolonial unraveling is more complex than that summoned purely by diplomatic accounts; government policies do not always represent all of the people all of the time, and even within the diplomatic there are surprising incongruities and paradoxes. Such as the fact that Australia, while supporting Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor (1975 to 1999), provided sanctuary to East Timorese independence advocates like Jose Ramos-Horta.

Between Australia and Indonesia boats come and go. Yet, once, there were ships that did not sail.

The year is 1945. On the Melbourne docks Indonesian crews walk off Dutch ships and members of the Australian Waterside Workers Union, supported by Indian and Chinese workers, artists and activists, mount a rousing and effective blockade. Dutch ships loaded with arms and ammunition (to be used against the independence struggle in what was then The Dutch East Indies) are prevented from leaving the port. “The ships that didn’t sail”: this is a refrain that structures Joris Ivens’ film, Indonesia Calling (revisited and contextualized in John Hughes’ film Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia (2009)), made in support of the Indonesian struggle for independence, after three hundred years of colonization. The film was shot largely in Australia with a predominantly Australian crew and researchers. In fact there were many Indonesian nationalists living in Australia during the Second World War (following the Japanese invasion there was a massive evacuation, a Dutch East Indies government in exile was set up in Australia, and political prisoners were transferred to Australian prison camps but subsequently released. Their number included a who’s who of nationalist leaders).

The ships that didn’t sail.

Mick Counihan told me about this film and John Hughes sent me a DVD. It arrived as I was struggling to write about the Yirrkala Drawings. At first I made no connection between Indonesia Calling and the Yirrkala Drawings …….

One man who was a young teenager in Garut in West Java in 1947, linguist Rabin Hardjadibrata, remembers seeing Indonesia Calling on a couple of occasions and speaks about it in Hughes’ film:

They showed it preceding Gone With The Wind [Victor Fleming, 1939] […] it was indeed a surprise to see that here is a country well known for being “white Australia”, and yet they are supporting us! And of course a second time I went to make sure whether it was the same thing that I saw, and it was, of course. We always have a soft heart for the Australians because of that, of the support for Indonesian independence.

Surprising indeed. Even more so, the fact that in 1949 the Menzies government was one of the first to recognize the new Republic of Indonesia. In subsequent years, however, Australia certainly did its bit to contribute to the destabilization of the Sukharno government by covert trafficking of arms to support anti-Sukarno uprisings. Many of the young activists seen in Indonesia Calling were murdered or “disappeared” during the coup of 1965.

Between Indonesia Calling and the Yirrkala Drawings …….a sea of difference. A sea of difference in which echoes and similiarities skim the surface, leaving a trail like surf breaking. Like a heron.

A heron zips across the blueness of Whiteley’s painting, leaving a trace, a flurry of whiteness. The streak of white is here now, but only just, at any moment it will disappear, out of the painting out of the world.

Between Australia and Indonesia stretches ocean. Boats come and go.

I have never visited Indonesia or Arnhem Land. I have never been on a leaky boat or in a detention center. I can only imagine what it must be like to have escaped persecution and torture only to be trapped on a boat between Australia and Indonesia, refused landing here or there, restrained in a detention camp on some small unspeakably hot god-forsaken island in the middle of nowhere. Visiting Australia this time, in the summer, the first thing I had to do was take a dip at Bondi. To be on Bondi Beach is to be at home in the world. It is as though the world begins here—with the bodily sensation of diving into and through cold salty waves—and stretches out forever, through time and space. But back in San Diego, as the Yirrkala Drawings reverberate, as I don my frock for a party, the blackness of Sydney Blue seeps slowly to the surface, and spreads. It spreads way beyond Whiteley’s Lavendar Bay, Preston’s harbour views, “my” Bondi. Between the memories of the Yirrkala drawings and the reading, here at home, of newspapers on line and books borrowed through interlibrary loan and dvds that come as gifts through the post, I begin to imagine … an other Australia, opened to exchange with the world beyond, through sea cucumbers and words. Their language is in ours, but what of our language? How can it imagine?

Imagine standing on Whiteley’s balcony, looking out over Lavendar Bay: you effectively turn your back on the rest of the Australia. Such a tiny part of the country, that south east corner. You turn your back on a history—long and benign, short and brutal—that has linked two regions, at the shortest point only a hundred and twenty five miles apart, where the sea and the land segue into one another.

Now when I wear my Von Troska frock I hear all these stories, their language in the dress, in the blueness. I love the blueness of Sydney, but now the frock speaks other languages, underneath the blue there is the black that Whiteley used as a base, and there are murmurings of other shores, of an other Australia. Next time I return to Australia it will be to the Northern Territory, to Arnhem Land, perhaps even to Yolngu country where the land and the sea are continuous, where boats come and go.

 

 

Notes

Deep Ultramarine oil colour ….. McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p. 214

“The colours,” she said “should not be put on subtly.” ….. Quoted in the marvelous catalogue that Jeffrey brought me from Australia last year, Margaret Preston, Deborah Edwards with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi, Sydney: Thames and Hudson in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2010 (first published in 2005), p. 260.

Norman Lindsay accused her of “violent crudities of pure colour.’ Ibid. P.83

“It’s like speaking in a French accent…..” (Shadow cast over a painter’s legacy, July 25, 2005, Alexa Moses http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/shadow-cast-over-a-painters-legacy/2005/07/24/1122143723289.html (accessed 26 feb 2014)

“If you can understand the paintings” …. Baluka Maymuru, son of Nänyin’ Maymuru in an interview in the catalogue, Yirrkala Drawings, ed Cara Pinchbeck, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2013, p.106.

I hear Deborah Rose Bird at a conference …. “Anthropocene: Arts of living on a damaged planet,” May 8-10, 2014 at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Rose’s talk, “Shimmer: When All You Love is Being Trashed,” can be seen at http://anthropocene.au.dk/arts-of-living-on-a-damaged-planet/

Bir’yun refers to intense sources and refractions of light. “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu Author(s)”: H. Morphy Source: Man, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 21-40 Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2802545 .Accessed: 15/07/2014 15:44 P. 28. Morphy here is drawing on the field notes of the anthropologist Donald Thompson. Morphy has dealt with this concept of shimmer in a variety of writings, see for instance (here I draw on) “Shimmering Light,” by Howard Morphy, from the book Jörg Schmeisser Bilder Der Reise – a man who likes to draw, 2013. Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1998) pp. 185-90 Howard Morphy, “The Art of the Yirrkala Crayon Drawings: Innovation, Creativity and Tradition,” pp27-33, Yirrkala Drawings [catalogue].

As Waka Mununggurr writes in the preface to the catalogue ….. Yirrkala Drawings, p.13.

It is estimated that as many as 1,000 trepangers arrived each year…. MacKnight, C.C. (1976).The Voyage to Marege’: Macassan Trepangers in Northern Australia. Melbourne University Press.

“their story is still alive today” …. The video interview with Laklak Ganambarr is transcribed in Yirrkala Drawings, pp 146-147.

Macassan culture was incorporated into Aboriginal Dreamtime …. Howard Morphy, in “Engaging the Other: Art and the Survival of Aboriginal Society,” Ch 7 of Aboriginal Art

Bununggu Yunupingu whose Ceremony with Macassan influence is densely imagistic …. The crayon drawings were not given titles at the time they were made; the titles used in the exhibition and catalogue were either in use from previous exhibitions or arrived at after extensive consultation with current clan leaders. Yirrkala Drawings, p.6.

“these beings had the power to travel over deep waters of the ocean” …. Yirrkala Drawings, p. 139.

“We are all connected through the mixing of waters” …. Baluka Maymuru, son of Nänyin’ Maymuru in an interview. Yirrkala Drawings, p. 107.

In the Yirrkala Drawings land and sea are connected …. http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/blue-mud-bay-high-court-decision.html

Fabian’s suggestion opens a way to thinking about what happens …. He later writes me an email about the “effect of transcended incongruity that’s the poetic core of hipálage.” And adds, “Talking about metaphors, color displacements and anthropomorphism, thanks to the class I gave this week about Egyptian Art, I got to meet the goddess Nut (see image: she is the blue arch over the whole scene).” A wonderful image, abstraction and solidity, color and shape, a spiritual connection between the part and the whole.

“So, two different styles to our sacred paintings” …. Interview with Yalpi Yunupingu, Yirrkala Drawings, p. 139.

“differing colors signify the differing states of water…. Andrew Blake, “Yirrkala: A Brief History,” Yirrkala Drawings, 37.

“a sense of movement, that has references to the interwoven structure of the dam and the water” …. Howard Morphy, Yirrkala Drawings, p. 31.

The Saltwater Collection consists of eighty bark paintings …. “About the Saltwater Collection”, on the site Yoln[long n] u Sea Country, livingknowledge.anu.edu.au/learningsites/seacountry/17_collection.htm

After this desecration of Bäru …. This material is drawn from the Australian National Maritime Museum, where some of the barks were exhibited from May 2013 to February 2014.

http://www.anmm.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=2216

the image remained that of a large imposing red hulk” …. Bertelsen, Lone and Andrew Murphie, “An Ethics of Everyday Infinities and Powers: Felix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain,” The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, duke university press Durham & London 2010, p.143.

“asylum seekers who come here by boat ….” “Kevin Rudd to send asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea” Sydney Morning Herald July 19, 2013

Maritime law experts are also concerned about the legality of Operation Sovereign Borders …. “Inquiry into the Breach of Indonesian

Territorial Waters,” Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade by the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. http://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/sites/kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/files/kaldor_centre_submission_inquiry_into_breach_of_territorial_waters_final.pdf

Although Tony Abbott presents the current situation in terms of war …. “We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers,” Abbot has said. “And if we were at war, we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.” http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-10/abbott-likens-campaign-against-people-smugglers-to-war/5193546

Up to two million people were massacred …. Estimates of people killed, both ethnic Chinese and others, vary between 78 000 and 2 million, but the slaughter has never been properly documented, and so widespread were the killings that it probably never will be. (Hilton. Check.)

those Western powers that had knowledge …. communiqués from US and Australian ambassadors reveal that the “politicide” was conducted with the full knowledge and active complicity of those countries.

“A small boat in an ocean of impunity” …. Galuh Wandita, “PREMAN NATION: Watching The Act of Killing in Indonesia,” Critical Asian Studies, Volume 46, Number 1 – March 2014,

No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia…. Defense Relations Between Australia and Indonesia in the Post-Cold War Era“, pp. 89–93, By Bilveer Singh, 2002 Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 0-313-32226-0

The film was an unexpected and inspirational expression of support to Indonesians …. John Hughes, “Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens In Australia.Senses of Cinema, July 2009 MIFF Premiere Fund/Post-Punk Dossier, Special Dossiers Issue 51. http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/miff-premiere-fund-post-punk-dossier/indonesia-calling/

in fact it was passed off as a civil war …. (interview w Hilton); and (26 November 2013, 3.31am GMT, “Australian espionage and the history of foreign intervention in Indonesia” Thomas Reuter

https://theconversation.com/australian-espionage-and-the-history-of-foreign-intervention-in-indonesia-20648

accessed feb 21, 2014)

As I write this Australia has returned its seventh boatload of asylum seekers …. Another turned back boat lands in Indonesia, February 25, 2014, Michael Bachelard

http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/another-turned-back-boat-lands-in-indonesia-20140225-33dn7.html

‘Here the word future is not a word’ …. “‘Here the word future is not a word’: life as a refugee on Nauru.” 4 August http://theconversation.com/here-the-word-future-is-not-a-word-life-as-a-refugee-on-nauru-30079

accessed aug 4, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Unctuous and So Tender

“Filthy creature! Filthy creature!” she screams at the chicken. The chicken resists attack, she grapples with it, trying to split its neck. After it is dead and she has collected its blood her resentment persists. She looks down at the carcass and addresses it one last time: “Filthy creature!”

The narrator witnesses this scene, bloody and brutish, as a child when he goes to the kitchen anticipating the golden succulent roast chicken that always appears on the table for Sunday lunch, prepared by the family cook Françoise. The smell of the chicken turning on the spit – this is a Sunday smell, associated with Françoise, summoning her virtues, and of all her virtues this “aroma of that flesh which she knew how to render so unctuous and so tender” summons most specifically her quality of gentleness. However, on this particular Sunday when she serves the chicken, “its skin embroidered with gold like a chasuble and its precious juice drained from a ciborium” the witnessed scene of carnage, puts her saintly unction a little less in evidence.

Leading up to the chicken scene is an anticipatory description of the asparagus that will be served with the Sunday chicken. It is a description primarily of colors—seductive, voluptuous—but it ends with the sense of smell, how after dinner the asparagus changes the chamber pot into a “jar of perfume.”

The narrator, describing this incident from his childhood, tells of how he fantasizes about getting his family to dismiss Françoise immediately. But a cowardliness creeps in to mar his resolution. “[W]ho would have prepared me such cozy hot-water bottles, such fragrant coffee, and even … those chickens?” As it turns out, and later he will come to realize, he is not alone in his compact with cowardliness. His great aunt and other adults in the family are wise to the fact that Françoise’s kindness is shadowed by cruelty and sentimentality. Though she likes to weep she also likes to hate. She is particularly cruel to the frail pregnant kitchen maid. While she loves inordinately her own family and the family she serves she has little empathy for others. When the kitchen maid is shrieking in pain Françoise is sent to fetch the medical book that the doctor has marked up with instructions for what to do in such an emergency. Françoise doesn’t return and is eventually discovered reading the book and weeping over the description of the symptoms from which the maid is suffering. Meanwhile the pregnant sick girl waits. Just as she weeps torrents for unknown persons when reading the newspaper Françoise weeps for the idea not the person. For those she dislikes malice is her mode. The chicken incident alerts the narrator to the reason that they have been having so much delicious asparagus this season – because it causes allergies for the detested maid.

I am reading this Lydia Davis translation of Proust’s first volume of In Search of Lost Time in Mexico, in a village called Xilitla where we are visiting Las Pozas, a surrealist garden of fantastical concrete structures built in the jungle. I don’t know why I am reading this particular book, here of all places, perhaps it was there on my kindle, lying in wait. What I do know is that irritation and impatience have been slowly smoldering as the wretched hawthorns, even more insistent than the soggy madeleine, provoke endlessly attenuated passages of tremulous sensitivity.

Why are you reading about hawthorns in the jungle? I ask myself. Surely this voluntary immersion in excruciating European sensitivity is a kind of perversity. Then I reach the chicken incident. And suddenly I’m reconciled to Proust, the hawthorns fade out of the frame and everything else falls into place. Or rather, I feel more attuned to resting in this place we might call Proust. This is the Proust I prefer, the clarity about cruelty for instance, the way in which detail can be made to count, a single detail, or an accumulation of details, delineating over many pages qualities or characteristics. The way he has of unfolding a person, of teasing out how people accommodate to living with things, even the things they despise, often because they have no idea of their own worst aspects (vanity, snobbishness, greed, hypocrisy, jealousy, envy, to name just the familiar vices). These characteristics, or maybe even “essences” migrate between characters, across the pages. For Deleuze this is the complex literary machination through which signs are generated. Samuel Beckett is more terse: “We cannot know and we cannot be known,” he writes in his essay on Proust. It is tempting to pose the economy of Beckett and the prolixity of Proust as two sides of the same literary coin. Yet what hooks me back into the Proustian fabric is something other than an existential dimension, it is a more primal engagement with story telling, with the spinning of a fictional web in which characters are unfolded ever so slowly, so slowly that they change over time. And so, slowly, almost imperceptively you feel yourself changed.

Slow immersion, infinitesimal change, the possibility of not being incarcerated forever in a decidedly fixed character description—this is perhaps the lure of the long and sprawling novel and television saga in an age of the sound bite, of flickering attention, of the instantaneity and ephemerality of social media. Think of the Simon Melrose novels. Edward St Aubyn manages to sustain interest in a small cluster of characters over five novels; he both affirms and contests the old Lacanian adage: “the Oedipus complex cannot run indefinitely in an age that is fast losing a sense of tragedy.” Or think of television sagas such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and The Wire and True Detectives. And think especially of Wentworth, a remake of the incandescently trashy Australian soap, which ran from 1979 to 86.

From the first episode I was hooked into Prisoner—the unerring sense of drama, the virtuoso enactment of cliffhangers, the tension between gritty realism and flamboyant melodrama, the flimsiness of the cardboard sets, the grandiosity of plot ambition. And yet and yet, despite the display of artificiality, Prisoner lured us fans into a complicit but also delicious compact: an engagement with the characters of this fictional world. No matter that the only consistent thing about these characters was that they consistently acted out of character. In fact this was the lure. Prisoner was a machine for generating signs, it distributed qualities or essences across a network of characters, and simultaneously generated an affective charge that caused us to fall in love (and into addiction) and to imagine these characters, affects, essences as part of our world. If Prisoner played on the paradox of a closed world, of incarceration, in which anything was possible, change was axiomatic, then by entering into the charged ambience of this world, we enlivened our own immersion in mundanity.

A machine for generating signs, but a speed machine, histrionic rather than subtle. The flesh of Prisoner, and Wentworth too, is neither unctuous nor tender. The only chickens in Prisoner are the kind that come home to roost. And they roost uncommonly fast.

Today, I’m wishing I had on my kindle something like the Patrick Melrose series. Proust is there and I can dip in and out, but if I have to go to the E.R. today or tomorrow I need something faster on my kindle. Today is Saturday and Dr Millen has advised me to get to ER as soon as possible. The antibiotics have run their course and things in my gut are not entirely better. She is concerned that it could turn nasty in a flash, like it did when I almost croaked and landed up in hospital just before Christmas two years ago. But I foresee the scenario: they run all the tests and scans which takes the better part of a day or night and it all concludes with another prescription of the sickening antibiotic, that reacts badly with my cancer drug. To endure this cycle, so much of which consists in waiting, in noise, in lacunae, in dread, I need another kind of cycle, a fictional world that distracts and engrosses utterly. The medical cycle is aimed at keeping your body going, but the novelistic cycle can animate your soul and keep you alive.

I tell Leslie D I need a novel for the E.R. and she suggests the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, but she checks and it is not available on kindle. I ask Page D what she can suggest, she disappears and reappears with five thick paperback novels—serendipitously, the whole Cazalet saga. Saved. Saved by friendships this time, rather than by antibiotics.

I stay home, lie low and read. Keep out of the E.R. Slowly, through slow immersion and infinitesimal change, things get better.

Now when I return to Proust I am back in the jungle. Now Proust summons the smell of tropical rain and the burning of copal. In the mornings and the evenings a man would walk through and around the house where we were staying gently swinging a crucible in which copal, a kind of frankincense, was burning. Smoke wafted up and around, through doors and windows. After a day in the jungle garden, climbing and slithering on wet slippery stone paths, after heat and sweat and revelations one after another, what bliss to lie at last under a ceiling fan. Outside a thunderstorm dying down, the scent of rain and lushness and copal smoke. Sweet, dense, spicy.

 

Secret

1958. She is eight years old, bored, waiting in the car on a hot day. They have come into town from the farm, she waits while her mother nips in to see her grandmother in her office. She says she will only be a moment. The moment grows longer and longer, boredom expands like oil in a hot pan, it spreads, the car is cloaked in oily viscosity. She suspects that behind closed doors her mother and grandmother are arguing. She does not know what it is that they argue about, but she does know her mother will return flushed and irritable, frayed, untouchable. Unspeakable to.

Then there is a tap at the window. She has been warned never to wind down the window and talk to strangers, but this woman is not exactly a stranger, she and her husband have a farm in the same part of the country as her parents. She is pretty and has two young children. The girl has never seen her like this: Distraught, her hair in disarray, cheeks streaked, eyes reddened and mascara smudged. “Where is your mother?” Her voice is jagged, the question an appeal. “I have to run, everyone is waiting, but tell your mother something for me. Tell her … tell her I’ve got cancer. Do you understand?” She says this—do you understand—in a tone of acerbic despair, as though she knows no one will ever understand least of all this child. And yet it is important that she understand, she is the one chosen to be the bearer of knowledge, she is charged with a secret. “Don’t tell anyone else, just your mother. This is a secret.  But you must tell your mother.”

The woman leaves, the car turns cold and clammy. Eventually her mother returns, flushed and irritable. “Don’t talk to me,” she says. The girl rehearses how to say it, she does not know what it is this thing called cancer that the woman has. Where did she get it, did she buy it or was it given to her, where does she have it, in her purse, in a safe with her jewels, tucked into her bra with a spare five pound note for emergencies? But she senses that to say the word entails repercussions. She knows the news she has to impart is lethal. Eventually she whispers to her mother, so as not to crack the brittleness of the air. “I have a secret to tell you,” she whispers. “Not now,” the mother snaps. Head on the steering wheel, hands in her hair, pulling. Then, more gently, though still exasperated by the demands of the child, “later, tell me later.”

But later never comes. She tries but cannot find the moment, the right moment when she can say the word, pass on the secret. The word becomes cheese-like, heavy and sweaty in her pocket, it grows moldy, accruing guilt. The secret stays with her.

The Ecology of Cancer, and What do Ants have to do with it?

Ants are like cancer cells. Conversely we might say that cancer cells are like ants.

Even though they sometimes feel more mammoth-like and slothful, lumberingly prehistoric rather than tiny and socially frenzied. “They feel.” Of course cancer cells do not have feelings so far as I know. What I mean is that they feel to me, these colonies of CLL cells that circulate through the bone marrow and the blood and the lymphatic system, they feel to me massive and heavy and slow. Or more accurately, they make me feel like a sloth, I imagine myself as one of those creatures I saw a few weeks ago in the Tar Pits in Los Angeles: slowly dragging my massive body over the never-ending earth. But in the last few weeks I have also been having nightmares, dark and jagged dreams in which a massive sloth-like creature is out there, lumbering over the horizon, coming closer, filling the screen, threatening to engulf me. This CLL beast exists, I guess, both within and without.

When I heard Deborah Gordon declare that ants are like cancer colonies I experienced a rush of resistance. I did not welcome the idea of analogizing my condition to a common-and-garden insect that lives in colonies, rather than to the singularity of an exotic species of mega fauna now extinct. I was alarmed not charmed by the image of colonies of ants scurrying around in my body. But also in some peculiar way I did not yet quite understand, this analogy—of cancer cells to an ant colony—struck a chord. Suddenly a new image, one not immediately accessible to my habits of thinking and feeling, began to reverberate.

Ants, the ants that I know, live in my garden, not in my body. It has always been mysterious to me the way ant colonies would spring up in the garden, how they would know where the aphids were congregated, how they would march and scurry from their nests to my favorite rose bush, devastated by a colony of aphids. Aphids are small insects that suck the life out of plants and then secrete a sugar-rich sticky honeydew that ants love. In fact they “farm” the aphids, protect them from predators and parasites and nurture their eggs. In the face of this alliance—a mutualistic relationship or type of symbiosis—I would feel very small and ineffectual. All I could do would be to hope for an invasion of ladybugs (to eat the aphids, and thus deflect the ants) or I could spend hours everyday hosing off the aphids with jets of water. Sometimes you would sink a pitch fork into the compost pile and as if from nowhere a black mass of moving matter would crawl up your arm. After initial panic—rushing around dementedly shaking arms, trying in a frenzied manner to brush the ants off—I figured out that in the process of pursuing their own ends, foraging for fabulous stuff to take back to their nests, they were doing me a favor. Like worms, they were doing their bit to toss and turn and hasten the process of decomposition in the compost. In the end by leaving things be—as much as is possible for a neurotic controlling gardener—the garden settled into its own ecology. Or rather, it became more possible to observe the interaction of plants and creatures. To see, for instance, which plants attracted bees and when. African blue basil and rosemary are bee magnets. The weedy fennel, when it’s younger is a host for the swallow tail caterpillar that turns into a spectacular butterfly, flits around the garden and then sashays off to Mexico. Later, when the garden is festooned with the fennel’s yellow umbels the bees come swarming in.

But the story is not so simple, not such a paean to natural balance and harmony.

Enter the chickens.

Nowadays there are no infestations of ants, no plagues in the garden. The beak of a chicken and a squirrely squirming ant—these things exist together in a powerful force field of attraction. Heaven if you are a chicken, pretty dismal, I guess, if you are an ant. Though maybe the ants have just changed their habits, become invisible to chicken and human eyes, or moved on over to my neighbor Mrs Tam’s garden. Chickens also love worms, but since the birds are surface scratchers and since the vegetable beds and the compost are barricaded the worms survive there, in fact they survive everywhere deep in the soil, doing their work, sifting and turning.

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Ants are like cancer cells, says Deborah Gordon, in so far as they are regulated but without central control.

An ant colony is regulated, its survival depends on the distribution and co-ordination of tasks and roles. Communication, or an exchange of cues, exists between the ants. The tasks and roles themselves are not fixed, but shift and change as the environment shifts and shapes. The ants exist in a dynamical social network. A hub may form for instance simply by ants moving into a space where there are lots of interactions. Gordon calls it the anternet. Ants do not always behave the same way. Foraging behavior for instance changes in times of drought. If one element changes (e.g. the availability of water) then the behavior of the colony changes. These changes, in turn, shape social and reproductive patterns. By observing these changes in patterns of behavior or modes of regulation, scientists can observe how natural selection is working on this colony.

There are many biological systems, apart from ants, that function without hierarchy. Bird flocks, without a leader, turn in the sky, fish schools swerve to avoid predators, tropical forests develop patterns of diversity… and cancer cells mutate and metastasize. For all of these systems, we still don’t fully understand how the parts work together to produce the dynamics, the history, and the development of the whole system.

It has often felt to me as though the garden is a battlefield. The march to the rose bushes and the swarming in the compost bin seem to be ant maneuvers carried out with all the efficiency of military campaigns, masterminded by some center of control (and sometimes the body too feels like and is popularly conceived of as a battle zone where the war against cancer is waged). Indeed this is how the great and pioneering ant scholar E.O. Wilson described ant society—in terms of hierarchy, conflict and regimental organization. So why should we relinquish this view (or feeling) in favor of the model proposed by younger scientists, including Deborah Gordon? Most significant for me, in terms of the efficacy of the analogy, is that Gordon and others tell a different sort of system story, emphasizing situated (therefore variable) processes of recognition and response. They understand the ant colony as composed of flexible units (whose functions change according to situation) and propose a system characterized by different architecture and components. Nodes of interaction are at the heart of Gordon’s model and frequencies of interactions at nodes are what shape material social orders. It is this that grounds the argument against the way that Wilson’s analogy works, wherein the behavior of ants is offered as a sociobiological model for human behavior. Ants, Gordon argues, don’t provide moral lessons or insight into behavior or feelings, but they do provide insight about the dynamics of networks, systems without central control.

It’s a tricky business, this maneuvering (is it a dance or a battle?) between feelings and conceptual models, between the garden and the body, ants and cancer cells. Sometimes new images, just as much as new data, can interfere with feelings and reorient one’s thinking.

What matters in networks is the ecology of the system.

So, taking our cue from ant colonies, how might we think about the ecology of cancer? What are some of the ways that cancers diversify and spread? How is organization regulated? How, with answers to some of these questions, might we approach intervention in ways less dramatically belligerent?

Cells in the body act collectively—for example, as networks of neurons to produce sensations, or as patrolling T-cells that mobilize other immune cells to respond to pathogens. It seems they communicate with one another. In the process of metastasis, the cancer cells may use signals from healthy tissue to recruit other cancer cells to a new location, where certain areas of tissue constitute an attractive resource. If researchers can figure out how cancer cells are recruiting then maybe they can set traps to prevent them from doing this.

All very well, but it doesn’t solve my problem (and my oncologist’s) which is how to understand the malignant cells of my cancer, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), as part of a cancerous system, given that it is a cancer of the blood not manifested in solid tumors. In CLL the cancer cells (malignant B cells, a type of white blood cell) course through the marrow and travel through the blood and lymphatic system. What happens in a “normal” body is that the B cells are recruited to fight infection, they die off often and regularly and new ones grow. In CLL, because of some genetic glitch, they don’t die off but in fact relentlessly proliferate, interfering with and crowding out the production of healthy white cells, red cells and platelets.

Although the cancer is in the blood and not localized in tumors the cells do cluster, they form hubs just like ants. They cluster in lymphoid tissue. Research has identified a form of regulation in this lymphoid tissue, or micro-environment, whereby malignant B cells communicate with other healthy cells. Curious about the relation of the cancer cells to certain healthy cells Dr Kipps and his colleagues looked at this relationship in the lab. They found that when the CLL cells were removed from the “suspicious” healthy cells, the CLL B cells began to die, whereas the same cells, when replated back onto the healthy cells, perked up immediately. Because they supported the survival of CLL cells and because CLL B cells became attached to them, the researcher group called them “nurse-like cells,” or NLC. They concluded that one of the ways CLL cells survive is by recruiting these protector cells.

Dr K describes CLL as a very social beast. By this he means that the survival of the cells depends upon a network of relations, which indeed amounts to a form of regulation, without central control. The relation between the NLC and the CLL B-cells is symbiotic just like that between ants and aphids. In a dynamical system like an ant colony it is possible to observe how when one element changes (e.g. the introduction of drought) the behavior of the colony changes. So, similarly, by focusing on the microenvironment of another dynamical system – a colony of cancer cells – it becomes possible to envisage forms of intervention more akin to the strategic introduction of drought, rather than war. Rather than therapies which are the equivalent of carpet bombing, indiscriminately destroying good blood cells along with the bad (which anyway doesn’t work with CLL which is notably resistant to standard chemotherapy), the solution might be to try and intervene in the signaling system to change the behavior of the cancer colony. Or, as Dr K puts it: to foster therapies that isolate the CLL cells so that they die of social neglect.

To observe how cancer colonies evolve, how cellular activity is regulated, how selections are made: this chimes with other ideas vibrating in the air in this second decade of the twenty first century when the Darwinian inheritance is being reconfigured. We humans have made such a mess of the planet that perhaps our only hope lies in attending more closely to other forms of organization, to looking more closely at ants and fungi and chickens (with whom we share about 60% DNA) and extinct species like the sloth from the Paleolithic era to species like bees that are disappearing by the day, as we poison the environment and our own bodies. By looking outside the human body to other “bodies” or clusters of living cells in the natural world it seems to me that we have more chance of figuring out solutions, or ways of being in the world, perhaps even ways of living with cancer rather than definitively conquering it. Just as in certain approaches to invasive species in habitat studies. It’s a reversal of the gaze or perspective. Rather than trying to understand the natural world through the lens of human society, we reverse the perspective so that a description of a natural society—an ant colony in this instance—can illuminate how we think about modes of organization in the human body. Or, more pertinently (since reversals always carry the dangers of dualism) we can begin to think of the nature-society play as itself like an ant colony.

I don’t for a moment think that Dr K and co are spending their time out in the desert down on their knees observing the behavior of ants. They are in the laboratory working late at night, separating the malignant B-cells from their nurse-like protectors and replating them, and trying to figure out how to intercept the signals. They are running algorithms. In defining the various cells, structures and molecules that protect the CLL cells they are working on the development of novel anti-leukemia agents such as monoclonal antibodies and immune-based treatment strategies and genetically engineered T-cells. No, they are not looking at ants; but for me, as a gardener and a non-scientist and someone with cancer, bells start chiming.

In writing this I have become less alarmed by the ant analogy, more attuned to the reverberations sparked by hearing Deborah Gordon speak. At some point analogy clicks and opens up a different link. A link to the ecological.

Even though he places emphasis on the environment Dr K is cautious: We still don’t fully understand how the parts work together to produce the dynamics, the history, and the development of the system, he says. There isn’t a single explanation for how CLL happens, let alone how it evolves, adapts, transforms. Unpredictable things happen. Needless to say there also isn’t a single solution.

Nevertheless, this perspective gives me hope. Not that a cure for CLL will be produced tomorrow, but certainly that more efficacious and less damaging possibilities are opening up that might prolong the life expectancy of people with CLL (so far this has not been possible). The outlook is considerably brighter than when I was first diagnosed six years ago.

It fills me with energy and hope: that this research can be understood in terms of a larger project, within an ecological matrix encompassing micro and macro environments, time scales ranging from the big bang to now, symbiotic relations as apparently diverse as the relation between ants and aphids in a garden and malignant B-cells and nurse-like cells in a CLL environment.

It gives hope when things are going well (like now, when treatment is resting in a sweet spot). Not when you are teetering on the edge of a chasm filled with black rising sludge and you see death edging its way up out of the tar pits toward you, like a massive land sloth.

In the dark times it is the sloth that imaginatively materializes, rather than a colony of ants. Although the ant analogy has greater scientific resonance, the sloth connects affectively to my bodily experience. But in the process of writing this piece I have relinquished the idea of ants scurrying around inside my body, am more able to situate ants and cancer cells in an analogous relation, within the framework of dynamical systems. This I realize: it is not necessary to feel ant-like in order to grasp the import of the analogy. You might say my cognitive apprehension has marginally improved. On the other hand, it is only through sensation, through ways that the body experiences being in the world, being in the garden as well as in the hospital and the lab, that understanding grows. Figures of speech, often fantastical, may seem to be at odds with scientific data, but the human sensorium involves a rich patterning of signaling networks. The connections between science and imagination are myriad and marvelous.

 

Notes

“Ants are like cancer cells”…….. Deborah Gordon in her talk “The evolution of collective behavior in ant colonies.” at the conference, “Anthropocene: Arts of living on a damaged planet,” May 8-10, 2014, organized by Anna Tsing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writings include Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior (Primers in Complex Systems) and Ants At Work: How An Insect Society Is Organized.

“the researcher group called them “nurse-like cells,” or NLC”….. “Blood-derived nurse-like cells protect chronic lymphocytic leukemia B cells from spontaneous apoptosis through stromal cell–derived factor-1”

Jan A. Burger, Nobuhiro Tsukada, Meike Burger, Nathan J. Zvaifler, Marie Dell’Aquila, Thomas J. Kipps,  Blood. Oct 2000,96(8)2655-2663; http://bloodjournal.org/content/96/8/2655?variant=long

“chickens (with whom we share about 60% DNA)”….. NIH 2004 News Release. “Researchers Compare Chicken, Human Genomes: Analysis of First Avian Genome Uncovers Differences Between Birds and Mammals” National Human Genome Research Institute. Last Updated: November 17, 2011http://www.genome.gov/12514316.  Accessed May 15, 2014.

 

 

Blood Poetry

Haematopoiesis: blood poetry. Actually, the word comes from two Greek words, αἷμα, “blood” and ποιεῖν,”to make”, it refers to the body’s capacity to make blood cells. In adults this predominantly occurs in the bone marrow, and when the system malfunctions you get diseases such as leukemia. But to me the word sounds like blood poetry.

The family in Breaking Bad is celebrating Walt’s remission. He’s been pronounced cancer free. Hank, Walt’s DEA brother in law, tells of an incident that occurred early in the series. He tells it as a story, with a bottle of tequila, the family gathered around the swimming pool. A giant tortoise ambles slowly across the desert, a decapitated bloody human head strapped to its body. When it reaches a group of DEA agents it explodes. Hank explains that this was the Mexican drug cartel’s way of sending a message: the head belonged to a snitch named “Tortuga” (Tortoise). Hank tries to explain the “how” of the scenario. “It’s not a metaphor, not an analogy, it’s a, Walt, what’s the word I’m looking for?” he asks. Walt refuses to participate, stares stonily into the distance. Hank finally finds the word: “poetic,” he says. Softly he repeats the word to himself: “poetic.”

Chicken Shit

There is a Shambhala saying, “You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.” I take these words to mean something like this: chicken shit may be messy and stinky and time consuming to deal with, but as a task it can almost invisibly become routinized, easy, predictable and satisfying. The chicken is another matter: flighty, opinionated, even though her opinions are impenetrable or rather the logic of her opinions seems to bear no relation to the material conditions of her existence. She imagines she is a queen and should be treated thus by loyal subjects, or she imagines she is hawk, a bird destined to prey on all smaller creatures and insects and even invisible beings who plague and torment and also add spice to her life. Or she may be perfectly healthy, apparently happy and cooing one moment, and then just like that, without warning, dead as a dodo. Understanding the chicken, loving her through thick and thin, is not always easy. Though you might say that this is all projection—human projection of our own or my own crankiness and unknowingness—onto the chicken. The Shambhala saying (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s riff on the Buddhist maxim, “Work with the greatest defilements first”) is after all a saying, a dicho, a deployment of metaphor. To take it too literally is to stray into minefields of our own making, fields carefully cultivated with chicken shit and home-crafted, jerry-built landmines.

Many cultures and story telling traditions and philosophical orientations utilize animals in this way. Think of Aesop’s fables, think of African folk tales, think of a philosopher like Jacques Derrida. I remember hearing Derrida talk, over many weeks, about the cow, in the context of “eating the other.” And in Sydney, delivering a lecture on friendship he spoke about cats, taking a very concrete, quotidian experience to play with the notion of friendship. Well, he said, it’s irritating and a pain to deal with other cats in the building who come and eat your cat’s food. But you can work on your attitude and eventually see this cat as existing in a continuum with your cat. Instead of continuity breeding contempt and hostility and erecting domestic barricades you might eventually entertain the notion of a feline continuity, and welcome the other cat into your home, not grudgingly but with generosity of spirit. However, he said, and I remember how Derrida played out this moment dramatically, using the pause, the tilted head, the glinting eye and raised eyebrow: What if one day you hear a scratching at the door and you go to open it and you open it and there, sitting on the mat is a cat, but this cat is a lion. This image was so vivid, it has stayed with me as complex thread unraveling over time. Was this a metaphor? Or was it an example grounded in the material world? I think it was both. And so it is in many of these traditions or inflections of moral precepts, or teasing out of philosophical conundrums. The Lion and the Chicken are not to be taken literally, but neither are they merely metaphors. They are at once familiar, quotidian (the lion is a kind of cat, the chicken is connected to chicken shit), and their dramatic performance is surprising, unlikely, has the capacity to wake us up, to confront us with the surprising and unexpected and alien and difficult.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens, on the other hand, can take us by surprise, provoke unhappenings.

All I wanted when I first went to the Shambhala center at the end of my street was some help with meditation, some hints on how to integrate the body with a calming of the mind, some training in how to foster a practice, a routine. I wanted to subdue the panic, find some way of coping with illness. Trained in the hard knocks school of high theory I felt I did not need any more mind-training.

Today I pull Training the Mind off the book shelf, to check on that chicken shit reference, and two slogans printed on flimsy bits of paper fall out: “Work with the greatest defilements first” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

On the one hand there is sitting meditation, a concentration of the mind on the breath. On the other hand there is contemplative meditation. Theoretically the focus on breath, on the body, grounds one for contemplation. I still haven’t quite figured out where the practice of sitting-and-breathing-and-not-thinking intersects with sitting-and-breathing-and-thinking-about-things, about, say, the slogans. I just muddle along, helped by teachers, by the structure of the sangha.

Training the Mind by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explicates the seven points of mind training (lojong) attributed to the Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha in 982 C.E. The list of fifty nine mind-training slogans are often referred to as the Atisha Slogans. Pithy, practical, a way of training our minds both through formal practice and through everyday life as a means of awakening. Waking up entails coming to realize the habitual nature of the self (not just the generalized self, but my self, uurgh), realizing the “other” as other. The slogans bear repetition because of their capacity to change: they double back, dodge and creep up on you from unexpected angles.

You should work with whatever is your greatest obstacle first – whether it is aggression, passion, pride, arrogance, jealousy, or what have you. You should not just say “I will sit more first, and I will deal with that later.” Working with the greatest defilements means working with the highlights of your experience or your problems. You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.

Good habits, repetition, the assurance of a routine, all this is necessary to maintain a meditative practice. It is very hard to learn to breath without this kind of structure. The structure facilitates: How much easier the day becomes if everyday you manage to find even a short time for slowing the mind, for breathing peacefully. But, but, but … (insists the voice of the skeptic, or looking at it differently, the Derridean) it is also all too easy to settle, via routine, into the fatness of certitude

his certitudes perched like fat chickens

How do you grapple with the tenacious grip of the ego and yet avoid positioning the other as the predictable obverse or prop to one’s glorious egolessness? How do you avoid interpreting the slogans through the lens of a moral universe? How to pre-empt the snarkiness, the judgement, the relentless drive to control everything, the frustration and irritation and despair with those around, with myself, with Israel’s assault on Gaza, with immigration policies in this country, with the global environmental catastrophe engulfing us all? How do you engage with the world, how do you avoid grand generalizations and self-righteous litanies of complaint about the bad other? For this we know: mindful shifting of the habitual can in itself become a habit, promoting a comforting quietude and detachment from politics both quotidian and public.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens, every night of the siege, one or two were carried off in the jaws of rationalism and despair.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens transmogrify. Between the cushion of contemplation and the world out there is an ocean, an ocean where we surf and are tossed by the stormy waves of birth, old age, global catastrophe, genocide, sickness and death.

It’s all very well to realize and to see the lion or the chicken as merely a projection of self. But to fully recognize the lion or the chicken as something other than a projection of self. Not so easy. Not so easy to do this off the cushion, out there or in here, in the world.

Oh the world, the world.

 

Notes

 There is a Shambhala saying …. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, p.150. Slogan: Work with the greatest defilements first.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens …. J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, p. 211.

 

 

 

 

 

A Lion’s Roar

I board the plane in Austin, buckle up, and with eyes closed hear again the night train in Marathon. Movie fragments, night sounds, flicker across the screen of memory: the central Australian desert in Night Cries, black-and-white images in Killer of Sheep. The melancholic wail of the train in 1970s South Central L.A. evokes the blues and the great migration—south to west—across the U.S. in the nineteenth century. Listening to Country on the radio the day before, driving across the vast expanse of a small part of Texas. That wailing sound rises, from somewhere within, then fades across the surface of my skin. It feels like the after-purring of a large cat, when growling segues into purring, and purring slowly ripples into soundlessness, until all that remains is a somatic memory.

A lion’s roar can be heard five miles away…

On the runway in Austin all of a sudden lightning streaks across the darkening sky and hail stones start falling. The wing of the airplane is soon covered in whiteness. A shiver shoots through the plane, there is a quivering in the air. We prepare to disembark but then the crisis subsides as quickly as it erupted, the sky clears, the mood shifts. Sparks of electricity remain in the atmosphere, however, people start talking, there’s an expansiveness that wasn’t there before. I am sitting next to a young woman who endears herself to me by showing concern for the rooster who, in his overhead bin, has been jostled by a bag stuffed in haphazardly by a rough and rude young man. She tells me that her mum collects roosters and even has some from Soviet era Russia. I’m not really a collector, I demur. I can understand that, she says, he is clearly the one and only.

My surly hermeticism is instantly vanquished, the conviviality of airplane small talk sucks me into its orbit. Maria tells me that she volunteers as an animal rescuer, fostering creatures from the wild so that they can eventually be returned to something like a natural state. As a student she worked at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary. Occupying a large acreage in the hill country, this zoo is home to many domestic and exotic animals that were either rescued from, or unwanted by, their owners. Toads are rescued, goats, donkeys and snakes, but also coyotes, cougars, lions, tigers. All the big cats are endangered in their native habitat, and in quasi-legal captivation too, and so zoos often see themselves as places of preservation and restoration. A mode of domestic rewilding. Maria tells me a story about a lion. My jaw drops inch by inch until it reaches the floor and a great gaping hole opens up in my stomach.

Heading back to Austin Katie and I drove up from Marfa, through Alpine, passing the Big Bend Cowboy Church we connected with the 10, zipped past Fort Stockton this time, no sense of it as a town, of that kind young man who wouldn’t take any money for our cups of tea. But there were billboards and we had the local paper advertising above all else churches. Churches churches everywhere: Pecos County Cowboy Church, Templo Los Olivos, Jehovah Witness Kingdom Hall, Big Bend Tabernacle Church…

The story Maria tells me goes like this: A lion was rescued from a church. He had been drugged out of his mind, overfed and malnourished, confined to a small cage in a trailer, never exercised. When he was released and stepped on to the ground for the first time he buckled under his own weight. All the bones in his feet shattered.

Yesterday, the day after returning home to San Diego, I am scheduled for an infusion. All goes well. But afterwards as often happens I don’t feel so good and only want to be lying horizontal. I crave bed and a cup of tea. If I’d listened, as they say, to my body I’d be up and about today, but I wouldn’t have those pesach images in my mouth, tastes curling up and around and into every bodily crease and crevice. Temptation lured me out of the house last night. Persian rice with lima beans, salt water in tiny hand-painted bowls that Parastou’s brother brought from Turkey. Brian’s chicken broth was light and clear, the kreplach fluffy, saffron scent infiltrating the broth, rising steamily out of the soup, enveloping us all. Elana brought chopped liver and a fennel and orange salad sprinkled with mint leaves. And the lamb, the lamb melted in your mouth. We muddled our way through the service, arguing about interpretation. Why do we have to wait to start drinking before the candles are lit and the first part of the service performed? What do the bitter greens signify, why do we have to eat them rather than just look at them? Why are we eating lamb? The young ones were impatient – what does it matter? they asked insistently, all this ritual; but us old secular Jews and/or fellow travelers like myself, serially married to Jewish men, we want to remember, get it right, immerse ourselves together for an evening in the theatricality of the symbolic dimension.

But today I feel like I’ve run into a truck. Elvis appears to be ecstatic: a day in bed with company. Every so often he lopes out into the garden, rolls around in the dirt and then slouches back into the house, springs onto the bed, looks me intently in the eyes and says: tell me a story. A growl ripples through him, just below the skin, as he stretches danger flashes and then he retracts his claws, his paws curl inward and there’s a deep rumble, the echo of a roar, a vibration, as he settles next to me, chin leaning on the Mac Air. I love to stroke his pads, so soft, and the fur on his feet.

Five miles away…

In bed I retrace the drive home from Marfa, scrutinizing all the churches. The Yellow Pages list twenty four churches in Fort Stockton, including the World’s Greatest Psychic Ms Grace, and Saint Genevieve’s Wine. In the lovely hill town of Frederiksburg (population about ten and a half thousand) there are (about) Seven Lutheran churches, four Baptist, one Methodist, one Presbyterian, one Orthodox, one Episcopal, four Catholic, two Spirit-filled Churches, nine Christian-Other churches.

I roam the internet, searching for the rest of the story. Maria told me that the lion had been used in religious theater. He would be wheeled onto the stage with a lamb. She says there is a happy end to the story, they eventually managed to rehabilitate the lion, and in the zoo he can roam, as though in the wild. But I want to know more, which church, what sort of theater, what retribution?

And the Lion shall lie down with the Lamb.

I find a photo of a blonde man, a pastor as it turns out, in a pink jacket, open necked shirt and khakis, clutching in his arms a lamb. He stands on a stage and in some photos you can see, behind the pastor, a caged lion. Ed Young is a mega church pastor, best-selling author and televangelist. His Texas Fellowship Church has grown to an average weekly attendance of over 20,000 people, with branches in several cities including London, England.

The lion and the lamb were brought onto stage as part of his “Wild” sermon series (today I read that in the next few weeks Pastor Ed will be hosting a “Dog Days” event that will feature pet adoptions). “Let’s give it up for the lamb and the lion!” Ed Young reportedly said over the bleats of the increasingly agitated lamb. The lion, after batting his paws at the handlers a few times, spent the rest of the sermon lazing about in his cage. Jesus, explains pastor Ed, is both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God. A paradox. “If Jesus is just a lamb, he’s not threatening, he doesn’t get up in my grill, he doesn’t get in my business,” he said. Channeling Jesus’ lion-like nature, Young says, gives believers “Godfidence” and “spirit-led swagger.”

It seems the sermon is not an illustration of peace, or domesticity, of the lion lying down with the lamb, but an embodiment of a paradox.

Embodiment is something Ed Young specializes in. He is often described as “creative,” is a flamboyant performer, in his services he deploys props, gimmicks, visual theater. He is prone to putting into play everyday sayings and of dramatizing biblical metaphors through literalization and embodiment. He attracted nation-wide attention for his pulpit campaign in 2008 urging married couples to strengthen their bonds through a week of “congregational copulation.” This was described as a “sexperiment” (Sexperiment is the title of his best-selling book). In “How to move from whining about the economy to whoopee!” He paced on stage in front of a large bed, now and then flopping down and flipping through the pages of a bible. This was an enactment or embodiment of the metaphoric: Time for the church to put God back into the bed.

The lion, you might say, was simply a prop, a visual aid, an illustration of language. Functionally it was equivalent to the Ferrari which Ed Young drove onto the stage one Sunday as part of a sermon illustration for his series titled “RPM: Relationships. Passion. Marriage.” “God gave me a Ferrari,” Young said, “because I am a Ferrari. You’re a Ferrari too. God has given you a Ferrari.” This is a little confusing to me. But the thousands of worshipers do not seem to be confused. To get a handle on it I tell myself that to be or not to be is not the question here. The Ferrari it seems is the body, and at the same time you are a Ferrari because you are made in the image of God. But many people abuse this gift of the Ferrari-body by not letting God be the driver, not learning to drive as God would. Lots of defective dating and sex before marriage leads to “off-roading.” And one bad thing leads to another, it’s a slippery slope, you put one foot wrong and land up in the vice-like clinches of a real humdinger: You’re a self-centered sinner, you marry a self-centered sinner, you have kids who are also self-centered sinners and you end up with a “colossal collection of self-centered sinning.”

But luckily there’s a way out of this swirling vortex of sin.

“It’s time for a sexual revolution. It’s time to understand we’re Ferraris. It’s time to drive down God’s track.” Sex. Wealth. Godfidence. To promote Sexperiment Ed and his wife Lisa took part in a 24 hour “bed-in” on the church roof and streamed the event on the internet.

A lion’s roar can be heard…

There is, under the circumstances, and according to Maria, a happy ending to the story. Though some might say the ending is up in the air. A spokesman for the Fellowship church says the lion was back “at home” in his California preservation where he has thousands of acres on which to roam, as though in the wild. No permits were requested for the theatrical sermon because none were needed. No prosecutions ensued. The lion, in the media and internet coverage, simply disappeared into some mythical Californian savannah, or into thin air.

Five miles…

This deployment of metaphor is not much different to the sex education we used to get at school: the body is a car, you must learn to care for it, respect it, and above all you have to learn to drive slowly. But Pastor Ed’s lesson is much more vivid and compelling. In addition it promises a reward: good and proper sex, inviting God into the (domestic) bedroom, can make you rich.

The lion and the Ferrari. Each a thing, a prop, a visual aid, a charged image. The theatricality of the symbolic dimension. A thing, but transformed from thingness through embodiment and rhetorical sleight of hand. I am a Ferrari: by a stretch of the imagination I can almost grasp this, the rhetorical intention anyway, but channeling Jesus’ lion-like nature via this caged and abject creature, receiving “Godfidence” and “spirit-led swagger”: this is harder for me to envision, to realize as embodiment.

Why are the herbs so bitter, why are we eating lamb? Val Plumwood, the Australian ecophilosopher who was death rolled three times before being released from the crocodile’s jaws later wrote, in an essay called “Meeting the Predator,” that it is only when we can consider ourselves as meat for other animals that we can imagine living in peace on this planet.

A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles…

All the way home, and for days afterward the stifled roar of that lion is trapped in my body. The wailing of the train and the roaring of the lion. I write this story but do not read it aloud to Elvis as is my wont. This is a story I cannot tell out loud.

 

Notes

His Texas Fellowship Church…… These numbers are provided in Wikipedia, but the entry is signaled as having problems. You can get a sense of the huge congregation by taking a look at the site where Pastor Ed streams live 24/7: edyoung.com.

“God Gave Me a Ferrari….” http://www.christianpost.com/news/pastor-drives-ferrari-into-church-for-relationship-series-49215/. Accessed 16 April 2014

“Jesus was called and is called, the Lion of Judah …..” and “If Jesus is just a lamb…”

http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/furry-fellowship-grapevine-pastor-ed-young-brings-lion-lamb-easter-sermon Accessed 16 April 2014

Val Plumwood, the Australian ecophilosopher… The essay, “Meeting the Predator” is in a collection of her essays, The Eye of the Crocodile

 

 

 

All Along the Highway

As we leave the desert behind the radio crackles into coherence. A deep male voice exhorts us to dig into our pockets and contribute to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. A lone voice crackling in the wilderness, I think.

All along the highway on the plateau before the hill country wildflowers bloom: swathes of bluebonnets intermingled with red and yellow.

We stop for lunch in Ozona, a small big town in the Edwards Plateau region on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country. Hunters  come to Ozona in search of white-tailed deer, javelina, and game birds. Ozona is the county seat of Crockett County, named for Colonel Davy Crockett, a hero of the Alamo.  We drive through the town looking for a steak house Katie once ate at and remembers hungrily but it is nowhere to be found. The streets of the town are deserted on this Sunday, faded tatty shuttered shops are strung along the main street fanning out from the civic center—gracious and impressive buildings, solidly built of stone. The Café Next Door is the only non fast-food place we can find off the freeway. We expect it to be full of travelers like ourselves, but it is choc-a-block with families out for Sunday lunch, dressed up a little, probably coming here after church. The little girls have bows in their hair, some of the men wear clean bright shirts, mostly red, with their black jeans and skinny black ties and polished boots and Texan hats. People are eating big, but we delicate and discerning city girls order toasted cheese and salad. The sandwich has been heated, but the cheese resists melting, its plasticity and psychedelic orange hue pronounced by heat. We don’t say anything to one another, we are hungry and wolf the sandwich down. But later, as we drive through an expanse of nowhere Katie, says, out of the blue, “That cheese was scary.”

In Harper, where there are at least six churches including Wild Ride Ministries, we are greeted by a billboard: Hunters Welcome. The main business in town seems to be taxidermy. Outside of town we pass a ranch where an extraordinary sight hurtles me out of Texas and back to Africa. The grass is brownish, the landscape savannah-like, as though on a safari we cruise past African gemsbok, eland, gazelle, kudu, springbok. Later I discover that there is a price on each exotic animal’s head, and if you are prepared to pay the price you can come in and kill it. It will cost you, for instance, upward of $12,000.00 to bag a kudu, though you can get a Springbok for half of that. Mostly hunters come in groups, most often family groups. The Lone Star Ranch Exotic Hunts pays tribute on their website to the Best Group Hunt of
 2013, The Wood Group: “truly an amazing group of Hunters. Their enthusiasm and kindness were unmatched.  They had such a great time together that it was a pleasure to be a part of their hunting adventures.
 They did not waste one moment from the time they arrived at the Ranch to get in the woods and start hunting.  They had a mission to fill their freezers with meat, and within no time they were putting the smack down on Elk and Buffalo.”

Not every shoot costs money. In addition to the usual packages the Ranch offers Hunts for Hope, complimentary dream hunts 
for children battling terminal illnesses. There is a photo of children posing in front of a zebra they have killed.

In the town of Frederiksburg, with its lovely stone buildings that seem to have been eerily transported from an earlier European era, we are again craving tea and so return to the Old German Bakery and Restaurant. On the way out to Big Bend and Marfa we had delicious bratwurst and sauerkraut and a pork cutlet that was even better cold the next morning in the motel at Marathon watching the sun come up. Over the blackboard menu in the Bakery there was a montage of photos, some showing a part of the town invisible to a passer-through: faded walls, deserted streets, graffiti; other photos and cuttings showed cavalcades, monuments, and John Kennedy’s face cut from a German newspaper. The bakery is closed this Sunday, so we wander round a back street and Katie shows me the Sunday houses and tells of how she stayed there with her mother and father when they were both still alive. These are small weekend houses that the ranchers and farmers built in the late 1800s so that they could spend a night or two when they came in to town for church and perhaps to party. They are small houses, craft houses meticulously constructed out of local materials, now mostly rented out to tourists. Katie’s voice softens as she tells me about these houses.

We find a cup of tea at a Biergarten where two young girls in their sparkling twenties are taking their grandparents out for dinner or lunch in this Sunday mid-afternoon, and have to shout a lot, and at the table next to us, a party of retirees, just off the coach, are checking out the town on their i-phones, comparing maps and statistics.

North of Frederiksburg we pull in to a Wildflower Nursery, and walk through fields of blue, fields of red, whole fields like oceans, like we are swimming through a diaphanous red sea, light as air. Yoke Sum, in Marfa, had shown us the seed packets she and Derek had purchased here. She is going to take them back to England to plant in her garden, where, if the bluebonnets grow, they will become exotic rather than native. Here, although native, they did not sprout spontaneously along the highway. It was Lady Bird Johnson who was largely responsible for getting rid of the junkyards and billboards that graced the highway system, replacing them with native plantings, through her support for the Beautification Act of 1965. Before this road trip if you had tossed to me the words Johnson and 1965, and asked me to say whatever came into my mind I would have said Vietnam, napalm, and the Civil Rights Act (of the previous year). That word, beautification, it slightly churns the stomach and curls the lip. Botox and pansies, landscaping and real estate, Sunday best, veneering.

Yet Lady Bird’s legacy is substantial, her campaign for national beautification was linked to environmental concerns, to improving urban decay and pollution as well as to preservation of natural wonders. As we swim through the crimson air of the poppy meadows in the flower fields I remember hiking through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, one of the most spectacular stands of old redwoods in Northern California. And as we hit the highway again, pondering the shiftiness of terms like foreign and domestic, native and exotic, I feel grateful for the way her legacy lives on, in for instance the infelicitously named Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 which requires that at least 0.25 of 1 percent of funds expended for landscaping projects in the highway system be used to plant native flowers, plants and trees.

As we hit the highway again, on the home run to Austen, the deep male voice greets us again on the radio, still pitching persuasively for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Although it induces a degree of squeamishness, this exhortation to charitable giving, I nevertheless feel grateful; not only does this Society fund a great deal of research it also is generous with information and support. Still, I think, probably a lone voice crackling in the wilderness. Then the voice segues smoothly from leukemia to climate change, actually to the fiction of climate change, to a rant about how our President, his voice sneers on this word, President, how our President, Obama, is hobbling and dictating to the EPA, preaching an alarmist philosophy that bears absolutely no relation to reality. He claims that the planet is heating up, says the voice, and where does he get this information? I ask you where does he get this information? I can tell you where he gets this so-called information, he reaches into the air and pulls statistics from nowhere, out of the air, that’s where, out of the air. We realize we are listening to Rush Limbaugh, the most-listened-to talk show host in the country. I guess, with all those listeners, he might raise some money for research that will come my way. Oi vey.

 

 

 

 

The Answer is not Coming

She waits in the freezing snow at the bottom of a huge mountain, an icy mountain lying between one country and another. It’s the end of the day, light is failing. Perhaps he has ditched her, or had an accident, or fallen into a crevasse. Doubt. Waiting. “The answer is not coming.” So writes Rachel Kushner at the end of The Flame Throwers. Though these are not quite the last words of the novel.

Two things are going on, as I see it. There’s a familiar quotidian experience: hanging about waiting for someone who doesn’t show. You’re in that place or moment when anxiety and boredom collide, anticipation runs headlong into despair. And there’s a larger metaphysical or perhaps structural thing going on: how to be in that experience, how to move through this waiting, or to let the waiting materialize as a non-conclusive ending.

The answer to the question of whether he is coming or not is simple, it becomes clear as night falls: He is not coming. But there is another question not answered, though what exactly this question is you can’t say and actually it doesn’t matter what the question itself is. It is not a man who will not come, it is an answer. For Kushner, I believe, it’s enmeshed in how to bring the novel to an end. In an interview she writes, “I was determined not to have the narrator ride off into the horizon in a blaze of triumph at the end. The plotline where the main character overcomes a weakness and acts with new empowerment is a form of narrative compression I usually find cheap and don’t much relate to.”

This is a novel that is dense and intriguing in its cutting between times and places, places in the US and Italy, in the 1970s and around the First World War. The threads of connection that link people to political and art movements are rendered through scenarios in which characters experience speed and slowness, talking, listening, waiting. Guns and motor bikes, riding fast and waiting about slowly not doing much. Techniques and technologies. Kushner, within the fabric of the daily, writes about a variety of technologies, mobilizing characters and ideas that attempt, variously, to forge a way out of the routine of the everyday. Her novel, too, shapes up—disintegrates, realigns—through a virtuoso enactment of technique. She herself is a flame thrower, filling the sky with colors and patterns, materializing through technique a range of possibilities, some lethal. Reading, immersed in the rhythms and the cutting between locales, alerted through technique rather than through authorial direction, to the present, you don’t expect a conclusion, particularly one that embodies a triumph over adversity. It isn’t simply that we are left with a question at the end, some plot thread that is left loose, given to us as a throw away scrap from the table of literary delights. No, it’s that the whole practice or technique of the novel works against triumphalism with all its moral underpinnings.

Because I’m pretty well right now I’m greedy to grab every moment to write or read scraps from lots of different books and so I’ve read this novel slowly, in some senses against the grain. Lindsey says, “For me it was cold and fast—a reading experience that I imagine is akin to riding one of those motorcycles she rides around Manhattan.” In the last third I speed up, glad to immerse myself in the novel during a Cancer Survivors Week, thus saving myself from getting hot under the collar about all the triumphalist rhetoric in the air. Saving myself, perhaps, from insinuations of guilt solicited by sentiment-drenched exhortations to give money to defeat cancer. I want to live longer, I want them (that great big them in the sky) to find a better form of treatment than the ghastly chemos people with tumors have to endure (and indeed there are people with blood cancers who endure these too). And being implicated, a receiver or beneficiary of the bounty, I know I should give more than I do so that people not as lucky as me in terms of time and place can get a better deal. But it makes me mad that so much of cancer, medicine in general, actually everything in general in this country, is so dependent on charity, on private institutions, on individual gifts. Matters of public concern rendered as a balancing act between the fortunate and the unfortunate, where individuals can be empowered by charitable acts, acts of giving.

The objective correlative of this is the celebration of survivors, the hullaballoo about the battle won by strong individuals. Empowerment through adversity. We are the strong ones, the ones who fought back and won, we are special, not like all those losers who succumbed and dropped dead without a proper struggle.

Of course it isn’t just around cancer that the ubiquitous grizzliness of positive thinking occurs. Jeffrey comes home from the gym the other day and tells me about an interview he saw on CNN while treading the mill. One of the young survivors of the ghastly Santa Barbara campus murders came forward voluntarily to offer witness. He said something like, “It wasn’t an entirely negative experience… some of us survived.”

Still, we need fiction sometimes. The fiction of survival is a charged fiction and through the charging, the living through, acquires a material reality. The reality that we are fighting, that we will overcome. When Isabel wrote to me, long ago it now seems, when I had surgery for lung cancer a year after the leukemia diagnosis, “vencerás,” (you will overcome) it was inspiring, it gave me courage, I started to believe that I would survive. She gave me a gift.

So what to do, what is the answer? Me fuming silently on my soapbox with a hand hovering reluctantly over a shallow pocket chockablock with scrunched up tissues and lists of things to do and a little cash isn’t going to change the circuit of charitable and uncharitable capital.

 

 

 

 

 

Spheres of Glass

I wandered, lonely, escaping from the Seattle Sheraton, from the giddiness of social encounters and a plethora of conference talk, escaping Chihuly. Chihuly ornaments and glass sculptures are nested in every niche of the Sheraton, commanding attention from every shiny polished vantage point. Almost every hotel in Seattle (and many other hotels around the world) exhibit Dale Chihuly glass works, but his great popularity is centered on the garden installations. I saw “Gardens of Glass: Chihuly at Kew” in 2005, but was neither charmed nor seduced. As a tourist and gardener and sometimes critic, like others of my ilk I would always rather be seduced than not. On the other hand I’d rather be intrigued than charmed (but of course you cannot always choose the things that move you, you cannot orchestrate those moments when the air turns cold and you shiver, or when a hot feverish breeze gets under your skin, or when perplexity renders you speechless; for all that a certain kind of taste is trained into your body, you cannot always predict how you will react). So now, visiting Seattle for the first time, Chihuly Garden and Glass is on my bucket list. I’m intrigued to see how these glass works work in their native setting, hoping my mind can be changed.

After all, the conceit of these garden installations is potentially intriguing: the insinuation of fantastical glass sculptures in amongst real plants. They are mostly, though not entirely, gigantic, these sculptures, bearing names like garden grass, reeds, blue herons, sun, French Blue Ikebana with orange and scarlet frog feet, green trumpets, red orange reeds. They imitate and mimic. As you wander through the garden you encounter vegetative landscapes, living matter, interspersed with signs of the synthetic, squishy materials juxtaposed with brittle surfaces, warm and fleshy with glassy coolness. Of course no garden is entirely natural, but if all gardens are to some degree designed then grand public gardens like Kew are meticulously curated (and so too, one imagines, the “original” Chihuly Garden). As a viewer ambling through a series of interconnected gardens or galleries, one’s curiosity could be tickled, one’s sense of assurance about which goes with what. Mimesis in this mise-en-scène possesses the potential to provoke the irreality of the garden itself.

But the garden and museum fell short of conceit.

So here I am, escaping the extravaganza, walking back to the downtown conference along 5th Avenue. Walking segues into trudging. It seems as though I have been hiking for days through rough terrain. A sliver of anxiety worms its way up, up from heavy footsteps into my stomach and buzzes there, a caged mosquito, looking for blood. An old familiar feeling, a feeling that hasn’t visited for months. Perhaps, I tell myself, it is not somatic at all, just disgruntlement, the massive gaudy Chihuly glass works—luridly pretty, drained of affect—weighing heavily upon my fragile psyche. Suddenly a wave of home sickness ripples through me, a yearning—to be home, curled up in bed with Elvis and Roxy, or in the garden picking fava beans, or in with the chickens, cooing, stroking their silkiness.

Lonely as a cloud.

When all at once I see a crowd, a host, of spectral chickens. Dead, plucked and headless chickens, impaled, fluttering and dancing in a shop window. Two washing lines slice the window vertically. Meat hooks hang from the cord lines, piercing the elongated yet rather fat necks, all skinniness concentrated in the legs which dangle in the air, feet splayed open like hands stretching, feeling for solid ground. In between the legs and the necks plump appurtenances, rounded if rather lumpy breasts. Is it a shop, a restaurant, an office? There is no lettering, no description, no invitation.

My dragging footsteps freeze.

Behind the chooks hangs a large Chinese paper lantern, once scarlet now faded to puce, and in the right foreground, on a dusty cluttered desk, a jar of bright lively daffodils. Golden. In contrast the chickens are pasty and pale, a grimy faded yellow. The sickly yellow of birds-eye-custard, dished up in my childhood at the end of every vile boarding school meal, smothered over every horrible pudding, the horribleness only exacerbated by this fraudulent cover-up. Or is it whiteness turned old and musty and tinged with the ochre of decay? I step closer, nose against the glass. There is something odd about these chickens, they are too smooth, too drained of blood, too dusty, their necks—inauthentically fat—are hollow. There is something about them that makes me want to reach out through the glass to feel their textural duplicity.

These are imitation carcasses, synthetic chickens, plasticcy. Relief and hilarity. The sense of laughter, however, isn’t just provoked by the discovery of the hoax, rather it’s to do with the uncanny persistence of irreality, an undecidabilty that persists in the scene before and after discovery, for now I’m part of this scene that I stumbled upon. The sense of unease, shadowed by the intimation of disease returning, the horror provoked by this exhibition of dead and naked chickens, the unasked-for juxtaposition of my silky girls and these synthetic mute corpses, is somewhat alleviated by the certainty that they are merely imitations. I’m off the hook, “my chickens” whose heads I would never chop off, who I would never pluck and hang and eat, are OK, they remain in the realm of the real while these phantoms are merely incarnations of a spectral brutality. But then the scene I witness—as though in a museum, as though this is an exhibit, as if it were a still frame from a movie—insists on including me in its mise en scène, on incorporating the dissociation from which I suffer. Cognitive dissonance shot through with strains of the uncanny. When I see ducks hanging in Chinese butchers, gleaming and velvetty in their soy basting, I can’t wait to taste and to experience in the mouth the crunch of their crispy skin. Even chickens, I never hesitate to eat chicken, I enjoy the cooking of chickens and chicken parts. “Chickens” in general. Not particular chickens. Not my chickens.

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door.

Freud, writing here about the uncanny presents us with a scene conceptualized as a frame within a frame. He is jolted, subjected to a shock. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer and the image. Enter the chickens as a third term, a mediating twist.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance, of the personal and the social, of no man being an island:

 The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance.

How bizarre to come upon this apparition on an ordinary street, while ambling along, to encounter thus the uncanny echoing or correlation of living and dead, natural and artificial, self and other, chickens and daffodils. Somehow this view into another world (office, butcher’s shop, Chinese restaurant?) wakes me up, looks back, interpolates. The austerity of the frame, string strung across the window asymmetrically, the sickly color-co-ordination, the insinuation of springtime and gardens, of a host of golden daffodils, into this macabre composition is provocative in a way the Chihuly is not.

It would be wrong to say that on glimpsing those daffodils my heart with pleasure danced. But a lightness did indeed enter into my leaden feet, as I imagined a dance macabre between those denuded plastic chickens and my feathery cooing girls.

You have to walk through the Chihuly museum in order to reach the garden. Which means your experience of the garden is overdetermined by the sense of aesthetic homogeneity indoors. Actually the transition between the two realms is striking. It is called the glass house, and although modeled on the great glass houses of the nineteenth century such as the Crystal Palace, it is a very simple structure, bare and austere. In contrast to the nakedness and transparency in which you find yourself a huge sprawling floral abundance hangs from the ceiling: glass flowers, larger than life, fashioned in red gold and orange, drip lusciously, suspensed in space, suspended forever. As you stand under them it is almost impossible not to imagine the whole gigantic structure crashing, splintering, dispersing into a thousand pieces. It’s a gloriously extravagant composition, this mixing of glass textures, this invocation of an aesthetic of timelessness through an illusion to practices of preservation, to ways of keeping things alive in artificial environments. Like glass houses, like museums, like tombs.

In the glass house a space opens up in which to meditate upon scale and materiality.

But after the glass house is the garden and before the glass house there are galleries, endless iterations of frilly floraciousness. The psychedelic underwater worlds are interchangeable with the flowery abstractions. The garden is just another gallery, a medium of display, a staging for the performance of anxiety: to elevate glass blowing from a craft to a grandiose art. Such production requires factory conditions and many workers. Nothing new in this, but the process of effacement in the name of a single genius artist serves to efface process in general. I so wanted the installation to yield a tension, a gesturing to something outside itself, to the multiple imbrications of nature and art, to the materiality created out of breath and fire. What I found was an abundance of precious cheerfulness but little sense of the uncanny, or of the fragility of glass, how close it is to splintering. Nor much sense of how the social is inscribed in the material world. Wonder is a word often used to describe the Chihuly effect, but for me wonder served to efface the complexities of process.

Wonder is also the predominant response elicited by another famous and popular display, the Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, in the Harvard Museum of Natural History (often acknowledged by Chihuly as an influence). This collection is composed of 3,000 models of ‘Glass Flowers’ constructed by father and son Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, over five decades from 1886 through 1936.In fact all kinds of plants, not just flowers, make up the collection which was commissioned in order to teach students of botany. The models are disturbingly life size (too large to be miniatures, too small to be sculptures) and remarkably accurate in anatomical detail and color.

The wonder that these “flowers” elicit is complicated by a range of emotions and epistemological speculations, as evidenced in the richness of critical writing that circulates around them. Much of this writing hovers between description and defiance of description. How unlikely that these scientific models should be made of glass rather than other substances so much more amenable to modeling (they are constructed primarily though not exclusively of glass) like wax or papier mache. Their materiality, in practical and imaginative terms, is of the utmost importance. While extremely thingy they are also chimerical. Wonder is generated in the play between seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing: you know they are made of glass and yet ….. “They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm,” says Jamaica Kincaid. It is she who captures the uncanniness of the artificial perfection, and nails the relation of these objects wrought in glass to the garden.

The glass flowers and their many stages of being are in a state of perfection stilled. It is always a gardener’s wish to have perfection and then to have it forever. It is also within the gardener’s temperament to first desire forever and then to do everything possible to dismantle and smash forever. If the flowers encased in cabinets stored in the museum make up a garden, they are not the exception to this latter sentiment. Though it seems as if they will last forever, every cabinet bears a legend warning of their fragility. The people taking care of them give assurance that they will last forever. But as every gardener knows, forever is as long as a day.

Glass matters here, but other materials matter elsewhere. Plastic and yarn, for instance, can be exploited for their mimetic potential. What matters is scale and texture and the way that the materiality of the sculptural object is able to gesture outside its own perfection (its mimetic perfection, or formal coherence) to chisel a crack in the cognitive dissonance that glues everything together.

Think of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s glass poem, Wave/Rock. The poem is constructed not on the page but on a thick sheet of glass onto which the words Wave and Rock, many times over, are sandblasted. The letters of the word wave “break” on the rock constructed not on the page but in glass. The form of the words mimics their meaning, enacts their materiality. Waves break, and simultaneously the process of waves breaking is frozen, the cycle of nature is eternal, and at the same time fragile, vulnerable to destruction particularly in and by human hands: the one who sculpts, composes, the one who reads and sees and knows and does not know. Wave/Rock dislodges an habitual cognitive dissonance. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer, looking at and through the glass, and the image.

Enter the chickens, proposing a third term, a mediating twist. For me the chickens in this instance represent an ecological dimension that Finlay Patterson most likely did not intend, but that the work now speaks.

Glass in the end is not the most important thing (though glass contains a particular potential). It is the materiality of the process incorporated into the sculptural object, the “work” in the “work” which gestures towards something playful and also potentially destructive. The wave, this one wave which is also many waves, all waves, breaks over and over again but is itself vulnerable, and perhaps after all not so eternal.

Take “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs.” This is a project initiated by the Institute for Figuring, run by Christine and Margaret Wertheim. The Wertheim sisters, inspired by a type of mathematical modeling called hyperbolic geometry, put out a web call to invite women to join them in crocheting a coral reef, following some simple mathematical rules for generating a certain kind of spatial configuration and dimensionality (interestingly embodied by reefs and reef creatures). Women from all over the world responded to the invitation, contributing individual items and elements. The Institute for Figuring initiated workshops, crocheting workshops which incorporated an ecological component, a learning about reefs, about the threats posed to their existence particularly from the onslaught of plastic detritus.The artists, as well as using more familiar materials such as wool and yarn, incorporated into the sculptures recycled materials, such as plastics. Leslie Dick, from whose fabulous essay I learnt of this project, writes of a “mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)” which is “mirrored by the relation of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs to their real-world counterparts, particularly the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific. Leslie Dick contends that the project, drawing on so many practitioners, produces a new kind of artist (and thus art work), one immersed in reverie, in a project that enables a rich variety and combination of imaginative explorations. She invokes this kind of artist:

While she may have confidence in her expertise, her work avoids grandiosity, remaining at a manageable scale (until it joins the larger combination). This artist particularly enjoys the invitation to sink below the ocean, to enter its dreamlike darkness, an alternate reality of color and shape. She enjoys making phallic shapes, using her hook and yarn to build leaning towers, star shaped fortresses, a landscape drawn in lumps of color. She enjoys making vaginal shapes, fuzzy, curly edged openings, soft to the touch, fronded and weird.

I have only seen images on screen but these marvelously thingy things look so incredibly life-like, so reefish, it’s uncanny. And dissonant too, the way “alien” materials are almost seamlessly crocheted into the sculptures. There is a cognitive dissonance at large in our world now: we revel in the beauty of underwater worlds, of forests and canyons, of places like the Great Barrier Reef, and we are filled with wonder at art that mimics that beauty and preserves for eternity a Platonic perfection. Peeking into the world of “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs” jars that perfection, chisels into the glue of cognitive dissonance, invites reverie and wonder and playful engagement but also a cognitive recalibration, a reimagining and respinning of a conceit that intertwines the natural and synthetic worlds.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance – as we were making our way back from the spectacular San Juan Islands where we spent a night on Orcas island, a catastrophic event occurred in beautiful Washington State, one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. As we hiked around Cascade Lake and climbed to the top of the tower on the top of Mount Constitution, marveling in this world seemingly so pristine, a community in Stillaguamish Valley in the foothills of the North Cascades were suddenly without warning buried under mud. A natural disaster? Unforeseen, said the emergency manager of the area. Timothy Egan wrote a week after the event that in fact there had been warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hillside that just suffered a large catastrophic failure (although it seems the inhabitants of the endangered community were never told of these official reports). Egan reports visiting the area 25 years ago and being shown a mudslide occurring on a hillside above the river, a hillside in which old growth forest had been clear felled, leaving nothing to hold the hillside in torrential rain. Just like the hillside above the small, disappeared community, of Oso.

Egan says, “The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance… A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.”

Scale and texture. A continent, an ocean, a garden, a shop window, forests, mud, glass, yarn, plastic, plants, the real and the imitative, the beautiful and the catastrophic.

I return to San Diego where rather than rain there is a drought, and the river if it can be seen at all, is skinny. I make a routine visit to the hospital on the UCSD campus and am astounded by the number of new buildings, massive grandiose medical buildings mostly, being developed on the very edge of canyons. Mesas have been sliced into and rearranged. Glass and concrete structures teeter on air. We have no old growth forests here, just coastal scrub and chaparral. But they too hold the earth down. What, I wonder is the cognitive dissonance we suffer from here? I imagine a performance art project enacted by chickens let loose on the medical campus, or even an installation of dead, plucked and headless chickens, hanging from the canyon walls, dangling over freeways, reaching for the daffodils.

 Notes

“I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment…” …. Sigmund Freud, in a footnote to his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny” in Art and Literature. Trans. James Strachey. Comp  & ed Angela Richards. 1919. The Pelican Freud Library 14. London: Penguin,                    1985. Freud situates his essay as an investigation into aesthetics: “understood to   mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling”     (339).

 The “taming” of this continent Timothy Egan, “A Mudslide, Foretold,” The New        York Times, 29th March, 2014.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/opinion/sunday/egan-at-home-when-the-earthmoves.html?action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry485%23%2Ftimothy+egan+mudslide&_r=0

accessed march 29th.

 

“They look real enough…” Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass,” The Architectural    Digest, June 2002.

http://www.architecturaldigest.com/ad/archive/artnotebook_article_062002

Accessed 15th March, 2014.

“mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)…” Leslie Dick, The       Institute for Figuring and Companions: Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs. Track 16             Santa Monica,” X-tra, Summer 2009, volume 11 number 4.

http://x-traonline.org/article/the-institute-for-figuring-and-companions-       hyperbolic-crochet-coral-reefs/

accessed 12th February, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cantankerous Rooster

Marathon, Texas. It is early morning and light is creeping into the motel room. Last night we walked back to the motel under a huge black sky, so black the stars shone like the burnished feathers of a silver rooster, burras brayed, flights of angels winging us to our rest. I remember living in San Augustine near Oaxaca, being kept awake and woken and harassed all day and night by the sound of braying burros, turkeys, a rooster, dogs, people. Gracias a los burros my rooster does not have to crow. He stands on the dressing table in front of a mirror so there are two of him. Sculptural. Silent. He is double and a doubler; he has, for instance, doubled the amount of words allowed in this bit of writing. I open the door and step out into the dusty parking lot. The sky is now a soft donkey grey, fringed to the east with vermilion, redness seeps out of the earth, filtering into the sky.

I can stretch my arm in any direction and reach the edge of solidity and then my fingers will close around the sky.

I take the rooster outside and photograph him. He is immobile. His coxscomb is scarlet, his body painted in swathes of yellow, green and blue. His tail is feathery, the featheriness of sliced tin, a shiny indigo blue. He is perfectly proportioned. His toes are splayed giving him a firm purchase on the ground, or the dressing table, or wherever he alights. Always out of place, he will be my register of place as we travel through desert regions towards Marfa.

The rooster joined us before the desert. In Johnson City, home of LBJ we find somewhere to pee: A tiny coffee shop in a large yard filled with iron ware. Flying pigs and alligators and cows. All painted. On the counter a faded photo of a Starbucks van, the side door slid open so that “tarbuck” is eliminated. What you see then is the starbucks icon and the word “sucks.”

While he fixed me an excellent espresso John and I swapped a few minimally anecdotal details—he’d lived in San Francisco, he could tell I wasn’t from Texas. Probably not from San Francisco either. The old guy he’s swapping yarns with, toothless, dusty, feels like he’s roamed the local block for years, and probably drunk every bottle in town, but who knows? Who knows peoples’ stories unless you drive with them for days and days through the desert and can talk of this and that and failed relationships and swap another hilarious story of another disastrous episode in the life of love. I asked John who made the rooster and the other creatures, where they came from. He looked at me quizzically as if to say which leg can I pull, which story will she buy, or as if he were asking himself is this a trick question, what’s she after this foreigner, who on this wide earth wants to know about the provenance of painted tin chotchkes, who gives a flying fuck where the rooster comes from. Then he laughs and says Juan, Carlos, Roberto, Ricardo, Miguel…..an army of anonymous Mexicans. I realize then it was indeed a sneaky question, the sort of question that a snooty gardener asks, either to elevate her purchase, raise it out of the realm of tourist art and into the realm of artisanal individuality, or simply to trip up a pretentious vendor.

I could go back to Old Town in San Diego and buy this rooster, closer to the source of its production. Or just nip across the border and buy it by the side of the road. Probably I could even nip back to Zimbabwe and buy the same rooster. And yet not exactly the same.

There was a bigger rooster, grander. But as soon as my eyes alit upon this one I knew he was the one for me. He is life size, perfectly proportioned, he has stepped out from a child’s picture book, from meticulously illustrated Mexican playing cards. R for rooster. G for el gallo. Watch out, says the old guy, he’s a cantankerous rooster, that one.

Molly, who has turned up at the coffee shop with Allen and Lynsey says, we will photograph the rooster everywhere we stop on our journey towards Marfa. He will be our sign, our register of place. The problem is Molly drives off with her lovely camera and I only have a phone. Luckily, the rooster responds well to i-phone attention. Preens, holds still while I teeter and shake.

In Harper where we get gas he stands beneath a wall on which is painted a much larger than life US flag and under it a large star of David and the slogan: Stand By Israel. Over the doorway on the same wall it says Building for Sale. Somehow my focus is screwy and the rooster is cut out of the picture.

He does appear, albeit tinily at the bottom of the frame, under two bucking broncos, at Lowe’s a local market in Fort Stockton. We had a cup of tea at a restaurant here and the young Mexican American who served us wouldn’t take any payment, it’s just water he said. I bought a bar of fancy dark chocolate with sea salt, an anomolous foreign import, and Katie bought a local newspaper. We ate the chocolate at the Rock House by the Rio Grande, it was musty.

In Marathon we have breakfast at Nancy’s Coffee shop. Under the large sign is scrawled, faintly, barely legible, “Foiled Again.” He stands in the large expanse of the dirt parking lot in front of our rooms. The horizon is so low it just peeks over his head.

We drive down into Big Bend National Park. At last and eventually we arrive at Terrlingua ghost town. There is a row of seats along the verandah of the saloon which is also a gift shop and also the hotel, next door to the Starlight Theatre and Bar which only opens at 5.00 so we will not get there, but it looks enticing, stars are painted on the ceiling. On the verandah everyone has a bottle in hand, slow gossip fuels the atmosphere. New people in town, everyone is alert but pretends to notice nothing. Though they all noticed Nora. Someone has already picked up the keys to the Rock House, and when I ask who she says a boy and a girl with tattoos. Nora later tells us that on her way out a woman grabs her arm to comment on her tattoos and confides loudly that she has her ex boyfriend’s name tattoed on her butt.

At the Rock House the Rooster sits on a table, the Rio Grande behind him. And then I bring him in for the night to sit safely at the foot of my bed. There are rooster thieves abroad, and vigilance is required.

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Now we are here, in Marfa, the rooster and I. You would not exactly call him Juddesque, my rooster. Picturesque, yes definitely. Ex-situ incarnate.

I shall take him home this rooster, a Texan I guess, home to California where he will be charged to remember all the fantastical details of this journey which I shall forget slowly, memory by memory.

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Australia Flashes 1

Travel

“I hate travelling and explorers.”

These words, the opening words of Levi-Strauss’ Triste Tropiques have been lying in wait; now they leap out and ambush me, mockingly as I think about journeys, travel, detours and interruptions.

Missed Connection

I am on a tram from the city, heading out to Northcote. Behind me two academics are discussing grants, who gets them and who doesn’t, how to pitch a project. One of them is disgruntled, kvetching about a colleague who suddenly has started embracing their Jewishness, excavating family history and writing about the holocaust. He says “I’m a good Jew as Jews go not religious mind you but gotta track record, been doing this stuff for years, and they knocked me back. Again.” “Suck it up Sunshine” says the other bloke. During this exchange a man shuffles into the seat next to me, talking as he comes, talking as he goes. Torture, he says, on the other hand what about torture, in and out of the hospital, that’s me in and out, schizophrenic they say, they say it’s a diagnosis, well maybe who’s to say but that’s no excuse to torture a person, they’ll use any excuse the government, any excuse, on the other hand who’s to say I’m not Australian, whose business is it, don’t have to tell the world where you come from, they’ll get it out of you in the end, what about the camps, detention camps they call them, well what’s legal if it comes to that, what’s a holocaust, tell me about diagnosis me mum they diagnosed her as leukemia they got into her bones they said things in her bones, on the other hand how can you save a person when it’s in the bones, and there’s no flesh there’s no fat skin and bones, they say I’m a bob short you can say a slice short of a sandwich but that’s no reason to torture a person the government they want to get into yer head, want to put everyone in camps so they can say things in peoples’ heads but on the other hand where are you going to find food skin and bones it’s a good day today sun shining well I hope you have a nice evening and look out for yerself, yeh it’s a nice evening.

I have turned my head to look at him during some of the speech, he is addressing a point in space, seemingly unaware of my presence. I turn back. We sit next to each other each looking straight ahead. Nice evening, I assume, is simply part of a stream of consciousness, which will last the entire tram ride. But as it turns out “look out for yerself” is in fact the termination of a speech at once public and private. Yerself is me. I turn to look at him, to reciprocate, but a fraction too late, just as he himself turns away, gets up and lopes off the tram.

Blown Through the Air

Falling asleep in the air, surfacing in San Diego, creepily hot in mid winter. The garden is confused: fruit trees blooming, lettuces wilting, chickens discombobulated, facing with befuddlement the question: To lay or not to lay today? today is it winter or is today not winter not today?

Leaving Australia as temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees. On the East coast of the U.S. in grubby smouldering cities where only sometimes snow flitters fitfully across the landscape there are four inches today.

Wild fires are breaking out in Australia and in California. How wild I wonder? Raging yes, but unrelated to the domestic?

It’s a bit like sex in the grass, breakfast in bed, says J, it sounds like a splendid idea. Nevertheless he brings me a tray with coddled eggs (Holly’s eggs: Creamy saffron yolks) demure in pastoral china, and a slice of toast festooned with two thick slices of Fat Dave’s bacon. Succulent, salty. Lula Mae stopped laying this week, the day that Holly started. They coordinate the rationing of human pleasure.

I have been a trifle chookless while travelling. Though In Hawaii at Hanauma Bay where I went snorkeling there were wild chickens on the beach. Not very wild, wild once perhaps for a while after escaping domesticity, now semi-naturalized on the beach, not exactly cuddling up but certainly making do quite well with peckings and pickings from human picnics. In Austinmer, on our way down to the beach for an early morning swim, Sarah took me by some chickens to whom she ritually throws her apple core, broken into pieces. In Melbourne each morning I would let Helen’s chickens, making an almighty ruckus as soon as light filtered into the world, out of their coop. After I left and temperatures soared she put ice cubes in their water and posted photos of them sheltering under the shade of the lime trees. And an image of the dog standing, just standing motionless, in the heat in the fish pond. Dazzle the water nymph, wrote Rosa.

So much to do. Pruning in particular—fruit trees, roses, grape vines—and searching for missing library books, buried under dust and piles of other books and mountains of accumulated fines. There is one I cannot find, Notes of a Native Son. I had begun to think of this book as mine I’ve had it so long, renewing it each year. Perhaps someone nicked it, or I left it somewhere like at the hospital or perhaps it has gotten mixed up with gardening books, I’ll check again today. Or perhaps not. When a book goes missing this is usually what I do: buy a replacement cheap and take it into the library, mock-mournful shame-faced, and the nice librarian Jimmy always says, you know we don’t do this you have to pay the fine on-line, and then he takes the book I offer and looks it over, quizzical, as though it’s a novelty for him and a vaguely wondrous event, to hold a book in his hands. And then he says, OK, this time, but it’s the last time. But this time I feel in my bones that eventually James Baldwin will turn up at home and I shall keep him, or it, that library book that has spent so many hours in my hands, made grubby with breakfast stains. After travelling with a kindle, its lightness—while in motion—has now become unbearable, hence this compulsion to pay the fine, as though then the book will materialize. Partly through superstition (paying the fine will magic the book into the world again; but also via an irrational though tenacious inkling that my heroic fine will keep the doors of the library open) I bow to institutional punishment; but I also bow down in homage to the world of books, of solid three dimensional sticky objects that sometimes carry you away on a fluid flowing stream, a river into which you can dangle a foot and despite what the philosopher says you can return and do it again and again it is the same river, you can find yourself again, albeit differently. Like Inside Llewyn Davis which we saw last night. That gasp of recognition as he encounters the man in the suit in the alley again, or is it for the first time, or the second time, and gets his balls kicked in. You think for a moment it may turn out differently, better.

In homage too to Baldwin. How he manages words and how they correlate or not with feelings and how feelings infiltrate and stoke the fire of politics. The fire. “Stranger in the Village” is, at any time and in any place even though of course time and place are specific and matter, an extraordinary essay, in its evocation rather than description, of what today is endlessly in so many contexts called “otherness.” A fire that burns through thickets of sentiment. Exile: what does it feel like, where does it feel, how to think it?

In Australia there is much provocation to think of exile and asylum. Thousands of asylum seekers confined in Detention camps, on and off-shore. One government after another, Labour included, passing the buck. A sticky sensation of guilt and shame adhering to my Australian passport.

But this sensation was not everything. The Australian sojourn was simply marvelous: a passport to pleasure. It came at the right time: Bondi Beach in summer, Fitzroy street, friendships renewed, gardens native and otherwise to walk in, long conversations, spicy Asian food, the bats the black bats swooping through an indigo sky, all this worked better than any drugs.

I got better and better. But was blindsided by others getting iller and iller. I guess this happens when you are away and return and see how everyone is older and not quite as young as we all once were. I felt a niggling sense of shame that I—who make such an habitual hue and cry about not-being-well—should be so well when others all around me were teetering like skittles, battling with demons of pain and separation, incomprehensible medical diagnoses and imminent death. I remind myself: there is no hierarchy of suffering. If I write in order to combat the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that chronic illness can foster, I write for other reasons too, some merely neurotic, some to do with the pleasure afforded by any addiction, and for some reasons (though reason seems far too grand a concept) to do with a sense that putting into words this thing called illness (yes I call it thus even though there are therapeutic regimes that advise rethinking it as “wellness opportunity”) produces a materiality, albeit chimeric and diaphanous, something that can spark recognition, something that can be passed from hand to hand, blown through the air or kicked from one place to another.

Well, that’s the hope.

I had an immunoglobulin infusion the day after returning, blood tests still looking good, feeling fine, but of course it’s a just a matter of time before the symptoms return. Kipps asked me if I’d finished the book. I think he does not know what a holiday is. Lucky for me he works so hard. As expected the ball is in my court, but the choice is more clear cut than often: Continue without drugs for as long as six months if this good runs lasts that long, or start back on a low dose of revlimid with or without the ritoxumab. Certainly I would opt not to do the combination. Too many infusions and all the stuff that goes with that. But Sheila, wonderful Nurse Sheila, said that it would be possible to do the revlimid off-protocol so I wouldn’t be tied down by endless testing and could arrange labs with her and be able to travel. It’ll cost something but not a lot. The simple truth is this: I don’t want to think about it now. Am going to put it off for a month but then will probably opt for what Kipps sees as a pro-active move and the possibility of staving off the next big treatment for longer.

In future posts I will sketch some vignettes of this Australian escape. For if obsession is potentially curative so too is travel. Obsession narrows the gaze and travel expands it. Though they are not as antinomous as it might at first appear. Travel, good if you can get it, is a way of interrupting and shaking the quotidian. Recharging and reshaping.

I take heart from Pamela Brown, ironically wry and curiously lyrical. In her latest book of poems, Home by Dark, which she gave me over cups of tea in a café at Edgecliff station, she writes

 Like Michael said,

Now we’ll spend

The rest of our lives

Watching our friends die

But, and elsewhere, she also writes

 This is my quotidian

But it’s not everything

Frenzied Calm

The obsession grows slowly, building in momentum. In the beginning it tickles, a feather playing whimsically over the surface of your skin, a pleasurable sensation. Delicately a world opens up, a world of the imagination, a “what if” universe.

It begins as a stray thought, a meandering fantasy. You are into your sixth month of chemo treatment, and have made a radical, anxiety fraught decision – to retire. On the one hand this is an acknowledgement that time is running out and on the other hand it’s a hedging of bets: that this way you can stretch time, make more of it, more time of your own choosing, less time whittled away in academic responsibilities and more time spent writing, gardening, cooking, with friends. Fuelled by a fantasy of slow time and slow food you nevertheless imagine rapidity: what if you had a stove that heats up more quickly, that cooks more speedily, that responds to your touch the way his car anticipates James Bond’s every tactile desire. What if there were gas burners that could alternate between flames shooting into the sky and the merest whisper of heat. Imagine not having to get down on your knees to use the broiler. Imagine having all four rings that work, tossing that pair of pliers you use in place of a missing knob.

And then you think well why not, why not give myself a retirement present? An idle thought.

You start dreaming, in a desultory way, about kitchen ranges. Just occasionally, while waiting for the clothes to dry, the water to boil, the chickens to lay an egg. The thought starts idling, seldom switches off, purrs away this side of consciousness. You encounter some beautiful ranges on line. Italian. Far too expensive. Gorgeous primary colors and great design – chunky yet streamlined. Suddenly kitchen ranges seem to pop up in conversation everywhere. Everyone has an opinion. Even people you’d always imagined as rat runners, always eating out, grabbing fast-food-with-the works and eating on the run, they too have range stories. Every house you visit lures you into the kitchen, every kitchen range you encounter elicits a story, a saga of mishaps, opinionated suggestions, alarming anecdotes. In Nasser’s kitchen you come face to face with the desired Italian range, magnetic, gleaming redly. You feel that this undoubtedly is it, the decision is made. Then you open the oven and it’s the size of a shoebox. So that puts a kibosh on that, and the search is on. You start visiting show rooms, department stores, specialty appliance shops, talking to the sales people and experts, reading reviews and users’ comments on cooking sites. And all the information you receive is totally contradictory. Nevertheless there is some pleasure in the exercise. It takes up time, time that could be devoted to other things. It takes up space in your head and on your desk where bits of paper are strewn, scraps on which are scrawled notes about ranges, scraps mixed up with insurance elective forms, with thick booklets on how to fill out retirement forms, and receipts for drugs that have to be checked against the FAS list, and lists of foods that are poisonous to chickens. You chuck that list, the chickens eat everything. You start a folder called Ranges.

It seems you might have to stretch the budget a bit to get the kind of range you want.

The horizon of desire expands. Eating your breakfast you imagine your beautiful new stove, you imagine it orange. You look at the timber floor, scratched, worn down to paper thinness. You look at the dingy walls, you look at the grungy greyish cabinets, painted an aeon ago. You look at the bulky energy-guzzling lights. They look back at you.

So you start researching sustainable flooring. Seized by nostalgia you are seduced into the world of linoleum, bewitched by the range of colors and patterns, play dough colors, gorgeously marbled, slightly unreal. You order samples and they come in great big boxes and take up lots of space. You start cruising around paint shops picking up swatches, speculating, merely speculating, what color walls, you wonder, would set off a Pop Rocket floor. Idly. Just for fun.

And so it begins. You rename your Ranges file: “Kitchen.” The idling revs up. You imagine a creamy color for the walls, not-quite-white, off-white perhaps, though your purchase on color is clearly precarious. The descriptive confusion, however, is just beginning, you are about to enter a forest, a delirious entanglement of names and colors that seemingly bear no relation to one another, and yet are always presented categorically in columns and rows, or in families, as though they accord to genre specificity, to taxonomic logic. Puppy Paws, French Manicure, Cappuccino Froth, Papaya, Frappe, Squish-Squash, Little Angel, Pineapple Fizz, Havana Cream.The difference between Moonlight and Morning Sunshine is infinitesimal if it exists at all. You wake in the gloom of indeterminacy, gathering strength to face the forms, the endless insurance forms in which you have to find exactly the right words to describe your disability, make elections, decide once and for all how much income you’ll get each month versus pay-outs to your partner when you die. The more you get now, the less he gets when you pop off. You put the forms away, unfilled-in. Nevertheless you feel pleased with yourself, your capacity to make at least a few decisions, today you will narrow the range of possible kitchen paint colors. You cruise around the city collecting paint samples. You get home and try them out and they all look different in situ, all wrong. Start again. Like a lepidopterist organizing their butterfly collection you are completely immersed in the project, captivated by detail, utterly content.

Details, ah yes, the myriad swarming details. Such as knobs for the cabinets. On the industrial edges of the city you find Knob Heaven and float amidst the offerings, a Holly Go Lightly buoyed up by treasure in this Tiffanys of Hardware. Ebay opens up even further opportunities and choices. You spend hours and hours there, discover a glass color called Coke bottle green, aka Depression Green. It is warm ice: clear, pale, translucent. You purchase samples to compare, one or two here another few there, you will send them back if they aren’t right. Now the house is full of boxes of knobs. Most aren’t right. It seems translucent green is a difficult color to render, and not all depression green glass is created equal.

And another detail—those bulky dim energy-guzzling lights, they have to go, cannot survive in your new streamlined gourmet paradise. LED ceiling lights, this you can get a handle on, but under-the-cabinet lights, this is mysterious. What is the difference between strips, tapes and diffusers? You find an environmental lighting place and a charming engineer who is happy to explain it all to a dumbass Martha Stewart wannabee.

Could it be that the knobs are a way of screwing down anxiety? It’s true that the more you screw the more a calm seeps into the kitchen, but it is a calm infiltrated by willowy strands of frenzy.

This frenzied calm is not unfamiliar. It comes with fixation, especially a new one, a new one displacing or not inconceivably augmenting, old obsessions. It brings pleasure: You wallow luxuriously in endless rolling waves of choice.

Painters come, inspect, frown and then smile and say: this is easy, will take no time. They estimate a week, ten days at the most. We choose a guy called Jack, he’s worked with a lot of old houses, he flatters our small Californian bungalow, he says that when he’s finished it will look like an original craftsman. He is reassuring. He tells us he teams with an electrician, a whizz at working with old houses, at figuring things out. He’s Jack too. The painter says, I’m Little Jack, he’s Big Jack. Big Jack, when he comes on board, tells me that he taught Little Jack everything he knows.

To compensate for the mid-high-end range it will be a modest “remodel” – no tearing down of walls or installing new cabinets. You will keep the deep green formica counter and the old wooden cabinets even though the Jacks have called them “carcasses.” Just a simple paint job, new flooring, new stove. Oh and what about the rusty clugging fridge? You narrow your choices, make decisions about things, use this opportunity to expunge the clutter. There is a long list of things, big things like a commercial stove (heavy but petite, adapted to a small domestic space), a new bisque fridge, a shiny hood, and small things like hooks and knobs and icy glass splash back tiles. All these things will make your kitchen cleaner, sleeker, more stream-lined, easier to work in.

Speaking of things, this is a period of transition. As a retiring Buddhist, or a Buddhist retiring, I am in the process of letting go, infinitesimally, of material things. This relinquishing isn’t like renouncing pleasurable things for Lent. It isn’t really about things as things, it’s more about a state of mind. It’s Ok to love plants and cultivate them, but not to lust after the cerise blossoms of the peach called Baron. It’s ok to raise chickens in your backyard, but not to love them immoderately. It’s a question of proportion. This I know.

I think of this kitchen adventure as a last fling with things, a slow waltz with the sensuous cushioning of daily life.

I had no idea how slow that slow waltz would be.

It begins with a rearrangement of the whole house. Everything has to be taken out of the kitchen. It’s a small kitchen. Not much stuff, you’d think. Yet box after box after box fills up. We starting by labeling scrupulously, in the end the garlic press and paintings and the iron and cans of cat food are flung into the same box. At two o’clock in the morning we run out of boxes, so stuff is just carried through to the spare room where the bed is upended to make space. Cook books are all over the living room. You have to step over large containers of vinegar, toilet rolls, tins of tuna.

The house has to be entirely rearranged. The entry to the attic is through my miniscule closet overcrowded with clothes, with fantasies of a more fashionable life than I get to lead in my mundane chicken-bound existence. The Jacks have to enter the attic in order to ascertain where the beams are in the kitchen, to construct a duct from the newly installed hood out through the ceiling. They return through the attic and into the bedroom in clouds of spurious grey matter. So I have to drag all my clothes out. It begins systematically but in the end, or very soon, I start throwing things randomly into black plastic trash bags. For the next six weeks I will wear the same three articles of clothing again and again, day after day.

We are all discombobulated, but the cats most of all. Elvis and Roxy are freaked and suspicious. Nothing is in its right place. They cannot enter the house through their normal way – a cat door that leads from the back garden into the kitchen. We have to rig up a ramp to the back bedroom and leave the window wide open. The chickens take this as an open invitation: Mi casa es tu casa. Chickens and cats pick their way over a forest floor of things—boxes of kitchen items and bags of clothes, a blender, toaster, food processor, quesadilla maker, cake tins, wooden spoons, my mother’s fish knives. The detritus of human hubris. Elvis who has ignored J for twelve years turns his back on me each night and curls up in the crook of J’s leg. He holds me responsible. He is right, and my heart is crumbling.

As work begins on the kitchen clouds of dust, shards of dried (old and toxic) paint, globules of grouting, slivers of rotten wood fly into the air and spread through the open doors and windows into the rest of the house. You fight your way through a fog of filth, space travelers entering an alien planet. Big Jack and Little Jack, and J too, are all indifferent to what I consider filth. And all three are indifferent to the difference between open and closed doors. You cough and splutter and seethe and go around closing doors and windows. Two minutes later they are open again. You close them. You watch the dust settle daily over the few bowls and plates that have been secreted in the living room for eating off laps, over clothes, CDs, plants, the cats’ food, tea towels, books, bread. My skin is scaly. Irritation and stress fester and bubble. I cannot comprehend this indifference to filth. The three men no doubt consider me fanatical and as Buddhists and Painters and Electricians and Husbands know, fanaticism is pointless. What does it matter? Well to me matter out of place is dirt. The more displaced the more alarming. I imagine the filth as endemic, the project of cleanliness never ending. I have become the suburban Woman of the Dunes, endlessly removing sand that seeps back through the cracks, rising up, engulfing the universe.

If only I were a chicken. The greatest joy for a chicken is to take a dust bath, to hunker down into the earth under the pepper tree to scrabble and scratch and hurl the body around and fluff the feathers and make sure grit infiltrates every feathery layer, and then to shake and shimmy and fill the air with clouds of dust.

For meals we have to perch on the edge of chairs clutching our plastic bowls of cereal, or hard boiled eggs, or sandwiches bought down the road. At lunch we turn on the TV and we are in a courtroom drama. Today, June 10th 2013, the trial of George Zimmerman begins. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, while visiting his father in a gated community in which Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin was carrying skittles and a can of iced tea. He was not carrying a gun.

We aren’t the only people in this country, and in the world, to be drawn to the TV today, to cell phones, to laptops, to radios. This trial has been much anticipated, preceded by protest and by media debate about racial profiling, vigilantism and, given the proliferation of guns in this country, laws governing the use of deadly force. The protests were prompted by the failure of the Sanford police to arrest Zimmerman. Before a special prosecutor assigned to the case ordered Zimmerman’s arrest, thousands of protesters gathered in Sanford, Miami, New York and elsewhere, many wearing hoodies like the one Martin had on the night he died. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Forty four days passed before Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, to which he is pleading not guilty. In order to secure a conviction prosecutors must show that Zimmerman acted with ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent.

One day follows another, dates crop up and fall into line, stories follow a sequence, history is narrated. Sometimes, however, the flow of time is barbed. Time spins furiously in slow motion, in Spartacus time spinning wheels are intercepted by spurs, spokes, foreign bodies. Collisions occur: Time is derailed.

Perhaps I have grown more particular, sensitive to dirt, to alien microscopic creatures, since having CLL. With a damaged immune system you get to be more cautious. Neurotic even. You imagine things: you imagine the state of Jack’s lungs and skin as he scorns to wear a mask, you ask yourself what if those lurgies glom onto my wonky immune system? What if Elvis’ asthma is exacerbated and he has a fit and dies? The line between pathology and realism is a fragile line. One thing leads to another. What if the colors are all wrong and Big Jack and Little Jack become fixtures in the kitchen, here to stay forever, forever never ending, never completing. The “what if” universe in which you wallowed, purring, fed by and feeding a luxuriously obsessive fantasy has changed its contours and tones. ‘What if’ is now a perpetual unrelenting anticipation of disaster.

Conceivably, it has nothing to do with CLL, is simply a matter of categorical dissonance. Mary Douglas speaks to me in magisterial tones: Categories, she says, are in and of themselves spurious. There is no absolute distinction between clean and dirty, no invincible boundary, what is dirty in certain societies or circumstances may be clean in another. The point is not any absolute difference but rather the processes and attempts and elaborate rituals erected to instantiate those distinctions, to make sense of the world, to ensure order. Mary Douglas speaks to me and I listen, and it makes no difference. Or put it this way: the fault line between filth and cleanliness, purity and danger, opens an invincible crack of opportunity for that night stalker: obsession.

Again, we find ourselves in front of the television. Every lunch time we turn our backs on the chaos in our house and enter the public courtroom. The trial begins with jury selection, a process that, as it turns out, will take nine days. Prosecutors and defence lawyers cannot overtly use race as a reason to challenge a juror. But jury selection is a space where the insularity and focused particularity of the court is haunted by ghosts and demons that infest the larger location and culture. Animated, those ghosts invade the courtroom: invisible, but not nameless. Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, Martin lee Anderson …Remember Rodney King—an African American man brutally beaten by white cops in Los Angeles in 1991, an incident vividly captured on videotape. Nevertheless a jury without black representation (after the venue was moved from Los Angeles to the virtually all-white Simi Valley) acquitted the officers of state criminal charges.

On Day 5 of Jury Selection a middle-aged black man who works in a school describes his family and friends’ reaction to Martin’s death as “typical,” given a history of violence against African-American men in the U.S.

Day 9.  A six woman jury is selected, five are white and the other black/Hispanic.

 At the end of the day we turn to the news and analysis and interviews. It is becoming a habit, a fixation, an obsession.

Every so often, randomly it seems, Word announces that it’s in Compatibility Mode. What, I wonder, is Incompatibility Mode? Computer dumb, relationship savvy (or battle scarred) I can say with some confidence what Incompatibility Mode is in a relationship. It occurs in the kitchen. J and I, after some years of frustration in a shared kitchen, worked out a modus operandi, or compatibility mode. The key is not-sharing. He is easy going, unmindful, non-judgemental, a great cook, full of invention and surprise. I’m the sort who cleans up as they go, and can’t help offering generous dollops of free advice—albeit well considered, based on many years of perfecting a range of kitchen techniques, of doing things just so, this way precisely, and no other. He’s the sort of person who produces utter chaos in the kitchen, using every available pan and pot and utensil, several different kinds of oil and flour and sugar much of which lands up on the floor along with vegetable peelings and a few fugitive oily anchovies. All squished and trodden under foot. Out of all this apparent chaos and disorder J invariably produces a marvelous meal, a wondrous alchemical concoction. But then, afterwards, replete and sated I would be left to face the chaos and would have to spend many hours washing, cleaning, sorting. There would be moaning, whingeing, recriminations. For him, after my turn at cooking, clean up would be a breeze. Moaning, whingeing and recriminations would follow—from me. The solution we found was to reconfigure the division of labor: whoever cooks, cleans – the kitchen is theirs for the night. Peace ensued.

“Fucking punks. These assholes always get away.” Prosecutor John Guy quotes Zimmerman from a tape of a call he made to a non-emergency police number after he spotted Martin walking around the gated community where he lived. We are riveted to the television for the first day of testimony. June 24.The opposing attorneys set the scene today. “We think that this is a simple case,” says Benjamin Crump, the family’s solicitor, outside court. “There are two important facts in this case. Number one, George Zimmerman was a grown man with a gun, and number two, Trayvon Martin was a minor who had no blood on his hands. Literally he had no blood on his hands.” Defense attorney West: “George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder. He shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense after being viciously attacked.” The claim is that, after the two got into a scuffle Martin was slamming Zimmerman’s head into the concrete pavement when he fired his semi-automatic pistol and shot him in the chest.

“Stand your ground” is not mentioned today – and indeed the 2005 law will not be mentioned or actively invoked in court during the entire trial. But it is this law that provides the scaffolding, that makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing in Florida, and it is what will put the onus of proof in this case on the prosecution. The State will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. Zimmerman’s team will merely have to argue that Zimmerman felt threatened.

Prior to 2005 most states required you to retreat from a confrontation unless you were inside your own home. But in 2005 Florida, urged on by the extremely powerful gun lobby headed by the National Rifle Association, became the first state to pass a “stand your ground” law. Now 25 states have these “shoot first” laws.

Imagine Jack arrives at my house one day while I am in the garden planting bulbs, dibber tucked into one side of my belt, hand gun on the other side. I refuse him entry, say I’ve had enough, cannot bear this home invasion a moment longer. He becomes abusive, starts cursing and lunges at me. I feel threatened and so, in self-defence, pull my gun and shoot. He falls to the ground, dead. Painter dead as a dodo. Under protection of “shoot first” laws I am authorized to use deadly force even if the person who makes me feel threatened, let’s call him Jack, is—like Martin—unarmed. An upright and righteous citizen-sheriff I am safe from prosecution.

Or maybe not. It would be easier I imagine if the hoody that Jack habitually wears were pulled low over a black face. My sense of threat would be more believable to a jury. Or then again, maybe not. Remember the Florida case of Marissa Alexander, who last year cited the Stand Your Ground law to justify firing what she said was a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. No one was killed or injured.But that defense was rejected and she was convicted by the same state attorney’s office prosecuting the killing of Trayvon Martin. She is currently serving a 20-year sentence.

No doubt there are many legal complications, loopholes and explanations to be taken into account. Nevertheless, U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, of Jacksonville, an advocate for Alexander, seemed to have touched a nerve when she said at the time of sentencing, “The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today. One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the `Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. … The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.”

Brown is a woman not afraid to exercise rhetorical flair, and not afraid to say the R word. During the Haiti crisis in 2004 she referred to the Buah administration policies on Haiti as “racist”, and called his representatives a “bunch of white men.” When Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriego said that, as a Mexican American, he deeply resented “being called a racist and branded a white man,” Brown lobbed back: “you all look alike to me.”

Peace ensued. But now, in the domain of the kitchen, our orbits collide, a ferocious incompatibility reigns.

Exchanges might go something like this:

These light switches looked elegantly off-white, in their packaging in Home Depot, I say to J, but up on the wall, here in the kitchen, they look grey and murky. We’ll have to go back and change them.

“Oh, they aren’t so bad. I can live with them.”

Live with them! For the rest of your life you can get up every day and face this ugliness and live with it?

Or like this:

Do you have any receipts?

“Receipts for what?”

Well, for instance the wax furniture paste we had to buy to fix the scratches on the counter top the painters made? Or the extra primer, or the screws for the knobs, or the drill we had to buy to cut the glass tiles……

“Hmmm, I wonder where they are. Don’t worry they are somewhere, they’ll turn up.”

Or

“Everything went well today, it’s looking great!” Thus J entices you into the kitchen. You look, nothing seems to have changed. You look closely, peering into every corner, into the back of every cupboard. Aha! There’s only one coat of paint on this shelf. “Oh, I didn’t notice. Do you think it matters? When there are things on the shelf no one will notice.” No one?! Who is this phantom No One? This No One reconciled to half assed mediocrity.

“Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.” These are the words of former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer, championing the “stand your ground” law.

You feel you are losing your kitchen and it may never come back to you. I think about Zimmerman on the look-out for outsiders, for people who (as he said in a police interview) “victimize the neighborhood”: Criminals, punks invading his space, intent on destroying the gated calmness of his community. I don’t want to leave the house, because there’s always something left undone, overlooked, incompleted, botched. But I have to leave the house, have to keep returning to the paint shop because we can cut costs this way, Big Jack and Little Jack get paid by the hour and run by the seat of their pants, fixated on the job, unmindful of how the future unfurls. We are always running out of primer, out of this, out of that: rollers, paint trays, rolls of plastic, sand paper, buckets, primer, more primer, just another quart of trim. You also have to keep returning to the environmental lights shop to consult and get advice. Big Jack, who is also Old Jack, knows nothing—it turns out—about LEDs. When I try tentatively to explain the difference in voltage he looks at me contemptuously and says “I’ve been installing lights for sixty years.” He proceeds to fuck up grandly. So over the weekend we call in another electrician, a green guy J knows through yoga circles, who unearths the problem, fixes it and charges quite a lot. You are nervous about raising this with Big Jack so you raise it with Little Jack who says he’ll sort it. And then he adds, “Big Jack’s not as young as he once was. But he taught me everything I know.”

Day 7, July 1st. Detective Chris Serino takes the stand, and audio and video recordings of police interviews with Zimmerman in the days following the shooting which had been made public during the discovery phase of the case were replayed in court today. In these interviews Serino appears skeptical and pushes Zimmerman, suggests that he was running after Martin before the confrontation, suggests that he shouldn’t have followed Martin after a police operator had told him he did not need to, asks Zimmerman if it hadn’t occurred to him to ask Martin what he was doing there. Racial profiling aside, the cops seem not entirely happy with these law enforcement mavericks who take it upon themselves to do a job the police can do quite well themselves. Yet today, very calm and considered in the box, Serino explains that the questioning was tactical, a “challenge interview” where detectives try to break someone’s story to make sure they’re telling the truth. He was persuaded that Zimmerman was indeed telling the truth. “In this particular case, he could have been considered a victim, also,” he concluded.

There is however, one interesting moment in the interviews that contests the (not without foundation) stereotype of the profiling proclivities of the Florida police.

Serino: What is that you’re whispering? Fucking what?

Zimmerman: Punks.

Serino: Fucking punks. He wasn’t a fucking punk. (clears throat)

Serino had initially recommended a charge of Manslaughter, which most legal experts agree would have had a much greater chance of conviction than second degree murder. Why did he change his mind? What pressures and negotiations and deals occurred? This we might never know, but for sure we can assume that the judiciary and the police and the neighborhood watches and various political pressures intermesh in complex and contorted ways.

On this day too an audio analysis expert for the FBI testifies that the origin of the screams on an audio tape of the altercation cannot be determined. Contradictory evidence will be submitted: Both Martin’s mother and Zimmerman’s will attest that the voice is that of “my son.”

How electricity is generated and how it moves in circuits from the sun and through a dwelling is hard to imagine but not as complicated as circuits of indebtedness, circuits of giving and receiving, owing and repaying, commissioning and paying by the hour for services received, for immediate labor embodied in skills accumulated over years of experience. Priming—this is tough and meticulous work, tedious and slow. You are appreciative of the Jacks’ attentiveness to this part of the process, you bear witness to the pain in a sprained wrist, the back that’s a bit crooked, the legs that buckle occasionally. You know that even though Little Jack in a moment of exasperation told you your cabinets were a piece of crap and should be trashed this hasn’t prevented his patient persistence, pride in a job well done, in cabinets that begin to gleam as the final coats of filtered sunlight slither on. You forget sometimes to ask them what they think, to show appreciation, you don’t want to behave like a Madam, but you want the guys to know that you know what you want. Yet the more the job progresses and drags on the less you feel you know what you want, and the more perfection bays at your heels, aggravating everyone’s anxiety.

Day Fifteen. It has felt as though this trial will never end. Day after day we pull the plastic shroud off the television, dust cloths off the sofa, prepare our feast of hard boiled eggs and switch on the cable news. Now, after almost three weeks of testimony, after the interrogation of 58 witnesses, it is over. July 13. Not guilty. Race has hardly been mentioned in court. The Prosecution said, today, after the verdict, “This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms. We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

The processes and attempts and elaborate rituals erected to instantiate and often to blur boundaries, to make sense of the world, to ensure order. Clean and dirty, black and white, a threatening act and an act of self-defence. Lines of continuity, jagged lines of differentiation. Consider the line of continuity between the old lawless South and the South today where racial violence might enjoy legal sanction. Boundaries. Categories. Where are the fault lines?

There has been one witness who’s rocked the boat, who’s raised the issue of race. Rachel Jeantel—spiky and insolent, contemptuous of protocol, uneasy in court, ungroomed for public appearance—was Trayvon Martin’s friend. He called her just before he died. Over nearly two days, days 3 and 4, Jeantel’s testimony was broadcast live, nonstop, on cable news. It was riveting, not just because of revelations and certainly not because of her persuasive powers, but because of the dissonance she introduced into the proceedings, her disturbance of the tacit agreement to not discuss race or gun laws. In her reluctant laconic sullenness she danced into the court, out through the television set, into the world and into my dusty house like a skirmishing corkscrew. Jeantel said she overheard Martin demand, “What are you following me for?” and then yell, “Get off! Get off!” before his cellphone went dead. She testified that he described being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” as he walked through the neighborhood.

“Do people that you live around and with call white people, ‘creepy-ass crackers’?” the Defence asked.

“Not creepy. But cracker, yeah,” Jeantel said.

“You’re saying that in the culture that you live in, in your community, people there call white people crackers?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

When the defence suggested that Martin attacked Zimmerman she blurted out “That’s retarded, sir.” It was the conjunction of those two words—“Sir” and “Retarded”—that sparked a macabre levity, for the first time in weeks J and I roared with laughter. It was as though the unconscious of half the US erupted for a moment, shattering the precarious compact of civility, exposing how frenzied is the calm.

You imagine a deep dark hole in this country into which all the puddles, all the rivers of heartache and injustice perpetrated by the judicial system trickle and disappear. They don’t always mesh: justice and the efficiency of the system.

The chickens are neglected. They are fed and watered, let out in the morning and locked up at night. There is no time that isn’t kitchen time, or Trayvon time, no time to pick up Holly and stroke her neck, watch her eye lids flutter and close as she sinks into sleep.

So when Katie and Susan visit they pick up the chickens and murmur sweet nothings. I am thrilled that they are here, not only because they are who they are, but also because it gives me license to shut the door on the kitchen for three days, walk away from it, not think about it. But Katie and Susan discern a cranky demeanor and try shucking, teasing, easing out the oysterish story. To deflect their attention from my fixations I tell them a story about my maternal grandmother who lived in the inner suburbs of Salisbury in colonial Rhodesia. Every night she drank a lot of whisky. But her drinking was not random. It was ordered, repetitive and ritualized. She would never touch a drop during the day, would only begin at six o’clock in the evening, just as the television news came on, though the news was preceded by preparations, undertaken by the cook but overseen by her: ensuring the soda siphon was full, the tray laid with her special glass, a tumbler of ice and a decanter of whisky. Two minutes before six she would rush from the verandah into the living room, settle into her armchair, switch the TV on and as the news began take her first sip of whiskey and soda. After the news she would continue sipping, dreamily edging into blotto land. I remember how she would regularly complain to my father about the weekend shabeens held by all the servants who lived in the neighborhood, they would make illegal stills of skokiaan during the week and have loud parties on Saturday night. “You simply can’t imagine, Jack,” she would say, “how strong skokiaan is, how it induces violence, it shouldn’t be allowed.” And he would roll his eyes, and say “And what about whisky?”

Katie and Susan look at me, incredulous, and they say, in unison: “Jack? Your father’s name was Jack?”

You imagine a small but deep and dark hole opening up in the middle of the kitchen, a deep dark hole which sucks, dollar by dollar, all your retirement savings.

The obsession grows slowly. At first a feather stroking your skin, teasing. Then you start making decisions, a mix of torture and delight. Then the renovations begin, and the obsession takes a turn. For the worse. No longer in control of a fantasy world, the world starts intruding, making demands, taking up time, insisting. The feather insidiously sprouts razor teeth, becomes a baby shark nibbling, nosing you into a corner, drawing blood.

 

 

Notes

Mary Douglas speaks to me …. Mary Douglas, an anthropologist and cultural theorist, wrote the highly influential Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (first published 1966).

there are many legal complications, loopholes and explanations .… mandatory-minimum sentencingnot the least of it in this case.