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

 

 

 

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

strawberry/fetish

Last night (wed 24th april, 2013) was a party to celebrate Milane who died four nights ago. She loved a good story, a wicked joke, a gathering of friends. And so we gathered, a small party hosted by Nina MacConnel and Tom Chino. All of us shell-shocked, seized in passing moments by grimness, but mostly there was conviviality and the sharing of food and drink, particularly gin and tonics, Milane’s favorite.

There was a gift for each of us. Before she died Milane sorted through her photos and there was a little bundle for each of us with our name on it. Moments forgotten: Memories returned. There I was in a celebrating group at a Christmas party at Bookworks, the bookshop Milane once owned, there in the Getty Villa garden, a trip made when the renovated Villa opened. At book signings. When we left the party that night Tom and Nina gave each of us a large white paper Japanese lantern to take home and light for Milane.

 **************

 In our garden, hung on the fence where apples are espaliered, close to the chicken run, the lantern has refused to stay put. It dances wildly, a white ghost cavorting in the dark swell of the night.

**************

Milane had a gift for gift giving, and an eye for things. She took great pleasure in choosing just the right thing. Around my garden there are various Milane manifestations, but the one I love the most is a cement dove, a garden ornament migrated from another era, cast aside I imagine at some swap meet where her anachronistic beauty caught Milane’s eye. I love to hold the dove, her solidity fits perfectly into the shape of a hand, her lines are simple, her proportions just right. I knew Milane was dying when she gave me a clay icon of Ganesha that she had brought many years ago from India. She told me that his dharma is to place and remove obstacles, and also that he is honored at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies and invoked as the Patron of Letters during writing sessions. As part- Elephant he likes to eat flowers, fresh ones every day, she told me. At first, and for a while after Milane died, I did make an offering everyday of fresh flowers, but the punctiliousness of the habit has waned, the offerings sporadic and whimsical. Like my efforts at writing, at meditation.

The dove sat for several years on a rock in the white garden (so grandly named, more for aspiration than actuality, all kinds of colors creep in, some muted, others garish like the scarlet and orange nasturtiums). Then came the chickens. In their frenzied searching for bugs, in their rampaging destruction, they knocked the dove to the ground and she broke in two. Distraught, I was ready to send the chickens to the pot. But Milane cocked an eyebrow and laughed. We jambed the two pieces together and wedged her high up in a corner of the bower where the grapes and wisteria grow. In summer you cannot see her, but she is there, and in winter when the foliage dies back, when the garden mutates, you can see her there, up high, looking down at the chickens.

Nina’s chickens were asleep that night, the night of the party. I imagined them dreaming of Milane, carousing together in their sleep, a communal feathery dreaming. I hold Nina responsible in part for the coming of chickens to Herman Avenue. Steve, sensing a whiff of chicken desire in the air, had been waging a gentle campaign that began by the mysterious monthly appearance in my letter box of Backyard Poultry. Gorgeous full page spreads of birds: the silver spangled Hamburg, white feathers adorned by black crescent and V-shaped spangles; the Bearded Buff Laced Polish, creamy white and golden buff laced together, sporting an extravagant feathery top knot; The Mottled Houdan Bantam – lustrous greenish-black feathers, with one of every two or three tipped in white. My dreams were infiltrated by Porcelain Bearded d’Uccle Bantam cockerels from Belgium, Black Breasted Red Aseels from India, and Old English Creoles. And then, almost every time I saw him, Steve would suggest that I visit Nina and take a look at her chickens. So eventually I succumbed and Nina invited us to lunch. Us was me and Helen Barnes. She and Jeffrey were continent swapping: while Jeffrey was visiting Australia she had travelled from Melbourne to keep me company in San Diego. I had a bone marrow biopsy scheduled for that morning and had forgotten what an ordeal it can be (forgetting is part of the game, selective memory a survival device). It took a long time and then there were all sorts of bureaucratic hospital diversions and waiting and waiting and waiting. So by the time we got to Nina’s—stopping by the farm to see Tom and gather some vegetables from the farm stand—it was long past the lunch hour. But the sight of the chickens was restorative, to see them roaming, pecking, zigzagging around, following one trail only to be distracted, tempted by a posse of insects over there, a potential worm in the woodwork over here. To examine their coop, how the perches were composed and food distributed, how their shelter organized—all of this was inspiring.

And then there were the eggs. The eggs did it. Helen and I watched spellbound as Nina conjured from the eggs an omelet, so effortlessly, breaking the eggs with one hand, flicking a wrist and twirling a fork and then on our plates: yellowness, the taste of yellow in our mouths.

The transmutation of matter. How an egg becomes something else. You look at an egg, there it sits on the kitchen counter, self-contained, perfect in its ovality. Perhaps it is a deep speckled brown, maybe pale blue or green. When you crack the shell, break the oval perfection, you release into the world a magical potential.

At the party on the 24th of April I could not eat much. Nausea was settling in. Stomach cramps. I could not resist Nina’s couscous and Tom’s vegetables, the mellow spices that tickled the tongue but did not obscure the taste of Chino carrots and peas and fava beans. But when it came to the desert I could not manage a single spoonful. I was sitting next to John Alexander who was entertaining our end of the table with hilarious stories of gardening mishaps. At one point he looked quizzically at me and said “what about strawberries. How do you like them?” Oh I like them I said. “How about I bring you a plate just of strawberries, no cake or cream?” It almost broke my heart to say no. It wasn’t that I didn’t want those strawberries that come from the garden of the gods. It wasn’t even that I couldn’t imagine the taste. It wasn’t that they made me feel sick. It’s just that there was a nausea right through me, not just in the stomach. John’s hilarious stories had made me forget for a while, or rather the story telling and ripples of laughter had absorbed the ukky sensation.

I do not think I would have felt this way if they were other sorts of strawberries. But Tom’s strawberries are something else. For several years the grad seminar I taught on Gardens and Public space, a peripatetic seminar, would visit Chino’s farm and Tom would fire up the tractor, load everyone on the trailer and off we would go on into the fields. But before that we would sit at the trestle table where the workers have their lunch and discuss the reading and someone would present a paper. And Tom would send out two large bowls heaped with strawberries. Sounds of ecstasy, inappropriate sounds of swooning. I thought then that you would have to be on your deathbed to ever refuse a Chino strawberry. In the field Tom would stop occasionally and encourage people to pick from the plants in the field, strawberries for instance. And he would talk about the culture of strawberries, the particularities of the plant, selection for this region, how they grow, how they need to be nurtured. I have pages and pages of notes from Tom’s field discourses. He talks too about water, where it comes from, the price of water in San Diego, this virtually desert region, how he uses expensive domestic water on the strawberries because the municipal farm water contains too many salts. You might think of this as coddling but Tom, I imagine, thinks of it as farming.

Farming is work, practical, you get up each day at 4 am and by the end of the day you have to balance the books. You have to weigh up what comes in against what goes out and figure out how to make a living. The process is practical yes, but there is something mysterious, alchemical about the way in which water—clear liquid that flows, that has no color—is transformed into scarlet heart-shaped succulence. Water, labor, knowledge:

The condensation of a process into a succulent jewel.

Clear liquid that looks like water drips into my veins during infusions and some kind of transmutation happens, equally mysterious to me. Even when you check the science it doesn’t all add up. Even the oncologists say, we don’t really know exactly how it works. Drip by drip by slow drip it disappears into my body. A week later my lab results change, many of the danger flags disappear.

Saying no to those strawberries last night at Milane’s party felt to me for a moment like the approach of death. I wanted to howl for Milane. I thought to myself: she would never have refused a strawberry. Her ALS, once diagnosed progressed fast, but she continued to party with friends, a few at a time. Not long before she died, when speaking was difficult, she wrote on her writing app (a version of an old W.C.Fields saying), “Who put tonic in my gin and tonic?”

A few weeks later. I am beginning to emerge from that nauseous miasma, there is a shout at the back gate, and there is Alex Kershaw, a graduate student from Australia. A little sheepish looking, the way Australians sometimes are when performing an act of generosity. A self-deprecating shrug that says, Oh it was just something that fell off the back of a truck. He is bearing a cardboard box, in which gleam vegetable gems: round yellow and green striped squash, purple cauliflower, candy red radishes, and strawberries, deep scarlet strawberries. Around the vegetables he has tucked a Humboldt Fog cheese, a slab of dark spicy chocolate, a pack of organic Yerba mate.

IMG_1465

Immediately I picked out a strawberry and bit into it. As that strawberry dissolved in my mouth, the juice dribbling down my chin, I knew it was a Chino strawberry.

The chickens, too, love strawberries. Though love is too tender a word to describe what happens when a chicken encounters a strawberry, and they are not particular, any strawberries from anywhere will send them over the moon. It’s the color red that attracts. Never go near them in open-toed sandals if your toe nails are painted crimson, or they will dive bomb, pecking mercilessly. They play dirty football with spoiled cherry tomatoes or mushy squished strawberries. We always keep the hulls for them, they go beserk when tossed the green bits with juicy red entrails slurping out.

Today, I will feed Ganesha some flowers. My daily ritual is to rise early, feed the cats, let the chickens out of their house as the sky lightens. They hear me approaching and set up a mighty hullabaloo, hurling themselves against the door and scratching at the wire window. As I open the door they come flying down from their roosts and cavort down the ramp, fluffing and huffing and preening. Then I make a pot of tea and bring it back to bed, set it over the tea candle warmer, and sip as I write on my magical writing machine, the Mac Air. This is a ritual. It sets me in motion for the day. Later I will meditate. Really I should start the day by meditating, but I’m greedy for writing opportunities, for using that early morning energy before it dissipates. As I describe this early morning ritual it takes on a life, seems orderly and calm. But the truth is there are many mornings when I can’t rouse myself, the chickens remain in prison, many mornings when I can’t get writing, read a detective novel instead, or feel sorry for myself, or find distractions like email or the newspaper which reveals all sorts of hyperlinks, passages into other worlds. And then of course there are too many other things to do and so meditation slips away. I’ll do it tomorrow…

Between habit and ritual a thin line: between therapeutic and spiritual practices, between the gracious and orderly lighting of candles and the compulsive repetition of obsessive desire, between routine and observance. Many ritualistic practices—from the quotidian and idiosyncratic to those more formally prescribed—serve to preserve the way things are, to protect us against change, transformation, difference, grief. And yet, and yet … there is always the possibility of something mysterious happening. Rituals might be ways of channeling and bolstering obsessive impulses, but also they are often mechanisms for structuring pathways and passages, for enabling transformation. Lighting lanterns to guide the dead in their journey, to ease the transition from one state to another, not merely for those who are passed but for those of us who remain. Making a pot of tea in order to write. Sometimes though the pot of tea is not enough. And so today I will feed Ganesha some flowers.

Gifts circulate, chemo too. And in the circulation: transformation. Of course gifts seldom come without ramification, and chemo comes with myriad fluttering strings attached. This we know. If I offer flowers to Ganesha it is in the hope that he will, in eating them, keep Milane alive even though she is no longer here. The flowers are at once food and fetish and gift, not unlike the strawberry. Superstition, ritual, faith. In offering Ganesha flowers, day after day (punctuated by desultory periods of neglect) I believe that the gods in general will be appeased. Of course I also hope that Ganesha in particular will preside over a writing session and kick my ass into gear.

Boomerang

Why did the Australian go berserk?

Because he got a new boomerang and then he tried to get rid of the old one.

Yesterday, an infusion day, Akos [Ronas] gave me a ride to the hospital. He was euphoric having just sent off his book manuscript. But, he said, his relief was shadowed by a joke. Akos is married to Judit Herskó, whose father was János Herskó, a Hungarian film director who would often enter his own films to tell a joke. He might for instance materialize at a trolley station, and for no very good reason, would tell this boomerang joke. I guess it was at the height of boomerang jokes, I vaguely remember them circulating when I was a kid, round about the time of hula hoops.

Every writer knows this: The sense that your book is never really finished, it will keep coming back, there will be more revisions, and more and more. And now that all the versions are electronic, the old versions, full of typos and one or two crucial mistakes, threaten to reappear in the proofs. It’s only when you get the published book—that solid thing—in your hands, that it feels finished. Maybe. But of course all that is changing. That solid thing, the book, is disappearing, words materialize and evaporate as you write, as you read. This is not to say that nano publishing and the drive towards the short bite rather than the long book guarantees the sense of an ending. No, instead there is something far more precarious: ephemeral finality, ghosted by a labyrinthine digital archive. Words are like money. They melt into air and reappear in new configurations. Akos’ book is about plastic money, a history of the credit card in post communist countries. Some of these credit cards, linked to the state rather than banks, are used much more habitually and extensively than in the U.S, for instance. Money in the form of bank notes and coins and written checks scarcely exists. Credit cards have become a form of ID, they store information, can be used to receive, electronically, all sorts of things, like your pension payments. And even as I write, credit cards themselves are disappearing: into cell phones, into thumb prints, into eye scans. Not only in the post-Communist world. You know that dubious item you bought (no didn’t even buy, just perused in a browsing sortee late one night), well it will reappear for everyone to see on some social networking site as something you “like.” Even worse, that aberrant impulse will return to plague you in the form of endless haranguing from cheesy underwear companies. You might forget but the marketing machine will not. Your secret is never safe with Victoria.

The boomerang joke can manifest in many guises. You could give it a Zizekian spin, which might go something like this. The Australian wants to get away from Australia and start afresh. So he goes to California, say, and sets up an alternative market where he sells tea tree oil and water-wise Australian native plants and a unique new service, surfing therapy (therapy while you surf ) ……. No problem with the Californian surfing dudes – they take to therapy like ducks to vodka. But then comes a guy who looks and talks like Brian Brown. Laconic, gruff, handsome in a chiseled hard-knocks kind of way. Turns out he himself is a surfing analyst, and the question he asks, which sends the whole new age entrepreunerial enterprise for a loop, is this: “Why did the Australian go berserk?”

For me, in the infusion center later in the day, it bounced back in the spectral form of CLL. In the last week I’ve been feeling considerably regenerated, exhilarated, hopeful again. The lab results confirmed that the feeling isn’t merely illusory. So Dr Choi thinks we can now double the oral chemo dose; and reduce the infusion chemo to once a month. He warns that things will probably get worse again, before and if they get better. He says they do not know whether the increased dose correlates with increased effectivity (this is a trial, it’s one of the things they are trying to determine), it does seem to be the case, but it might be that because patients are improved before the dose is increased their systems are in a better position to deal with the ravages of the drug. In the Infusion Center, while keeping up a façade of cheerfulness, I experienced again the cul de sac sensation. The futility of it all. Although there may be periods of respite, CLL itself will always bounce back. Once it’s started progression it will move in a relentlessly linear fashion, gathering momentum, working towards a conclusion. But against this teleological drive, as a person who “has” CLL (and other kinds of chronically incurable diseases, I imagine) you experience periods of optimism, euphoria even. Just when you have forgotten about CLL, are getting on with life in an enjoyable day-to-day fashion, it whizzes through the air and hits you on the back of the head, sending you catapulting back into the ER, back onto antibiotics, back into a funk. The malevolence of repetition.

There is an extraordinary air of cheeriness in the Infusion Center. At its worst you might think of it as something akin to battery chicken farming. When you close your eyes and try to sleep the noise keeps you awake, the noise of beeping machines, televisions, people talking on cell phones, nurses reading out orders – all these noises merge together and sound like the strangled clucks of a thousand tormented chickens. All of us chickens chained by tubes that run between machines, that run from little packets of clear liquid hanging from hooks, into a multitudinous network of veins, ready and waiting for chemo plumping. But at its best everyone is cheerful in the Infusion Center, polite even, even as the day wears on. There is much joshing and spinning out of repartee, bits and pieces of verbal exchange are tossed hither and thither, everyone enters into the fiction that this is just an ordinary day, a day like any other. And of course for the nurses and staff it is, which makes it all the more extraordinary that under duress and repetition they are so alert and behave with such good natured equanimity, remembering names, histories, stories. And through this enactment of an illusion everyone rises to the occasion, enters into the spirit of the performative event, into this compact of civility.

I do appreciate the considerable theatrical skills, as well as the hospital experience, that it takes to generate and sustain a mood. Still, sometimes you want something to puncture the air of equanimity, you want something that hits the nail on the head, you want a joke that is grim, black, irreverent. The boomerang, as used by Australian Aborigines, was and is a tool and a hunting weapon, some are designed to return (in their flight frightening birds, say) but mostly they are intended to hit and bring down a prey, a moving target. Curiously, when it comes to jokes (and illness) hitting your prey can simultaneously be a way of releasing all those lurgy birds lurking in the wetlands.