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.

 

 

 

 

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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