cryptic from the cave

Standard

Another Visit to the Oracle
Margaret Atwood
1) Another visit to the oracle
There’s so much I could tell you
if I felt like it. Which I do less and less.
I used to verbalize a mile a minute,
but I’ve had to give it up. It’s
too hard to turn the calories into words,
as you’ll find out too if you live
long enough. If you live as long as me.
So I’ve had to edit. I’ve taken up
aphorism. Cryptic, they say.
Soon I’ll get everything down to one word.
All crammed up in there, very
condensed you understand, like an
extremely small black star. Like a black
hole. Like a dense potential. Like the letter A.
You see what I mean about cryptic.
I could go on like this for hours. Weeks months
years centuries millennia. Could and did.
It was my vocation, after all. My
fate. That, and the lack of accurate
translation. Want to know your future?
But you’d rather have a happy story any
day. Or so you say.
2) Prophecy
The future will be both better than the past
and worse.
What future?
Your future,
which is implied in many futures.
What past?
Your past,
which is touched by many pasts.
Both your future and your past are in your head,
because where else could they be?
And your head is in the present, since
by the time you hear this, “your head” –
the one I just mentioned –
is already in the past,
which doesn’t exist, except
in your head as I’m telling you this.
Prophecy is therefore easy.
All I have to do
is be present in my head,
which contains your head.
I can walk around in there
as if in a cave,
a well-lit cave.
I can look at any feature.
This is one method.
It only seems like magic.
3) They used to ask me…
They used to ask me all kinds of questions:
Will I get a good husband
Will I be rich
Will the baby recover
and so on.
Now it’s only the one thing:
Is there no hope?
They ask that over and over.
Though the sky is as blue as ever
the flowers as flowery,
they stand there slack-mouthed
arms hanging useless
as if the earth is about to crumble,
as if there is no safe refuge.
Of course, I say.
I hate to disappoint.
Of course there’s hope.
It’s over there in that well.
There’s an endless supply.
Bend over the rim, you’ll see.
Down there.
It looks like silver.
It looks like you
with the sun behind your head
as if your brain is burning.
The face dark and without features.
But that’s a trick of the light.
That’s hope.
It’s in the future tense.
Don’t be deceived.
4) Don’t be deceived…
Don’t be deceived.
What a thing to say.
As if there’s no conspiracy.
Relax, the lightbulbs are singing.
It will soon be all right,
hum the wires.
You’d think it was spring,
so many tunes on the loose
bursting with love, and all of it
mechanical.
Deception is the air we breathe,
we couldn’t live without it.
Don’t you want things nice?
Don’t you want to have fun?
Don’t you want your dinner?
Clap your hands and wish very hard.
That’s what we’re eating:
Wish food.
5) Wish food
Wish food lies on the plate.
It twitches. It’s still alive.
You wouldn’t want a dead wish.
Those go bad very fast.
But if wishes were fishes
we’d soon be out of luck.
Eat, eat, the body says:
Here comes starvation
blowing towards you like a dry wind.
Nobody has a plan.
You’ll need that fat,
all those fat wishes,
those fat dreams you ate.
Start working on your burrow,
the one you’ll crawl into
so you can hibernate.
Call upon your inner bear,
it’s in there.
6) Why should I tell you anything true?
I)
Why should I tell you anything true?
Why should I tell you anything?
You’re not paying me.
I don’t do this for money.
Hold out your hand,
Your empty hand.
I see.
If I told you what you hold
in the lines in your hand
which as I said is empty,
is full of emptiness,
you’d be annoyed. Oh surely
not, you’d say. You’re far too
dismal. Too severe.
I’m doing this to help you.
What would you prefer?
You’d like me to amuse you?
Do some jigs, or pranks?
I lack the airiness,
I lack the feathers.
That’s not what I do.
What I do: I see
in darkness. I see
darkness. I see you.
II)
I see you,
in darkness, walking.
I see your hurrying feet.
This is where you’ll be
at the end of all the sunsets,
all the banquets.
Behind you there’s a tunnel
with a life in it.
Your former life,
your life of silks and gardens.
Colours flickering.
The city is in flames,
it’s as I said:
time to get out
with what you’re carrying.
Forget the jewellery,
forget the lovers you once had.
Don’t hesitate.
You can find other bangles.
Ahead of you there’s what?
Is it a river?
The water slides like oil,
soundless and without fish.
A mute beach.
This is where I’m handy:
I’ve been here
in some form or another.
I’ll help you to the edge,
I’ll see you over.
I know who to bribe.
Don’t be afraid.
III)
Don’t be afraid.
A boat will be provided.
After the boat has foundered,
after you’ve reached the shore
despite the foundering boat,
after you’ve met whoever’s waiting,
who loves you (possibly),
after you’ve entered
the part that I can’t see,
I’ll tell your story –
Your story that was once so graceful
but now is dark.
That’s what I do:
I tell dark stories
before and after they come true.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

secrecy

Standard

Secrecy
Margaret Atwood
Secrecy flows through you,
a different kind of blood.
It’s as if you’ve eaten it
like a bad candy,
taken it into your mouth,
let it melt sweetly on your tongue,
then allowed it to slide down your throat
like the reverse of uttering,
a word dissolved
into its glottals and sibilants,
a slow intake of breath—

And now it’s in you, secrecy.
Ancient and vicious, luscious
as dark velvet.
It blooms in you,
a poppy made of ink.

You can think of nothing else.
Once you have it, you want more.
What power it gives you!
Power of knowing without being known,
power of the stone door,
power of the iron veil,
power of the crushed fingers,
power of the drowned bones
crying out from the bottom of the well.

Photo by DJ Paine on Unsplash

into

Standard

[you fit into me]
Margaret Atwood
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

Photo (c) 2011 Derek Gavey used under Creative Commons license.

Likenesses and the unseen hand

Standard

“To read is to dream, guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand. Superficial erudition is the only method for reading well and being profound.” – Fernando Pessoa

An unseen hand (not Adam Smith’s invisible one) guides my reading choices from one thing to the next and each is a link to a mighty, unbroken, infinite chain – coincidental mentions of concepts I had just been contemplating. Thinking and writing obsessively about mirrors and suddenly I decide, “Now is the right time to read Vonnegut” – and woven throughout is the concept of mirrors as “leaks” – “holes between two universes”. But even in the book I improbably read on teeth, dentistry and oral health, what springs off the page? “A “photograph is more than a mirror. In the face of mortality, it offers hope for a permanent self.” Or in a contemporary Japanese-German short story by Yoko Tawada:

“Eighty percent of the human body is made of water, so it isn’t surprising that one sees a different face in the mirror each morning. The skin of the forehead and cheeks changes shape from moment to moment like the mud of a swamp, shifting with the movements of the water below and the footsteps of the people walking above it. I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror. The first thing I would do when I got up was to compare my reflection with the photograph, checking for discrepancies which I then corrected with makeup.”

And perhaps more deeply than mere reflections in a mirror, reading Vonnegut’s work and rereading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, their warnings and observations about American and/or totalitarian societies provide obvious parallels:

“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.” -from The Handmaid’s Tale

“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” – from Breakfast of Champions

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. … They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.” – from Slaughterhouse Five

At no time is this more timely – in these works of fiction, or as a red thread sewn through much of modern non-fiction, such as other books I’ve recently read, such as the incisive Age of Anger, White Trash, Teeth and even the books on addiction.

Other parallels are not as obvious – in Atwood there are the “Marthas”, ominous-sounding household servants, and in Breakfast of Champions, “Marthas” are large designed-for-disaster buses converted into ambulances.

It fascinates me to no end that despite dipping into and reading from the broadest range of disciplines, there are connections between all of them: Virtually everything can swing back around to this perverted idea of uninterrupted “progress” and the selfish, perverted definitions society gives to the word “progress” – in the individualism described in Age of Anger, embodied by the Boomers, leading to the hungry ghosts and spiritual emptiness Gabor Maté discusses and diagnoses. And then the effects – ranging from the dismal and often fatal results of the healthcare and dental care system in the US as described in Teeth, to the “long-term losers” described in Age of Anger, such as the degradation of any hope for a country like Congo (about which I also recently read a book): “In Dostoyevsky’s view, the cost of such splendour and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.”

None of these overlaps should be a surprise. It should also not be a surprise that Dostoevsky is cited in almost every book I have read no matter what discipline, time period in which it was written or what genre, fiction or non-fiction. Dr Gabor Maté quotes Dostoevsky in his book on addiction; Dostoevsky figures prominently, as quoted above, in Age of Anger. And even in Vonnegut.

“Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Seeing and making the connections is gratifying, but much like an alcoholic seeking long-term sobriety, just going to meetings (or in this case connecting the dots) is hardly enough. The addict needs to commit to engage with all the steps to make progress, and the reader must start to process and form her own ideas about the connections identified.

Ends of Friends & an Open Letter to E(xile)

Standard

[you fit into me]
“you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye”
Margaret Atwood

I am like most other people in that I can be petty. I am also keenly aware that a blog is a highly self-indulgent activity. I want to chronicle my thoughts, my life, my frustrations – I just happen to make it public. My concerns are not monumental or particularly profound. My problems are largely luxury problems. I openly recognize and cop to that. This forum does not need to be something more – I write what I know.

Lately, the ache of losing friendship has come up again and again for me. Friendship has always been a bigger struggle and a larger emotional stumbling block for me than, for example, romantic entanglements. Romantic relationships are more cut and dry somehow. The only time one was really difficult was when it was starkly clear that “romance” should never have been a part of it. The guy in question was one of the best friends I ever had. And having had a lot of friends come and go, it always bore tremendous weight when someone “got” me in the way that a true friend did. He was one of those friends.

When this friend got into a new relationship, I was happy for him. I did not think it necessarily meant our friendship was over. We live in different countries, and our communication was limited in any case both in frequency and in terms of topics. Once the contact was so sporadic and topic-specific (almost always about a film, tv, an inside joke about something we both found funny or, usually, about baby animals – which we both found irresistibly cute), I did not imagine that he, once so stubborn and headstrong, would be with someone who was demanding enough to require him to stop talking to me. I also, without knowing the girlfriend, never imagined that someone who was undoubtedly a lovely person if he (whom I respected and believed would make good choices in this realm) decided to be with her, would be so irrationally jealous.

I have written about this before, and after several eruptions, I told him that, despite how much it hurt to cut off the friendship, knowing that I was losing something, I felt we would all have a more harmonious life if we stopped talking. This mostly happened, but of course insanely cute baby animals or funny things that only we could appreciate would sometimes occur, and he did not resist the temptation to write a few times. I then felt liberated not to resist the temptation to send him a gift. I sent it to his work address just because I did not want to stir up trouble in his home life – at all. (He took the envelope home and started up all the trouble that could have been avoided and triggered the REAL end of the friendship. Whether he secretly liked the drama or was just that thoughtless or wanted a detached way to make me really slam the door forever, I don’t know – maybe I am assigning it all too much meaning anyway.) I did not want to start talking again, I did not want to resume a friendship that was clearly over. I just wanted to make one last gesture that might make him smile and remember me – as his friend – fondly. But it turned into a psychodrama that caused me to lose respect for him, not really want to talk to him anymore at all and conclude that he is not the person I thought he was. Not that I wished him ill will. I just had no more feeling involved at all – the only feeling that had been left was this respect and friendship. But after this episode, he was as good to me as a stranger.

Lately this has disturbed me in some way. He now is a stranger – I have no idea what he is doing but still hope he is very happy. This is completely fine. But a few things came up lately that made me really miss him, despite everything.

For one, I watched the annoying film (although less annoying than I feared, and less annoying than the beginning of the film led me to think it would be), Frances Ha. In it, the main character and her best friend drift apart. Their lives take different paths, and somehow that listless sadness of not being able to turn to the person who had been one’s closest friend made an impression.

Secondly, during the summer, the young wife of one of my friends – and people that he also knew – died. I am sure he saw the news of it because it was all over the Icelandic media. But, as I have said before, there is nothing like sudden, premature and unfair death and its aftermath to make on evaluate who and what is important in life. I did question whether I had too easily let go of a friendship that was so valuable and important without trying hard enough. (I determined otherwise.)

The final, and arguably much more important thing, is that my mom’s friend in Washington state just took custody of two beautiful tiger cubs at her big-cat sanctuary. He and I used to talk incessantly like near-drunk fools about the irresistible cuteness of baby tigers. We lamented that we would never in our whole lives have access to baby tigers to touch and play with them. And here, right in my hands, is the opportunity of a lifetime to go be in the presence of two baby tigers. No one else I know would find this as significant as he would. But I can’t tell him. I am not going to be the one to break the silence because I am the one who asked for it, I enforce it and really don’t want to open communication again. It is just an unusual set of circumstances that would only matter to the two of us.

One of two baby tigers

One of two baby tigers*

So cute I could have a heart attack - baby tigers

So cute I could have a heart attack – baby tigers*

When I think of the girlfriend, it actually makes me sad to think that she hates me as much as she does without knowing me. I won’t go so far as to say I love her given how unreasonable she has been toward me – a total stranger. But if she makes him happy, I love that she is in his life even though it cost me a friend. If I were a lunatic who actually wanted something from him – as some exes do, I grant, I might understand her ire. Maybe it is unreasonable for me to think that friendship was possible.

Sometimes I want to ask her whether she never had a friend who was so important to her – on only a friendly level – that it would be like having her heart ripped out to have that friend removed from her life? I hope for her sake that she has never been through that. But I have – a handful of times. As I wrote, friendship and the loss of it has always been difficult for me – so losing the one friend with whom I could make ridiculous jokes, watch documentaries with about baby animals and joke about everything from a self-important American “journalist”, pretend characters Pedro, Jose and Esteban and “annyong” (and the new episodes of Arrested Development!) and Grizzly Man was really a devastating loss. I did not want him in any other way. I wanted him to be happy and fulfilled. The fact that he found love with someone made me immensely happy for him – and for her. Naturally I wanted him to find that kind of complete happiness somewhere and with someone – and I had no desire for that to be me.

– Annyong and off-the-hook, unlimited juice party (bad quality video)

— Timothy Treadwell in near-orgasmic state over bear poop

In truth, I realized that living with him, living in Iceland, I was stunted and unhappy – it was not a good situation when we lived together. I was depressed, and he was no happier than I was – I think he stuck with it as long as he did just because we were friends and because he felt sorry for me.

I grieve often because I lost that easy friendship – I gave it up willingly because she demanded it. I said goodbye to someone I loved (as a friend) and respected – and lost respect for him as a result – but it is stupid because I don’t have any “skin in the game”. I am not interested, I am not competing, I am not a threat. If I am the “immature teenager hiding behind my teddy bear” as she claimed, what is she so worried about? Why would someone like the image she has of me even register on her radar? She is the beloved, chosen one and he loves her – even at the cost of forsaking some friendships – which is perhaps meaningless because, happily for her, he is happy with her. That should be enough to allow her to let go of the petty and immature insecurity that drives her anger.

I offered many times to talk to her, to meet her, to let her be in on the whole thing if it would make her feel better. Maybe I have just never felt passionately enough about someone that that kind of possessiveness felt necessary. But too tight a leash eventually chokes the subject to death.

*Pictures taken from the Wild Felid Advocacy Center Facebook page, where you can go and make a donation to help take care of the big cats in their care.