The cliff of the unknown: desire, tolerance, and identity

Stepping off a cliff

“The secret history of sex is not a story of fulfilled desires; it’s a story of expectations dropped off the cliff of the unknown.” (Nathan Heller)

This is not a blog about sex, but this sentence stayed with me long after I read it. It’s from a review in The New Yorker of Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, in which Solomon examines the stresses placed on a family’s vertical identity—the one that flows through the generations—when a child presents the logjam of a horizontal identity, an identity outside of parental experience. Among the horizontal identities that Solomon investigated over ten years in more than 300 families are dwarfism, deafness, autism, children of rape, severe multiple disability, and transgenderism. How, the book asks, do parents come to love children they never expected?

This is not a blog about horizontal identity or parenting, either. But it is about desires and the unknown, about the gap between what we feel within ourselves and what happens outside ourselves: the sinkholes that can suddenly open up, evaporating what appeared to be solid, or what was solid and then was just gone. About what can and cannot be named.

During this Lenten season, our church has hosted a weekly series on “Art and the Other,” i.e., those individuals or groups who present us with logjams in the flow of our own identities. The series examines how art can be a bridge between “us” and “them,” or at least a gesture in “their” direction. At one gathering, after viewing a film-in-progress on the importance of interfaith dialogue, we tried to identify just whom we, as an Episcopalian congregation, see as “the other.” We were pleased to note that we were fine with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Jainists, Wiccans, and macrobiotists; we agreed that no group has a monopoly on enlightenment or salvation. But our generosity dried up when we considered those groups we view as intolerant and insistent upon the supremacy of their own creeds. In our refusal to tolerate intolerance, we wondered, were we in fact mirroring it? How do you engage with a rejection of engagement? And the question that really stayed with me: When you step off the cliff of desire—which you do every time you hope to make any kind of contact with someone else—imagining some kind of fulfillment, how do you respond to a wholly unexpected reply, or none at all?

Or perhaps that wasn’t the question, which seems to slither away every time I try to focus on it. In the discussion, we seemed to be framing the question as an issue of tolerance, but as the lovelorn Henrik laments in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, “it’s intolerable/being tolerated.” And so it is. According to, the verb to tolerate can mean “to endure or resist the action of (a drug, poison, etc.)” or “to allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance, or contradiction; permit.” To tolerate someone or something, then, seems to point to an engagement that can leave the tolerant one comfortably unchanged or unchallenged. Tolerance is often counted as a virtue in the midst of the sinkholes that open up between individuals or groups, when it is merely a pause to catch your breath in the arduous, open-ended journey of communication.

Part of the problem with posing the question is the notion of individual identity as a rock we stand on, a location with well-defined boundaries like a modern nation-state that need to be defended from encroachment. One definition of identity that I love comes from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, from which I’ve quoted before. Hyde is writing more specifically of ego, which is not perhaps the same thing as identity, but there are significant overlaps. This is a lengthy quote, but more than worth the space:

I find it useful to think of the ego complex as a thing that keeps expanding, not as something to be overcome or done away with. An ego has formed and hardened by the time most of us reach adolescence, but it is small, an ego-of-one. Then, if we fall in love, for example, the constellation of identity expands, and the ego-of-one becomes the ego-of-two. The young lover, often to his own amazement, finds himself saying “we” instead of “me.” Each of us identifies with a wider and wider community, coming eventually to think and act with a group-ego … which speaks with the “we” of kings and wise old people. Of course, the larger it becomes, the less it feels like what we usually mean by ego…. In all of this we could substitute “body” for “ego.” Aborigines commonly refer to their own clan as “my body,” just as our marriage ceremony speaks of becoming “one flesh.” Again, the body can be enlarged beyond the private skin, and in its final expansion there is no body at all. When we are in the spirit of the gift we love to feel the body open outward. The ego’s firmness has its virtues, but at some point we seek the slow dilation, to use [a] term of Whitman’s, in which the ego enjoys a widening give-and-take with the world and is finally abandoned in ripeness.

At the core of any great religion is some person or group whose heart has broken open to admit the world, whose boundaries have grown permeable, whose ripeness is a fragrance that fills the space around it like the nard with which Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet in the week before his death. Religion is not the only self-breaker and heart-opener, of course; there are many containers that help us to bear great beauty and great suffering—art, nature, family, and friends among them. The self that seeks mere tolerance of its neighbors in the light of this paradigm has elected a diet of crumbs and water instead of the extravagant feast set before it.

Often, however, we do choose crumbs and water. We choose to walk away from the urgent desire for congress and from the cliff of the unknown. Yet sometimes the choice is made for us, when we long for connection and find nothing. What then?

In his most recent book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker J. Palmer names democracy at its root level as one of the containers that help us to bear the great beauty and suffering of history in such a way that our hearts break open rather than merely breaking into a million irretrievable pieces. This is not an essay about a political system. But I do want to try to describe the sinkhole—the no-ego’s land—between desire for communication and fulfillment. Palmer calls this place the “tragic gap,” tragic not just because it’s heartbreaking but because, in the classical sense, it’s an inescapable feature of the human psychic landscape:

On one side of that gap, we see the hard realities of the world, realities that can crush our spirits and defeat our hopes. On the other side of that gap, we see real-world possibilities, life as we know it could be because we have seen it that way…. Possibilities of this sort are not wishful dreams or fantasies: they are alternative realities that we have witnessed in our own lives.

In this gap we can sink into corrosive cynicism or fritter away our energy on irrelevant idealism, but another way offers itself, one that allows “the slow dilation” of the boundaries between self and neighbor, self and world, self and self, the boundaries that prevent the cliff-side communion we so long for. Palmer calls us to a complex and open-ended faithfulness, in which I would incorporate two questions adapted from Krista Tippett to help direct us toward the habit of conversation and away from monologue: what troubles me about my own position? What in my would-be partner’s position makes me curious?

In the end, I think this is an essay about hope, despite the feelings of frustration and helplessness that spurred it. It’s not about the hope that seeks magically to rearrange present reality. Rather, it’s a testament to the small acts of great love that pepper everyday life and that step forth despite the absence of an obvious place to step onto, the way many parents step into the slow dilation of identity that embraces a situation or a child they would have done anything to avoid. It’s a testament to anyone who steps off the cliff of ego, willing to land in an unfamiliar place, willing to endure the possibility of a heart broken open. In a world in which conversations seem crucified between shouting and silence, sometimes a quiet question is enough.

What we’re reading
Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Martin: Craig Brown, Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Memorable Meetings

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Jellyfish and revelation

Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: 12. The Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lamb's Horn

Once again, it’s the time of year when we ponder endings and beginnings, when we hunker down for the long nights, wonder where this year has disappeared to, and devise all sorts of convoluted theories about what is to come. Despite the endless recycling of “The Little Drummer Boy” in nearly every commercial space, this time of year also seems to have a peculiar kind of gravity, a pressure on the heart and lungs, a sense of urgency that has nothing to do with shopping lists or end-of-year numbers and everything to do with preparing for something final. But what?

I’m more than usually preoccupied with end-times because of a discussion group I’ve been part of focusing on Revelations: Visions, Prophecies, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, by Elaine Pagels. In it, Pagels examines the cultural and political landscapes out of which John of Patmos’s Book of Revelation (the final book of the Christian Bible) arose, and then follows the surprising twists in the history of its interpretation until it became the emphatic omega on the list of officially sanctioned writings that became the New Testament in the latter half of the fourth century CE. She gives the reader a glimpse into the other books of revelation—Jewish, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Christian—that were written more or less the same time as John’s, books that claim to be “revelations” of a reality that is usually hidden from humanity. While some, like John of Patmos, focus on the end of the world, many do not; they claim, rather, to reveal divine secrets through, as one historian put it, “visions, dreams, and other paranormal states of consciousness.”

The genre of revelation is often associated with high drama and vivid weirdness, writhing with dragons and angels, backlit with blinding lights or drenched in palpable darkness: revelation as conflict. Yet Pagels cites one book entitled Thunder, Perfect Mind whose images seek to unify rather than to divide and to find completeness—the divine—in pollution and purity both:

I was sent forth from the power,
And I have come to those who reflect upon me,
And I have been found among those who seek me…
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard! 

Do not be ignorant of me. 

For I am the first and the last. 

I am the honored one and the scorned one. 

I am the whore and the holy one. 

I am the wife and the virgin…
I am the barren one 
and many are her sons. 

I am she whose wedding is great, 
and I have not taken a husband. 

I am the midwife and she who does not bear. 

I am the solace of my labor pains. 

I am the bride and the bridegroom, 
and it is my husband who begot me….

The whole of the book—the part that still exists, that is—glows with power of a very different sort than John’s revelation does. Although it is not a Jewish or Christian work—most probably, it is a hymn to the Egyptian goddess Isis—many of its images harmonize beautifully with biblical language:

Hear me in gentleness, and learn of me in roughness. 

I am she who cries out, 

and I am cast forth upon the face of the earth. 

I prepare the bread and my mind within. 

I am the knowledge of my name.

That we learn wisdom in precisely the moments that seem most inimical to it—times of tribulation and violence, of incomprehension and confusion—seems to be the book’s central teaching. The repetition of “I am” throughout the text suggests familiarity with the Jewish/Christian awareness of the power of naming. Who am I? Who am I not? What is my name and who named me? How I am in conversation with that which is not me, with the One who named me?

In John’s compelling depiction, conversation requires the drawing of very stern lines: there are those whom you converse with and those whom you destroy. Once evil is destroyed, the purified remnant enters the glorious New Jerusalem. I have very mixed feelings about this stern line. I know that evil has some people in such a stranglehold that trying to address them seems hopeless, ridiculous, and lethal: people who shoot children, for instance. How would you talk to someone who could do such a thing?

Thunder, Perfect Mind sets forth a very different conversational strategy: no one is excluded. Purity is an illusion, utterly contrary to the divine self-identity. Thunder, Perfect Mind resonates in my heart and mind, an antidote to John’s fiercely tribal, exclusionary, accusatory language. And yet it leaves me wanting as well (although less), wanting the street-language translation for a conversation that took place somewhere in the stratosphere. Is there another idiom in which the intersection between the mortal and the divine can be spoken, one that doesn’t involve violence, secret codes, hallucinations, and abstractions? Of course I think the answer is yes: revelation does not necessarily require a one-time blast from beyond; faithfulness to daily interactions can work the same ground.

I read in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article about a Japanese scientist, Shin Kubota, whose work with tiny jellyfish that age backwards—nicknamed “immortal jellyfish”—seems to tap into some of these questions from a completely different direction. Despite the fact that Turritopsis dohrnii is about the size of “a trimmed pinkie fingernail,” and despite the fact that it has no brain, no heart, and that it eats out of its anus, its genetic overlap with the human genome is unnervingly significant (insert punch line here.) “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind,” Kubota told the Times reporter. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

Every day for at least three hours a day for the past fifteen years, Kubota has tended to his menagerie of jellyfish, the only captive population in the world. It is “grueling, tedious work,” requiring daily water changes, observation under a microscope, and feeding, which can require cutting up nearly invisible dried brine shrimp eggs that sometimes need to be cut up with two needles under a microscope. “The work causes Kubota to growl and cluck his tongue. ‘Eat by yourselves!’ he yells at one medusa. ‘You’re not a baby!’ Then he laughs heartily.” When he travels to conferences, the petri dishes come with him in a cooler. There are no days off. He is faithful to his tiny, mysterious dependents.

Five years ago, however, he had what he vaguely refers to as “a scare,” a period in which he aged “a lifetime” in one year: “It was astonishing for me. I had become old.” Today the hair that was white has turned black again, his energy as exuberant as a middle schooler’s. As a consequence of the scare, Kubota started a second career as a singer and songwriter and is now something of a celebrity, “the Japanese equivalent of Bill Nye the Science Guy.” He sings about the beauty of his jellyfish and about the natural world, work he now considers the crux of his work. Before humankind can apply what we learn from Turritopsis to ourselves, we must first come to love nature; otherwise, we’ll misuse our knowledge. “We’re very strange animals,” he said. “We’re so clever and civilized, but our hearts are very primitive. If our hearts weren’t primitive, there wouldn’t be wars. I’m worried that we will apply the science too early, like we did with the atomic bomb.”

He considers his science as having a limited value in his campaign to teach love: “‘We must love plants—without plants we cannot live. We must love bacteria—without decomposition our bodies can’t go back to the earth. If everyone learns to love living organisms, there will be no crime. No murder. No suicide. Spiritual change is needed. And the most simple way to achieve this is song. Biology is specialized,’ he said, bringing his palms within inches of each other. ‘But songs?’ He spreads his hands far apart, as if to indicate the size of the world.”

Something about Kubota’s obsessive fidelity and tenderness allow him access to the same conversations that John of Patmos and the author of Thunder, Perfect Mind had (and have) with eternal order. The theatrical volume of famous revelations drowns out the ones that happen quietly over time as a result of the minute, open-hearted engagements to which we’re invited in each minute of our lives: do we converse with the creature in front of us, open to something as solid to as ourselves, containing vigor and disease, song and dissonance, grace and clumsiness? Or do we remain stubbornly monolingual? Kubota looks, as surely as does John of Patmos, for a time where every tear will be wiped away, where death will be no more, nor mourning nor crying nor pain, and he looks for this arrival in a conversation that includes tedium and frustration. Can there be any doubt that something new and beautiful will be born?

What we’re reading
Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit
Martin: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

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Microbiomes and individual identity: Alexander Pope and the archbishop of Canterbury

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl

I learned a startling fact the other day while listening to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross interviewing Dr. Nathan Wolfe, author of The Viral Storm, a disconcerting account of his research into pandemics like avian flu and AIDS that leap from animals to humans. Although the interview contained plenty of startling information, the statement that made me jump out of my skin was this:

If we were to count the number of cells between the top of your head and the socks on your feet, we would find that 90 percent of those cells are not human cells. Ninety percent of those cells belong to various microorganisms that exist, primarily in your gut and on your skin but also in many, many parts of your body. There’s tons and tons of microbes out there.

The vast majority of these inner-space invaders are vitally necessary to our health. In a story about the Human Microbiome Project in the New York Times, one Stanford microbiologist described individual humans as being like coral, “an assemblage of life-forms living together.” Another microbiologist commented that from the
standpoint of an individual microbiome, the “I” could be considered “mostly packaging.” So if 90 percent of “me” is actually not “me” at all, who am I? I feel as if my nice empty 100-percent-paid-for house suddenly belongs almost entirely to an unknown corporation, the enormous staff of which has moved in and begun leaving its clothes and coffee mugs all over the place. How am I supposed to relax in a predicament like this, where my “house” is no longer mine? Where’s my place in this in this mess?

Right in the middle, according to the eighteenth-century British poet Alexander Pope: in between God and beasts, on “this isthmus of a middle state/A being darkly wise and rudely great… Created half to rise, and half to fall;/Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;/Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:/ The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!” Right in the middle of the mess.

I recently reread Pope’s An Essay on Man, published in 1734, and was struck by two things: I was a really bad reader in grad school and, despite the dyspepsia caused by ingesting hundreds of heroic couplets in a row, I found him to be a humane and delicate thinker. I first read his Essay just as the trend of blaming all modern injustices on Enlightenment philosophies was building steam. In rereading it, I fully expected to find evidence of thought—crimes against women, people of color, and the environment—and I came back to it ready to haul Pope and his entire extended family to prison and lock them up until they could see just where colonialism got us. What I found instead was an overwhelming sense of awe for the complexities of the natural world and a deep humility in the face of humanity’s capacity to see these complexities only partially, imperfectly, and at times buffoonishly. To scientists he says with asperity:

Go wond’rous creature! Mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,

Correct old Time, and regulate the Sun….
Superior beings [angels], when of late they saw
A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law,
Admir’d such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And shew’d a NEWTON as we shew an Ape….
Trace Science then, with Modesty thy guide….

What Pope wants is to put human giftedness in its place, which is in every way reliant on and secondary to what he calls Eternal Wisdom. He wants to give us a place from which to view ourselves, especially when we think we’re masters of the universe. We can’t know who we are unless we also know where we are. Of course,
Pope the poet could himself be accused of overreaching in making his immodest pronouncements, but he nips that accusation in the bud by placing his perspective firmly on the earth with his fellows. In the poem’s introduction, he pokes fun at John Milton’s Paradise Lost, published seventy years earlier, with its lofty, near-heretical goal to “justify the ways of God to men” from the wings of the Holy Spirit. Nope, Pope knows his place, and it’s right in the middle of what he calls the “vast chain of being,” headed by God, that links all things to each other. One of the loveliest passages:

Look round our World; behold the chain of Love
Combining all below and all above….
See Matter… with various Life endu’d,
Press to one center still, the gen’ral Good.
See dying vegetables life sustain,
See life dissolving vegetate again:
All forms that perish other forms supply
(By turns we catch the vital breath and die)
Like bubbles in the sea of Matter born,
They rise, they break, and to that sea return.
Nothing is foreign: Parts relate to whole;
One all-extending, all preserving Soul
Connects each being, greatest with the least;
Made Beast in aid of Man, and Man of Beast;
All serv’d, all serving! Nothing stands alone;
The chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown.

With their wide, inclusive vision of the workings of nature, these could be Wendell Berry’s words. (In fact, Berry much admires Pope’s Essay.) We have been given a singular place in this great chain, and our work is to learn, through careful observation of the natural world, how to become a blessing to it, to our fellows, and to ourselves. Pope places the primal disruption of the fall not in Eve’s disobedience but in the violence—beginning with Cain and Abel—that we inflict on one another both individually and corporately. Not a bad vision for one of the Dead White Guys of whom I was so suspicious in school.

Despite its plasticity, however, the great chain, as Pope envisions it, is quite fragile—alarmingly so. “The least confusion but in one, not all/ That system only, but the whole must fall.” One little thing out of place, and the whole shebang comes tumbling down. It’s hard to imagine living abundantly in such a universe, hard not
to imagine a creeping paralysis arising out of fear of disruption, like someone with a slipping disc in her spine, afraid each thoughtless move might bring on a core collapse. Despite its beauty and humility, there’s a caged, claustrophobic quality in Pope’s place for us—one that might never have discovered that each one of us is
quite literally a world, perhaps a galaxy, in and of ourselves, as the mappers of the Human Microbiome Project suggest.

In a recent lecture, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave another account of where it is that human beings have a place. He talks about the need to distinguish between being an individual—someone identifiable by the facts about him and the center of his own universe—and being a person, a “more frustrating,
more elusive, and yet more adequate” way of describing who and where we are.

Primary to a definition of personhood is the reality that each one of us exists at the center of a vast network of relationships, “the point where the lines cross.” That point is never static: every encounter with every person, every creature, every historical reality, every memory, every word—indeed, with every moment—provides an opportunity for re-configuring those intersecting lines. At any given time, a person is the sum total of her myriad, shifting relationships, irreducible to one thing or to a list of attributes. Something about the human person is fundamentally mysterious and inaccessible. For Christians, this messy, elusive intersection of relationships is where the revelatory work of God has its place.

Williams asserts that because “each of us has a presence or a meaning in someone else’s existence,” a sense of personhood is impossible outside of relationship. When I think of myself as an individual, I am the center of the facts about me. When I consider myself as a person, as constituted by an ever-changing intersection of
relationships, I must acknowledge my presence in other people’s lives and other people’s presences in my own. I can’t extricate myself from this web and stand alone, withdrawing from the world. Knowing that I’m fundamentally mysterious even to myself, a creation of these innumerable, ever-accruing intersections, I must
acknowledge that this messy, sacred bundle exists within every person and that we are environments for each other. We’re in some way located outside of ourselves, a situation that calls for a very different social order than one based on the rights of discrete individuals, an order that devolves into competing, isolated, uncooperative selves.

Pope, the literary king of the British Enlightenment, articulated a profound shift in understanding of humanity’s place: he saw an interconnectedness, a democratic necessity for each link in the chain, where before, whole groups—whole races and nations—were accounted as disposable. From thinkers like Pope came the founding fathers of the United States and their insistence on the natural rights of its (white male) citizens. In order to function as it should, this chain of interconnectedness that Pope saw and that the founding fathers used as the struts and joists of a new political system had to rest not only on personal rights: it needed one more thing.

For Forms of Government let fools contest;
Whate’er is best administer’d is best:
For Modes of Faith, let graceless zealots fight;
His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right:
In Faith and Hope the world will disagree,
But all Mankind’s concern is Charity:
All must be false that thwart this One great End,
And all of God, that bless Mankind or mend.

Without the cushioning of generosity, the assertion of one’s rights can become a mere excuse to claim supremacy over another, the chain shatters, and the discrete links become disposable. It’s arguable that we’re in the midst of this shattering, and I find Williams’s elastic and eccentric network a compelling place to set up
housekeeping. His call is to look at our individual selves and find, as in a different sense did Nathan Wolf, that they’re not really “ours” at all.

What we’re reading
Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary
Martin: Patti Smith, Just Kids

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Most memorable meals, take four: oysters and earthquakes

Hog Island Oyster Co., Marshall

As some of you know, Heather and I have spent the last two weeks in a rented cottage in Point Reyes Station, about an hour north of San Francisco. This is, I think, the longest vacation the two of us have taken together since our honeymoon, and it’s been a little unsettling to be away from home for such a stretch. But the beauty of western Marin County—the wild coastline of Point Reyes National Seashore, the placid expanse of Tomales Bay, the rolling hills, the towering eucalyptus and Monterey cypress trees—is utterly overwhelming, and we have found ourselves entranced.

It is impossible, however, to be in this part of the world and not have a sense, no matter how deeply buried in the unconscious, of impermanence. Tomales Bay, after all, is a visible marker of the San Andreas Fault, and the Next Big One could hit at any time. It’s always there, that nagging knowledge that this landscape, this place, is every bit as temporary as we are; eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may be at the bottom of the ocean, or buried under rubble. I think that sublimated dread adds a poignant savor to all aspects of life, including the food, for what is more temporary than a meal? Growing and harvesting and preparing the animals and plants we eat can take years; and yet, once they appear on our plates, they are gone in a matter of minutes.

And make no mistake: for foodies, the Bay Area, and Marin County in particular, is truly the Promised Land. This is a region ferociously dedicated to the idea of local, sustainable, organic food; in fact, we have concluded that any area restaurant that does not display a “Marin Organic” sign is probably doomed to failure. The dairy farms in West Marin are legendary; the fruits and vegetables are astonishingly various and beautiful (we saw gorgeous tomatoes and carrots, squash and beets, all on offer at the same time at the Point Reyes Farmers Market); and the bread—well, this is the homeland of San Francisco sourdough, after all. ’Nuff said.

Seafood, too, is available in mind-boggling abundance. I have probably eaten more raw oysters in the last two weeks than I had in my entire previous life: at Ferry Plaza Seafood in the San Francisco Ferry Building; at the Farm House Restaurant in Olema, a couple of miles down Highway 1; at the Station House Café, in Point Reyes Station; at Saltwater, on the west shore of Tomales Bay in Inverness. And we haven’t even been to what is probably my favorite restaurant in the whole world, Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco.

But the apotheosis of oysters is the legendary Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, about ten miles up Highway 1 on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay. Last week, coincidentally, our pal Jesse Griffiths of Austin’s Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club was in the Bay Area, staying with friends in Oakland. Jesse has just published his first book, a beautiful volume called Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish, chock-full of charming stories, delicious recipes, step-by-step instructions, and stunning photographs (including some of Madroño Ranch!) by Jody Horton, and last Tuesday made an in-store appearance (which we attended, of course) at the Tyler Florence Shop in Mill Valley to promote the book.

Jesse had last Friday free, and agreed to drive up for lunch with us. We agreed to meet at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station to load up on picnic supplies and then head up to Hog Island.

At Cowgirl, of course, Jesse immediately recognized the young woman behind the counter as a former co-worker at Austin’s Vespaio (“she was always into cheese,” he recalled, which must be an understatement). We picked up a dark, crusty Brickmaiden baguette, a round of Cowgirl’s new seasonal Chimney Rock cheese, a salame al tartufo from Creminelli, a bottle of white wine, and an Earl Grey panna cotta for Heather and hit the road for Marshall.

Tomales Bay from Hog Island Oyster Co.

At Hog Island you can order your fresh shellfish, claim a picnic table overlooking Tomales Bay, and smugly ponder those unfortunate souls who have to live anywhere else in the world. Because Heather wasn’t really into the whole raw oyster thing, we ordered only a couple of dozen—one each of Kumamotos and extra-small sweetwaters—and claimed one end of a picnic table out back. (The friendly couple at the other end of the table looked enviously at our wine and bread and cheese and complimented us on our foresight.) It was a typical West Marin day; the morning had been foggy, but now the sun was out, the temperature was in the upper 70s, and a gentle breeze was blowing in off the sparkling light blue bay.

The oysters appeared atop a bed of rock salt on a plastic tray, with an oyster knife attached by a chain and a rubber glove for shucking purposes. Jesse took charge of the shucking, I poured the wine (we appropriated three styrofoam cups from the bar) and sliced the salame and cheese (using Jesse’s own oyster knife; he never leaves home without one), and we sat in the sun for an hour or so, elbows propped on the rough wood of the picnic table, eating and drinking and dropping empty oyster shells into the wire basket at our feet—not, perhaps, the most elegant meal we’ve ever consumed, but surely one of the most enjoyable. All around us people busily slurped their own shellfish, drank beer, grilled eggplant and chicken, and patted their dogs.

Jesse Griffiths at Hog Island Oyster Co.

Raw oysters are, I grant you, an acquired taste. Some people never get the hang of it—the trick is to open the throat and let the little bugger just slide on down—but these were delicious. We ate them unadorned, with no mignonette or barbecue sauce or horseradish or Tabasco, and they were perfect: briny, sweet, smooth, plump. The wine was cool and crisp, the bread perfect (dark crust, with a firm hand), the cheese (from Jersey cow milk, washed in wine, and covered with dried organic mushrooms, savory, and black pepper) was soft and delicious, the conversation far ranging and lively, and the setting, of course, almost impossibly beautiful.

For me, at least, the combination of being back in the part of the world in which I grew up, with my beloved Heather and our good friend Jesse, felt like a stitching together of my life. It was integrative, if I may lapse into Marinspeak, in the best way, even though I knew it couldn’t last. Our two weeks out here have been utterly amazing, but on Sunday we fly back to Austin, back to our real lives, and it will be good to be home again. These last few months have brought more than their share of challenges, and more challenges doubtless lie ahead. But on this day, sitting in the sun sharing a delicious meal with dear companions, in this most beautiful of settings, was enough. More than enough.

What we’re reading
Mary Roach (ed.), The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011
Martin: Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

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Spring creed

Water snake

In the endless heat of late summer, sometimes it’s hard to remember that Texas can be a cool and beautiful place—but it can, as we hope this poem will remind you.

The lake’s complacent waters bloom before
the glamorous, unhurried progress of
the snake that makes its musing way toward
the bank on which I stand. My soul’s
geography does not resist its presence
on this luminous cool morning—in fact,
invites it in to join the doe that barks
a warning to her fawn, the turkey yodeling
for a mate, the feathered migrants, tender leaves,
the crackling, stretching meadow grasses.
This gracious equilibrium,
where everything belongs,
where pressure between worlds is equalized
and I can hear and see them both, arrives
without annunciation, invitation, effort.
Even in the yearly banishment
from paradise, when a bleached sky buzzes
with the sucking Texas heat, when every
blessed thing apparently has spines
or fangs or concentrated venom—even
then my arid heart dehisces and allows,
at times, the snake its place stretched out and sunning
on white limestone ledges, admits the
sibilant pronouncement that all is well,
which usually goes unheard.

Only now, at fifty, do I register
interior terrain materially,
see that mine is littered with capricious
wreckage of tornadoes; feel the pre-storm
suffocating calm that makes it hard
to breathe; inhale at night the jasmine
and its drifting ache; or move through shining
winter briskness where every chore’s a pleasure.
Now I scan horizons and prepare
for seasons newly gleaned, knowing they will
drench and parch, delight and wrench, approach
and pass. Snakes have always lived here, always will.
I see them sometimes now and sometimes watch
their agitating grace without a lurching
of my heart, but here is the kingdom
of the coiled presence. Here abide the mark
and potency of flood and flaming sky.
I am their host and guest; they don’t belong to me.

They are not mine, but are. This is not a metaphor,
but is: language bearing loads past bearing.
Every body is a word exhaled toward violence
and beauty; every body vibrates in
reception, a veil through which the wind
between the worlds whirls. At this intersection
grow fruits of silence, stillness, from the soil
of singleness, where snake and lake and sky
on either side of self’s divide sing in unison.

What we’re reading
Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
Martin: Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

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Three white Stetson hats: the joy of limitation

Tom Mix

Let’s face it: we are not culturally conditioned to look kindly upon constraints. Every day bombards us with messages urging us to maximize our enjoyments, super-size our servings, and prolong our erections. Limitations, we’re told, are for losers.

I, on the other hand, believe firmly that sometimes, under certain circumstances, constraints can actually foster, rather than curtail, creativity; ingenuity can flourish in unexpected ways, in all sorts of compromised settings. I absorbed this lesson during my time as a “county writer” for the Texas State Historical Association’s New Handbook of Texas, beginning in the mid-1980s, during which I suspect I learned at least as much about the craft of writing as I did as an undergraduate English major or in grad school.

As a county writer, my job entailed researching and writing all the entries associated with a given county for a massive revision of the original Handbook of Texas, a historical encyclopedia/biographical dictionary originally published in two volumes in 1952 under the aegis of Walter Prescott Webb, with a supplemental third volume appearing in 1976. The greatly expanded New Handbook, published in six volumes in 1996, required a veritable army of contributors—more than 3,000 in all—some volunteers and some, like me, paid staff, to crank out the roughly 24,000 entries. (Since going online in 1999, the Handbook has grown to more than 25,000 entries.)

On the face of it, few jobs could have less to do with creative writing. Yet trying to shape an occasionally jumbled pile of historical data, hearsay, and legend into a coherent, even compelling, and above all brief (sometimes just two or three sentences) narrative was an irresistible and, I believe, inherently creative challenge, even if I didn’t always succeed; many of the entries I had to write, such as those on small watercourses or hills or towns that had dried up and blown away, were simply too short and/or uninteresting. Here, for example, in its entirety, is my entry on a stream called Town Creek:

Town Creek rises a mile north of Fredericksburg in central Gillespie County (at 30°19′ N, 98°52′ W). Intermittent in its upper reaches, the stream follows a southerly course for 3½ miles to its mouth on Barons Creek in Fredericksburg (at 30°16′ N, 98°52′ W). Rising in the hills of the Edwards Plateau, Town Creek crosses flat to rolling terrain surfaced by shallow loamy and clayey soils; vegetation consists primarily of open stands of live oak, Ashe juniper, and mesquite, and grasses.

Doesn’t exactly set the heart racing, does it? Yet every so often I would find some nugget of information that could add a little color to a highly compressed and otherwise drab recitation of facts, and I took an inordinate pride in trying to craft the most apparently unpromising entry into something that would reward the careful reader with a graceful turn of phrase or an unexpectedly poignant or amusing incident. Here are just a few, drawn from various biographical entries I wrote: After the jazz pianist Peck Kelley quit the music business due to deteriorating eyesight, “he reportedly spent hours practicing at home on a stringless, silent piano so as not to disturb his neighbors.” German immigrant Johann Klingelhoefer “was elected chief justice of Gillespie County in 1850 but had to give up the office when his opponent, Mormon leader Lyman Wight, pointed out that Klingelhoefer was not yet an American citizen.” The West Texas rancher and congressman Claude Hudspeth, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, once referred to the president of our neighbor to the south as “that spineless cactus of Mexico.”

If I had to pick one favorite among the hundreds of entries I wrote, though, it might be the one on actor Tom Mix. Mix probably didn’t belong in the Handbook of Texas at all; despite his claims to have been born on a ranch on the Rio Grande and to have served as a Texas Ranger and with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the battle of San Juan Hill, he was in fact an army deserter from Pennsylvania. He was the most celebrated Western silent-movie star in early Hollywood, but he was virtually forgotten with the advent of talkies. After almost a thousand words, my entry on him ends as follows:

Mix died on October 12, 1940, when his Cord automobile overturned on a highway near Florence, Arizona; he was driving to California to discuss a return to the movies. His principal baggage reportedly consisted of three snow-white Stetson hats.

I couldn’t say with certainty that the story of the white Stetsons was true, but it was simply too good to pass up, and it provided a perfect way to punctuate the downward trajectory of Mix’s life. In this entry, and in many others, I was merely following the advice of the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”), though I tried always to leave myself a little wiggle room—hence the use of “reportedly” in the excerpt above. (I was also a big fan of “apparently,” “presumably,” “allegedly,” and similar conditional constructions.)

This is all a pretty high-falutin’ way of talking about what was on some level hackwork, but I think that even the humblest piece of writing can benefit from, and manifest, a careful devotion to craft. As George Orwell, a particular literary hero for the simplicity and clarity of his writing, once said, “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” (That would have made a pretty good motto for us county writers, right down to the emphasis on the surface of the earth; we probably had to write more entries on physical features—creeks and mountains and such—than any other type.)

We’re never more creative or more fully human than when we acknowledge and work within our limitations, be they imposed externally or internally. Our aspirations can be infinite, but actual achievement usually requires a pragmatic acceptance of the finite. And, of course, a judicious use of conditionals.

What we’re reading
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter
Martin: Vincent Virga, Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations

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Bonfires in the soul

Carmen Lomas Garza, Curandera

Last week, as Martin and I flew into Denver on our way to the Aspen Summer Words literary festival, we could see giant billows of smoke from the High Park fire outside Fort Collins, about sixty-five miles to the north. The fire has burnt more than 100 square miles over the last several weeks and, as of this writing, is still not completely contained. We met a cabbie who said philosophically that Mother Nature would have her way and that people who lived in fire hot spots should expect to get burned out. We talked about people who build houses in hurricane zones or on fault lines and concluded that human beings could be a little slow on the uptake.

At the festival, we had the great pleasure of meeting Luis Urrea, one of the keynote speakers, and his wonderful wife Cindy. In a session with H. Emerson Blake, editor of Orion Magazine, Luis recounted meeting a group of curanderas in Mexico several years ago. They immediately sensed that he was accompanied by the spirit of a Sioux warrior, although they were puzzled by the word “Sioux,” which they hadn’t encountered before. Luis was puzzled as well: he had been in the company of Sioux shaman not long before who told him that he was sending a warrior spirit with him for protection, but Luis had understood this in a metaphorical way. The curanderas assured him there was nothing metaphorical about it.

When they found out he was a writer, they were disappointed. They had seen that he was a communicator of some sort, but they told him that he was really a healer. Sorry, he said; if I could cure people, I would, but I can’t. You’ve just been lazy, they told him, but if you won’t do that hard work, we guess your writing can work to heal the spirits of those who did not die in peace. Don’t be lazy now, they said. There is work to be done. Sick souls rely on art, on works of beauty, to lead them into health and peace. Art, they told him, cures by lighting bonfires in the soul, in souls that were filled with deadwood before they died, deadwood that holds them back even after death. This is not metaphorical: get to work. And he did, writing books that depict the ways of thoughtless devastation and grace. His own soul having been kindled, his work is like a taper that readers can use (or not) to light their own souls on fire for the work of justice, beauty, and harmony.

But how does lighting that flame cure a soul? As a culture, Americans tend to focus more on curing disease in bodies, and for most of us, putting ourselves into the care of the medical profession is an act of faith whether we call it that or not. I go to a doctor, and if I trust her, I do what she tells me to do and take the drugs she tells me to take, even if I have no idea how those drugs work. I also look for a doctor who sees beyond the complex systems of the body to the unique conformation of my very particular life, sometimes called the soul; who helps patients as they walk through the fire that comes with confronting pain and mortality.

In Christianity, curing souls—traditionally the work of priests—involved discerning the movement of the Spirit within a life. This process is now more commonly called spiritual direction. As is the case with other religious traditions, the Christian discernment process calls followers to maturity through the Three Ways of purgation, illumination, and union. Purgation is often associated with dust and ashes, with desert and fire, with wandering lost in the wilderness, with penitence. T. S. Eliot ends his great aria of the Three Ways—confusingly called Four Quartets—with the conviction that, even in union, the fires of purgation are present, though transformed:

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

According to Urrea’s curanderas, the care of the body, the cure of the soul, and art are intimately interrelated. Many physicians will not wish to have their work compared to curanderismo, the work of folk healers who use herbs, water, mud, and esoteric knowledge to effect their cures—and I understand why. If I had a child with a serious medical condition, we’d go straight to a medical doctor, not to a shaman. And yet Western science seems to be realizing the need to see the human body as more than the sum of its physically constituent parts, to tend to the fractured realities of psyche, mind, genetic inheritance, environment, and time and place in history, the unique friction that some of us call the soul (though naming it feels reductive). We are beginning to acknowledge support groups, meditation, Eastern medical practices, massage, hospice care, and more as legitimate tools in the medical kit, even though Western metrics cannot easily measure their efficacy. We are starting to see that curing bodies is sometimes inextricable from caring for souls. Curanderismo has worked with this humbling understanding for centuries, even millennia. The controlled burning of deadwood in the soul—the tinder-dry fuel of fear, pain, and isolation—is not new work to the best of medical doctors. They still try to help if those flames begin to burn out of control.

Given the actual fires roaring through Colorado right now, it seems silly to claim for anyone besides firefighters the distinction of pulling people through fires. But there are people who pull us through fires that are metaphorical and utterly real and destructive. But artists, like firefighters and physicians, walk people through fires, whatever their source, and fire is, after all, a vital component in the maintenance of any healthy ecosystem. I love the idea of bonfires in the soul. It’s just the kind of image toward which I’m likely to gravitate. It’s beautiful. Poetic. Religious under- and overtones. Words that can drift in and out of my head like smoke, eventually leaving nothing behind. If taken seriously—more than literally—they’re a call to get moving. There’s work to be done.

What we’re reading
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter
Martin: Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

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Christian Althaus and the gift of perspective

Christian and Elizabeth Althaus

For all of my whingeing about the difficulties of adjusting to life in Texas, even after thirty years here, I know I’ve had it pretty easy, especially compared to the nineteenth-century settlers who endured almost unimaginable hardships while trying to claw a tenuous living out of the deceptively thin Hill Country topsoil. For one thing, I speak the same language (more or less) as the natives. For another thing, those natives aren’t actively trying to kill me—well, with the exception of the occasional jackass in a pickup speeding down MoPac. Finally, and arguably most important of all, I live here after the invention of air conditioning.

Many of those Hill Country settlers were German immigrants, and they and their descendants have played a prominent role in the region’s history over the last century and a half. I learned something about them when I started working at the Texas State Historical Association back in the mid-1980s, as my initial assignment was writing entries on Gillespie County for the Handbook of Texas.

I knew little to nothing of Texas history at the time, but I had always enjoyed our occasional day trips to the charming little town of Fredericksburg—people actually spoke German in the shops and restaurants!—and leaped at the opportunity to learn more about it. Perhaps inevitably, the more I learned, the more fascinated I became.

Here’s the one-paragraph version: In the mid-1840s, the Adelsverein, an organization founded by a group of German nobles to promote colonization in Texas, shipped over more than 7,000 settlers, most of them peasants. The first Europeans in what is now Gillespie County arrived in 1846, when a group of 120 German settlers led by John O. Meusebach established Fredericksburg on Barons Creek and Town Creek, near the Pedernales River. The little community thrived and became the county seat when the legislature created Gillespie County in 1848. Two years later, the population of the town had grown to almost a thousand; in that same year, three-quarters of the 1,235 whites in Gillespie County were of foreign extraction, almost all of them German.

Though little remembered today, surely one of the most remarkable was Christian Althaus, one of the first doctors in Fredericksburg. (The first was Wilhelm Keidel.) While I myself didn’t write the Handbook entry on Althaus—that honor fell to the Barbara Donalson Althaus, who obviously had a more personal connection with her subject—I’m cribbing from it shamelessly in this post.

Johann Christian Althaus was born in Erndtebrück, Westphalia, and served as a medic in the Prussian army before emigrating to Texas. He sailed from Antwerp, Belgium, on the York, arriving in Indianola in 1846 and making his way to Fredericksburg by the time town lots were distributed the following year. Also in 1847, he married a fellow immigrant, Anna Maria Elisabetha (Elizabeth) Behrens; they eventually had seven children. Initially, doctoring seems to have been at best a part-time occupation for Althaus; he also worked as a saddle-maker and as an Indian agent at Fort Martin Scott, two miles east of town, though in the 1850 census he was listed as a carpenter.

Althaus seems, like many of his fellow German settlers, to have cultivated a friendly relationship with the local Indians. He was one of the signers of the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty, which virtually eliminated fears of Indian attacks, and he eventually learned several Indian dialects. He treated Indians as well as whites in his medical practice, following the advice of an Indian friend who advised him to “be friendly and never pull a gun.” (This still strikes me as good advice in most circumstances.)

After ten years in Fredericksburg, Althaus determined to try his hand at ranching. He and the family moved to Cave Creek, several miles northeast of town, where he built a two-room stone house on top of a spring in which he kept his medicines cool. (The house, still standing in modified form on Koennecke-Eckhardt Road, off Ranch Road 1631, is now part of the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress.) Althaus, like many of his fellow Germans, opposed the “peculiar institution” of slavery and secession—an unpopular stance with many of their fellow Texans, and contributed to the legendary insularity of the Hill Country Germans—but helped organize the home guard and served as a county commissioner during the Civil War.

And all this time he was practicing medicine, too, as Barbara Donalson Althaus wrote in her Handbook entry:

He served as a community doctor until the 1880s, and his practice of medicine was carried on under many difficulties. Medical instruments were scarce; before Althaus amputated a crushed arm, he had to have the operating instrument (now at Pioneer Museum, Fredericksburg) made by a local blacksmith. He used locally grown herbs, roots, and bark to make his own medicines. When the government sent him to Bandera to treat diphtheria patients, he used medicine he made from honey, almond juice, and the bark of the blackjack tree. Thirty-four out of thirty-five people survived. Elizabeth Althaus not only raised seven children but also ran a makeshift hospital, orphanage, and shelter for wayfarers in their home. In addition she tended the farm during her husband’s trips, which sometimes lasted for weeks.

Althaus farmed and ranched and operated a dairy on the Cave Creek property until the 1880s, when he moved a few miles east. In 1883 he was among the founders of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Cave Creek, which calls itself “the oldest rural church in Gillespie County,” and volunteered to help haul the lumber used to build the church from Austin, seventy-five miles away. (At this time he was in his sixties, remember.) He died in 1915, at the age of ninety-four, and was buried beside the church he helped establish.

All in all, a life worthy of remembrance and even celebration, I’m sure you’ll agree. And a life that puts my own in useful perspective. The high in Austin today will be in the mid-90s, but I’m typing this while sitting in a comfortable chair in our well-cooled house; when I sweat, it’s usually because I choose to, either by walking Chula the Goggle-Eyed Ricochet Hound up and down the surrounding hills in the morning, or by going to a nearby gym. The food we eat is plentiful and healthful, almost exclusively grown by local farmers; Heather is fixing a breakfast of home-made polenta (made with cornmeal from Boggy Creek Farm) topped by a poached egg from our happy Madroño Ranch hens. I’m getting over a summer cold, after several days of pounding decongestants and expectorants.

Do I wish I were living in nineteenth-century Texas? No and hell no. But I do wish that I had had the opportunity to meet people like Christian (and Elizabeth) Althaus in person. I know I could learn much from their courage and perseverance and goodness.

What we’re reading
Jonathan Rosen, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds
Martin: Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (still!)

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Take me to the river

Heather rowing

Last week I started rowing again after an eight-month hiatus. It has been pure pleasure, despite the inevitable price of blisters on my baby-soft hands. First, the pleasure of seeing my friends at the dock, including the ducks and C.J. the chocolate Lab, who howled and wagged when he saw me; next, the pleasure of reestablishing a relationship with a boat in the water, negotiating the jostling demands of wind, current, oars, river geography, swans, kayakers, and my own stiff body; finally, the pleasure of being on the river itself, of seeing what has changed and what remains the same. The water changes quite literally with each breath; despite the dams, it’s still a living river. Trees and boulders have grown or fallen. Purple martins have replaced cormorants. And yet something persists, apparently unmoved by the passage of time. I’ve missed being on the river.

In the meantime, I was seeing another river, or at least imagining it. Martin has just finished reading Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow aloud to me, also pure pleasure. As have my rowing muscles, my reading-to-myself muscles have atrophied, and Martin reads with accents tailored to the characters and inflections appropriate to the plot. We’ve read like this for about a year now, usually at bedtime. Sometimes we can’t help but sneak-read in the daytime, wanting to be swept downstream by the whorls and eddies of words, characters, and plot like river-rafting thrill seekers.

One of the main characters of Jayber Crow is the river that runs through the valley in which the story is set. Jayber, the narrator of the novel and the barber of Port William, Kentucky, is a river-watcher as well. Late in his life and in the novel he asks:

How many hours have I spent watching the reflections on the water? When the air is still, then so is the surface of the water. Then it holds a perfectly silent image of the world that seems not to exist in this world. Where, I have asked myself, is this reflection? It is not on the top of the water, for if there is a little current the river can slide frictionlessly and freely beneath the reflection and the reflection does not move. Nor can you think of it as resting on the bottom of the air. The reflection itself seems a plane of no substance, neither water nor air. It rests, I think, upon quietness. Things may rise from the water or fall from the air, and, without touching the reflection, break it. It disappears. Without going anywhere, it disappears.

For Jayber, the reflection is an image, so to speak, of the divine, of how divinity is in this world and how it thwarts any logic that would fix that divinity in one place or locate it. It rests upon a condition rather than a location, on a “how” rather than a “where.” How can this condition be in the world? In quietness, says Jayber—a quietness that I think is born when the worlds outside and inside a person are married together. The natural world always carries its own quietness as it moves through time, but we humans need to practice marriage to know this quietness.

Honestly, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say by pulling marriage into this already multi-tentacled discussion, but having just made it to the other side of our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary, and given the national discussion on what makes a marriage, I’ve been thinking. (Those three words always fill Martin with foreboding.) If you take Jewish and Christian scripture seriously, marriage is that process by which two people become one flesh. This process requires rending; each must leave his or her parents and cling to the other in order to become one flesh. After this rending and clinging, they stand before each other naked and are not ashamed.

As a youngster I thought that becoming one flesh was merely a reference to sexual congress, the least generative and generous level of meaning in this most profound of texts. As an older-ster, I know that becoming one flesh can include sexual encounter but that the two are very distinct realities. Becoming one flesh may, in fact, begin with the self, with learning to bridge the slippery banks of individual consciousness and the physical body, so often at odds with each other. I’ve come to see cancer as an icon of this struggle, our stuttering inability to conjugate the distinctive languages of consciousness and its endless mysteries and of body and its appetitive requirements. To live as one flesh in the river of the self seems to require an awareness of the reflection that Jayber noticed, the reflection that rests on quietness—a sort of third party that allows the hands of consciousness and bodiness to hold each other, to mingle and flow into the river between them. Of course, to live as one flesh within a single body—to be married to yourself, and thus whole—is a work that flows as endlessly as a river, but that allows those glancing moments of standing naked and unashamed.

To include someone else in the work to become one flesh… well. It requires an endless series of rendings and cleavings from the past, from what has been, to create something new, the way a river changes every day and yet is still the same river. Sex can be a sign of one-fleshness, but is just as likely to be a hindrance. Only when that third party of quietness, that generous generative flow between the banks of two bodies that reflects something beyond itself—only when the three are present can there be one flesh. When the possibility of being one flesh reveals itself—within the self, within the couple—that body begins to grow, including within itself children, friends, strangers, enemies, the world itself. The capacity for stepping off the banks of the self into the river, beckoning those on the other side to join in, might manifest itself just a few times in a person’s life, or never, or every day. A few people barely towel off before they jump back in, married to the whole world and all that’s in it, no time for messing with clothes or shame.

So practicing marriage is not the same as being married. One training ground I’ve found for the practice of marriage has been reading aloud. It’s something children know immediately, that a story read or told aloud is an opportunity for teller and listener to jump into a river of words and ride them together, making a net of meaning that holds them even when they scramble up their different banks at the end of the story. That’s why the practice of reading scripture aloud is so important; it allows people to jump together off the banks and into its great narrative flow.

It’s been instructive to be a child again as Martin reads aloud and I listen, creating for us a net of meaning through both rough and placid rides. Even if we spend the day ignoring the other across the bank, or throwing rocks, we climb together into that river of words, emerging refreshed (or sometimes asleep) or even naked, when one of us is moved to tears or left helpless by laughter.

That’s why, with so many figurative rivers running, I’m happy to be back on (if not in) a literal river: yet another chance to practice marriage.

What we’re reading
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Martin: Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (still)

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Memorial Day: remembering Mamaw

Oveta Culp Hobby as portrayed in the National Museum of the Pacific War

Last Monday was Memorial Day, which Heather and I acknowledged by visiting the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg on our way out for a quick visit to Madroño Ranch.

If you haven’t been there yet, I can tell you that the museum is an amazing place, crammed full of artifacts and information; we had no idea! (Those of you wondering why a museum commemorating the Pacific war is in landlocked Fredericksburg should know that it is the home town of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II.) We were wandering through, overwhelmed by the number and detail of the exhibits, when we came upon a photograph (above) of Heather’s grandmother, Oveta Culp Hobby, who was the head of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

Mamaw, as she was known in the family, was a formidable woman. Born in Killeen in 1905, she was a proto-feminist (though I suspect she would be horrified to be described as such), both genteel and steely. Family legend holds that she displayed a strong sense of integrity, not to say stubbornness, at an early age. Her son (and Heather’s uncle), former lieutenant governor Bill Hobby, wrote of her in the Handbook of Texas:

She was only five or six when a temperance campaign swept Killeen, and at Sunday school all the small children were invited to sign the pledge and receive a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union white ribbon to wear. Oveta thought it over and refused. She had no particular desire to drink liquor, she granted, but she might wish to when she grew up and thought it best not to give her word unless she was sure she was prepared to keep it.

She inherited a firm belief in the importance of public service from her father, a state legislator, and evinced an early interest in the law. She attended both Baylor Female College (now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor) and the South Texas College of Law, though she graduated from neither. At the tender age of twenty, she became the parliamentarian of the Texas House of Representatives, beginning a long career of public service, though her lone stab at electoral politics was a failure, as Uncle Bill notes:

At twenty-five she was persuaded to run for the state legislature from Houston, but was beaten by a candidate who whispered darkly that she was “a parliamentarian and a Unitarian.”

In 1931 she became the second wife of former Texas governor William P. Hobby, the president of the Houston Post and a good friend of her father’s; she was twenty-six and he was fifty-three. For the next decade, her life revolved around the newspaper business (she was successively the book editor, assistant editor, and executive vice president of the Post during the 1930s), community affairs (she was president of the League of Women Voters of Texas and served on the boards of various civic organizations), and her two children.

In 1942, she was appointed the first head of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which later became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). She became the first woman accorded the rank of colonel in the United States Army and worked tirelessly, in the face of deeply entrenched skepticism and prejudice, to establish the WAC as a legitimate branch of the service. (In 1945, in recognition of her efforts, she became the first woman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal.) Uncle Bill again:

The job she undertook was hard, often exasperating, frequently amusing, and sometimes heartbreaking. The new director had to travel constantly, speaking to large groups of men and women on the radical subject of enlisting volunteer women into the army. She traveled with an electric fan and iron, so that at each overnight stop she could wash, dry, and iron her khaki uniform—the only WAAC uniform in existence at the time.

After the war, she was active in the Democrats for Eisenhower movement, and in 1953 Ike appointed her the first secretary of the brand-new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services); she thus became only the second female Cabinet member in United States history. She resigned in 1955 to spend more time with her ailing husband (he died in 1964), and spent the next four decades overseeing the family communications business, which grew to include radio and television stations, and solidifying her standing as the first lady of Houston society. She died in 1995.

My own memories of her begin in the summer of 1981, when Heather and I, having just graduated from Williams College, embarked on an epic cross-country drive from Massachusetts to California and back to San Antonio.

En route to the West Coast, we passed through New Orleans, where we spent several days, and Houston, where we arranged to visit Mamaw. (Heather had made it clear that Mamaw was most definitely not the sort of grandmother one dropped in on unannounced for milk and cookies, so we called her secretary and made an appointment.)

On the night before our departure from the Crescent City, someone broke into our car and made off with all our worldly possessions (admittedly a modest pile), including Heather’s Williams College diploma and (this really hurt) our cooler full of beer. We were left, quite literally, with the clothes on our backs—in my case, a pair of cut-off jeans and a T-shirt bearing, in large letters across the chest, the slogan of the oyster bar in Boston’s Faneuil Hall (“EAT IT RAW”). We waited several hours, in vain, for the New Orleans police to show up before Heather announced that we had to leave; we simply could not afford to be late for our appointment with Mamaw.

We fairly flew over I-10 to Houston, pulling up at Mamaw’s house just in time. We were shown into a beautifully appointed sitting room and offered tea. The tea arrived, served in lovely bone china; I accepted a cup, and balanced it on my knee while we awaited Mamaw’s entrance.

Just before she entered the room, I looked down at the delicate cup and saucer resting on my bare, hairy knee, and suddenly realized that this meeting was not going to go well.

Sure enough, the temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees when Mamaw entered and caught her first glimpse of me in my cut-offs and vulgar T-shirt, with my bushy beard and gold earring. What had I been thinking? Granted, we’d been in a hurry to reach Houston, but why hadn’t we stopped for even five minutes at a Dollar General Store and at least bought me a plain white T-shirt?

I escaped that awkward meeting alive, somehow, but for the next few years, whenever Mamaw called Heather and I happened to pick up the phone, I could feel the chill coming over the long-distance lines and through the receiver. “Hello?” I would say. (This was long before caller ID, of course.) “Is Heather there,” came the icy response—never “Hello, Martin,” or “How are you?”

Finally, after we married, Mamaw began, very gradually, to warm up to me. She became much friendlier on the phone, even asking me questions about myself and my work before asking to speak to Heather. We took our kids to visit her in Houston, having first threatened them with torture and dismemberment if they misbehaved; she seemed to enjoy them, though she never got used to the idea that she had a great-grandson named Tito. (“And how is little, er, Toto?” she would ask.)

She was also a little dubious about my ethnicity. The story goes that when one of Heather’s cousins announced that she was marrying a young man of Greek descent, Mamaw sniffed, “Well, we already have a Kohout in the family. I suppose we might as well have a Papadopoulos.”

I had of course always admired and respected her, and toward the end of her life I grew to love her as well. She was ferociously intelligent, determined, and opinionated, and yet she was also gracious and charming, and extremely funny—all qualities, by the way, she passed on to her daughter and granddaughters (and, so far as we can tell, to her great-granddaughters as well). I was fortunate indeed to know her, despite the somewhat, er, awkward beginning of our relationship.

Mamaw, I salute you. I hope that, wherever you are, you can see that I’ve cut my hair, trimmed the beard, and given up the earring. And that EAT IT RAW T-shirt disappeared years ago.

What we’re reading
W. S. Merwin, Migration: New and Selected Poems
Martin: Jerome Charyn, The Seventh Babe

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