Thursday, December 03, 2009


Always attracted to philosophies advocating simplicity, rootedness, and attachment -- like maybe Tao -- I am often and equally attracted to concepts of glamour, mystery, and risk. My choice is to live the first category and mostly think the second one. It seems to work pretty well, except that it confuses some other people especially those who put everything sexual or violent in the second context. My partnership with Barrus works not because he is (or has been) an exemplar of the second while he lives the first, which is the case, but because he understands this.

We need some kind of name for the two categories and also some kind of tag for working these two against each other. Not because everything has to be nailed down to the past by reference, but because it’s hard to talk about unnamed and therefore undefined things with much clarity. Particularly when the larger society considers them nonexistent.

Maybe examples help. My little old house is in a little village at the edge of an Indian reservation and also close to the Canadian border. The house is furnished with books, mostly, but also with a few bits of memorabilia of no market value. For instance, when my folks were bringing me back from graduation from Northwestern University, towing the camp trailer my grandfather invented and dutifully stopping (as my father always did) at every major national park and museum, we camped one night close to a house that had been razed. It was an old house and bits of debris were on the ground. I walked over to look and something egg-like caught my eye. It was a porcelain doorknob. I put it in my pocket.

Years later I was asked to give a keynote speech at a feminist conference headlined by Starhawk. Remember her? So I did. That’s the first piece in my book, “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke,” the one about the woman who was wearing socks she knitted from wool she sheared off sheep she raised. She had spun and dyed the wool from organic substances. I compared that to one’s spiritual life, do-it-yourself and uniquely fitted to one’s own life because of being drawn from that life.

It was viciously attacked. The main complaint was that it was Friday night which is sacred to Jews and I was Christian, an adversary. (I’m not Christian except culturally.) The secondary complaint was the term “keynote” which implied that the conference was locked and I was the only one with a device that would open it, thus undercutting democracy and individual thought. (Starhawk was not yet in evidence. She’s not stupid.)

Later we had mostly gotten past that and we were asked to “share” some valuable icon of our own personalities (like homemade socks?) by putting them on an altar with the assurance that the leaders would try to return them but also the caution that they might disappear in the process. I put two things there: that porcelain doorknob and my “preaching lipstick” which had a bright red luxury L’Oreal case holding the gilded red “stick”. I felt it was lucky and also that it made me look a little more dressy to honor the event of preaching and made my mouth easier to see. Both objects disappeared.

Later again, a woman I knew slipped the doorknob back to me, saying that she thought it must have considerable meaning. But the lipstick had been censored by the feminist Taliban who thought it was an example of vanity and unjustified expensive luxury. In time I replaced it with something similar, but that first lipstick -- which I bought when I was living in a van while circuit-riding, brushing my teeth at McDonalds and sleeping at the curb, and which was my ceremonial last little touch before beginning a worship service -- never acquired the sensory attachments that the first one had. No juju.

You’ll notice that I’m anchoring my ideas in objects. I once told my mother that I preferred raspberries to strawberries as emblems of fruitfulness because you don’t have to stoop for raspberries. She told me that was ridiculous. But I learned it from her. Her father was very angry when my mother married and prevented my grandmother from attending the wedding. My grandmother slipped my mother a start of wisteria from her vine and it grew outside my mother’s sunroom window for fifty years. When my aunt’s house burned down and a new one was built, she went back to the old farm and brought another wisteria start for the back patio. The climate here is not good for wisteria, or I’d do the same.

Wickedness. My wicked old grandfather. It’s not at all what the Talibans claim. Somehow they think sex is worse than murder, that sex justifies murder as punishment. They separate covert “entitled“ crimes from the public appearance of them -- but insist on access to the most secret reaches of the unentitled with low status. I applied for heat assistance and discovered I would be required to give evidence of every record I had from taxes to medical records. In fact, much of my interest in transgression, defiance, and entitlement to wickedness comes from thinking about how in every culture, and even in an animal context like a chicken yard or an elk herd, the mighty attack the meek. No matter how much Jesus preached against it, it is still true that if you look poor, old, crippled, stupid, badly dressed, etc. you will be the object of oppression in many ways: pushed aside, shushed up, locked up. Frozen out.

Humans treated as objects become inflamed and unreasonable, flaring up about who owns which day and objecting to metaphors. Wickedness makes us unreasonable. I’m working my way through the works of William T. Vollmann, who goes where only social workers and cops go, but as a friend and participant. His writing is revelatory and it is EXPERIENCE BASED.

There’s the key, if I dare use the word. I could compare raspberries to strawberries in terms of picking them because I had done it as a kid, going down the rows in Oregon June sun with an aching back and a resentful mind. My mother made me do it. She did it, too. We didn’t watch it on television. First hand sensory experience is the basis of everything else. “Shared” helps. Dogma does not.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

i think first hand sensory experience is the basis of spirituality, too. At least it is for me.

There is very little that I "believe in," in the conventional use of that term. And there some things, because of experiences and visions and synchronistic encounters with the numinous and liminal, that I Know.

It's interesting to me how there is so much apparently built-in desire in so many people to want to Control each other, themselves, and nature. These inner forces of Control turn autocratic even when the idea being defended is anarchistic or democratic. So your experiences at that conference are just so ironic—unfortunately I wish they were less common—in that some folks seek so hard to force others to think like they do, even when they're trying to promote individual freedom and personal choice.