So: I went in for a thorough cardio checkup, a long overnight at Duke Med. As the capstone of the process they stuck me in this MRI machine for a long hour of lying stock still on my back, eyes closed and hands slowly going numb under the barrage of whanging and zapping aimed at discovering what if anything functional was left in my upper torso.
In cardio terms, the MRI was a success: they said my heart was pretty much okay for a guy my age: go home, take the pills, and keep in touch.
But an hour later, when I clicked the news on the iPad, I got an eerie sinking feeling: maybe there had been more to that big machine than just a very noisy electronic stethoscope. What if it was also a reverse time machine, doubtless part of the CIA’s vast secret UFO research: when they rolled me in, it was 2021. When I came back out into the light, in much of America it was 1964, or maybe 1953.
As I begin this post, Portland and Seattle are roasting, a Florida beachfront condo has collapsed, the lake keeping Las Vegas afloat is disappearing, and many more out West are dreading the start of fire season. Here in the East we’re keeping a wary eye on Xs and Os on the Atlantic hurricane map; and everybody should be concerned about those virulent variants.
Amid all these budding disasters, pieces of a paragraph from the early 1990s keep popping into my head:
I have a confession to make. I want my grandchildren to learn how to goatwalk . . . . I’m a survivalist where they’re concerned. Industrial civilization has destabilized the earth’s climate beyond the point of no-return. The fair-weather agriculture on which our civilization depends is doomed. In the course of the next century, much of North America will probably become desert. Even if it doesn’t, annual rainfalls and temperatures will fluctuate too wildly to sustain the agricultural systems on which we now depend. If humankind doesn’t self-destruct, my grandchildren will have to get along without industrial agriculture as it now exists. Maybe a more sustainable industrial adaptation will emerge, but I want them to know enough to survive the old-fashioned, nomad way, in case that’s a viable choice.
Learn how to Goatwalk? I have great grandchildren now, and why should they be learning to walk with goats?
To explain why, let me say something first about a Bucket. Or more precisely, a Bucket List. We can start with mine.
The first time I heard the Jeff Bezos Apology story, it was from my big brother just the other day, and I immediately thought: No way.
There is just no way Jeff Bezos publicly apologized. And he simply could not possibly be dumb enough to do what he had allegedly apologized for.
Not that he’s some paragon or guru or the Dalai Lama of Prime. Most of the bad things people say about his Amazon empire are true, and I kept rooting for the union drive at his Alabama warehouse right til the organizers drove off the cliff.
But this other story, new to me, was so ridiculous that it had to be one of those floating internet legends. Had to be.
I mean, sure, sometimes Amazon gets caught with its corporate pants down; or at least unzipped. Take its initial dismissal earlier this month of the charge that many Amazon delivery drivers are so driven that some have to pee in bottles to stay on their inhuman schedules.
The truth is out there. But so are lies. This week, some pieces of the truth were emerging in a Minnesota courtroom. Here we pass that by with bowed head.
Other pieces, one being an enormous cargo ship, were emerging, or not, from the Suez Canal, and I can’t elide them. Or one piece in particular.
What I can’t avoid is that somewhere out there, but closer to the canal, I still believe — is my bushing.
My what? Bushing. A small piece of machined metal. I think it would fit in my hands, maybe one hand. The cost should be between ten to thirty bucks.
It’s not really “my” bushing, though. It’s destined for our washing machine.
The device is a compact Haier washer/dryer combo, worked fine for eight years, til last December. Then it started making clanging noises, rocking back & forth, and finally the Fair Wendy shut it off before something melted down.
Okay, stuff happens. We called an appliance repair place; they’d come before, to fix the fridge. It took two visits: they had to order a part. But a few days later, as promised, they returned & got it done.
With the washer, it started the same: they tinkered & replaced something. But to finish, they needed a part. A bushing, for the tub inside.
They tapped a tablet, checked their shelves. It needed to be ordered.
No problem they said. A few days: they were in direct touch with the factory.
I knew this story: the “Just in time” system. Saves money in inventory & storage costs, and moves fast. Usually.
“One of the world’s greatest masterpieces, and surely the most stolen piece of art of all time, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, has a new €30m (£26m) glass-case home.
While remaining within St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, for which it was painted in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, the 12-panelled polyptych will be located in the Sacrament chapel, the cathedral’s largest and most easterly chapel, within a bullet-proof display case that is 6-metres high with an interior of 100 cubic metres. . . .
. . . somewhat understandably, a top priority for those involved in the project has been the masterpiece’s security. During its 588-year history, the Ghent Altarpiece has been nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon for the Louvre in Paris, cut in half after falling into the hands of the King of Prussia, coveted by Hermann Göring and taken by Adolf Hitler before being rescued by a team of commando double-agents from an Austrian salt mine where it was destined to be blown apart with dynamite.
It has not survived entirely unscathed. One of its 12 panels remains missing after a daring heist on the evening of 10 April 1934, which has since baffled police detectives, bemused amateur sleuths and driven to despair the Nazi agents ordered by Goebbels to find it as a gift for the German Führer .
[Yes, of course they made a movie about it: The Monuments Men (2014), directed by and starring George Clooney and a cast guaranteed to set middle-aged hearts aflutter. But it was a dud. One typical commenter in the Washington Post called it “a very bad version of Hogan’s Heroes meets The Sound of Music. I kept waiting for someone to break out into song. Pathetic and embarrassing would be a compliment. . . .” He walked out. Left just in time, too, because, someone in the movie soon did break out into song . . . .]
My friend Douglas Gwyn, a distinguished Quaker theologian, included the Ghent Altarpiece in his new book, Into The Common.
For him, the Ghent altarpiece
. . . is both an astonishing work of art and a panoply for contemplation by the eye of faith. Its vast scope is balanced by its minute detail, down to identifiable species of vegetation: a mind-reeling combination of macrocosmic and microcosmic perspectives. The van Eycks were famed miniaturists and the altarpiece constitutes miniaturization on a grand scale. Contemplating it, one intuits the beauty of one’s own obscure place in the epic of divine providence.
[The centerpiece features the Lamb of God; from the] wound in its side pours blood into a golden chalice. On the altar are the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Above the Lamb hovers a dove, the Holy Spirit. And above that, the central upper panel depicts God the Father enthroned.
In front of the altar is a fountain flowing with the water of life. Paradoxically, this water is the blood of the Lamb. All these elements form a central vertical axis. In the background of this park-like scene, a skyline of buildings suggests the new Jerusalem (Revelation 20) as the setting. The scene extends into two panels on either side of the central one, forming an earthly, horizontal axis.
. . . Fourteen angels kneel in worship closest to the altar. Behind them stand an array of Hebrew prophets, Christian apostles, and pagan philosophers, some with oriental faces. And from the four comers of the panel a multitude of peoples are advancing toward the Lamb, balancing the static sense of an eternal, heavenly ecstasy with a moment of historic, earthly fulfillment.
The composition of this panel derives from the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, in particular the seventh chapter. Revelation’s exotic flood of visions and voices from heaven has fascinated, tantalized, or alienated readers for two thousand years.
Well, put me down somewhere between tantalized and alienated. John’s Book of Revelation has continually left me puzzled and unenlightened; and I make apocalypse jokes like there’s no tomorrow.
But no question, the Ghent altar piece is best in class of its kind of art. (In its shadow our recent apocalyptic behemoth, the Left Behind series, is left utterly behind.) So in the abstract, I can appreciate Doug Gwyn’s swoon over it.
However, while it’s at the pinnacle, there are many other cathedrals in Europe with relics. How many such churches I don’t know, but it’s probably in the hundreds. And many —I’d guess most — of them have their own art pieces and relics; especially relics, including objects, preserved corpses and even detached body parts of saints and other churchly eminences.
In 2008 I spent several weeks in France. While there, I toured a few cathedrals, in Toulouse & Arles. In one of them, the interior was quite dimly lit, yet I walked along the nave, noting various niches & mini-chapels on either side.
One such niche had a black wrought iron gate across its entrance, with a chain and lock. I paused and peered between the bars. Behind them was thick glass, maybe doors, on which was a film of dust and smoke, indicating years of quietude (aka neglect).
I paused, leaned into the gate and squinted. Behind the glass were reliquaries, their shapes unmistakable and their intricate, dull gilt decoration just detectable.
Not one, or a few; dozens. And not on shelves or in alcoves, nooks or crannies.
In fact, a heap. A jumbled pile. Yes, I’ll go there—
— A junk pile; sacred maybe, but junk. The cathedral’s essentially clandestine holy dustbin.
I stood for a few minutes, continuing to squint, sorry my pocket camera wouldn’t work in that half-light. There was no signage, not even in French, to advise about what mix of once-revered clerics, third-tier saints, obscure visionaries and supernumerary martyrs had been downsized into consecrated cathedral detritus.
I came out blinking and musing into the afternoon light. I recalled that some prominent names from my Catholic boyhood (looking at you, St. Christopher) had been officially debunked and declared to be pious myths as part of the updating (repackaging?) by the 1960s Second Vatican Council.
But I hadn’t thought that others, evidently many more, had quietly been, to filch a more tasteful British phrase, made redundant. How many miracles had been consigned to the church’s version of internal dumpsters? There had to be truckloads.
Some weighty sociologists of religion have written of the “routinization of charisma” in religion. This notion could arguably be corroborated by the fact that, just in this one cathedral, Catholic masses had been performed, probably daily, for near a millennium.
At the center of each performance, doctrine says, a miracle is evoked and repeated. As this ritual goes on in Catholic churches worldwide, the miracle recurs at all hours seven days a week, century after century, more like clockwork than clocks.
Miracle it might be, the sociologists argue, but how could it not thereby become also routine? And how could the associated paraphernalia not fall prey to the changes of fortune and fashion?
One rebuttal to such questioning is to point to masterpieces like that in Ghent. The Van Eycks’ achievement leaps beyond superb technique, they say, to become a renewer of the divine mysteries that doctrine says underlie the ritual.
The defenders may have something there. Yet masterpieces are rare. There are so many churches to fill; hence much art, religious and secular alike, is imitative, and slides down a slope through kitsch, into self-parody and ends up deservedly as, well, trash.
The doctrinal mysteries, being invisible, may endure; but can the same decline overtake the remnants of obscure holiness? Arles gave a slight but unmistakable nod of reply. For my part, in years as a Quaker, I have absorbed much of the early Friends’ iconoclastic attitudes: I prefer my cathedral to be a plain meetinghouse, unadorned but by the Light Within. It is our own special brand of philistinism, and we are quite humbly proud of it.
Yet what will happen to that mound of old reliquaries?
The cathedral has stood for many centuries. It would be no big deal to let these gilded priestly discards lie in that niche for a few more generations, as the thickening dust becomes opaque and the last faithful who remember them die off.
Then — well, the honorable denouement would involve chanting processions and pointed mitres and incense and special crypts.
But one can also imagine an ever-increasingly anemic church, now bleeding for billions from the overdue costs of priestly pedophilia, being forced to send a nameless team to unlock the chain, likely under cover of darkness, pry open the squealing iron gates, brusquely check relic boxes for precious metals and jewels, and dump their other contents into some common container.
Then an unmarked truck heads for a compliant, close-mouthed funeral director’s crematory, which is fired up before dawn, with little more than a parting splash of holy water if they’re lucky.
Presumably in Heaven the rewards of their honorees are secure. But here I saw, as a non-mystic visitor, that alongside the ancient motto of Sic Transit Gloria Mundineeds to stand another, Sic Transit Sanctus Mundi (Goodbye to yesterday’s holiness) as well. And maybe even a third, if only as a footnote, that not even an ornate gilded urn will do more than slow the eventual passing. Oh, wait: “Dust to dust”(Genesis 3); they already have it.
As you see, my cathedral stop was no masterpiece, but memorable all the same. I wonder how different It would have been had I been able to take a weekend side trip to Ghent. Much better if Doug Gwyn and I had gone together.
These cans are set out on the table where I’ll eat my New Year’s breakfast. That’s so I won’t forget: opening them is for later in the day.
I’ve become seriously superstitious about the tradition of eating this concoction on this day, because many in these parts consider it a harbinger of good luck and prosperity for the coming year.
I’m not sure I can say I “believe” this Hoppin’ John legend. But whatever, I’ve been careful to make this dish on the past several January Firsts — and I’m still here to write about it, so I figure it doesn’t hurt. Besides, if there’s any year I expect to need some more good luck, it’s surely for the one that follows 2020. (That plus a vaccine shot or two; which is not in the cards for me yet.)
Diane Di Prima was an anarchist feminist Beatnik poet, who died this past weekend at 86, in San Francisco.
I didn’t really follow her work or career. But I was an early long-distance fan of the Beats, and one of her poems, part of a series of “Revolutionary Letters,” caught my attention. For my second book, Uncertain Resurrection, about the failure of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign, I included it as an epigraph and opening lament. I can still feel its sting half a century later.
Here it is, along with an excerpt from her obituary in the Washington Post:
Revolutionary Letters #19
if what you want is jobs for everyone, you are still the enemy, you have not thought thru, clearly what it means
if what you want is housing, industry (G. E. on the Navaho reservation) a car for everyone, garage, refrigerator, TV, more plumbing, scientific freeways, you are still the enemy, you have chosen to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some science fiction utopia, if what you want
still is, or can be, schools where all our kids are pushed into one shape, are taught it’s better to be “American” than black or Indian, or Jap, or PR, where Dick and Jane become and are the dream, do you look like Dick’s father, don’t you think your kid secretly wishes you did
if what you want is clinics where the AMA can feed you pills to keep you weak, or sterile, shoot germs into your kids, while Merck & Co. grows richer
if you want free psychiatric help for everyone so that the shrinks, pimps for this decadence, can make it flower for us, if you want
if you still want a piece a small piece of suburbia, green lawn laid down by the square foot color TV, whose radiant energy kills brain cells, whose subliminal ads brainwash your children, have taken over your dreams
degrees from universities which are nothing more than slum landlords, festering sinks of lies, so you too can go forth and lie to others on some greeny campus
THEN YOU ARE STILL THE ENEMY, you are selling yourself short, remember you can have what you ask for, ask for
A year ago, on October 10, 2019, I had a stroke. And I saw a vision of my future.
It started in the living room, about 7AM. I was in my battered recliner, reading newspapers on an Ipad. Across from me, on our long couch, grandson Calvin was stirring. His mom worked nights at Waffle House, so he often stayed over. It would soon be time for him to head out for the school bus.
I glanced up at him, and then something else stirred to my left: A bright metallic blue curtain had appeared, and seemed as if it was being drawn to the right, across my field of vision.
There was no pain, in fact no unusual sensation at all. But clearly something was wrong. I called out to Wendy, asleep in our bedroom. “I think I’m having a stroke!”
Calvin had to get himself up and out that morning. Shortly I was walking into the Duke ER, which is barely a mile away. And immediately I discovered one of the upsides of my condition. Having spent many bleak and painful hours in that ER waiting room, when I calmly answered the reception nurse’s “May I help you?” with, “I think I’m having a stroke,” it was like waving Harry Potter’s most potent magic wand. Continue reading A Whole Year In One Stroke→