The wind breathes
upon the ocotilla
like a harp.
The wind breathes
upon the ocotilla
like a harp.
The electronic world makes it easy to forget the real world expanses of this planet. We just completed a 2400 mile road trip from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to Las Cruces, New Mexico. While we had many sights and experiences that could populate a travelogue, I just want to share a few reflections that emerged as we made our way across a portion of this vast and varied land.
Setting out in haste to escape a wintry blast in the mountains, we were carried in a convoy of semi-trailer trucks through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to reach the rolling eastern plains of Texas, itself over 800 miles wide. The road-side signs, official and unofficial, began to evidence a different humor. “This is God’s country. Don’t drive through it like hell.” “Hitchhikers may be escaping inmates.” “Driving in river beds prohibited by law.” I wish the signs could show their dry deadpan expressions.
On the third day we got to Dallas. Though we stayed only blocks from Dealy Plaza, where the city recently commemorated the assassination of John Kennedy fifty years ago, we were there to see the fine art that has been assembled in a set of museums in the heart of the city. They stand like a garden of new life where the events that shook our lives still smolder in people’s consciousness.
We left Dallas thinking that now we would encounter the “real Texas” of wide-open spaces, but instead found ourselves in a torturous high-speed caterpillar of traffic pounding toward San Antonio. It was as if the individualism so celebrated in the Texas of old had been incarnated in the personal car and the mobility of products that now clogged the arteries of the country’s life. We found ourselves caught in the paradox of individualism, in which pursuit of personal freedom enslaves us all. The Marlboro Man is gone from the billboards, but his lone and self-destructive image is still circulating in our lungs. It was only after exploring some of the old city of San Antonio, with its justly famous riverwalk, that we emerged onto the fabled open spaces of west Texas. Scrub oak soon began to yield to bare land tufted by hardy grass and mesquite.
In deserts very little grows and very little decays. The desert offers up its virgin space to human advance and the debris of abandoned abodes, machinery, foundations without walls. The desert exposes everything, including our conversations with ourselves. The desert is unforgiving but in its mute neutrality absorbs, remembers, and in its silent way forgives.
The flood of vehicles gave way to open space along the Rio Grande. The US Border Patrol offers travelers opportunities at checkpoints for brief and cordial conversations (assuming, I suppose, if it doesn’t look like you had crossed the nearby river recently). Around us stretched wrinkled sediments, laid out like the dirty sheets of ancient seas. Clumps of tough grasses persevered like the fingerprints of fugitive rains. I began to feel the power of the archaic bonds of man-land-animal-woman at the core of the myth that still animates and distorts our public conversation.
At long intervals the road led us through little towns, the partners of this myth of rugged individualism, their order seeking to construct a place of dense relationship within the undefined spaces of the open land. In departing from the Interstate highways we could breathe the atmospheres of towns that were working and those that are being swallowed up in the indifferent sprawl around them and an economy that has left them behind.
I began to feel more keenly how the struggle between the life of the town and the massed capital of cities and large corporations is a defining fault-line in our life. We have a deep longing for the bonds and delights of humanity in the town, but we can’t shake our needs for the Walmarts, Wall Streets, and Exxons that imperil it. Towns like Marfa, Texas, home of minimalist artists, and Artesia, New Mexico, are places where individual creativity and community consciousness marry to create oases for the human spirit.
It is in the mountainous desert of the Big Bend, where a national and a state park stay the encroachments of our industrial life, that we experienced a pulse and power rooted in a more cosmic order of things. Words, the medium of our human realm, are absorbed by the wind and space, the silence punctuated only by the call of a passing bird. The volcanoes of 30 million years ago have left an amphitheater of memory that swallows up our life spans. Little wonder that the religious spirit, launched toward what we call eternity, comes to the desert and the mountains for a space to draw us from our selves. Many people come here simply to hike, to put paces on the vastness. For us, limited in paces now, it was a time to be pulled out of the book of days that seeks in feeble fashion to contain our lives.
To round out our meandering trip we stopped in Carlsbad, NM, now an oil boom town, for me to go down in Carlsbad Caverns, a life-time wish for one who started out spelunking in the caves of the Virginias. It’s slack season. I descended 750 feet in the elevator and walked into a dim gathering area where a few others awaited a Ranger’s for a guided tour. I took a few minutes to walk out into the Big Room. I was alone in the semi-darkness. The Big Room stretches over (or under) about 8 acres, with stalactites, stalagmites, and columns formed over the last 500,000 years – an eyelash of earth’s time. Parts of the room are 250 feet high. I could hear the ringing in my ears, the occasional drip of water. A desert of a different kind. I wandered guided and unguided for four hours, trying to absorb the beautiful desolation, unencumbered by the crowds that normally echo in its chambers.
The trip has given me a chance to reflect on the relation of the individual and the natural, the self and its communities, our time and the earth’s time, our bodies and the earth’s body. More to come from our sojourn on the Rio Grande. I hear that some people are driving in its dry bed.
I have long been interested in the South African tradition of the imbongi. The figure of this classic Xhosa “praise singer” accompanied my thoughts as Nelson Mandela returned to his people in Qunu and has continued to run through my mind over the holiday season. The imbongi is an oral “poet laureate,” you might say, who gathers up a whole history to present the significance of an event or important figure. While his poetry (izibongo) can be simply a hymn of effusive praise, it can also be a powerful song of protest or judgment. While I have not been able to find a video of Mandela’s own imbongi, Zolani Mkiva, performing his funeral poem, Mkiva’s rehearsal of it for a reporter can be found at Rose Marie Berger’s blogsite. You can find out more about him in a video from SA Broadcasting System released during the funeral period.
With his colorful traditional garb and accoutrements the imbongi both illuminates the presence of a celebrity and is also a celebrity himself (I don’t know of women iimbongi, so let me know if you do). This has led me to reflect more on the cult of celebrity in our own time and the self-promotion endemic to our consumerist economy. Celebrity and self-promotion have been part of human life from the beginning. We seek esteem in the eyes of others and confirm our membership in a group by admiring some image of a person known to all. Indeed, public life beyond the smallest village depends to some extent on the presence of celebrated persons, elevated far beyond their ordinary human capacities to personify a hoped-for unity. The inflated public persona both dominates and obscures our history, leading also to the pride that corrodes public trust and rational judgment.
The tradition of the imbongi at least acknowledges that no one can blow his or her own trumpet. No one can be their own imbongi. Humility and even self-effacement is the sign of true leadership. We need an imbongi to frame the significance of our lives and ground them in the traditions that have nurtured us as well as the world we seek to nurture. It is not our own to tell. While lifting up our significance, the imbongi also needs to articulate the wider traditions that both inspire and judge us.
The fact that the imbongi is above all an oral poet who performs his words is also increasingly significant to me. It means that poetry is first of all for the ear, something that has greatly affected my own work, even though I still delight in some effects arising from the written word. As an oral action, however, poetry is much more of a public work, something that a group, even a large group, participates in. A written and read poem is a solitary, private act, whereas an oral action is a public action. It is always both fragile, occurring in time and uncertainty of action, and yet also powerful in its impact and its capacity to create shared experience.
These themes have become more salient to me as I have proceeded on my current work writing about the craft of woodworking and the spirituality that emerges in our dialogue with nature’s wood and our designs. The ethic of a craftperson, while it has a communal dimension, is more like that of the solitary artist working with printed words. It is a work that points to the created artifact and the wood rather than to the self. My wife told me the other day that George Nakashima, indeed one of our most celebrated woodworkers, signed his work only very rarely. Humility is close to the earth, acknowledging the humus we arrive from and to which we return. It is not for us to trumpet our own importance, whether to make a sale or win an election. It is not the self-important flash of the moment but the enduring work of intrinsic beauty that claims us and in whose grandeur we find our own.
So, may you find an imbongi for your life. We all need them, both to lift us up together and to keep us humble, keep us focused on works that might endure within the greater sweep of life. So in praise we let Madiba go and in that letting go we return to our own lives, now let go in a new way.
After a couple of weeks devoted to moving my website to a new host, I am finally able to reflect with you on two events – one perennial and one very rare. The first, of course, is the annual rehearsal of the Christmas story. The second is the life of Nelson Mandela.
As many of you know from this blogsite and elsewhere, the Christmas story is more problematic for me than the Easter story. I am not talking about the consumer crush of gift-giving, which has made Christmas a national holiday in India and a holiday time even in Japan. As soon as China turns the corner into a consumer economy, you will see Santa landing in Shanghai. No, it is the theology. Some of you know the litany here: there wasn’t a Roman census in that time, Jesus was born in Nazareth, only two Gospels have a birth story, St. Paul didn’t know of it or care, it was only developed to counter the Roman Saturnalia and its cult of imperial divine sonship, and so forth. And of course there is the virgin birth, entirely unnecessary and alien in Hebrew thought, with its perpetual paradigm of female subservience to the prerogatives of the Father. And then, this tenuous myth about the “newborn king” came to reinforce the model of patriarchal, inherited monarchy as a pattern of divine governance and human submission. Bring on the Hallelujah Chorus. Well, enough. I’ll take the mystery of Easter’s story of Life out of Death any time.
Of course, the story will always fascinate us, the music will, it seems, enthrall us. Luke could spin a yarn to make a point, which was, it seems, that God is working in our history for the redemption of the world. But as soon as we catch this point we see Herod, seeking to destroy the children. At the beginning stands Herod. At the end stands Pilate. Yet the Anointed One, who lives in and through God’s Spirit, prevails. And it’s here that I begin to think about Madiba.
My good friend John DeGruchy, collaborator in matters of wood and word, recently sent me some of his reflections on Mandela as a kind of Messiah figure. In light of the way the Bible uses the term, he remarks “I do not think it is inappropriate to refer to Nelson Mandela as a messianic figure whom God raised up to lead our country from the bondage of apartheid into a new day of freedom.” But how do we tell the difference between a truly Messianic figure and the oppressive tyrants who have laid claim to such a title? The truly Messianic figure, writes John, humbles himself and does not point to himself. Mandela was truly Messianic because “He lived and acted with the kind of humility, compassion and self-service that allows us to refer to him as a messianic figure, a true liberator, an agent of God’s justice, peace and reconciliation…”
As these words reverberated in my musings I began to think of the Herods and Pilates in the Biblical story and my mind was taken to the singular figure of Judge Quartus de Wet, whose verdict spared Mandela’s life at the “Rivonia Trial” in Pretoria on June 12, 1964, sentencing him not to death, but to life imprisonment. It was during this imprisonment that Nelson Mandela cultivated the long-range vision and the deep character and compassion that enabled him to lead his country into a new era devoted to a higher justice and a more expansive compassion. There was a state that had become a Herod. There was a Pilate, an ordinary Judge named Quartus de Wet, who turned from indifferent and callous retribution to an act that ended up setting the stage for one of the most remarkable foundings of a new civil order in any of our memories.
So both Mandela’s life and gift as well as the strange events begun in the Galilee so many years ago are for me symbols of the way great changes come out of small acts, great lives out of humble beginnings and magnanimous spirits out of tortured imprisonments. And, in a world always torn by the destruction wreaked by great powers, the meek can still work and hope for a world truly inherited by all its creatures. Something worth celebrating. We’re all invited to join in.