Jokers: Annotated Bibliography On God, Q-Tips, and The Tip of Your Tongue

I. “Those who (while visiting a foreign country) have lost the end of a Q tip in their ear and have been unable to explain the problem….Any person who has lost a urine sample in the mail…. Women who gave up the accordion because of pinched breasts… Anyone whose knees have been ruined as a result of performing sexual acts in elevators… Any writer who has been photographed for the jacket of a book…sitting in a study and looking intensely at one’s own book….” –Michael Ondaatje, “The Elimination Dance (Intermission)” from The Cinnamon Peeler

This book was sold to me as containing “the sexiest poem ever,” and there is a sexy poem in it, although it did not really get the seller anywhere with me.   I was in Paris, and the only souvenirs I could afford were paperback books and one bottle of cheap wine to drink on the next Bastille Day.

On same trip, I visited the Centre Pompidou with these two charming American attorneys who liked buying me dinner.  I enjoyed their mocking of all the crazy things at the museum, like the artist’s shit in a can and the cabbage on a pedestal, and the giant Flintstones igloo-looking thing, which was being observed by a mass of serious-faced French students sitting in a circle on the floor.  It was some funny stuff.

Duchamp and Man Ray and these other jokers were having a good time being fabulous, and making serious jokes, and I think the last thing they would want is for people to furrow their brows and hunker down to contemplate deeper truths.  So I loved making more jokes, and shrugging with delight.  The most ridiculous thing that happened was that I forgot the idiom for “still life,” and confused the hell out of the nice lawyers by translating a lot of painting titles as “dead nature.”

II. “What will you do, God, when I die?/I am your pitcher (when I shatter?)/I am your drink (when I go bitter?)/I, your garment; I, your craft./Without me what reason have you?/…Your gaze, which I welcome now/as it warms my cheek,/will search for me hour after hour/and lie at sunset, spent,/on an empty beach/among unfamiliar stones./What will you do, God?  I am afraid.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

That’s some of yer classic highly heretical mystical thinking there.  I love all of Rilke’s Hours, although I guess they might strike some people as rather plain and some of them are kind of sloppy wet kisses (as the subtitle suggests, “Love Poems”) to Rilke’s God.  Mystics have a closeness to God that everyone else is intensely jealous of.  That’s what happens when you take the coolest, smartest, sexiest girl to the prom.  But would you rather go with someone else?  I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, it sucks to get burned at the stake.  After all that preaching they did at you telling you God loved you and was personally interested in you.  Then the minute you start actually experiencing God and talking about it, there’s hell to pay.  So to speak.  By “prayer,” we meant reciting things other people wrote.  And by “listen for God’s voice,” we meant listen to us.

Rilke jokes a lot with God in those poems, although in his joking he is, like all spiritual thinkers and some dadaists, very serious.  “You, God, who live next door” and “I cannot believe that little death/whom we busily ignore/should still trouble us so.”

III. “Your thoughts don’t have words every day/They come a single time/Like esoteric sips/Of the communion Wine/Which while you taste so native seems/So easy so to be/You cannot comprehend its price/Nor its infrequency” –Emily Dickinson, 1452

Dickinson has the most unique voice in English.  That’s it.  And no one has any idea what she’s talking about 1/8 of the time, which is great, too.  Another 1/8 of the time she’s stinking obvious and even a little trite (shallow things can actually be real deep, she wrote).  She doesn’t care what you think.  She’s going to rhyme and sound like an inside-out hymn and a bassackwards Psalm.  That’s just how she rolls.

I was really planning to become Emily Dickinson at one point.  I became too fond of travel, and social exchange.   I still think about Dickinson’s crusty puzzle poems the way I think about “Taxi Driver”:  I’m never quite sure what’s going on, which is both exciting and frustrating.

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Houses and Graves

Of the famous homes I’ve visited, I liked FDR’s best. Of course I did.  I go for writers’ homes mainly– Poe, Dickens, Hugo, Keats, Thoreau– but I went up to Hyde Park, New York, to see FDR’s as well.

I’ve also visited some famous graves.  Chopin’s was the biggest deal to me, although Queen Elizabeth’s was pretty mind-boggling.  She knew Shakespeare.  She beat that Armada!  And she’s right there!  That was a kick in the head.

I went to Chopin’s grave as a thank-you.  I love those piano preludes.  I brought flowers, yellow gerber daisies.  It was March in Paris, so cold it wasn’t romantic or cute, and it took me forever to find him.  My feet hurt, I had a huge zit on my forehead, and I was starving.  I was pinching euros and freezing and malnourished the whole time I was there.  They don’t have whole-wheat bread or Mexican food in France.  Other than that, I loved it.

There were fresher graves than Monsieur Chopin’s in that cemetery.  It wasn’t strange that I had flowers.  A child had recently left a crayoned note on one tomb.  When I finally found Chopin, other people had left little scrolls of sheet music sitting there.  I am not musician enough to have identified the melodies.

It might have even started to snow, but I think that is a handy detail I added when I used this story in some fiction I was working on.  So, let it snow or not snow in the Parisian cemetery, on the grave of the great Romantic composer who has a white marble lady plucking a harp carved over his final resting place– whatever makes you happy.

No one else on the FDR home tour was about to wet herself with excitement like I was.  He sat in this room!  That was his lamp!  He pulled himself up this dumbwaiter!  (He did– even long after electricity, both to keep himself in shape and to assure himself he could evacuate in case of fire.)  Inside the house is neat– but you have to stay with your tour guide to make sure no one spits on the floor.

Outside the house is better.  I sat on the side porch for a while, sheltered from the misty rain, eating red jelly beans and admiring the gentle, sweeping view of the Hudson valley hills.  Then I walked down the driveway.

Here’s the thing about the driveway: Roosevelt promised himself he would learn to walk again, and he chucked himself down that driveway every goddamn day because he was going to walk again, and that was that.  He did this for seven years.  He tried and tried to make it all the way down, to the gate, to the road.  For seven years.  You know the man couldn’t walk, right?  And then he died.

FDR’s driveway is one of my favorite stories of all time.  It’s the saddest story and the happiest story.  It’s deluded and optimistic and tough and crazy and wrenching.  The most powerful man in the world (except Stalin, right?) has a driveway he wants to walk down.  He has a driveway he tries to walk down.  And he just tries and tries.  While he’s slipping arms to Britain and then turning the U.S. from a backwater to a 500-pound gorilla.  And taking a little time to look over his stamp collection and enjoy a cocktail or two.  He’s trying to walk down this driveway, and all he does is fail.

I felt really sappy about it, so all I can tell you is (puts arm over your shoulder), Son, we’ve all got driveways to walk down, don’t we?  Everybody’s got a driveway.

You can also see the graves of Franklin and Eleanor on the grounds of their Hyde Park estate.  I didn’t leave them flowers, since I have the social welfare safety net to remember them by.

Visiting the grave is a thank-you.  You hope someone will visit your grave, someday, so you can exist for a while after you die, and it will mean that they appreciated you.

Visiting the house is taking on the person.  Breathing them in.  Grasping their bannisters and sitting on their porches to weave your story in with theirs.  Knowing a famous person as a physical presence, a person who lived in a physical world as you do, and had to live by its rules.  Who wasn’t a symbol or a character or an idol.  Just a guy trying to get down his driveway.

Visit of the Muppet Monks

Last Sunday evening, instead of walking in to the dark, silent sanctuary of my church, I pulled open the door and saw seven guys dressed like Big Bird, moaning. 

Oh: we were hosting some Buddhist monks.  I tiptoed to my favorite pew, next to the St. John window, and sat down.  I guess they reminded me of Big Bird because when I was little I had a winter hat with Big Bird’s head sticking out of the top.  It added six inches to my height, just as the orange and yellow fringed headdresses of the monks made them more imposing. 

They also wore the orange and red robes, and were doing something with their hands I couldn’t figure out.  Maybe they were keeping count of how far along they were in the chant.  No, that guy was just coughing.  Were they saying something in Sanskrit, or just making noise? 

Our priests and cantor sat up in the front, like usual, and the sanctuary was packed.  The monks went on and on.  I guessed everyone was wondering how long they would go on, and how they knew when to stop.  I sat on my hands and listened and spaced out and listened again.

Every once in a while, a guy in the middle would hold up his hand to his mouth, and then he would sing unnaturally low, way lower than a double bass, and holding the notes with an alien sort of wavering.  I didn’t know what the hell was going on. 

Being clueless about the monks reminded me of being in Paris.  My knowledge of French is about equal to my knowledge of Buddhism.  I had an idea of what people said and wrote in French, but I was always left with a certain degree of ambiguity.  At the Pompidou Center, I kept translating painting captions as “dead nature,” which confused my English-only friends.  When I got home, I suddenly remembered: “la nature morte” means “still life.” 

When I was in high school, I dated a Jewish boy, and visited their temple.  The boy’s father, whom I absolutely loved, reminded me of Moses and Tevye and King David all wrapped together.  He was bold, cheerful, and solid.  I sat in his living room one afternoon, and he asked me why I wanted to go to Rosh Hashanah.  Why was I interested in Judaism? 

After a lifetime of the puppydog evangelism in Christianity, I loved how my Jewish friends didn’t try to sell their religion– in fact, they viewed my interest with skepticism.

“It’s so mysterious,” I said.  “There’s so much you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to know it.  There’s so much mystery.”

“Huh,” he said.   There I was lost in ambiguity again.  But I went to temple and ate dinner with them, and it all seemed fine.

Abruptly, the visiting monks stopped.  They took off their giant hats.  They bowed to the congregation.  None of the Episcopalians knew what to do.  (We bow to the altar, but not each other.)  As the Buddhists walked down the side aisle, the dean said, “Let’s express our appreciation to our guests,” which prompted us to stand up and clap. 

It seemed weird to be clapping for that, but what else were we going to do?  I was relieved to be reminded that I don’t know everything.  I was grateful that they had shown up to make me pay attention and accept what I didn’t understand.