Archive for the ‘Change and Continuity’ Category

Time Piece

November 2, 2005 4 comments

My mother’s clock stands in my hallway now, as silent as it was the day she died.

It’s a “grandmother” clock, barely six feet tall, with traditional woodwork and a maple case finished with that opaque stain they used in the ’60s — brown and bland and quite unlike the rest of my grizzled oaken antiques.

The clock was one of Mom’s prized possessions. She had a fair collection of prized things, to be sure, but it spoke to me more than the figurines or the china, I think, because of the sense of fragility it gave me. When she got it, around 1965, she threatened us kids in the direst terms with what she would do if we were to break it, and in all the decades after, it survived running children, rumbling trucks, teen-agers jumping down the stairs, bicycles in the living room and God knows what else.

Its Westminster chimes ran their gamut rather quickly. Mom claimed she liked them that way. I never knew why she wanted the clock, except possibly because her mother once had one — removed during a ’50s modernization, so I never saw it — or because her sister-in-law kept a huge one in her dining room, where it loomed imperiously over Thanksgiving dinners. Perhaps Mom’s clock was merely the capstone to the renovation of the living room, which got a new floor, couch and chairs around the same time.

For at least a decade, the clock reproached me when the house was quiet and I was wasting time, mournfully tolled the hours when I lay awake in sickness or worry, and chanted the quarters when I wanted to read just five minutes more. Mom adjusted it and kept it wound, and I suppose it spoke to me as she would have: “When are you going to get your homework done!” or, “You need to take out the garbage!” I never thought of her as fragile, but I felt the most acute anxiety when my brother would run past the clock, playing with the dog.

I liked it more when I came to understand how an escapement works and what regulates the orderly gears behind the face. Once I had another epiphany when I understood how a vibrating crystal might drive a digital clock’s tiny chip to count to 65,000 some 85,000 times a day — but there’s nothing in a digital clock to see. Give me the measured tick-tock of the pendulum any day. Our clock always needed some adjustment, however, and I always took its assertions with a grain of salt.

It stopped not because of an accident but from simple wear. Years ago, it quit because a fragile brass part expired. Dad didn’t know what to do about it and let it sit for quite a while, till Mom got mad at him and complained, and I intervened to take the works away and have them cleaned and fixed. I was proud to do something for them an adult could do, for they were always so self-sufficient. About that time, Dad complained that he had never liked the clock, for it echoed through the house at night and disturbed his rest — and as he grew deaf, it was a half-heard noise he had to stop and listen to in order to identify.

By the time Mom died, one of the clock’s brass chains, the one that held the heavy weight that rang the hour, had disintegrated into a bagful of separated links. Caught in the coils of Alzheimer’s then, Mom may not have even noticed. But the hands stood still until Dad died and we had to break up the household.

Returning home in my own grief, I un-swaddled the clock’s case, reinstalled the works and spent an hour painstakingly reassembling the fragmented chain. I wound the clock and it chimed again!

I kept it going, with frequent attention to the pendulum and its inability to keep pace with a church clock half a mile away, for about six weeks. Then one day the repaired chain jammed in its gears and, for safety’s sake, I pulled out all the weights again.

I figure that if I restarted the clock in Mom’s memory, now I should let it be quiet for a while, in Dad’s. And then, soon, I will have it repaired — for my own sake.

Written by P.

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November 1, 2005 8 comments

I’ve never had very many heroes, mostly because I prefer people in the round, with all their imperfections on display, and also because I think hero worship has been a scourge on humanity and on the earth. But ever since I first read about the life of Rosa Parks, almost twenty years ago in the one women’s studies course I managed to take at college, I have felt a deep reverence for her. She is a model not only of courage in rebellion against an oppressive social order, but also of consciousness and selflessness. The criticism sometimes heard – that the homage paid to Parks is somehow unjustified, because some other folks before her displayed similar courage in defying segregation – misses the point, I think. That one, spur-of-the-moment yet fully prepared-for act will earn her an immortal mention in the chronicles of our would-be civilization, but it does neither her nor us any good if we fail to learn from it.

“I Shall Not Be Moved,” they sang. Rosa Parks–followed quickly by leaders in the anti-segregation movement, and soon thereafter by the entire African-American population of Montgomery, Alabama–found and occupied the unmoving pivot-point of a great lever. In her own words,

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

I daresay she would have little use for us now, scrambling for appropriate adjectives in our efforts to eulogize her. How silly of me, the tears welling up last week when I heard about her passing, and now again as I read excerpts from the speeches given in her honor as she lay in state under the Capitol rotunda. Try and live a worthy life yourself, she’d probably say, with a hint of exasperation. But these tears aren’t really for you, Ms. Parks. They’re for us.

by Dave Bonta of Via Negativa

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Grandmother Corn

October 29, 2005 8 comments

She was in her late eighties, bronze-skinned and gray haired, with a face like a ceremonial mask representing wild abandon. Permanently joy-struck, toothless (‘hope you don’t mind, i don’t like to wear my dentures’) and with pale brown eyes wide with humor and wonder.

Her back hurt so bad she could barely move. It was the last day of her visit with her children in Oakland, and she was worried about the plane trip back to the east coast. In and out of cars, her husband having to manage the luggage on his own. Sitting in the airplane for five or six hours, would she be able to rise at her destination? A friend of hers had recommended me.

Her children’s home was high-ceilinged and blonde in wood with huge glass windows overlooking the bay. The colossal white walls were covered in even huger paintings of Native American and African American people in abstract interpretations of garb and posture. The pyramids, the medicine wheel, the African chief, the white-buffalo woman.

Her children were professionals without children. They were living busy lives, and flitted in and out with cell phones, while I gave her a treatment. She tried to ask them questions, to tell them why I was here; they looked annoyed and restless, nodded their heads and darted away. She couldn’t make it up the stairs to the bedroom, even though she tried, so I suggested she just lie down on the sofa, near the kitchen and the bathroom. Her daughter-in-law looked surprised, but acquiesced, leaving the room. I helped her turn over, pulled up her shirt and removed her sweat-pants, made her comfortable on pillows. I applied the pins, the moxa, and then after some time, removed them and gave her an oil massage.

The whole time I worked, she talked non-stop, with energetic gestures whenever possible. She told me all about her political past, and how she had spoken at the big rally, and everyone listened and cheered. They wrote articles about her, and her photo was in all the papers and the underground magazines. She met her husband and they travelled together all around the country, and she gave speeches and everyone rallied! He made business contacts, and when it was all over, they settled down, and made money, raised children, yet she still gave talks to church groups, political groups, and was still known as a Native American activist.

I could see her then: she must have been hot! Long black hair and that radiant grin, all that movement and dynamism directed to a cause greater than herself. She must have been powerful. That war-whoop that she used to give. I remembered that. It was her trademark at the time. She gave a wheezy version of it when I turned her body over to treat the other side.

The children looked in. What was that funky smell? ‘It’s moxa,’ I said, in answer to their unspoken question. ‘A kind of chinese sage which we burn to create warmth over the points. I’m just holding it over the points, don’t worry. And the smell will go away.’ They looked at me. ‘I know, it smells like marijuana, but it’s mugwort, a member of the artemesia family, like the sagebrush you see out in the desert.” They looked at me with a certain glint in the eye: mistrustfully, curiously. It was odd to see a well-dressed white woman down on her hands and knees on the floor in the living room massaging their mother. But it reminded me of my own childhood, when I gave foot-massage to my own Gran, eighty-sixed at eight-six, a scrawny super-wrinkled Irish American woman. My uncle, an honorary member of the Lenni Lenape tribe, always claimed we had a very ancient blood relation to the River People on my grandfather’s side. So perhaps, what goes around, comes around: I might be related to this elder-crone somewhere in the misty past. Anyway, they say we all go back to a single set of genes.

After the treatment was over, I continued to sit cross-legged on the floor next to the sofa while she sat up, clothed again, and we talked. We talked over old times, her memories of those great and glorious days of the revolution, and my partial memories of it, because, after all, during her hey-day I was just a child. She filled in the gaps in my memory, and I thought over how powerful and significant it had all been, back in the sixties. And I thought about how the young re-create the world, generation after generation. By the time I left she was feeling much better. She could stand up and walk more easily, she could go up the stairs, slowly, one at a time. She thought she would be all right now for the trip home.

Written by Kasturi Mattern of not native fruit


October 24, 2005 17 comments

I woke up at 12:30 p.m. and sat on my bed. I emailed people and ate cereal and that took three hours because I took my time. When I finished I didn’t know what to do so I emailed some more people.

“All I’ve done today is email people and eat cereal,” I emailed someone. It was 4:30 p.m. and I showered. I put on clothes. I lay on my bed and put on sad music and my hair was wet and I felt lonely.

I got up and went to a reading at a bar and ate salad. I ordered fries and said, “I’m starving.” My friend’s friend said, “Why did you order salad then.” I wanted to ignore her but we were looking directly at each other. Everyone else was staring at me. I said something about bread and a few of them laughed. My friend was nice to me and I liked him. I said, “I’m going to the library,” and we said goodbye.

Outside, I thought I saw someone I knew and I felt afraid.

In my room, I lay on my bed and listened to music. “I cannot fall in love, I cannot fall in love, I cannot fall in love,” said the music. I turned the volume down and thought about tomorrow.

Written by Tao Lin of Reader of Depressing Books

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Untitled (West Side Highway, NYC)

October 23, 2005 8 comments
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We Endure

October 20, 2005 13 comments
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Single Button

October 17, 2005 12 comments
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October 12, 2005 14 comments

Finally, she rose by her tall orchestral harp. Freshmen rustled like aspen in the pews.

In the rushing tedium of Stanford’s Western Culture requirement, this had been a special day: we were off to Memorial Church to hear a harpist and singer perform someone’s idea of ancient Greek music, somber and eerie. Shafts of sunlight fell through clerestory windows from the hot afternoon. It was October, the month when all freshmen are immortal.

But now she was done. The freshmen’s rustle rose slowly to become dull applause. She stood. Her hawklike face assembled a reaperish smile.

Applause died back to rustle. Up popped the professor, beaming. Any questions?

Dust turned in the shafts of sun.

OK, then! We exhaled, clapped again, rose, turned to go, and froze.

The church was giggling.


But I project. It was I who heard the giggle, I who froze. Others felt other things, reacted otherwise. The prof looked startled, shouting with the sound off. The hawk woman plunged into a crouch. A matronly colleague walked sternly up the aisle, feet firm on the roiling floor, off to give the captain a piece of her mind.

Mouths were open, but all I heard was the giggle.

Later, I’d piece it together. Stanford is made of sandstone – a substance that somehow coheres into bricks but is still, to the touch and eye, unmistakably sand. This lightest of stones, what would it sound like if it rattled? If ten thousand bricks rattled together? Of course, it would be pure soprano, a tinkle, a giggle. It would sound like a heavenly event, not an earthly one. Only sensible people would run from a building at such a sound. No wonder I was the only one left, rapt, listening.

Then the bright popping sounds began. I looked: things were falling through clouds of dust. How did I finally arrive at “earthquake?” The sight of things falling? Specks of fast sand peppering my skin? A wooziness that might have been caused by the floor moving, six long feet below my floating brain?

Then I had the word — earthquake — and time came unstuck. Stand in a doorway! OK, there’s a 30-foot-high transept arch over there, so at once there I am, back to one wall, watching the great stones of the arch line-dancing above me. What’s that clatter? It’s those mosaics from the dome, now zillions of falling daggers slicing through the pews. Bright light! A dark stained-glass window has shattered, dropping a new sunshaft through the dust. The sudden bolt of light sweeps past me to anoint the topmost corner of the harp. I gaze dumbly at the harp on its swath of red carpet, now glowing like an apparition through the rain of dust and tile.

I do not think: “Cecil B. DeMille,” “fall of Rome,” “Ten Commandments,” or “cliché.” It seems I would rather die in dumbness than in irony.


For a glimpse of the Buddhist idea of enlightenment, consider the sudden cessation of sound: the barking dogs, screaming baby, partying neighbors who lull you to sleep and then wake you by falling silent. Surprise without noise: that, if you could stay there, is what enlightenment would feel like.

Perhaps death feels that way too. And indeed, in that moment, a door appeared in the clouds of dust, and (still not thinking ironically) I stepped through, out. No, not heaven, not bardo. The Quad.

Blasting heat. The prof and the matron were pallid, staring. Freshman women embraced and wept, but the young men giggled and tittered, immortally. The whiz-kid from Kansas walked up to me:

“That –” He puffed his chest out, constructed a snicker. “That was just a little one, right?”

“No, Bill, that was a big one. And for the rest of your life, there’ll be sandstone in your bones. Giggling.”

Written by Jarrett Walker of Creature of the Shade.


October 11, 2005 17 comments

In time I will soften

like old mushrooms –


cell by cell

plexus defenseless

bulwarks dissolved

into moat. I will

not will, won’t

quarrel with the moon

nor damn the tides.

I’ll acquiesce –

unmasked essence

afloat and rudderless.

Let the meltoff decide

on whose sands I maroon

or drift on alone

and after, evanesce.


Author’s note: deliquesce was the Word of the Day on September 20,
.Written by Leslee, of Third House Journal.


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October 9, 2005 5 comments

Of course this Rosh Hashanah differs from every other. This year’s challah is a perfect snail-shell spiral; this year my oldest niece sat beside me in shul and sang every note of every prayer. Five years ago I read Mary Oliver under the turning trees. Ten years ago I served my housemates tsimmes and cornish hens in my grandmother’s memory. Five, ten, fifty years from now the holiday will be something else again.

But when my granddaughter places stones on my grave, marveling at the namesake she never knew, the new moon of Tishri will still be heralded with apples and honey, candles and wine. Repentance, prayer, and righteousness will still “avert the severity of the decree” and two Jews will still manifest three opinions on what “repentance,” “righteousness,” and “decree” mean. Every pomegranate seed will still bring blessing.

The spiral isn’t a circle, but neither is it a finite line. Change and continuity give each other meaning, like yin and yang, chesed and gevurah. They’re such skilled dance partners I can’t tell who’s leading and who’s doing all the steps backwards and in high heels. Revelation is constant; revelation is never the same.

The call of the shofar will reverberate through the spiralling horn of the galaxy long after earth-that-was is gone. Maybe we’ll migrate to planets we can’t now name, wandering writ large across heaven’s parchment. I like to think we’ll still stand before the cosmic throne, transparent before the mighty wind that breathes life into us and
distant nebulae alike, when the first new moons of autumn rise against those green or purple skies.

Author’s note: Chesed and gevurah are the divine qualities of lovingkindness and strength, considered by Jewish tradition to be complementary.

Written by Rachel Barenblat, of Velveteen Rabbi.

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