(TEXT PROTECTED BY STATUTORY COPYRIGHT)
Beginnings were about to begin again. He felt he was about to be swallowed whole, by the sea. While wrestling the wheel, he attempted to imagine his way out of this maelstrom, for a return to Port Coseville. Silently he mulled — why not just go with the flow of fresh experience?
“Why resist?” he screamed into the wind, as tho’ it might readily reply. He squinted thru the foggy spray, hoping to glimpse the horizon, while resisting the temptation to gaze astern at his past, knowing this was no time for watching re-runs or revisiting regrets. Yet, ahead there be dragons seemed a lame excuse to bypass the stress of an unknowable future. ¿Was he tempting fate?
Am I ok for the next five minutes? Well, let’s see. He knew the past had never been what nostalgia would claim for it, and watching himself in replay could be downright depressing. (Regrets for the past could change nothing, but might haunt and perhaps alter the present.)
If extricating himself — which direction would he even go? He calculated. These were uncharted waters for him, and imagining 360º x 360º brought him more than a twinge of vertigo. At the same time he was losing track of his precious log books, which were now awash. He had read them so often while becalmed that he thought he had memorized them – but they were de-materializing, swamped in the intruding splash and enveloping fog of the sea’s churning, all of which had his mind racing. (He struggled to retain those memories, but it seemed futile, as he was even forgetting who he was.) The fog thickened.
Without compelling reason, he pondered the simplicity and risk of riding out the present turmoil, rather than clinging to the past, hoping against hope to learn the way home by closely observing his path, come what may. He steadied his resolve, reminding himself that if he lived here in this moment then he would already be home.
Without taking further thought, he swung the tiller sharply, plunging up, up, directly into the next swell, abandoning his effort to evade the storm by sailing inside the trough of waves, parallel to them. ¿Perhaps instead of being swallowed, he was about to be burped up? He stifled an urge to vomit.
Cresting the wave had rocked him. Then another shiver. Voices? He suspected he was not alone in the din of this soundscape. ¿Were there others, dangerously close, enshrouded with him?
. . . yes, muffled voices were being spoken in a strange tongue . . .
Suddenly a wave of natal fluid crested and launched him forth into a ship’s surgeon’s hands, followed by a gentle swat on the backside. He gasped. The heaving had ceased. His abrupt arrival in a protected harbor was beyond dazzling.
The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood. ~Black Elk, on the circles of time and life.
He would eventually come to hear stories of his birthing in a home port on a tropical isle, and of his “commissioning” from dry dock, as a light cruiser, but in reality, a navy brat. These accounts affirmed the wisdom of his decision to cross the boundary of terror, into an utterly new experience. ¿But . . . was the decision truly his?
Some few years later he would ponder this question again, as he wildly spun the wheel of a toy boat tethered to revolving cross-beams in a donut-shaped tub at a country fair. He spun that wheel to no effect, but noticed an inescapable fact. The de-frocked illusion-of-control was instructive, and memorable. He resolved to continue to search for an underlying principle explaining experience, without losing his joy at being entertained and instructed by it.
He would eventually be shown a report printed by his “crazy-clever” father – a two-word description told to him many years later by his Mum. Pop was the Commander’s yeoman-stenographer, Petty Officer 2ndc, Henri Jaffe. Pop had immediately published the news of the launch of this (me!) their spanking new “vessel,” the USS Sven Jaffe, to announce the arrival of their first child, to family, friends and neighbors, complete with nautical details: ___length, girth amidship, tonnage, blanket speed____. But I digress . . .
Mum, of course, was aboard, in the ship’s dispensary. She was a native of the island, then occupied militarily to help enforce a peace, claimed to be new, from their tiny atoll after the “second great war.” (I would come to learn that peace was not merely the absence of war, and that war was not great – as friends and mates came home, bagged or broken.)
As sailors often do, Pop had mingled with the locals. But Mum had chosen him, over many eager suitors. We all three would come to feel chosen, and mightily blessed. They had married before my arrival, and were deeply attentive of me, their newest chapter.
They call me Sven – a good Viking name – a freeman who serves another – for someone expected to sail on to storied adventures in community by crewing as a fellow sailor. (Hey, coconuts which drop near the sea are often claimed by the sea.) In a gale, palm trees flex. Nuts float off. Rigid pines snap.
Like all newborns, I had no notion of ethnicity or race. Pop was Jewish. Mum was Christian. I arrived assuming there was a single reality, and we were all adherents of the One, like cells in a universal body. And they, my parents, were characters in my story. But less-than-apparently, I was a character in each of theirs. One bunch, many grapes. (Other siblings would follow.)
As time advanced, I would find I often didn’t enjoy their exercise of authority, their verbal style of drawing word-pictures in that strange and contrived tongue of theirs, English. Pop would often be too quick to ask-and-answer, without affording me time to think, which could be infuriating. Socrates would not have approved! (Maybe I met Soc’ in a previous life when Meno and I played stickball together in the old neighborhood.) Mum and Pop seemed to think I, who had sailed many seas, was naive. How absurd!
Yet I was not inclined to become a quick thinker, preferring the safety of depth, to that of speed. To be clear, I avoided confusing depth with certainty, favoring time and space for reflection, informed by a healthy skepticism. I welcomed being proven wrong. It was edifying.
My newest assignment was to learn how to direct these two latest additions of an ever-unfolding cast of characters. They hovered, but were not easily managed. My communication skills were blunt, to burble the least. Both of them were very entertaining, and often made me laugh with their silly antics. I could tell that both cared deeply, cheering me on with new lessons daily. We enjoyed our advancing dialog.
Mother’s milk is so much tastier than rainwater, or even coconut water. But chewing instead of sucking should be warned against by an advisory note writ large in the owner’s manual, packed into each newborn’s shipping container, to be studied at leisure while enroute, before delivery. To wit, my overly-eager monkey bites got me weaned early – swapped out for a breast pump and a rubber-tipped bottle. While each meal still fulfilled its purpose, O, how I missed those sugar cones! (MEMO: Ignoring assigned homework has its opportunity costs.)
A first priority for me was to learn to use my voice with skill, rather than volume. It was strenuous work. But it was becoming evident that amplification and comprehension are not to be conflated. (He who speaks loudest does not automatically win.) I needed to imitate their words and use them cleverly and carefully, to exchange them for incoming entertainment and education. Words were fun. I collected them eagerly.
Frozen moments from paradise.
Shortly after me and Mum had recovered from the crashing surf of birf, additional clouds appeared on the horizon. I was oblivious. This harbor felt blissfully safe. Yet change happens.
A year of snapshots in paradise from the young couple’s album would later reveal to me storied portions of their romance, plus my brief six months with them prior to departure. My experience on the island would be charmed, but short. We all boarded a C-47 “Gooney Bird” for Hawaii and San Francisco, and then flew on to Pop’s hometown in Upstate New York, our new home port, where the waters were fresh, but far from the salt sea.
Stories from Lapland. Learning to read.
As the years passed, and I acquired an English tongue, I became intrigued with story. Visitors would find me eager to present them with a book to read with me, from lapland. I had detected that those black marks in books were key to telling the story the same every time, and I wanted to learn how to make those little marks bark. While I enjoyed Dr. Seuss, my favorite story was The Emperor’s New Clothes. I loved how it recognized that tiny people could point out observable facts to persuade adults of their follies.
While I could almost recite that story from memory, that wasn’t good enough. I wanted to learn the secret of converting ink into sound and meaning. Mum, however, said school teachers didn’t like it when arriving students could already read. This made no sense to me, but I was unable to articulate my objections. So I had to wait for first grade to learn my very first letter-sound-meaning combo, which was : LOOK (with eyeballs inside the O’s). But it was torture to watch classmates struggle with exceptions, variants, and absurd explanations of why a single letter could have multiple sounds, or no sound at all. I distinctly remember telling Mum that this language was dumb, and somebody should fix it.
Reading for meaning.
While reading for pleasure was a delight, reading for meaning required attention. One day our teacher handed out a test on a mimeographed sheet with little drawings. The instructions told us Using your crayons, color the apple RED. Color the pumpkin ORANGE. Color the grapes BLUE, et cetera. Well, silly me. I knew what it said, but I forgot to change crayons from orange to blue, and there I was with an orange bunch of grapes! Panicked, I recalled that the teacher always wrote our score on the backside of the sheet. So I flipped the sheet over and colored the entire backside orange to prevent her from marking me down. But she put my score at the top of the front side, and never even asked me why I had colored the backside orange. Adults were so incurious!
I continued collecting words, and reading for pleasure, even discovering that I didn’t have to finish a story if I didn’t like it. Eventually I found Pop’s copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. Word heaven.
By the time I got to high school I was not enjoying English teachers very much. Too often, they would torture a good story into submission by asking weird questions. In biology class we dissected a frog to study its parts, learning in the process that living creatures were not machines, since the frog dies from dissection. Stories often suffered a similar death by surgery. Even history seemed dead when presented mostly as dates and events rather than as a contest of ideas or positions, afloat atop good questions. I became interested in life outside of school, as school seemed intent on pickling life in preparation for eventual assembly-line work at an auto plant, or bucking hot metal at a steel mill.
The only time I ever got an A+ was on a term paper about life on Walden Pond, by Thoreau, in which I referred to him throughout as Henry. (Maybe the teacher found that endearing.) Here was a guy who could write and think about stuff I found worth pondering – nature, and neighbors. I read several more of his books on my own, as I wanted to learn how nature and community worked together, or could or should work. Henry seemed focused on big questions, and wasn’t going to let anybody bully him. He said “It’s never too late to give up your prejudices.” But why wait? Thoreau was perplexed at why the governor of a free state would arrest (kidnap!) runaway slaves to remand them to slave-owners in a slave state. Good question, Henry! (¿If Massachusetts had outlawed slavery, how could anybody be arrested for “being a slave?”)
The politics of power are perplexing. I guess rich guys stick together to maintain ownership of the game-of-life, which apparently is not so much a game of skill, but of luck. But how to get my head around that concept! The English word hap, from which we get happy and happen, is an old word for luck. Am I lucky to be born a human rather than born a crow? Dunno. Well, crows can’t read, so maybe I am lucky. But maybe crows don’t need to read. They love to crow, to fly, to be. To be happy. That seems plenty fortunate, another word for luck.
Without being force-fed, I had started reading the Bible on my own at age seven, as I liked the wisdom I found in the Psalms, which invited me to think. (Mum was a good example, as she quietly read her Bible each morning, living those gleanings before us, daily.)
Further along in the text, I eventually got to where St. Paul tells us to give thanks, no matter what comes. Feeling unlucky? Thank-you, Lord. Feeling giddy about good fortune? Thanks again. My take? I guess that luck, good or bad, is intended to be instructive, as in: “be careful what you wish for, because if God wants to punish you, he’ll let you have what you wanted” (MEMO: thou shalt not covet).
But rather than charging God with being mean or indifferent, I prefer to think that my want-er earns its own punishment – “bad luck” is then often blamed. (Was Job, and family, unlucky? Hmm.) But God is innocent, and kind – A Good Teacher. And contrary to what you’ve heard at church, humankind is innocent, too. God knows this, but we don’t. At least, not yet. Yes, original innocence is the lesson of that story about the garden, the tempter (the whisperer), the woman, and the apple. Hey, there is no apple in that story. Read it. No apple! I promise. Perhaps the point of that story is, that in order to detect a counterfeit, it is necessary to be deeply familiar with the original.
That ersatz “apple” is actually a red flag, saying “beware the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good AND evil [emphasis added by me; see v.16,17]. And I don’t care what your pastor or priest told you about “original sin” — s/he also learned about the flipside of that charge at divinity school or seminary, called monism or nonduality, and was pledged never to reveal it, at risk of causing a church fight, which would then cost them their jobs. Yes, heresy has gotten many people fired, or even burned at the stake. But the fact is the garden story is an allegory, a parable, not a literal history! It’s there to invite us to think. (Ask any rabbi; or enjoy Stephen Greenblatt’s book about Adam and Eve.)
So, what is heresy? Hey, Jesus was a heretic in the eyes of many of his nation’s congregation, challenging the interpretation of the teachings and practices of a majority of the holy men alive among his tribal fellow-worshipers. But look where it got him! — So count the cost before following him as a fellow heretic. Dare to think for yourself! ¿Got courage?
“Literalism” is presently the “third rail” of religion. It should recede as we reawaken. Literalism – “fundamentalism” – a refusal to do our own thinking, is the great red dragon which will “huff and puff and blow your house down” – if you let it. So, have the spiritual curiosity to read with hunger, with gusto. (I have esteemed the words of His mouth more than my necessary food.) And then pray that your appetite be relocated from your belly or your flesh, to your heart. Our invitation is to read between the lines of scripture, rather than getting ensnared by the words. We can invite the holy spirit to be our translator, our Teacher. All of us long for a mentor. ¿Got appetite?
But we often skip our tutorials and reading assignments. Instead, we go to a building to hear a weekly monologue. Afterwards, we often distract ourselves with social interaction rather than serious study and listening, when we could be in dialog with the Divine, at home or abroad.
Well, if you do go to said building, you might ask yourself “¿what am I bringing to the party?” Maybe I’m just going there to look for a date or a mate, or to socialize or eat, or to hit somebody over the head with my book — when I could simply pray to be a blessing today, everywhere I go. ¿Daily worship?
More on Luck (and Choice)
Whether luck is good or bad, I prefer asking What’s the spiritual lesson here, Lord? (Maybe luck is mostly a matter of interpretation, or instruction?) Clambering to a different vista alters our point of view, if we will make the effort to climb, to ponder and listen. ¿Got spiritual curiosity?
Does a crow feel unlucky to be born black? What an absurd question! Yet some folks feel this way. And others don’t! Did I have a choice-of-color prior to arrival? Well, not that I recall. And while I’ve never seen a white crow, I know there are black swans, as I once saw one in the wild with a bright red beak, gracefully paddling in a lush swamp alongside a white mate.
Few people are aware that 16% of bird species interbreed. And, of course, we’ve done this as well, anciently, with Neanderthals and Denisovans. But racial interbreeding is all in the same family, rather than between species. While I don’t know if it’s genetically possible, I can imagine a blackbird and a cardinal crossing, to result in a redwing blackbird. Yes, there’s beauty in diversity.
Walking in another person’s moccasins.
So, what’s it like to be a bat, or to be you? Can I even know? That first example is a famous question in philosophy, asked by Thomas Nagel.
Black is the color which soaks up almost all the light. We, if we think of ourselves as children of light, then our nature, our assignment, is to live in the light. But note: a window pane doesn’t retain light; it simply, silently displays it, by not obstructing it, by honoring its own nature. (I can’t quite remember if choice-of-color was one of the options on that Cosmic Dream Sheet I filled out before bursting onto the scene here on this planet, when it came time for a new duty station.)
Know thyself, said the ancient Greeks. My basic assignment is to be me. But in order to be me, I must know who I am. This is the biggest question of life — one that, all too often, gets put on a shelf, to be considered “later, when I have more time”. So, along with Kermit the Frog, I might complain that “it isn’t easy being green.” But a flipside of that coin might be “am I comfortable in my own skin?” Heads, I win… tails – if preferring to complain, or refusing to think for myself – I lose. (The crowd loves to bully us; even more, it delights in pratfalls, and failure.)
Here’s my point about luck, good or bad. Learning, like teething – can be painful – but once done, it yields the fruit of gratitude, which is understanding. And as with teeth, we can then chew solid food.
Mum told me the devil can’t touch a grateful person — not even by whispering – if we’re alert! So, if you ever hear a voice inside your head hissssing that “God doesn’t give a rip about you,” reject it instantly. It’s a god-damned lie, and God has condemned it to hell. That liar has already been defeated. Job learned this; Jesus, too. Shake that hypnotic suggestion into the fire by awakening to who you really are.
[To be continued]
I’m looking for an agent, sharing this writing sample under statutory copyright.