Monday, February 24, 2014

Patronage, Part I

Patronage is like gardening, anyone can do it at any level. But you have to keep after it. You have to pay attention. Yesterday, I was digging decorative rocks out of a garden plot. These rocks sink into the ground after awhile, and you have to either dig them up or buy new ones to put on top.

Two women riding pink bikes with baskets and tassels on the handlebars stopped in front of the house. The older one said, "Are you Rolf?" The woman reminded me we had met. She had been director of the Ignation Volunteers in our city, a group that includes my wife. They believe in being contemplatives in action. This was her daughter with her.

They asked if my wife was around and I said she was in the hot tub doing her crossword puzzle. Pink bikes, a stop out of nowhere. For some reason, Girl Scout cookies came to mind. I supposed they were selling something. I dragged my feet getting Sharon. My wife needs time alone. She treasures her Sundays, the respite from the week and we have done so many jobs in our lives that needed us 24/7. That’s what a career in the Navy earns you, the right to a quiet day doing the crossword in the hot tub.

The mother told me her daughter was leaving on Tuesday to go back to South Sudan. The young woman is working for the UN Development Programme to promote democracy through elections. She had been evacuated in November. Four US planes came and took her out of country when all American citizens were told to leave. She said that most people had vouchers to get on the plane, but she only had a promissory note and she expected to get a bill. She didn’t mind paying. She’d known that had been the deal going in; she might have to pay to be evacuated. In our embassy in South Sudan, only the Ambassador, the Marine Guards and the Defense Attaché were left behind.

The young woman’s bosses told her she had to go back this week, and now, she says, she doesn’t want to go. She sees no reason, “Elections will destroy the place,” she says, and she told us, her heart had been broken when she was told to evacuate.

She was a 34 year old woman wearing a child’s helmet on a pink bike, and a light scarf wrapped around her neck like they do in the subsaharan areas of the planet— women to cover your head or your face. Men to keep the collar of the body armor from chaffing your neck.

Sharon and I realized they had come to see us because we are people who know what it’s like to go somewhere out of duty. Or maybe they hadn't sought us out. Contemplatives in action believe in a divine hand. Contemplatives in action are people who know when it’s futile long before our masters, then do our duty anyway. The young woman said it had felt like a breakup— she meant with a lover— and now she was in the period when she had to find a way to make the relationship end. Betrayals destroy any sort of love.

We gave them water. I told them about the wolf tone and the strange harmonics of it. I told the young woman to write everything down. Keep it. That's what I did. No one will remember this, I told her, unless you record it. I told her not to remind anybody about the bill for the plane ticket. Sometimes they forget. Sometimes someone actually lets you off the hook.

I think the purpose of patronage is to give hope.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Common on the Long Wall

There's a journal called The Common, as in the commons of a town, and they are concerned with place. As in shared place. Harmonics. They are concerned with "Finding the extraordinary in the moment..."  

Tourist places are commons. Take the Great Wall. Use the literal translation and it would be called the Long Wall. But it feels exactly like Mount Rushmore with its unending preface of shops selling tourist concessions and imitation antiques, overpriced water. A Common. 

Our tour guide said, “President Obama took eighteen minutes to the top. Bush walked up it, too,” and left us mercifully on our own. When we got back, he asked us if we’d been heroes.

(No, we didn’t want to go to the jade factory. No, we didn’t want to stop for the traditional lunch. No, we are not interested in your cousin’s special museum. Never take a guide. Never break that rule, we told ourselves, ever again.)

No Americans up there on the wall, although I imagined the summer to come, our diabetic sweat on those slick steps. We saw the cardiac unit at the bottom, and even that seemed like a cliché for the camera, all of it as over-photographed as a Disney theme park. The commons of kitsch. 

Except for this instant. This red bride’s pose. We stopped to watch from a dozen nations. We all took our snapshots of this woman to bring home. She was a dissonance of color in all this grey, grey, grey. Clothed in those reconstructed moments there was beauty beneath that archway, under all the satin and makeup. Some smile recognizing some future from a past that seemed for a moment more than simply illusion. Everyone saw the same strange wolf tone—common to us all. And you can't fake that young person's perfect hope.

(Yes, we told the tour guide, we understand the traffic was bad. Yes, it would be fine to finish early. Extra time for your family and won't you take some extra money for them, too? Of course we will recommend you to others.)

We were finding The Common in the extraordinary, weren't we? 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Accidental Collage

A poet showed me the flames over the bus before I ever saw them myself. No matter how many times I had looked, I had seen only Pius XXI and the bare arm. It was an accidental collage caught in Barcelona at Christmas-time when the hotels are cheap, when the Ramblas whores and thieves are thinned out by visits home. When the cool air carries with it the fragrance of chickens roasting in the window of restaurants like Las Carracoles where you eat snails and paella at your own risk.   

The author Karen Brennan knows the real terrain of collage -- the incidence of found objects, the mise-en-scene of place. A good essay, “Some Reflections on the Concept of Place in Place in Fiction” can be found here, A Kite in the Wind . But the essay I really want to read one day would come from her 2009 class, “Collage/Assemblage” where she talked about the wolf tones of collage found in her extraordinary memoir, Being with Rachel.

Her daughter, Rachel, is in a coma:

“Someone fastened a small Guadalupe holy card to the rails of Rachel’s bed, and then my sister in Tucson, out of the blue, began to dream of the Mexican Virgin. It seemed, for a while, that we were deluged by Guadalupes, Guadalupes everywhere in the cards and gifts sent to Rachel and spotted randomly throughout the day: a nurse with a Guadalupe bracelet, a taxi driver with a Guadalupe postcard tucked beneath his visor. Weirdest of all, a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe written in Spanish appeared on the windshield of my car where it was parked at the Holiday Inn. And since any sign, from blood pressure to the tiniest tremor around Rachel’s closed eyes, meant something, I began to pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Let her make it through, I’d pray. Just let her wake up. Just let her live. Just let her have her life.”

Collage informs Karen's new poems. From her book Little Dark, lines from "Ballares" (Four Way Press):

            "I never believed in anything I walked through walls 
             Like Jesus"