Monday, November 26, 2007

Travelogue 207 – November 26
White to Dark

We get a white Thanksgiving. It's not totally white. Maybe a half-inch on the ground. Roads and sidewalks are white. Some roofs are white. It depends on the angle they're pitched at. Parks are green with white fringes. The snowfall began late in the afternoon yesterday. I take a run just as it's getting dark.

The snow drifts down gently, yellow shadows in the globe of street lamps, like feather-tips against my face. And despite being rush hour, all seems silent. Headlights float in procession along the parkway. Some Christmas lights sparkle already. Here on the pedestrian path, there's the sound of footfall and of my breath. There are several worlds within sight of each other, but they aren't linked by any other sense.

It gets darker as I jog along. It's feeling good, so I keep going. I arrive in scenes more and more northern. There's a brooding spirit of Christmas descending, deep forest greens verging on black, with red lights and orange lights, and snowflakes drifting in as heralds of the season, soft as breath.

In the morning, it's still coming down. I awake from ten hours' sleep, refreshed and pleasantly dazed. It's my first Thanksgiving in a long time. We're scheduled to go to Therese's parents' house, but first there's work to be done. Outside the cafe, snow is gathering momentum. Still, the people are streaming in: runners from some race in town, whole families with shouting children. I'm smiling through all the noise. What's happened to me?

The mood persists. My first Thanksgiving dinner in years is altogether too idyllic. A long dusk settles over the snow-dusted world outside as I sit down to a long table with Therese’s family, three generations of them, with two year-old Gracie in her high chair. The Packers have won, and this Wisconsin group is pleased. I’ve won a good game of chess, so I’m pleased. The food is perfect, and the company is very comfortable. I’ve never liked holidays, but today they make sense. Ah, so this is what all that is about, I’m thinking. It’s a revelation.

Minnesota is emerging from its past. It lives, this place that was full of ghosts and shadows. Every corner, every address, every stretch of light was Polaroid grey with grief. There could be no relief for me here in the years after Leeza died. But I feel a pulse.

And now I leave. Midday the day after Thanksgiving, the commuter train slides underground and into the airport terminal. By takeoff, it’s night. The Twin Cities are curving grids of yellow lights. The rivers are a juncture of blackness.

The day dawns early somewhere between Greenland and Ireland. And our jet engines eat up the morning. By the time I’m out of Gatwick, and by the time I’ve made the chilly trip on two trains to Bath, the sun is low and its light is feeble. The four o’clock northern dusk descends on me.

I get only one full day in England, and then I’m back in day-hungry transit. I fly out of Heathrow, again against the sun. We consume the afternoon with the same voracity as fuel, and dusk arrives over southern Europe. We hang in shadows a long, long moment, and then it’s quiet night.

The plane is very quiet. After fueling in Amman, there are only a dozen or so of us on the plane. Most of the others know each other. On the tarmac in Amman, they talk NGO talk. Without knowing too much about it, I would describe NGO talk as something between celeb talk and bureaucrat talk. Names are dropped. Many of them are geographical names. Many are acronyms. They eagerly interrupt each other with droppings. Two pair off with a low hum of planning. They disperse when it’s time to take off again, and the solemn, black sky embraces us.

It’s the first flight from Britain to arrive on time in quite a while. Ijigu is surprised to see me. It’s fortunate he’s there. We depart into the cool mountain air of Addis Ababa. There are fewer lights than in Minnesota. There are more stars. There is the dark outline of mountains ahead of us. We cross the parking lot, and even the taxi guys are subdued in their appeals. Sober night.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Travelogue 206 – November 15
Great Nature Has Another

So I get the whole show on this trip. Yesterday it snows. It's not the kind of snow that collects. It comes down in little pellets that sting. It gathers in waves and drifts that snake across the road as you drive. I have to cross the Mississippi, and Andre's little red car shudders in the strong winds. It wants to veer into the cold, tragic river. It bucks at a sudden memory of the bridge that collapsed last summer. It wants the icy impact and wants to drown its gritty engine oil in the father of waters.

I'm thinking about the monsters alone in the bitter cold. We're dead center among autumnal holidays, days cast in the orange of failing embers, days for Time's sad glances. They are holidays that play well in Minnesota, where great nature orchestrates the blaze of decay that thrilled our New England forbears.

The day of ghouls has passed. The day of saints has passed. Leaves are thick in their yards, strewn about and spilling from piles. The holiday beasts are abandoned outside their houses. There are skeletons and witches, stuffed monsters and jack o' lanterns.

What a piece of work is man! Such ingenuity, engineering such subtle jests at God, ghoul, and self at one stroke. The ghouls walk, and we burlesque. We mock death with masks, and we give the masks to children. And our creatures, they sit in yards, naked in their futile intent. They're left to the cold, to the cool contemplations of lonely types of me on cloud-covered nights.

Contemplate things made so small in the slow typhoon of decay, while winter's first winds bare the trees, bring down the leaves, threaten snow, and chase us indoors. These satiric puppets stare down the assault alone, like giggling gargoyles. We give them up: we laugh at ourselves at last. There are a few monsters dressed up as Bush, or as the World Bank. That got a laugh weeks ago. Now the beast and the message perish together, sagging in the dust.

After the ghouls, the monsters, and the monster-saints come the veterans in this autumnal parade of futility. Coincidentally, I'm led to the VFW bar on the eve of Veteran's Day. The Liquor Pigs are playing here since the Viking closed. The stage is set in the large dining room, where long cafeteria tables have been moved aside for dancing. Old couples sway and turn to the see-saw rhythms of guitar and fiddle.

Craig and I sit in the bar proper, where craggy old men brood in isolation, suspicious of the new crowd. Our table is underneath the huge screen lit with football action, and very near the display case with a stuffed bald eagle. The room is dimly lit, with ruddy autumnal light. It's like an evening in a folk America forever preserved from the summer light of places like ... Iraq?

I have an appointment in another America, or I might have basked in this soft, artificial light. The next place will glare with brash light and blare with splashes of music. We'll drink margaritas and play chess as though a library had a bar and attendants in very tight clothes. As though a library might pass around mikes and project Spanish words to obscure pop songs on a screen.

Mexican karaoke: the one with the mike gets to pace among the restaurant tables. The matron at the next table belts out accompaniment. She must be somebody, the way everyone stops by for a greeting. A group of very white university students surround the center table and studiously ignore the activities. One of the boys is coming up with excruciatingly self-conscious ploys to touch the girl next to him, the one sitting very straight, whose choo-choo hat is turned very precisely to the right of center and shifts not one centimeter all evening. Me, I read the words as they are sung, sure that my high school Spanish will kick in suddenly, and I'd better not miss the elementary sentence that will trigger it. I'm pretty sure no one sang 'te quiero'. But the choo-choo hat was blocking some of the screen.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Travelogue 205 – November 1
All Saints

Today is All Saints' Day, and a better day couldn't be had for wandering among the unmartyred. The heavens are crisp and clear. It's just chilly enough below to keep mortals awake, but the sun warms their animal backs at midday. Me, I spend my unofficial lunch hour strolling among parks downtown, soaking as much of that autumn heat as I can through my jacket of animal skin.

Today is also called Hallowmas, or the mass of the hallows. Thence comes the name of the e'en preceding, during which the graveyards yield up their messengers. Indeed, in many countries, celebrants of the Day of All Saints follow the ghouls back to their resting places. They make festive picnics among departed relatives, their minds far from the examples of saints.

It makes sense when one realizes that the first saints in Christian tradition were the martyrs. And the first celebrations of their lives were eucharists performed over the graves of martyrs. Celebrations they were, history tells us, as would befit a triumph of the purified soul. And so it is, the dead always leading the way.

I like saints. Maybe it's the Catholic blood in dead daddy's blood, dried genes that thread through the planet's soil back to the old Hapsburg empire. Maybe it's just the fun reading they make. Heaven's prerequisite that saints produce miracles is a wise strategy, judging religion by entertainment value. I'm not sure how miracles inspire morality, love or compassion, but the stories keep our attention. Maybe they evolve from the heroes' tales from the ancient world, tales that may simply be telling us 'ayzu', in Amharic parlance: take heart, be strong.

But then the strong among us are freaks, after all. There isn't too great a divide between ghouls, heroes, saints, and the undead, is there? Gandhi and Spiderman, Einstein and St. Francis: they all cast morbid spells on us with their uncanny powers. Most of appreciate St. Francis for talking to birds more than for his efforts to imitate Jesus in poverty and humility. And at the end of the day, is that such a bad thing?

Miracles and super powers. I'm reminded of the early Christian saint who grew copious body hair just in time to save her virtue. I'm reminded of Abuna Aregawi, Ethiopian saint and founder of the famous Debre Damo monastery in Tigray. When he reached the foot of the cliff below the future site of the monastery, God provided a huge serpent for him. At St. Michael's directions, the snake gathered our venerable saint in his coils and pulled him up the cliff. This feat becomes the model for the subsequent tradition for entering the monastery, climbing up by rope -- by which we mortals are reminded of our profane nature.

I was there in April, and gave it a good effort. That was after hiking about ten kilometers with five kilos of sugar on my back for the monks. It is absolutely a lovely spot for a miracle. The monastery stands on top of a tall mesa, and there really is no entry but up the clean white cliff. A bearded monk with a mischievous grin preceded me, swinging side to side and climbing with alarming agility. I launched in, sure that some residual, incorruptible spirit left in me would rise to the occasion. And sure enough, that little bit of saintliness inside got me a little bit of the way. I reached a part of the cliff where the rock bulges outward. I stopped, secure on a couple footholds, and made Satan's mistake of looking down. That's where I stopped. Some boys scrambled up after me and wrapped an extra rope around me. Up above, a husky man of god pulled while I climbed. No miracle from Jarvis for the books. But, to be fair, most visitors don't even try without the extra rope. Perhaps that just demonstrates stupidity on top of my unholy normality.

Another cool reason to study the stories of our saints is to learn a lot of arcane terms like heortology, menology, paterikon, and my favorite, synaxarion. I've decided this is the greatest reward to religion. I doubt it will turn any keys to heaven, but it will make for some delicious language. Just tasting words like these makes you feel like something is going on. I'm inclined to think that's enough, but I'm pretty easily satisfied on the spiritual plane these days. I always liked classical languages. Super powers and Latin: that is a killer combination.

Anyway, tomorrow is All Souls Day. That's when the normal set get some attention. All the dead faithful saddled with sin, stalled at the very portal to heaven, are honored on All Souls Day. The good news is, we get to nudge them on with prayers and masses. It's nice that the regular guy gets his day. It makes for a quiet holy day. The ghouls sleep in. Michael's divine pythons sun themselves on mesa tops. Mortals drag themselves to chilly, cavernous churches to pray. Ave, ave.