After Virtue, Review and Summary

 

Alistair MacIntyre opens up his book After Virtue by making the claim that our contemporary moral vocabulary is in as much disorder as the vocabulary of natural science would be if it were being used several generations after a social reordering in which all instruments of technology and nearly all scientific writing had been lost. In this imaginary society adults would sit around debating scientific practices and theories, but would certainly not have whole concepts of what those practices and theories at all were. Such is the situation of our moral discussion today, says Alistair speaking to a primarily academic audience, and increasingly more so tomorrow. We are living in a society which several generations ago has lost belief in the validity of knowing morality and virtue.

I first heard about After Virtue from my friend Kyle Stoltsfuz, I believe either in a speech class or dinner conversation. In a following conversation, Kyle talked about how MacIntyre brought out that life loses coherency when the concentration of our daily efforts are no longer directly related to our well being and the well being of those around us. The example Kyle used is that if he leaves home for ten hours a day to work at an office job, part of the money he earns is converted by an invisible process into natural gas that flows through pipes into the house for heat. On the other hand, if he calls the community around him to partake in a wood cutting, the end result is the same in that the house is warm, but for his child a more realistic narrative has been built and affirmed, not just that the house is warm in the winter, but that warm houses in the winter are important, and that people are willing to get together and exert effort toward that end. In a single instance this example may not seem very important, but when extended to every aspect of our lives the difference becomes one more element influence upon the people we become.

To Alistair at least, and hopefully to many of his readers, the ability to know morality and virtue is still important, and so he says in order to gain a philosophically coherent understanding of morality, we are going to need to trace our current understanding of it back to where its coherency was lost. McIntyre begins his trail with a critique of emotivism, which has as its most basic premise that ethical judgments are reducible to expressions of will or feeling. Emotivism says that to say “Theft is wrong” is nothing more than to say “I prefer that theft did not happen and I would prefer if you preferred the same”. He is thorough in his critique of emotivism, but I don’t claim to follow all of his arguments against it. However, one simple and very reproducible argument simply shows that the claims of emotivism themselves are claims of moral judgment, and by emotivism’s own terms then, to say that a statement on morality is nothing but an expression of preference is only to say I prefer moral statements to be only expressions of preference and that I prefer that you would see them as such. Another is that it is demonstrable that in times and places expressions of morality are necessarily undesirable or unprefferrable to the one expressing them, and so to say that the expression “This is right.” is at times not at all the same as the expression “Hurray for this.”

MacIntyre follows his critique of emotivism with critiques of the moral philosophy of Hume, Kant, and also Kierkegaard, a task which is not only difficult but also difficult to follow. From here MacIntyre expands his argument to a broad criticism of the Enlightenment saying that in terms of ethics and the virtues it was not an enlightenment at all but rather a peculiar kind of darkness in which men so dazzled themselves with their own abilities that they could no longer see realities outside of their immediate ability. So impressed were we with empirically verifiable evidence, we could no longer see or ask questions which did not follow from empirically verifiable assumptions, and thus learned only to ask which we could answer.

In further pursuit of the virtues, MacIntyre goes back still further to times when a discussion of them was coherent, at least for its participants. He points to aspects and occasions in the medieval discussion of virtues which appear to be coherent as well the discussions on virtue by Aristotle and heroic societies such as the Norse and the Ancient Greek from whom Western civilization is descended. For an understanding of virtue or morality to be coherent, it must be both philosophical and practical, as well as take place within a narrative in which its methods and means are consistent with its ends. For Aristotle, a study of ethics is essentially a study of those actions which would move humanity from “man-as-he-happens-to-be” to “man-as-he-would-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature.” This view assumes a potentiality for humanity, as well as the possibility of attaining that potentiality. Statements which would be moral in that they join virtues and or prohibit vices must be such that they move us from only the possibility of potential towards acts which in turn move us towards the potential itself. This is basically a teleological understanding of ethics, saying that virtues are something which move us towards a better and more complete telos, (i.e. end), than the position in which we find ourselves now. After Virtue asserts that any coherent understanding of morality must be teleological.

Discussing twentieth and twenty-first century society, MacIntyre says that it is one essentially as described by Max Weber, a society in which individuality is both lauded and limited, characterized by rationalization and bureaucratization of social structure, vocation, and authority. MacIntyre links the accuracy of Weber’s views with the rise of social sciences, simultaneously affirming Weber’s insight and criticizing the prevalence and inability of social sciences. Implicit in MacIntyre’s critique of the social sciences, is their attempt to contribute to the discussion of morality. Since its rise, sociology has become arguably the largest contributor to moral conversation and understanding.

Building on Weber’s own views, Alistair says that law like statements cannot be arrived at within social science, because society is a phenomena to complex for consistent empirical demonstration. Critiquing the social sciences, MacIntyre points out the fallacy of a social science “expert”, and shows that social sciences are not science in the same way that natural sciences are in that social sciences allow generalizations and counter-examples to happily co-exist in ways that mathematics or biology never could. He gives an insightfully delightful analogy of why value-statements and predictions are problematic in the complexity of real life for social sciences, saying that even when you have analyzed the chess game sufficiently to determine that the only way for the white player to avoid checkmate in three moves is to move its knight to e4, the response may well not be knight to e4 but instead tennis ball being lobbed over the net upsetting the game and checkmate still is avoided. Though social sciences may attempt to address morality and predict ends or describe outcomes (think teleological statements), it is incapable of doing so by mere observation and interpretation of social reality. Rationalism demands calculability, predictability, efficiency, and utility but at least as far as its implementation as a managing aspect of society, it is not able to deliver upon those demands. In any case though, as rationalism took over as the basis for judgment in the Western mind, calculability, predictability, efficiency and utility became the functionally predominate virtues.

In cold philosophical rampage, MacIntyre questions the validity our bureaucratically rationalized society even further, pointing out that while a major premise of sociology is the individual’s lack of control over their and society’s fate, in reality society is not only out of our control, but also out of anybody else’s. Social reality is so complex that even bureaucracy is capable of at worst only contributing to the complexity and difficulty and at most only nominative or apparent control. The major accomplishment of bureaucracy consists in its existence, not in its efficiency. Bureaucracies by default exist primarily for their own perpetuation rather than for espoused goals, as is shown by rare the instances when their goals actually are realized as was and is the case of March for Dimes Foundation continuing to exist past the need for its original purpose, providing treatment of polio. An incoherent facet of rationalistic society is that bureaucracies are perpetuated not because of their efficacy in moving society towards a betterment, potentiality or telos, but because of their perpetuation.

Along with the myth of managerial or bureaucratic efficiency, MacIntyre exposes the contemporary myth of inherent human rights. Though we feel that such rights exist, rationalism is no better able to demonstrate the existence of inalienable human rights than it is able to demonstrate the existence of magic. When organizational utility comes into conflict with human rights, the one which is more empirically verifiable than the other tends to come out on top. Hence protest has become a predominate feature of morality in modern society, and indignation a predominate emotion.

MacIntyre’s reconstruction of a coherent account of morality does not happen all at once, but it does gain momentum in his fifteenth chapter “Virtues, Unity of Life, and the Concept of a Tradition.” If you’re interested in the book but get bogged down in the first fourteen, this chapter is the one which you won’t want to walk away from without reading. Introduced earlier, the concepts that human existence must essentially be understood as narrative, and that any understanding of virtue must at once be both philosophical and practical, provide groundwork for arguments raised in this chapter. Expanding on Aristotle’s concept of virtue necessarily being some practice which moves humanity toward its telos, MacIntyre suggests that virtue is an acquired human quality which enables us to realize goods which are internal to their practice. What he means by this is that some goods can only be derived directly from their practice, while others follow in exterior to the practice. For example, in chess the only way to realize the goods of becoming an analytical player is by sticking to the rules and by playing, while such goods as fame or reward may be derived exterior to the actual practice of chess by such a circumstance as winning, and in a different case such goods as winning can again be derived exterior to the practice of chess by cheating. Virtues, such as integrity or persistence, are such things as enable you to achieve the goods which are interior to a process. Outside of its practice, goods which are only delivered upon the practice of virtue may not be recognizable. Thus virtue cannot be separated from or understood properly outside of some type of self-reflective community in which goods are processed internally.

MacIntyre shows that narrative, intelligibility, and accountability are necessary components not only of a coherence account of morality but also of personal identity. Action cannot be accountable outside of intelligibility, and cannot be intelligible outside of narrative. There is no such thing he says as behavior outside of intentions, beliefs, and settings. Virtue becomes incoherent apart from being lived out in a communal narrative. So essential is narrative and its affirmation to an understanding of ourselves and of virtue, that narrative must not only be livable, but also re-tellable. “Deprive children of stories,” Says MacIntyre, “and you will leave them unscripted stutterers, in their actions as well as their words.”i

An understanding of morality must have both the individual internality, asking, “What is the good for me?” and the collective accountability asking, “What is the good for humanity?” An account of morality must include not only a systematic asking of these questions, but also a collective and personal attempt to answer them both in word and in deed. Thus both asking and answering must be ever present aspects of a coherent understanding of virtue. If you think the reasoning here is becoming cyclical, you are right. The answer that Alistair brings to the question of “What is the good life?” is indeed a circle. The virtues he says are things which enable us to better ask and to better answer “What is the good life for humanity?” Virtues are those things which not only provide for us the goods internal to practices, but also those things which sustain us in our pursuit of a telos, enabling us to overcome temptations, dangers, and distractions, as well as equipping us with better self-knowledge and better knowledge of the good allowing us to purse it more effectively. Thus he says that “The good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.”ii Virtues are then such things as allow people to live together in peaceful, constructive, and healing communities seeking the good together and the virtues necessary for the philosophical inquiry and the practical answering of what that good is. Cyclical reasoning can certainly feel reductive and constricting, but at least to me, this argument does not at all. It sounds only coherent.

Concluding his book, Alistair points the way forward for those that would seek to practice a coherent understanding of morality, in probably the most widely quoted and recognized passage in After Virtue. Here he cautiously draws a parallel between the age in which Western Culture finds itself today, and the era of the decline of the Roman Empire just previous to the dark ages. If Western civilization is again indeed in such a decline, as MacIntyre asserts that it is if its moral state is in as much disarray as he suggested it is in his opening chapter, then the task of many good men and woman must be a turning from attempts to associate morality with and to manage the morality of dominant culture or the imperium, and instead a turning to and a forming of alternative communities in which civility and morality can be understood and sustained independently from the fall of civilization around them and so survive the coming incivility and dark age. The difference between our time and the last fall of Western civilization, says MacIntyre, is that this time the barbarians are not waiting to invade our borders, they have already been governing us for quite some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 MacIntyre, Alistair. After Virtue (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) pg. 201.

 

2  Ibid. Pg. 204

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The Politics of Jesus: A Summary

In a short series of blogposts, I’m going to be reviewing some of my favorite non-fiction books. This review process is important for me to be able to formalize my views coming away from the book, and better understand what I’m taking away from it, and hopefully it can be useful for you too, giving an overview of essential concepts from these books even if you don’t have time to read them yourself. Hopefully though, my scattered synopses will leave you intrigued, but malcontent, and you’ll go to the book itself trying to figure out what it really has to say instead of just what I’ve managed to strain out of it. I’m starting with The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, and hoping to get to other titles such as After Virtue by Alastair MacIntyre and The Different Drum or A World Waiting to be Born by M. Scott Peck.

In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder argues that the life and work of Jesus had a relevant social, and thereby political aspect, and that this social and political aspect should be normative for Christian social and political interactions. That Jesus held and communicated political interests does not mean that he was in any way politician, campaigning for votes and enacting legislation, it simply means that he shared opinions on how communal and social interactions should be structured and maintained. Yoder conveys that the mistake which some traditional views of the life and work of Jesus have made is that they treat Jesus strictly as the divinely redemptive sacrifice who intervened at a certain point in history, and do not admit that he had real and relevant human political and social concerns. This narrow viewing of the purposes of Jesus in human history leaves the viewer looking for social and political guidance in flawed, human resources rather than in the perfection of Christ. It is denying Jesus had political concerns that leads us to our confidence and participation in human politics. Yoder’s basic thesis is that Jesus was and still is, directly relevant to social ethics, and should be the normative model for all Christian social ethics.1

Yoder supports his thesis with a commentary on the book of Luke interpreting the prophecies about Jesus as well as his own actions and teachings through a social-political reading. He points out that messianic expectations of Christ were extremely political and social, and that these expectations were informed by divinely inspired prophecy. In the Magnificat, Mary proclaims the socially re-ordering work of Jesus saying he will pull the mighty down from their thrones, and exalt those of low degree (Luke 1:46). In Jesus own public proclamation of his ministry, He reads the very social Isaian prophecy about himself which says among other things that he will give good news to the poor, release the captives, and liberate those who are oppressed (Luke 4:13). Major to the overall argument of The Politics of Jesus is Yoder’s statement that “Jesus was in his divinely mandated prophethood, priesthood, and kingship the bearer of new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships.”2 Jesus had a very specific concept of how human society should be carried out, and shared it to those who followed him through his teachings and example.

Yoder argues that we are inconsistent to the mandated whole-person work of Jesus to read these texts in a purely spiritual or metaphysical light, just as his contemporary zealots would have been missing out to hear them in a purely physical or pragmatic light. In further portrayal of Jesus’ very specific political ethic, Yoder interprets Satan’s temptation of him in the desert as being primarily political and presenting political options of ruling power, popularity, and success very incongruent with Jesus’ work and social-political values. Yoder argues that options of radical revolutionary force were very open to Jesus throughout his ministry. Jesus would not accept these political options not because he did not have any political ends, but because his methods of achieving these ends were not forceful but loving. Jesus did not say “you can have your politics and I shall do something else more important”; he said, “your definition of politics, of the social, of the wholeness of man in his socialness is perverted.”3 Jesus not only had specific and radical ideal for what human social relationships should look like, he also had specific and radical methods for realizing those ideals. Jesus did not overcome by killing those who opposed him, he overcame by allowing his enemies to kill him.

After showing that Jesus did indeed have political and social concerns in the first half of the book, Yoder goes on in his chapter “The Trial Balance” to establish that his concerns and methods of enacting them should be normative for his followers by stressing the repeated New Testament injunction to take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus. Yoder points out that this injunction is strengthened by the absence of New Testament appeals to model other aspects of Jesus’ life such as his Franciscan lifestyle or his celibacy. Yoder then clarifies that this cross of Christ’s which we are to carry similarly is not any and every kind of sickness, suffering, tension, catastrophe, or personal crisis, it is rather the counted and freely chosen cost of obedience to a higher social-political ordering, and thereby a necessary current social-political nonconformity. Jesus’ words “The servant is not greater than his master; if they have persecuted me they will also persecute you” (John 15:20)4 was given as a statement of the normative relationship of his disciples to society. In this light, we can neither accept the “legitimate use of violence” nor “the ritual purity of noninvolvement”5 but instead must remain lovingly engaged, inhabiting Jesus’ new social-political ordering of society. Like Jesus, we must maintain a threefold rejection of quietism, revolution, and establishment participation.6 We are left with neither the avoidance of political options, nor with our choice of political options, but with the one political-social-ethical option which Jesus espouses.

Further on in “The Trial Balance”, Yoder lays out five sets of traditional systematic antinomies we can no longer choose between but must now accept together. Yoder is not saying that there are not perhaps positive or negative aspects of either choice in these antinomies; he is saying that we are not limited to the extremism a strict choice of either side would leave us with. First, we cannot choose between the Jesus of history, and the Jesus of dogma. We cannot say that he was simply a historical figure without metaphysically redemptive significance, nor can we say he was simply a redemptive sacrifice without real historical significance. Second, we cannot choose between the prophet and the institution. We cannot simply accept and participate in every human institution as if it were not fallen, but neither can we simply decry, condemn, and remove ourselves from every institution. He supports this by pointing out that even jubilee is an institution.7 Third, we need not choose between the catastrophic kingdom and the inner kingdom. Jesus neither introduced the apocalypse and end of societies nor a hidden spiritual kingdom independent of social relevance and historical meaning. Fourth, we need not choose between the political and the sectarian. It is possible to be politically and socially relevant without being involved in governmental participation and responsibility. Fifth, we cannot chose between the individual and the social. “Tradition tells us to choose between respect for persons and participation in the movement of history; Jesus refuses, because the movement of history is personal.”8 The ethics which Jesus presented to us are both social and internal. We cannot do in the social-political arena that which we would not do in the personal, nor in the personal what we would not do in the social. Jesus brought us an morality which unifies and clarifies our ethics and realms of action, not one which separates and obscures them.

Yoder continues to show that the self-giving love of Jesus is meant to be normative for his followers by going on to build a biblical outline supporting this thesis. He says that the concept of accepting the image of God within ourselves and therefore imitating God is both an Old Testament and a New Testament concept. By quoting numerous New Testament references, Yoder argues that we are to participate in the nature and love of Christ, serve others as he served, share in his descension, reject domination as he rejected it, and participate in his suffering and death. To imitate Christ and participate in his nature, we must unequivocally reject the use of power, hostility, and dominion and replace them instead with suffering, forgiveness, and servanthood.

In further development of his thesis, Yoder explains the existence and function of the Powers,9 and their relationship to Jesus. As close as I can understand his concept of the Powers, they are non-human forces which nevertheless have real, constant, sometimes uncontrollable effects upon human life and human relationships. Such Powers can include bureaucratical or religious institutionalized hierarchies, economic exchange, governments, systemic beliefs, will-coercion, and other force-extensions. He says once again that Jesus is relevant to the social and political Powers, and specifically because he has both created and conquered them, and they must ultimately submit to him.10 As followers of Christ and co-conquerors with him, we not rebel against these powers, for even though they are currently fallen and in rebellion against our Lord, he has ultimately replaced them. Indeed, if we do rebel against them we deny the effectiveness of his current and future lordship over them. We need only recognize his dominion, and give our loyalty to him, not them. It is because of this reality that a Christian can be content in a situation of suffering or injustice. We do not need to smash imperfect systems, because they are not primary reality. Primary reality is Jesus’ lordship. We are not defined by our context in relationship to fallen human institutions, we are defined by relationship to God. In comparison with our relationship to Jesus’ lordship the imperfect systems become incredibly unimportant. They have already been conquered, and will soon crumble away on their own. What remains for us is to join Jesus in his death, and thereby in his resurrection. Indeed, it was the suffering love and death of Jesus which defeated the Powers. 

We need not choose between subjection to and participation in the ordering of the Powers and meaningfulness in human history. The suffering love and death of Jesus are the very things which give human history any meaning whatsoever. Human power plays and political endeavors are not efficacious in bringing positive social change. Human politics and powers are incapable of positively structuring society. Because they are divorced from relationship with their creator, they are inescapably flawed. It is only the methods and politics of Jesus which have any lasting importance or significance. These methods are the obedience of self sacrifice, surrender, and suffering love. ‘When John Says “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power,” he is saying “not as inscrutable paradox, but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute force determines the meaning of history.”’11

Yoder argues that Christians must cease to see themselves as guardians of the direction of history to once again become meaningful in its development. He notices a establishment Christian propensity to try to steer the sequence of human events toward morality or Christendom, and says that it is “inappropriate” and “preposterous” to assume that “the fundamental responsibility of the church for society is to manage it.”11 It is in providing a relevant alternative model of the social and political structuring that Christianity becomes effective. Christ’s example, both as the Second Person of the Trinity, and as a tired and rejected rabbi from Galilee, is a refusal to give allegiance or credence to the Powers of social ordering or to their opposition and overthrowal.  Instead he subjects himself to what is demanded of Him, but does not grant final or inherent validation to the process of force and offense exchange by the recognition of either participation or revolution. It is in following Jesus’ very specific example of relationship toward social and political powers that Christianity is socially and politically meaningful. Yoder ends his final chapter with the Latin quote, “Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur.” or “Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him.”12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1972), 23.

2 Ibid., 63.

3 Ibid., 113.

4 (KJV)

5 Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 98.

6 Ibid., 98.

7 Ibid., 108.

8 Ibid., 114.

9 “For in him were created all things, those in heaven and those on the earth, visible and invisible; whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all was created through him and by him.” (Col. 1:16). For a further explanation on these “Powers” see Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 137-147.

10 Ibid., 168.

11 Ibid., 238.

12 Ibid., 248.

Short Impressions of Bluffton U.

IMG_20180901_133353~3Last weekend I moved to Bluffton Ohio. It’s not quite true to say that Bluffton is in the middle of a cornfield; it’s in the middle of twenty-eight of them. The main attraction here is Bluffton University, and the rest is just, well, cornfields with the occasional island of soybeans thrown in for variety. Bluffton University was founded in 1899, as Central Mennonite College, though I’m not really sure what it was central to besides the twenty-eight cornfields. I would have thought it was “Central” as in “somewhere between Goshen and EMU”, but turns out EMU wasn’t even around yet in 1899 so I guess I’ll stick with the cornfield theory.

Moving-in and orientation weekend was spectacularly slow, as such weekends are wont to be. Freshmen were pressed into walking tours of the campus, gatling after gatling of introductions, and round after round of cornhole games. As a transfer, I was able to avoid most of this, and spent my time in the Library checking out the periodicals, browsing the philosophy section, and looking at pictures of cornfields on the walls. Like the College Hall and Tower at Bluffton (pictured at top), Musselmen Library is designed in the Jeffersonian architectural style of the University of Virginia. I’m not entirely certain what this means, but I do know it looks a little less than half as impressive as it sounds. It is a fairly large building though, with four floors and a very decent selection of fiction, religious and philosophical texts.

With a few beaver dams in and around campus, Bluffton’s sports mascot is the beaver. The standard joke in the English department is “What do beavers and authors have in common?” “Trees”. Well over a hundred years old, a great feature of Bluffton is the number of giant trees scattered about on campus. After the Library and the trees inside and outside of it, the other most interesting place on campus for distraction and consumption is the Commons at Marbeck Center, where delicious concoctions of things like corn-salad, corn-salsa, and cornbread are served.

I stay on the third floor of Bren-Del Hall, which despite its lack of any kind of AC seems to be the residency of choice for football players and track and field athletes. My roommate Tim Bender, a senior from one or another of the four corners of Iowa, is not an athlete but a ministry-assistant-campus-youth-pastor-theology-and-biblical-history-dual-major. Tim is certainly a nice guy, but it’s usually just less risky to allow polite distance and space between yourself and your roomy. I accept that this tendency of distance for the sake of minor conflict avoidance is probably a character flaw of mine, but it keeps life un-complicated. On the other-hand, it’s nearly impossible for me to keep a gripe with someone, and Tim seems like he’s of the same sort. I’m sure we could become friends, but so far, I just have a tendency for avoidance of males for whom necessary long-term physical proximity precedes emotional proximity. Is this avoidance avoidable or valid? I’m not sure. It’s definitely not ideal, but it is pragmatic.

One good thing about Bluffton is the low student to instructor ratio, at somewhere between eleven and twelve to one. Matt Friesen, Alex Sider, and Jeff Gundy, professors I have in sociology, theology, and English respectively, are all published and comparatively acclaimed authors in their fields. Friesen earned his doctorate at Purdue, Sider at Oxford, and Gundy wrote that poem about God and cookies that if you haven’t read you probably know four or five people who have. This semester I’m taking Survey of English Literature part 1, Approaches to Literature, Shakespeare, Intro to Sociology, and Issues in Modern America, as well auditing Spanish 1 and Intro to Christian Theology. Outside of class I’m editing poetry for The Bridge, a national literary journal published by Bluffton, and working four to six hours a week for the English department. Supposedly this position could include working on research and referencing for articles written by English department faculty, but I think more likely it will just be grading student papers for grammatics, running photo copies, and hustling books back and forth from the library.

Although Alex Sider has by far the best lecture style I’ve seen here so far, I’m pretty sure my favorite professor is going to be Jeff Gundy. I can’t find his age online, but he’s got to be nearly 80. The man is a caricature of literary enjoyment and wizened vitality, elaborate but natural. I don’t think that he rides a motorcycle or flies and open-cockpit bi-plane, but his hair could certainly lead you to think so. White jets of it shoot straight back behind each ear, as if his face is thrust perennially into the bristling wind of the universe. He bobs and weaves like a boxer or a bobble headed Einstein whenever animated, and accompanies the folk ballads he plays before class with a very fluid arm, shoulder and head jazz groove. To start class he clangs two symbols together, ceremonially dangling them from a leather thong until they stop singing.

Perhaps the worst thing about Bluffton is the coffee. The only place to get it is in the commons at Marbeck, which you can’t get into without swiping your meal card. On the upside, there’s certainly a wide range of flavors available, but on the down side all the coffee is flavored. Unless you’re into Hazelnut Coffee, Pecan Praline, Carnival Waffle Vanilla, French Vanilla, Butterscotch Toffee Cream, Carmel Crème Brulée, or Dark-French-Roast-Chalk-Brick-and-Alkaline-Pond-Water flavored coffee you’re sort of outta luck.

The best thing about Bluffton is the vast swaths of time in which nothing at all is expected of you but to sit around and read. We have a fair bit of reading in all my courses (in Shakespeare we’re reading one play a week), and outside of class I’ve so far read Peace Shall Destroy Many, The Unabomber Manifesto aka Industrial Society and Its Future, and made good headway into Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. All in all it looks like if I can muster up consistent enthusiasm for corn on the cob at dinner, thread my way back and forth from my dorm to the Library through the labyrinth of cornhole games, get an electric carafe to make my own coffee, and just find out who and where they are brewing the corn whiskey, I should be in for a very enjoyable two years at Bluffton University.

 

 

Sir Alfred, Hermogenes, and the Fall

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Yesterday the Fall came on my way back from Plomari. In fact, a medium sized yellow dog and I practically brought it back with us, for it was a terrible crisis, and someone needed to do something about it.

Fall is at least my favorite time of year, maybe the only really enjoyable time of year. Everything begins to feel worthwhile in the fall, or at least it seems like it once was worthwhile. I love the energy that everything gives off when it’s dying.

It was a terrible crisis: the second-to-last day of September, and not a fall-ish thing was in sight. No changing leaves, no bustling wind, no change of crispness in the air, no sizzling snare of autumn chanting black cat spells above the phone-lines. None of it. Nothing. Everything lay as still as a woodlot dump in August too bland and indifferent to make a fly get up. Something must be done, I thought, but I didn’t know how to do it.

It was early Thursday morning, about 8:30, far to early to get up or anything, but the summer heat had already the weight and teeth of granite. I groaned a full minute, and rolled over in bed twice, writhing to avoid the breakfast sun scorching through my curtains. I oozed out of bed and onto the marble floor to soak up some residual coolness, but didn’t actually get a lot more than sand and breadcrumbs out of the deal. Attempting to open up some air movement, I opened the window wider than the crack it had been, and swung wide the door.

Sitting perfectly poised and polite as you please, was the ugly yellow dog I’d exchanged greetings with so many times in the street. The first time I’d seen his passionately ugly yellow face, I dubbed him Alfred. Not because Alfred is a particularly ugly name or anything, but because Alfred was the only name that popped itself directly into mind. The dog had the strangest eyes. Not quite as self-possessed as a cat, but nowhere near the open honesty of a proper dog. There was something almost childlike, or deviant in those eyes.

“Hullo Alfred,” I said.

Alfred sneered twice, laughed once, and darted between my legs calling back over his shoulder, “It’s Sir Alfred to you, pedestrian.”

I don’t know how you feel about the slur or adjectival use of pedestrian, but it does no harm to me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using your own two feet for transportation, and that’s a thesis I am prepared to defend. Only a great big bloated slob would use it disparagingly.

“Only a great big bloated slob would use pedestrian disparagingly,” I told Alfred. “There’s nothing shameful or unhealthy about using your own two leggs for transport. How do you get around, Sir Alfred?”

“What do you think? Does it look like I use two leggs to get around? I’m no pedestrian, I’ve got four leggs, and that makes me a quadruped, Stupid.”

I was about to reach for Merriam Webster to prove being quadrupedal doesn’t mean you don’t walk, but realized that useful individual was on the phone I’d left in a dumpster, and my current piece of electronica didn’t have the memory for anything bigger than Notepad.

“What’s for breakfast?” Alfred said. “We’ve got work today, and I’m going to need some proper nourishment.”

He pawed open the fridge, passed up the milk and orange juice, and got to work right away on my second to last beer. “Beer,” he said, “Is the most caloric beverage. Made of barley juice. Practically food.” I was about to point out that the milk, just under his nose, would have a much higher food value than beer, but changed my mind when I realized that what I wanted for breakfast was cereal, and judging by the way he was drinking that beer, there wouldn’t be enough for the both of us if he started on the milk.

Breaking momentarily with my core values, I reached into the fridge, and poured the milk into my bowel before the cereal to ensure I’d get some. “What are you doing?” Said Alfred, “Everyone knows you pour the cereal in before the juice. Look, I’ll show you.” I whirled around in time to see the entire quarter box of crunchy chocolate muesli pilling up in his bowel.

“That was my breakfast!” I cried.

“Imagine marrying someone just to find out they poured the milk in before the cereal,” said Alfred, cracking my last beer and pouring it over the crunchy muesli.

“Imagine a stray dog coming uninvited into your house and drinking all your beer before breakfast!”

“Imagine insulting a guest in his first ten minutes in your home. Proverbs, Mark Twain, and Socrates all agree you need to wait at least two days to do that. I am going to assist you on a mission of utmost importance today, and I’m going to need some proper nourishment to do it. If you begrudge me that, you can jolly well go down to the south side of the island and bring back the fall yourself. See how that works out for you.”

Go get the fall? If I had ears like Alfred’s, they would have perked up. Thank God I don’t have ears like Alfred. It’s not that I particularly mind a good chewed up ear or anything, but I wouldn’t have wanted him to enjoy my immediate interest.

“What do you mean go get the fall?” I said perhaps a bit too sharply, straining to keep my ears from wiggling. There was no way I was going to show an ugly yellow dog who drank all my beer how interested I was in what he was saying. But I was interested. Very. Especially after the dream I had last night, which I was just now recalling. I dreamed that I and the bluest bird you ever saw were flying below a skyscape vivid in beautiful swirling debris, all the color of New England in late September. Below was the grayest gray of worlds, and we were between, singing a song that matched our flight. It was a haunting dream, now that I remembered it, achingly beautiful with all the flames of Autumn.

Alfred smirked through his beer and granola, “Don’t get so exited. Just because I’ll be with you doesn’t guarantee your success, it only heightens the chances.”

I repeated my question, this time in a tone controlled to border on perturbed.

“Never mind,” he said, in that annoying “you’ll understand when you get older” voice I would come to hate so well. “I tell you too much now, you’ll start overthinking and muff the whole thing up. Nope, discretion is the vibe we’re trying for, and as Abraham Lincoln so wisely said, ‘secrecy is the best policy.’”

I wanted to point out that Abraham Lincoln said no such thing, but decided I would fall for neither distraction nor reverse psychology. Instead, I flexed my mighty muscles of humility, swallowed my pride, and sacrificed my loathing to show interest in anything Alfred said for my need to experience Fall.

“You don’t need to use any baiting or reverse ploys to interest me in this.” I said. “A chance of summoning the Fall? I’m in.”

Genuine shock and disappointment flicked across Alfred’s uncanny face making it a little more childlike than deviant, before he recovered and swung the balance back across the other way. “How’d you know…erhm, I mean what made you think we’d need to summon the fall? It’s really just as simple as bringing it back in a basket.”

“And yet it’s complicated and horrific and if I have any details I’ll be sure to ‘muff the whole thing up’.” I said calmly hurling my bowl of milk at the little mutt.

“Everything in life,” said Alfred, slurping milk up off the floor, “Is a delicate balance between the simple and the complex. Depending on how you want to interact with life, you must concentrate on the one side or the other. The poet and the mystic focus on the union of all things, this is the side of simplicity. The scientist, the mathematician and the skeptic, focus on the disparity of all things, and this is the side of complexity. When you want to do magic however, you need the double vision capable of viewing complexity and simplicity simultaneously. Today we want to do magic.”

Alfred licked his chops sensually, and paused, evidently hoping I’d pounce in with a question. I did not. “Go on,” I said waiting.

“Naturally,” he said naturally, “I am a cynic, a skeptic, a scientist, and a mathematician. I am a cynic of the cynics and a son of a cynic, vastly aware of and comfortable in the stew of complexity. I’m steeply immersed in the tradition, with a pedigree reaching back to my ancestor Skylos the Haggard, who sat at the feet of Diogenes and nourished himself from the great man’s vomit. I believe you, though, are a poet, incoherent, simplistic, and with a parietal lobe entirely undernourished. Together, we will make a team.”

My involuntary flush of elation at being correctly recognized as a poet tempered quickly in the second half of his appraisal. Still, something about his line of reasoning made sense, and I was loath to react to either praise or criticism from a medium sized yellow dog probably tortured into perpetual belligerency by his flea bights.

“I’m down!” I said. “What’s the first step?”

“Ah, I knew you weren’t quite so impractical as you first appeared,” Alfred said. “The first step is the ritual cleansing. The Muslims always were right, you need to wash yourself before doing anything important or sacred. I claim the shower first.”

Half an hour later Alfred came steaming out of the bathroom, looking half as bad as he did before and smelling two times better. Eager to get on the road and closer to retrieving the fall, I grabbed my towel, and ran toward the bathroom. The evil fog which greeted me couldn’t dampen my spirits; I plunged on ahead. Choking and slipping I made my way to the shower where one those floating Peruvian islands was wallowing out of the bathtub onto the floor. Only this foul smelling island was made out of dog hair, not and reeds and bulrushes. The entire tub was full of brownish yellow water, with a mass of slime, hair, and bubbles fumbling around on the surface trying to cut its umbilical cord. I wheeled around to grab the clorox bottle, but Alfred met me in the door. “C’mon Peter,” He said, “You look like you had at least one shower this week. Ye are clean but not all; it is enough that one of us be clean.”

I knew there was no point trying to get clean in that bathtub, so I gave up. But was sorely tempted to pour the clorox bottle down Alfred’s cagey little throat.

I went down to the bike rental, and handed over enough money and licensure, to convince the man with beef jowls to rent me a 200 cc mo-ped for the day. As we had agreed he would do, Alfred kept his mouth shut and stayed out of the way to streamline the process. I could see his neck and mouth tensing up once or twice from the strain of wanting to contribute something, but as I told him before, businessmen are not interested much in philosophy, even if you are good enough to make it up as you go.

We wheeled the bike out onto the street amid a heavy flutter of beef jowls and precautions. Alfred doggedly slumped along behind me, looking jarringly dismal until I had puttered around a bend from the rental. I slowed down and he hopped up behind me on the seat, and dug two strong canines through my belt loop. “You should have barked!” I said, “Chased after the bike and looked a little bit convincing.” He may have muttered something about the difficulties of keeping up two acts at once, but the majority was lost in the slipstream.

With or without hope of the Fall, it was a fine idea to rent a bike. I don’t think the temperature seems quite so bad when your scenery is changing. It’s when your cooped up or fall asleep in the sun that heat really becomes unbearable. There still wasn’t any breeze, but on the bike even if the air refused to move, you could move through it. We crossed the mountain over into the Gera basin, drove around the bay, and passed the low flat plains of herbs, olive yards and cypress. As we left the farmland, for the salt plains, the heat once again leaned down with the drone of a hornet. The moped’s speed disappeared sucked into the high-end whine of a low power engine on a straight stretch. Time slithered along, slowed as if by dust. Alfred incessantly panted behind me, and a dust thickened trail of saliva slithered down my pants. My brain melded and gelled into one ambitionless slump, with my eyes fixed on the hills at the near horizon. My mood hardened into an impersonal blob, but peevish and content with peevishness toward everything. There’s nothing worse than a grouchy old summer that refuses to die, but stretches itself obstinately out past natural life for months on into attempted infinity. I hope that I’ll remember this, when comes my turn to die.

Finally though, the road started to lift, and the languors with it. We began to climb up through the hills and olive forests, winding around sharp bends and ancient stone terraces. On the inclines the mo-ped slowed to a whine, but there was a freshness to the air here, and a lot more scenery to work with. Hills and slopes opened again and again into endless new formations of rocks and trees. Only a few kilometers from the half-asleep tourist towns, was wilderness untouched since Greek civilizations more than a thousand years gone. Panaguoida and the whole eastern shore of the island faded from memory like exhaust into the heatwaves behind us.

Sir Alfred began to achieve a little life behind me, sitting up somewhat, and hooking his two fore-paws through my belt loop instead of his left canine. This improvement freed up his mandibles, and in no time saliva, insults, and philosophical fragments were hurling about my ears like shrapnel.

“Now what I don’t like about you poets,” he roared into the wind, “Is your absolute lack of ambition. You’re content to rush about pursuing all sorts of useless ends and call them ‘experiences’, or you slump around hollow eyed like a sack full of socks waiting for the muse to come and grab you by the gunny and shake some aspiration into you. You’re so purposeless. What’s worse, is that people mistake this sham you put on for the honest and purposeful degradation of the cynic. The philosophic cynic knows full well that glass houses, white floors, and fine raiment never brought anyone the satisfaction of one pure breath of thought, and so thrusts himself full-handedly into the throws of life, to spare his mind not from one weight of connection or insight which may be found. But when you poets fall out of repute though in the sight of the rabble, you always make it look as if you strayed through the wrong door by mistake as listless a wandering cloud incapable of rain. No I tell you, the muse is dead, and Pure Reason presided at her funeral. There is no muse, there never was, and never will be, except your own mind, and the powers which it can avail to you. Logic!” he schrieked, “Ration! Mathematics! Statistics! Discipline the mind to complexity!”

He had placed his paws up on my shoulders through the last tirade of obscenities, with his yellow muzzle quivering beside my ear, and I was glad the windstream checked and winnowed at least the majority of the foam spewing out of his mouth. I calmly navigated a hairpin downgrade, flicked an adjective out from where it had lodged behind my ear, and pointed out that I had gathered rather more pure saliva than pure reason from the last paragraph. Alfred though was uninterested in such subtleties of nuance, and apparently considered gold whatever came out of his mouth, whether it was logical, illogical, or biological.

“The real poetry,” he vomited, “The Poesis, the creativity, is what’s done in the mind, the problem solving where untainted abstract reasoning leads to concrete results, and where beauty is beauty by virtue of its usefulness. The sham poetry of polemics and aesthetics is as every bit as bad as Plato made it out to be. It’s good for nothing useful, like waging war, training the mind, or governing a city, fit only to be cast out and trodden under the feet of the rabble. There’s nothing so anemic to good sense and progress as a bunch of weeping adjectives strung together to cast a spell over old maids and boys. I tell you, there is nothing conveyed in the cadences of spoken or written poetry proper, but sheer, arbitrary, defiled, and defiling emotion. When you want to say anything useful, anything that relates to the real world, prose is what you want! Not a mystical arrangement of syllables contrived to drag out a baseless euphoria or sentimentality! There is no such thing as emotion, not for the rational being, there can only be actions. Emotion is a simplistic concept designed by the rabble out of laziness to confuse themselves and distract their consciences from the task at hand. Emotion has no productive correlation to the real world, and so should not be fed, or stroked, or even talked about. It should be allowed to wither away before the blinding sun of Resolution! No! It should be strangled, murdered! Along with all the other weak and pitiful elements of the soul. What we need is volition! Not feeling.”

“In the well ordered soul, in the virtuous psyche, there is no room for the fickle quandaries of feeling. The only real process which results in virtue, is the cold clean movements of cynicism within the intellect, calculating which roads are worthless and which are the right ones to take. Why, you can’t get to Plomari based on intuition, or a by any other groundless feeling within your heart, you’ve got to follow clear evidence! You’ve got to be informed and responsible in the art of reading road signs, not in interpreting the palpitations of the heart. You say you write poetry because somewhat is wrong with the world and your experience of it, but I say all that is wrong with the world is your methods of addressing its problems!”

“Now look here,” I calmly turned around and bellowed at him nearly wrecking, “I’ve never called myself a poet, that’s been your accusation all along. But I’ll let you know for me its about the highest compliment you can give, and if “poet” is an insult to a scientistical cynic like you, that makes it all the more dear to me. I suppose Popular Science is your bible, and David Hume and all the neo-atheists are your canonized saints…”

“Hume!” Alfred eructed, “That heretic deserves to be dug up and bones-burnt! He didn’t believe in so much as cause and effect! No! Democritus is the true mythic God of my religion! He was the father of my Atom and your Adam! Why, good old Democritus, I’m quite sure he founded and propounded Kinetic Molecular Theory even if that bit of information wasn’t passed on to us. Not Hume! Why the imbecile…he came so close to the kingdom, but turned back, that faithless sentimentalist. The sniveling snut! As your Peter put it, ‘It had been better for him not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto him.’ But no, he turned back, and a millstone ought to be tied around that offenders neck. Did you know he said that reason not only is, but ought to be, the slave to passion?”

“No I didn’t,” I said “I thought he was all empiricistic and naturalistic, denying innate knowledge and whatnot. But to heck with Hume, who cares, or at least we can agree on that, but why do you go on bashing poetry without compunction when you said this morning that ‘life takes a delicate balance of the simple and the complex, needing both the poetic and rational perspective’? In all your rationalism you’re not making sense and end up in contradicting yourself. Which do you really believe?”

“Aha!” he barked, actually wagging his tail for the first time since his beer breakfast this morning. “You’re not quite the pitifully illogical wreck I was scared your might be. Your parietal lobe is certainly scrawny and undernourished, but obviously since being around me you’re making rapid progress. Congratulations, you are almost right. You see, there is an apparent contradiction in my balance theory and my antipathy towards poetry. Of course if you wanted to concentrate your life in simplicities, unrealities, and unions you would live the life of the mystic, the poet, or the amoeba. But why on earth would you want to? Wouldn’t this life be the most boring, the most intrusive, the most unproductive? Yes, on it’s own, poetry is certainly a method incapable of producing any functional ends. But when you combine the scope of vision available to poetry, and the scope of vision available to science and skepticism, dual and disparate worlds are drawn together, and you become suddenly capable of Magic! And Magic of course,” he salivated, “is oh so exponentially useful! so wonderful! in producing results! This I think, is what Plato must have dimly seen when even after all his well-justified rhetoric against poetry he did in the end allow it, in certain censured forms of course, into Kalipolis. But Democritus of course was again around the block from Socrates running the establishment he and his student were trying still to find! Democritus is always and everywhere accurately recognized as the father of modern science, but what isn’t remembered is that he also wrote poetry and poetic theory! Now tell me, why would the father of modern science suspend himself from the complexity of reality and concern his time with abject, non-existent simplicity, unless he had expected results! I think he delved into poetry because he knew that if he could marry simplicity to complexity, the children would be absolutely fabulous. He was the true magiterialist.

“Today, if we are going to bring the Fall back to the island,” he said, “we are going to need to do magic, which is I think, the only time immense powers of reason, skepticism, and analysis such as mine are not enough. I am of course, after the manner of Democritus, Diogenes, and all great cynics a materialist. But when you are able to combine the complexity of materialism with a discipline dealing in union, simplicity, and all other unrealities, you are capable of magic.”

Not being very familiar with the magic, balance theories, or magiterialism, I tried to prod him into surrendering more concrete details. “So what your saying then is the magician is a two headed amalgamation? With one mind a cynic and the other a mystic? Is that why the Egyptian magi went around with heads of wolves and crocodiles? I hope your not going to make me walk around with you crouched up on my head leering like a totem pole.”

Alfred though only sneered something about mockery and me taking him for an imitationist. He snappishly re-hooked his left canine in my belt-loop, securing his kinetic balance on the back of the moped and ending the conversation.

Down out of the mountains we coasted. Round curves and curves as the bright Aegean Sea opened up and twinkled out before us. For the first time I sensed the slightest haunting in the air of crispness or static. The trees leaned as if to listen for something, and wind rustled in the ditches. My jaws tightened, and little shivers flicked down across my back in waves. It wasn’t quite so good as fall, but was at least unmistakably the senility of summer. I glanced back to see if Alfred had felt anything, but his eyes were as glassy as the trifocals of a calculus professor.

We passed thin little yards and fences, with rhombus shaped gates to fit the incline of the hill. The distances between the houses got shorter, and the walls between them taller. Macadam road gave away to cobblestone, and low mortar and plaster walls to marble doorsteps. The heat changed again, from the clean heat of the slopes to the dusty and human heat of a city. I thought about feeling self conscious riding down through the mountain slope streets of Plomari with a medium sized yellow dog holding on against my belt loop by his teeth, but assumed these people had seen everything from the smaller of the horses to the larger of the mayors riding on along on the backseat of a motorbike.

The streets leveled out, the right angles straightened, and the steps we had had to bump down flattened into shallow drainage troughs. We dipped out to the sea front, and followed the road along the dock lines. Alfred unclenched his teeth from my belt loop, and sat up far straighter and poised than I had thought him capable. He would cock his head out and toward the side trying to see out below my arm and yell out things like “Stop!” and “Turn left!”.

We carried up over a small hill, and at every split time took the street closest to the sea. The street soon opened up into a highway, as the terrain heightened into cliffs and the sea dropped away below us. Farther and farther it fell, down tumbling mountain sides and sheer rock falls. The huge sea turned assure blue with all the atmosphere, and the horizon slung out so far away the sky really did fall into it so far that you really couldn’t tell which from which. All out ahead you could see the road stretching along the bottom side of the island disappearing behind a mountain jutting its leggs out into the sea. Craggy rock faces climbed above us, and tumbled out below. We were on the side of cliff face, with all the sun and sea shouting after us in laughter.

Then to our right, there was a recess between the road and the cliff-face, and above it, about the height of two men, was an ancient cross of dull red marble cut into the green limestone. Immediately after, the limestone cliff above us fell away into the side of a terraced dirt hill, and up the hill a road a staggered in zig-zags, terraced on either side with ancient stonework. “Up there!” said Alfred, “Is where we’re going.” I gunned the engine and climbed to the first zag before slowing to a crawl around the steep, hard-angled turn. As the engine muttered in its lowest gear, Sir Alfred leaped off, and bounded up ahead, scrabbling around the hair pins. “We’re meeting an old friend of mine,” he shouted over his shoulder, “An old Orthodox hermit who taught me my English.”

Alfred turned around at the next corner which had slightly less pitch than a barn roof, and stopped me. “He was born I think in Albania. Greek parents. They named him Hermogenes. He went to school though at Cambridge. After Cambridge he somehow ran afoul of Hermes, the old Greek god of knowledge, while trying to influence the philosophy department at the Academy of Athens. Hermes enlisted the help a few Furries, and an old Arai disguised as a bohemian intellectual to entrap Hermogenes and curse him to know everything there is to be known. Poor Hermogenes’ ambitions and manners practically crumpled under all that weight, and he spent seven years in the Pindus Mountains of Macedonia begging to be able to forget some things and relieve the weight of his curse. Eventually Eleos the goddess of mercy found him and taught him how to make an Absinthe so pure that he when he drinks it he is able to forget nearly everything but what is relevant and near at hand. Though the Absinthe provides only a temporary absolution from knowing everything, Hermogenes can come back from his little oblivion refreshed and clarified enough to carry a nearly normal life. I hope he isn’t drunk when we find him. If so, all hope is lost, because we’ve got to find out from him where the seasons make their beds when they lay down to sleep.”

“Now the plan is this: He’ll want to start drinking the second we get there, he knows all to well the humiliating and terrifying affects of knowing everything. Especially in social situations. If he’s feeling well enough, if he’s not drunk on Absinthe but still carrying the latent clarity with him, he’ll be able to forget that he knows everything about us, and be able to ask polite questions. This is very difficult for him to do though, so he’ll do his best to treat us well as guests and get us all drunk on Absinthe as soon as possible.”

“Wonderful!” I said, struggling to keep my stalled moped from rolling back down the hill, “I’ve always wanted to taste Absinthe. And if Eleos gave it to him, it sounds like this guy has got the right recipe. Why, I don’t even know if you can buy real Absinthe with wormwood in it anymore anywhere on earth!”

Alfred convulsed exultantly and yapped “See! you’ll go and muff the whole thing up! We’ve got to keep him from drinking until we’ve asked him where the Fall sleeps in a normal enough manner that he doesn’t suspect why were asking. We’ll do it like this, I’ll hold him up for a while with a very difficult question dealing with the relationships between particle kinetics, temperature, and pressure. Then you’ll ask him something about writing poetry on the seasons, which he’ll answer probably in a manner of short simplicity which is due such subjects, and from there, you’ll say something offhand and vaguely poetic like ‘say, where does the fall make her bed when at the beginning of winter she lays down to sleep?’, he’ll know of course, if he hasn’t been drinking to recently of the Absinthe, and likely pop it out in the same manner of short simplicity before he has time to think of why we wonder.”

I looked at Alfred, and could not convince myself if what I was hearing was a deeper wisdom than most, or a deeper nonsense. I was though, for the first time convinced there really was something more going on than a long bike ride on a hot Aegean island.

On either side of the road stood gaunt olive trees, clearly as old as any, but rheumatic and undernourished. Eventually the road leveled out, and lead to three round stone huts, one of which was a little smaller than my studio in Panagouida, and two of which were very much smaller. I stopped the moped, kicked out its stand, and switched the engine off. Three goats under the heat-shade of a fuller olive wheezed pitiful puffs of dust and looked up sleepily. “Hermogenes!” barked Alfred, at the door of the studio-sized hut, head up straight, tail tucked against his leggs. From inside the grotto three good loud whacks issued, like a watermelon being punched by a featherweight boxer, followed by the unmistakable sound of a throat clearing. Out the door popped a leather chested old man with a white trailing beard, no shirt, and loose cotton-flax pants the color of sand. He was squinting and massaging his cheeks, but had eyes so bright you felt like it was you who should be the one squinting. He thumped his chest twice, and the watermelon sound came again, only softer this time. “HErmHERm, Ahh. Forgive me.” He said in a voice that sounded about like the color of his pants, “I’ve got to roust my voice out, its been sleeping so long I wouldn’t wonder if it has turned to bone. Hello, Hello! Alfred! It is you isn’t it? My oh my you’ve matured.” The old man stooped far lower than I would have thought possible, and majestically twice kissed Alfred’s ugly yellow face, once on each cheek. Alfred returned the kisses, and throughout the how exchange looked more dignified, more dog-like, and least like himself than I have ever seen him. The goats though, looked shocked, and baahed in an amiably disgruntled kind of way.

“And who is your friend?” Hermogenes turned to me, and looked me in the eye with eyes like starlight tossed on dark ocean. “Ah!” said Alfred, “He is a poet I found wandering around in Panaguoida. I’ve befriended him and am teaching him in the ways that you have taught me.”

“And what might those ways be I wonder?” said Hermogenes.

“Oh, too many ways to count!” said Alfred, “But summed up of course by the paradox which solves the problem in balance. Everything consists and is governed by near-balances and imbalances. And so for the virtuous soul, all of life must be balanced. Yet never in perfect balance, for in a perfect balance nothing can exist for each side is canceled out by the other. The only way then to live a perfectly balanced life, is to hold balance itself balanced with unbalance and allowing the possibility of each. Thus the only life which is really capable of balance is the one in which unbalance exists.”

“Yes too many ways to count! Or sum up. Which are, I suppose two different ways of trying to do the same thing.” Hermogenes shouted a series of rapid claps of laughter. And while he laughed the three goats lost all languor, struggled up to their feet sideways, and capered about doing their best to laugh as well. He hugged me like a mountain lion, and kissed me twice on both cheeks. Unlike Alfred though, I didn’t return the kisses. I would have if I had thought about it, but as it was I was to busy keeping eyes on those goats to make sure they didn’t try to kiss me as well. They didn’t quite, but I think they would have if they had thought about it. The one started nibbling complacently on my pocket, and the other on my shoe, while the third began rubbing the spot between her horns on my kneecap.

“Alfred!” Hermogenes shouted, “It is good of you to come back after all these years! I hope you haven’t lost your taste for Absinthe! I’ve been meaning to open a cask this month that’s been lying in herbs since years before the first time I met you. We shall remember the old times again!”

Alfred immediately looked worried. “Well, uh, herm, its still a little early to be drinking isn’t it?” I gaped at him, and was about to involuntarily revisit my last two beers he had for breakfast, but thankfully Hermogenes beat me to the sentiment.

“Nonsense!” He roared “It was never to early to drink for the Sir Alfred I knew! Why, what do you mean? It’s already a little bit after noon!”

Alfred looked even more uncomfortable, but then gave a show of appearing like he was giving in. There was no dog-honesty in his eyes, only childlike deviance. “Aged on herbs since before you met me?” He said in a wistful sort of voice, and his eyes changed again, holding now the full range of honesty, intelligence and deviance. “Well I would like to try some, for old times sake. And of course, for its own particular merits, but I was hoping we could enjoy your curse a little as well. We have some questions for you. You see, my friend here has been bellyaching to write a few odes to fall, don’t ask me why, but he can’t because so far summer hasn’t even expired yet enough for him to write its epitaph. He needs you to tell him the secret of writing well without ever meeting the external inspiration of a topic. You know, the art of writing love poetry without ever having met your lover. As for myself, I’m having difficulties reconciling the thermodynamic consquenses of the Ideal Gas Law with the consequenses to atomic kinetics. You know I haven’t got any authoritative sources down there in the wasteland of Panaguoida, and have to rely soley on memory for my facts, and solely on thought experiments for my hypotheses. You see, the equations for the kinetic results of the particles of a compressed gas cannot be derived from the results of the net change of the overall temperature of the gas, as predicted by Avagodro’s equations if Boyle’s Law and Charle’s Law really are different results of the same effect noticed by Avagondro. I’m now beginning to wonder…”

“Oh,” Interrupted Hermogenes, “That’s easy, you’ve only been approaching things in the wrong order. You can’t go from the Ideal Gas Law to the actual kinetic activity of particles. You’ve got to instead first make simplifying assumptions about the weight, type, and kinetic activities of the particles, and from there you can work your way to Ideal Gases. It doesn’t always work the other way. You’ve got to remember that simplifying assumptions have already been carried in one direction, and if you want to get back you’ve got to carry the same simplifying assumptions in the opposite direction. It’s simple, really, but I can understand how you arrived at your confusion.”

“Herm, but the question of poetry, now that is much more difficult. I’m not sure I’ve been quite sober long enough to get at something of that complexity the way I’d like to.”

Poor Alfred gaped at him like fish just told the surface of his pond was not the sky. His pride was so delicately wounded that even I could nearly read the entire story of his intents and desires from the contents of his face.

“Why what’s the problem?” said Hermogenes, his face obviously straining the effort of forgetting that he probably actually knew. “If you’d like me to, I could try to stay sober for the night, and maybe in the wee hours of the morning if we stay up in good conversation I’d be sober enough to remember everything I need to address the possibility of conduiting inspiration on topic without experiencing the topic or even including the topic itself.”

I understood Alfred’s problem. If Hermogenes got drunk now on Absinthe, he probably couldn’t tell us where the fall sleeps. If he stayed sober for too long though so that we could enjoy his curse, he would eventually remember what we were really up to despite himself. I wasn’t sure why this would be a problem, but obviously Alfred knew him better than me, so I supposed if he knew he would try to put a stop to us. On my end, I really did want to hear everything Hermogenes had to say about inspiration and poetry, but I also was desperate to bring back the fall. Also after our conversation on the hill, I was beginning to see that for Alfred this trip was not about bringing back the fall at all, but attempting to make use of what he called a simplistic soul to test his theories on the effective and “really fabulous” results of magiterialism.

“Ah, splendid!” cried Alfred in feline mal-ease still clearly at loss of what to do. “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his sanity for his friends!” He writhed minutely with effort of trying to come up with a revised plan.

Hermogenes saw this, and writhed majestically with the effort to remember to forget why Alfred was writhing. I wasn’t sure who looked the more uncomfortable. Hermogenes clearly was more the visibly distressed, but then and again Alfred always looked so uncomfortable that anything which could make him look this much worse than normal must have been agitation indeed.

Out of a fissure in this tension, somewhere above and over to the left of my eyes there was a quarter instant of simplifying bright green flash like the Muse, and without planning to I blurted, “But couldn’t you just tell me where the Fall lies down at the beginning of winter to sleep? It is about the end of September after all, maybe I could just wake her and write about the Fall herself rather than just some inspiration about her. That would be so much easier, so much more real than just talking about it.”

Alfred looked horrified, but not Hermogenes. “Splendid idea!” he roared. “Why! What a flash of simplicity! That’s what you wanted all along isn’t it!” He looked hard at both Alfred and me with a very disconcerting eye on each. The dark water beneath the starlight in his eyes went from fierce stillness to hilarious rippling. He laughed and laughed at us, with more good humor than all the sun and wind. “You should have just told me in the first place, rather than trying to confuse me with all that complexity, poetry and chemistry. Why that was about has conflicted as I’ve been since before Heleos gave me Absinthe! The place that the Fall sleeps in not far from here at all, in fact, it’s on this same mountain just on different legg, the one that juts out into the sea. There are four caves there in a cliff face where the four Seasons either sleep, or do not sleep. I’ll even go with you to make sure you find the way.”

Sir Alfred’s poor face was so convoluted I could no longer read any of it, but I took courage in that everything seemed to be going alright.

“Wonderful!” I said, “Now that that’s all been taken care of and gotten out of the way, could we uh, partake in the drink of Heleos, Hermogenes, and the Muse?”

“Of course!” Hermogenes grinned delightedly and respectfully, “That is, if you’ve had enough time to enjoy my curse, Alfred?”

Alfred grinned too, almost as amiably as the goats, and muttered something very confusedly about no greater love, but it was blurred by sensuous licking of his chops.

Hermogenes rushed about like a beaver at a dam break and laying down a tired piece of linen on an ancient smooth slabbed table under one of the taller olives, bringing out curious carved stone bowls, fetching a wonderfully large cask out of one of the smaller huts. He set the bowls and cask down ontop the linen, went back in for a dipper and second cask filled with cold water. With a small drill he pushed a hole near the top of the cask, and neatly set in it and corked a small tube. He then inverted the cask, and drilled a new whole in what was now the top. Carefully he held each one of the stone bowls in turn beneath the spout and undid the cork. Instantly the air briskened with the scents of the acids and oils of thousand herbs. A slightly lucent green vapor wafted from each of the bowls. From the second barrel he ladled a dipper of clear water into each bowl of spirits. Hermogenes handed a bowl to Alfred and I, and we three sat down cupping our bowls and staring at one another over the rims, Alfred completely at ease in the gymnastics of sitting upright upon a keg and holding a stone bowl between dog paws. Clearly, he had been here before.

“Drink!” cried Hermogenes, and started sipping his with immense pleasure, like a good tea at the optimum temperature. Alfred lifted his bowl above his upturned nose and did a waterfall, his throat bulging and swallowing hedonistically. I held mine very close to my face, looking down into it and drenching my brain and sinuses in the upturned worlds of scent. “In this Absinthe,” said Hermogenes, “is the distilled essence of every virtuous herb in the western world. I have gone beyond wormwood, fennel and anise, Heleos showed me the way, I have left nothing out.” The verdant color, the lucent vapor, the heady scent, themselves were enough to hold me; I wanted to sit and smell my bowl forever. I let them go and allowed myself to more, setting the bowl to my lips, spilling it into my mouth, swallowing, accepting, letting it trickle down within me to my stomach, the region of the body ancient Greeks believed to be the seat of emotions. It tasted like star spice and earth’s milk, cool, musky, and potent beyond belief. My body rippled with the sensation of taking it in, my senses unfurled like a blossom in fast-forward, and my entire consciousness felt as clear and green as Eden.

“It won’t have the same effect on you as it has on me,” Hermogenes was saying. “For myself, it eases the terrible weight of my curse, and allows me to forget nearly everything but what is immediately at hand and those things relevant to the moment. It’s hard telling what it will do for you. For some people, the Absinthe is no different from another spirit, for some it is no different from water. Others pass into a green haze and speak only in horrible ionic tetrameters, remembering nothing they said when they return. Believe me, they are terrible to listen to.”

I tried to experiment with lining up an ionic tetrameter in my head, but had to give up beaten.

“Now for me,” Hermogenes said, “Like the true hedonists, the greatest pleasures are those of the mind. The surest pleasure is the clarity of partial oblivion, when I can set down my curse and forget the weight of near infinite knowledge. But within that pleasure, I have another great pleasure. The fleeting moments of natural learning that come sometimes when reading. If I have drunk of the Absinthe, and begin reading at a great pace, some times I can pick up enough speed that I am not only able to loose my knowledge of the extraneous, but also my knowledge of what is near at hand. At that moment, I have the immense pleasure of actually being able to learn things again before I know them.”

His majestic face slumped almost imperceptibly, and he looked down and then back up at me in the face. “But I’ve lived so long with the pleasures of the mind. I need something again to remind me of the pleasures of Life. If the strongest things are the unities that allow separate things to come together to one within them, like fibers to rope, chords to music, rules to chess, and members to a body, then it would follow that the greatest pleasures are not those of the mind or the body, and neither even of the soul. The strongest pleasures would be only those that interact with all three. The greatest pleasure would be that of life. If this life is the context for proving one way or another what a human is, then surely playing the drama out will reveal to us more about ourselves than will discussing our beliefs on the subject around a fire-side. If we are the stage writers and actors proving to a watching cosmos what it is that humanity is and does, we’d better watch out we don’t spend all our time arguing about the script. I’m going to throw the heart into the mix to, and go so far as to say the greatest pleasures are those of the body and mind together when they have accomplished in reality a belief of the heart about nature of the soul. Or when the soul, the heart, the mind, the body have all communicated and agreed together as the result of a metaphysical and nonabstract conjunction. That’s why, of course, the greatest of these is love. Love is one thing that does not leave any realm of reality untouched. It arises as either a call or a response withing the soul, gains intensity from the heart, direction from the mind, and physical reciprocation in the body. Love is binding yourself together in the only way which makes sense of a cup of cold water, every preceding impulse which delivered it, and the entire dialectical history of cause and effect that resulted in the water, the cup, and a thirsty person.”

“I’m skeptical”, Sir Alfred said, in a blasé tone of voice that made both me and Hermogenes shout with laughter. “You had me lost until the dialectical history of cause and effect. Thanks for tossing me in that little life-saver, I’ll do my best to cling to it and get safely through without drowning in your sea of unions and simplicities. I’m a fan of love too of course,” Alfred held out his bowl like a thirsty person, “But you can skip the water.”

“A great point! The greatest pleasures are not only unions but simplicities,” cried Hermogenes, “Or least they must be remembered and counted upon only as simplicities. Even on the greatest pleasures and especially on them we cannot hinge the weight of complexity. Take this Absinthe,” Hermogenes uncorked a green stream of Absinthe into Sir Alfred’s bowl, and handed it back to him straight, “It is an immense pleasure because in interacts with not only your body, but also your soul and your mind. Yet it cannot deliver to you anything that is not already within in you, and should not be counted on to do so. It may take some things away, like your constraint of nearly infinite knowledge or your ability to speak in anything but ionic tetrameter, but it will not bare the weight any final absolution. The great pleasures of simplicity and union must be respected, and not violated, for they are squandered if not entered into rightly or if they are allowed to interact only with one part of the human. Everything must be included.

“And that is why,” he said leaping up and knocking both his knees on the edge of the table, “Adventure also is so intoxicating. It appeals to every part of you, your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body. Not one of those is an adequate instrument with which to understand reality. But all together? We can maybe get close!” He dodged back and forth between us and the hut, ladling us all another bowl of Absinthe, re-corking it, and carrying everything back within the grotto. He strode about very animated and bustling, bringing out and putting on shoes, locating a walking stick, and instructing the goats on what they should do when he was gone. I thought that beyond gestalts, simplicities and true hedonism, or well, perhaps because of them, he was clearly very excited to have something to go out and do. I’m sure it had been just him, his goats, his books and his Absinthe for far too long.

Thinking about gestalts, I again remembered that dream I had the night before. Its emotions haunted me, and I realized they were the same emotions I had heard in what Hermogenes said about unities. I felt the dream again, myself and somehow also a bird more blue than the deepest skies flying below endlessly layered skyscapes of vivid September, swirling up and up in heights of color. Below us was the grayest gray of worlds, that we knew was there, and somehow flew in and above at the same time but without ever seeing it. For our eyes were somehow only upwards, and we flew between, singing with everything our flight. Maybe everything around was dying, but if so, then the death itself was only a shout of life. I ached with the memory.

I saw then with wakefulness, how primitive I was, how spiritually unevolved and soulishly primevial. If for Alfred going to wake the Fall meant only a chance test his theories of magiterialism and do magic by merging his complexity with simplicity, then for me it meant only an attempt to find emotional completion by hinging the weight of meaning and complexity upon experience. For both of us, the trip was an attempt to make our dreams come true. Both a wonderful and dangerous thing if either we should fail or succeed. After you’ve thought of everything, or thought of nothing, and located your dream, to truly succeed, you must then delocate it, and carry on anyway, without thought of whether or not it can come true. Everything that is sought for itself will turn to dust, and everything must be sought in the context of something greater. Love is a faith that is kept through the cycle of mystery, reason, and mystery again.

I wanted to say all this to Alfred, but he and Hermogenes were in an absolute frolic of setting about a departure. They had nothing left to do for themselves but leave, so of course they joyfully prodded me into motion, Hermogenes jerking me up by the hand, and Alfred exuberantly biting at my ankles. I was glad the goats were busy closing up the little stone huts, or I’m sure they would have been charging me too.

The three of us set off capering out the lane and down the zig zag trail. Alfred doing hilarious acrobatics and Hermogenes sliding sideways on a long spill of loose gravel, trailing his walking stick down behind him as a ballast. We reached the road, and lit into a dead sprint for as many yards as we could take. I was surprised to find I had less breath than either Alfred or Hermogenes, and lagged out early into a walk, wracked with breath, and dust, and life.

We reached the place where the road turned in against the mountain, and its great leg jutted down into the sea. We clambered down off the road, and into a ravine that should have been damp with a vague trickle of water, but was only hard burnt stone and dust. We lowered ourselves down the incline, sometimes having to balance in the narrow places between rocks. Alfred had the hardest time, since he was the shortest, and sometimes had to go far out on the ridge to our left and pick his way through the brush and hillside to climb back down and meet us. To our right the ravine reared up steeply into cliff, and the rock gave way from granites and sand stones completely to a black ingenious rock formation, worn and ancient. Weird crystal formations wove tight patterns through fissures in the rock. In a near-chimney between two formations were worn bracing holds, embedded into the rock.

“Herm, here we are,” Grunted Hermogenes. “I’d better go first in case of any surprises.” He tied the leather thong on his walking stick to his belt, and started climbing. Alfred was picking his way toward us around fir trees and hard fire-loving vegetation. I just reaching up my hands and feet for the first holds, when Hermogenes turned and looked back down on me from about ten or fifteen feet. “You better give Sir Alfred a ride up, he won’t be wide enough to span the foot holds.” Remembering our ride on the moped, the dryer parts of my heart blanched a little, but I crouched down and said. “Up you get!” I had expected Alfred to somehow cling on like a back pack, but no such luck. In a bound he lurched up on top of my shoulders and sat on his haunches, wrapping his fore-paws around my fore-head, his chin looking out over my face and his body draped down the back of my head. I saw an image of what we must look like, and collapsed against the side of the wall groaning in laughter. “You know what we look like?” I said, “An Egyptian magi in an ugly yellow dog mask.”

Alfred yelped and twisted to keep from being crushed against the wall. “Who cares! I told you, I’m not an imitationist! I’m a pragmatist! Quit trying to laugh me off your head and get me higher!”

Sputtering and complaining, I made my way up the chimney, finding it surprisingly easy to climb, even with 35 five pounds of ugly medium sized yellow dog on my neck. We caught up with Hermogenes on a ledge that was accessible from the chimney, and followed him out along it till it terminated in a knobby boulder above which another chimney rose, but steeper and spiral cased. Hermogenes lept with the agility of a goat, and landed on the boulder, his hands in the first holds of the chimney. I braced myself at the edge of the ledge, and tried think how I would get both Alfred and myself across onto the boulder. With the extra weight on my head, it would certainly take some sort of at least strategic if not philosophical balancing. “Alfred, I’m going to crouch down to jump, but a second before I jump you need to, and convert your potential energy to kinetic energy so your inertia doesn’t way me down. I’ll complete my crouch as you jump and spring back from your recoil and we’ll both make it across.” I swallowed hard, and felt Alfred swallowing hard to, deep with his diaphragm all the way down the back of my head.

“I see what your saying,” He said, “Every one of us must be his own leader. Even if we can help eachother out. Ok, I’m jumping, one, two, three. Crouch. Juh”

“Jump!” Alfred jumped. I jumped up in behind and overtaking his jump. We reeled onto the boulder, as I caught us in controlled fall against one of the hand holds of the chimney. Hermogenes was again far above us, and I climbed up the spiral as quickly as I could, wheezing with exertion, sweat, and dog hair. This climb was much more difficult than the last one, and Alfred began to smell faintly like fear as my muscles strained and pulled. Finally the chimney opened up into the shallow knob of a hill, and just over it a plateau where Hermogenes waited for us, radiant with joy and sweat. “You see through those fir trees where the cliff begins to rise again? In there are the four caves in which the four Seasons sleep.” I looked where he was pointing, and through the trees made out the opening of cave. All my skin crawled at the sight of it, and I thought the back of my neck was actually crawling off until I realized it was just Alfred. I shivered involuntarily three times, each one feeling almost like it was a sneeze.

We crept forward through the trees, all three of us unnecessarily hushed and careful. Four caves lay ahead of us, spaced out along the cliff wall. “Which cave is the Fall’s?” Alfred asked Hermogenes.

Hermogenes inched closer, “Herm, it’s the second I think. Yes, it goes backwards from here, Winter, Fall, Summer, and Spring all the way down where the cliff falls into the sea. I’ll go on and poke my nose in and do some reconnaissance. You two better wait here.”

Hermogenes stopped at the mouth of a the first cave, and listened. We couldn’t help ourselves, but crept along behind him and listened as well. From inside there came the sound of a vast snoring. Hermogenes winked back at us, and mouthed something about Winter snoring and hibernation. He paused listening at the second cave, peering in for only a moment, before walking around it and going up to the third.

Alfred opened his mouth, and shut it again, looking very foolish and important. “Now here’s the plan,” he confided to me, “We won’t need Hermogenes from here. I’ll join the side of simplicity by quoting an ancient and cryptic ode to the Fall, while you join yourself to the side of complexity by reciting the formulas for atmospheric pressure and temperature changes on the first meteorological day of Fall. So you don’t mess up, I’ll write the formulas in that patch of loose sand at the mouth of the cave, and you speak them as I write. We’ll take turns, I’ll write a formula, then as you spout it out and erase it while I spout out a stanza and write you another formula. We’ll be sure to wake the Fall with that delicately complete balance of complexity and simplicity. Why, with such magic, we may even conjure the Muse!”

Rows of objections lined up in my mind. “But you don’t even believe in the Muse! And even if you wrote out the formulas I still would never be able to read the math parts of them, even if I could the Greek and English!” Horrified at trying to conjure the Muse with ancient verse and barometric pressures, and remembering the flash I had seen at Hermogenes’ house, “You’ll never conjure the Muse like that,” I blurted, “For all you know the Muse is conjuring us!”

“Then pay the Muse no mind!” Barked Alfred, paying me no mind. “I’ll just start us off with a little incantation of initiation, explaining to ourselves and the Universe why we are here, and warming up the side of my simplicity with a little poetic exercise. I’d suggest you do a little exercise to, why not go through the times tables?” He said his voice dripping horridly with everything I’d know better when I was older.

His face contorted, and his eyes rolled back in an expression that might have been ecstatic if it hadn’t been so ghastly. With an impossibly forced enunciation of meter, he stilted out,

“Today we join duality

a dog and man, best company.

Complex and simple

the firmament wrinkle

and bend apart normality

To find a…..

He was interrupted by a terrible eruption from the third cave. A huge gaunt wraith of an old man, clearly senile and see-through, was beating at Hermogenes at the mouth of the cave, trying to take away his staff in a flutter of flapping skin and swirling dust.

“Compose yourself Summer!” shouted Hermogenes desperately, “Its just me! Hermogenes! You used to come by my place sometimes at the end of spring when you had just woken up disguised as a goat buyer to find out from me the news of the world that had happened while you slept!”

Alfred and I rushed up on the pair, one of us bearing his teeth, and the other going into a boxing stance. We held our poses right up the edge of the whirlwind of old men, where we stopped and looked at eachother awkwardly. Alfred dropping out of his boxing stance onto all fours, and me unbearing my teeth.

Before we could take up our rightful and effective positions of attack, the Summer let go of Hermogenes, slumped into ash-grey folds through which you could see the rock behind him, and squinted at him. “Hermogenes? Why I thought you were another pesky geologist come poking around in the caves looking for crystals.” He stopped, “Well now I know who you are, but how did do you know who I was?”

“Hermogenes knows everything!” Snarled Alfred.

“Except when I’ve had Absinthe,” Laughed Hermogenes, “Then I’m blessed to forget most things but what are at hand.”

“You know everything?” Said the Summer looking closely at Hermogenes. “Would you know how to fix the Fall’s alarm clock? She can’t wake up without it, and I can’t wake her! I must be asleep when she wakes up, or she’ll be frightfully angry.”

“Of course!” Said Hermogenes, “I still know everything that is near at hand, and without the terrible weight of all the rest of my knowledge, I can actually put my knowledge at hand to use! But what’s wrong with the Fall’s alarm clock?”

The Summer looked decrepitly embarrassed, and turned into the cave so we couldn’t see his face. “Right this way,” he said, “It’s all in my front room, I’ve just about gotten it back together. You see, I disabled it a week or two ago because I wasn’t quite ready to go to bed yet, and I haven’t been able to quite get it running again properly.”

We rounded the corner, and all across the floor was strewn heaps of crystals and cut rocks, levers and shafts and cogs. Basins of distilled herbs bubbling vaguely, and pots of mastic resin I assumed were to hold the whole thing together. In the center of the floor, stood a gaunt skeleton of thin rock pillars and trellis work of smooth wood, oozing resin and crystals.

Hermogenes gaped at the wreckage, horrified. I pushed at a crystal shaft the width of my wrist with my foot, and sighed. Even with Hermogenes’ complete knowledge of things near at hand, the Summer had made such a mess of the alarm clock, I was sure it would take days to set the thing aright. The summer squatting down and creaking and fidgeting, picking things up and setting them back down again and muttering to himself.

Alfred though, was the only one unperturbed. “Ah!” He cried ecstatically, vastly comfortable in the stew of complexity and barely capable of keeping himself from getting down and rolling in the pile of loose springs and crystals. “Timekeeping!” He yipped, “That wonderful past time of the orderly Universe! I tell you gentlemen, here lies true beauty, asleep at our feet, waiting for us to awaken her! Oh the complexity! The disparity! Order! Discipline! Function!” He shrieked, and began picking up pieces too, muttering, growling gently, organizing things into neat piles and rows.

Hermogenes attacked the squat little monster in the center of the floor directly, dismantling and rearranging. “Herm, this won’t work. That’s not going to do. Better take this off and save it to put over there.”

At first the Summer tried to help, but his fingers were arthritic and so vaguely material that things would keep slipping through them and he couldn’t get a grip on anything. I thought it looked like Sir Alfred and Hermogenes we’re making good progress on their own, and I new I wouldn’t be of any help, so I walked outside and sat down in the sun at the mouth of the cave. The scrub firs and cypress were stirring indefinitely in the near-stillness of the air off the sea. I looked out at the Aegean, seeing the faint outline of the mountains of Turkey off in the east, the expanses of blue, the vast blocks of gold that had fallen off the afternoon sun and into the sea. I looked back over the day, and it seemed to stretched out for miles and miles farther even the horizon. I was pleasantly horrified by how far away was the morning, and how much life had happened in between.

Over the next half hour, I kept going back in to see how Alfred and Hermogenes were getting along with the alarm clock. They were making progress, as far as I could tell, but still to busy and excited to pay any attention to me, which I thought was a good thing. The Summer hovered over them, fluttering and drooping, utterly exhausted from having guests in his home cleaning things up and putting things to rights.

In another half hour, I dozing blissfully in the sun, when I woke up with Hermogenes leaning over and shaking me, saying “Hurry up! Hurry up!” bobbing around and flapping his wispy white beard. “We finished the alarm clock, and set it to go off in fifteen minutes! Come help me carry it into the cave of the Fall!”

I leaped up and rushed inside where Sir Alfred and the Summer were scrabbling with the alarm clock, trying to push it toward the door of the cave. It was set on a thick round base of dark ancient wood, with thin stone columns and a second circle of wood on top. Its basic outline reminded me of an hourglass, but between the columns was a riot of kaleidoscopic carnival that made my eyes hurt. Canisters of ferment bubbled, crystals twinkled and twitched, cambers pulsed feebly. The thing looked fine enough, but was brutishly heavy. Hermogenes and I carried it out into the sunshine, squinting in the minute glares of a hundred crystals, and over to the mouth of the second cave. We crept into the mouth of the Fall’s cave, weirdly quite and self-aware, trying to breath quietly and avoid looking eachother in the eye. “Here, here,” Said the Summer pointing to a corner in a front room of the cave very much like his own. Grunting gently, Hermogenes and I set down the massive clock, and backed away toward the entrance. I looked back into the gloom of the cave, and the back of my neck really did crawl off and went scuttling away across the floor crab-like, trying to get back outside of the cave.

In the rear of the cave there was a hum of static and electricity, particles accelerating and bouncing off one another, free electrons sizzling about in the air. Waves of chills came over me with more life than the hottest day in July, I knew in the back of the cave, lay the Fall, poised in her sleep, wound down like spring and gathering strength like a dawn held back by a dam of climbing mountains. With all the spare energy in the room, with and the edgeness, with all that was about to happen, the clock began to pick up speed. The fermentations bubbled faster and faster, the crystals creaked and ricocheted against their casings, the cogs ticked and the cambers whirred. I fled out of the cave, where the poor old Summer was torn between effusively thanking Hermogenes and Alfred and darting back to his cave. He looked up at me with blank terror, rushing out of the cave with my face crawling and hair sizzling on end. “The Fall’s coming!” He and I shouted together. The Summer made a dash for his cave, with little bits of ash and skin blowing off him in the sudden wind that had gathered, fierce and bright. He turned at the mouth of his cave, quavering, terrified. “Goodnight!” he screeched, and plunged headlong into his long-due rest and peace and darkness.

“That clocks about to go.” I yelled tripping over Alfred and catching myself on Hermogenes. “Nonsense,” said Alfred, picking up the back of my neck quivering behind a rock, brushing it off and handing it to me. “I calibrated the alarm mechanisms myself, and they aren’t due to go off for another seven minutes. My count.”

“You’re right,” said Hermogenes peering into the cave, there is Something waking up in there. Why I think the Fall was so overdue that she is nearly awake already, more awake, in fact that her Alarm clock, since it is so far behind. I think she is waking it up, and the two will go off together. She’s so late now that she will wake up at the earliest possible moment, and is even now exerting her energy on that clock, moving it as well to go off at the earliest possible moment so that she can awake.”

“Poor old Summer when she does,” snickered Alfred, “I do hope he’s aslee…”

There was a green explosion. Crystals and bits of the alarm clock whistled passed us out of the cave. Thin smoke spewed from the cave like steam, drab grey, and vivid orange. The Fall burst from the tomb, endlessly old with all the years of her turning, yet endlessly young in her birth, and with all the edge of her waiting. Her hair was as black as the dress on death’s grandmother at his funeral, and liquid lithe with a keen dying life of its own. Her aura filled the air like the wings of a phoenix arising from the ashes of a five-hundred year pyre. Her mantel was thin wool, a flight of migrant birds. Her dress was sweeping linen, all the leaves of Autumn. Her very skin bristled with the crackling life of changing colors, of dying embers, of conversations far to full to be remembered.

All this was a blur of motion, upward, outward, seeming to fill the earth. For a moment, a sacred second, the Fall paused and cast her radiance of glorious face and rising eye upon us. And everything within me rose up, fell down, cried out, was silent. But she was gone, in a flight of brilliance, swirling the sky into a collage of wind and color above us.

In silence, we three adventures numbly left the edge of the cave, and in silence climbed back down the way we had came. Alfred once again rode down on my head, and this time I barely noticed him. Still not speaking, we hiked out of the ravine, and up to the road, where we only flicked little glances at one another’s eyes, to see again if the others really understood, if they to had seen the Fall, and were ensconced as well in wonder. We trudged to the east, and back up the hill toward Hermogenes’ dwelling, every atom electrified, and our souls in the ache of world-weariness. And above us, weird wings of migrant birds chanted the haunting trail of their spells.

Outside Hermogenes’ stone huts we parted. Hermogenes bent long, wrapping his leathery arms around Alfred’s scraggly yellow neck. He kissed Alfred on both cheeks, then stood up and kissed me. We looked long into eachother’s faces, our eyes remembering everything between us, everything that we had seen and said.

I turned away, and walked the moped out the lane and down the hill, hands on both brakes. Alfred walked beside me, slow, knightlike, dignified. At the last slope of the hill, I let go the brakes, and kickstarted on the downgrade, waiting at the bottom for Alfred to climb on behind me and batten his canines into my beltloop. He hopped up, and we wobbled out onto the road heading north-east, all the air and sky above us sizzling with the color and spell of Autumn, in front of us Plomari and the mountains, and behind us the dear old sun, dying naked in the West.

A Very Boring Bit about Faith, Hope, and Dreams You Probably Shouldn’t Read, an Altar Call, and an Amen Corner.

I began considering myself an adult sometime last October. When it came, it certainly wasn’t the quasi-death or frightful ending of all passions I thought it might be, but much more boring and acceptable than all that. It came only as a sort of quieting, like a nation about to go into war actually sitting down and planning for real after the first hullabaloos of declarations and excitement were over. Before this, I had certainly been doing many adult-like things, but still deeply considered myself a kid, in an almost sacred sort of way. This is the only thing that has changed, even though I still do many kid-like things, and I hope to heaven that it never changes. Relatedly, I dislike the word adult as much as I ever did before, and am still convinced it has baboonish connotations, like dad, heathen, or sales representative.
One of the defining characteristics or dilemmas of the last five or six years of my kidhood, I think, has been the constant and often unconscious pursuit of motivation. A restless search for stimulation asking, what is purpose, and how do you find it? Life has a tangible purpose when you are able to want something, realize you want it, and take immediate steps to achieve it. What are the contexts in which this process is possible? What chosen external, or internal stimuli are able to get you into productive motion? Motivation is important for a very obvious reason: without it, we achieve nothing. And we all feel the need to achieve something, if for no other reason then at least in order to validate our existence as individuals.

The lack of motivation really isn’t its opposite, but sort of a negated state, or void, which in its own way can be motivant to pursue motivation. God knows I’ve wasted enough time, lying flat on the bed or in games of energy conservation. I’ve always said that I’m passionately lazy, and despite shocked looks and shook heads from everyone I say that too, it’s impossible for me to quite believe it untrue. But I’m also passionate about something else. I’m passionately in search for motivation, in search for routes to completely circumvent the laziness, and land me purposefully engaged in some productive outlet on the other side. The discourse between my dual passions, is really paradoxical, and yet I believe almost a model for understanding and reconciling paradox. The two sides though warring, are built for each other, in spite of, or even by virtue of their antagonism. The commitment to laziness, is really a commitment to nothing but true inspiration. The commitment to motivation is shown as often by avoidance of banal exertion and responsibility as it is shown by engagement with worthwhile motivation.
The whole search, I think, is one of the adult like things that I’ve been doing since even the prehistoric stages of kidhood, and it’s also a search I’ll never complete. The point will never arrive at which I will have generated or received enough motivation to achieve something final enough to somehow validate my existence. I always hope that there will come a time in which I am more motivated than I am now, and while I’m sure that times like that will come, I’m also sure that they will go. I need to do more though than scrap for every ounce of motivation or inspiration in every moment. I need to plan for the long run, delay the satisfaction (i.e. motivation) and move toward contexts and relationships which will deliver worthwhile motivations toward worthwhile ends over a time frame longer than the 140 character tweet, or even the new and improved 280 character. This shift of commitments, from the short to the long term, is I think, the major element comprising the shift of how I view myself, from kid to adult.

Did you dream as a kid? I don’t think I did. At least not in the plans and dreams sense, or what do you want to do when you grow up. Plans, dreams, and ambitions are useless to a seven year old. Bragging rights our nearly useless too. I think I was far too primeval as a seven year old to have any use for self-actualization or society beyond the actuality and society of the creek, the woods, or legos. I do remember hiding below the barn, or across the road in order to do nothing but sit and think, but I still wouldn’t consider this dreaming, except maybe the day kind. Even up through the rest of my kidhood, into and past the end of my teens, I didn’t need to dream. I had no use for it. I simply did what I wanted to, without having to focus my energy and generate some kind of contentment based off of a constructed future reality. Basically, why dream, when you can do? Sure, maybe some elements of your current life are as rotten as a hard boiled egg and broken glass soup, but focusing on some possible but nonexistent future won’t make any of it go away. My point is, although for some reason hopes and dreams are a staple of human existence, until recently I could see no use for them.

There are many upsides to living spontaneously in every moment. But it is hard to support an ethical framework in a solely spontaneous existence without a reference point fixed somewhere which to work towards. Perhaps what first began to shift my thinking from exclusively in the moment to also include futurity, was in an ethics class where I met a book that probably gave me more good theology than ethics. In The Moral Quest, Stanley Grenz presents and shows the strengths and weaknesses of every major ethical framework. Finally, he puts forth a teleological, or “end purpose” framework for ethics, and argues that this is the only one which is philosophically sound. Basically, he says, the reason we are to do good, is because good leads to good, and there is a time coming (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) in which only good will be done. What we do now is a way of bringing that about, and has meaning only in its context.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about redemption, and some of the things that might entail. Unless you assume that a moment which you occupy fully, or in an attempt to do so allow to fully occupy you, is somehow self-containedly culminating and validating of your existence, you’ve got to assume every moment becomes meaningful or meaningless in its context to some sort of progression defined by the higher, Divine form which both upholds and evaluates it. If there is a redemption coming every moment has meaning only its context. If there is not a redemption coming, the moment is meaningless beyond itself, making it meaningless in relation to you, and not worth even occupying or allowing it to occupy you. With regards to the moment then, as well as you, redemption is of course a good thing, as it has suddenly acquired a meaning

In this context of redemption, the future also acquires meaning, and is worth spending resources on. Resources such as time, energy, stimulation, inspiration, motivation, and so on could be invested in the future by arranging continued patterns in the present which deliver these resources in the future. I don’t think this is in anyway invalidating to the moment though, as it is a direct consequence of the same process which brought the meaning of the moment from a zero to one state.

If I seem suspicious of devaluing the moment and relegating it off to the side, that’s because I am. Maybe I’m desperately trying to prove to myself that the gravel heaps of nearly senseless moments I bury every day under the river of time will somehow be worthwhile once I’m through them. I’ve been building steel walls in a huge concrete and steel cavern for the last three months of winter, and I feel like if I emerge in the springtime with only my lungs and not my soul also turned black and curling up at the edges I will have been lucky. I spend fifty hours a week in this cavern, pushing steel around, running self-tapping screws through it, and melting it together with weld. I suppose its in contexts like this that one has to dream. There’s no point in dreaming during the Renaissance, you can jolly well do. But if you’re in the dark ages, dreaming is important.

Hope is I guess a motivation, enabling you to stick out an unfavorable situation, because you’re convinced of what’s ahead. But it’s also an exterior anchoring point, preventing you from becoming content at any point along the way. Hope would be a traitor if it ever terminated in retirement, the ideal job, or a desirable relationship and did leave you completely satisfied. It’s hope that finally dies into the reality of redemption that makes any single hope or moment before then worth ever having. Hope in this sense is a little different than dreams. You can have have dreams with out any sort of faith that they will come about, or in anything else, for that matter. But in the longview, this is still a hopeless state, a state which may have staved off the awareness of its hopelessness, but which is hopeless nevertheless. Though you can have dreams without faith, you can’t have hope without faith. You can have faith in all sorts of things, but it’s when you have faith in nothing that you become hopeless. I don’t think this works both ways though, as I’m pretty sure its possible to have incredibly stalwart, tenacious faith without hope so much as hovering nearby. Picture Job, for a major part of the book.

I still do my best to inhabit as many moments possible in the pea-gravel of the fifty-hour mudslide. On the best days I’m singing, freestylling, and preaching on that belligerent line somewhere between serious and sardonic. On the worst days I crawl into some tiny hole bellow my mind and shut the door, till a timeless eternity passes and the day inexplicably is over. Despite my exonerating philosophies, it is hard to dream in this context, and I’m still almost involuntarily suspect of any region of the brain given over to it. It still seems escapist and worm-holeish to lend mental energies or resources to any moment but the present. It’s still hard for me to unentangle hope from positivism, emotivism, sentimentality, and the other forms of escapism. Like the moral complex christian’s sometimes have of unentangling sex from lust, I probably have a complex separating hope from its perversion. Just because nostalgia is hope faced rearwards, doesn’t mean that hope faced forwards is at all a similar thing.

Hoping and dreaming are still two things that I don’t understand, but I am very interested in them, not only because they’ve been a staple of human survival, but also for how they play into and deliver on motivation. I know very well the philosophies and altar calls for living in the moment, and typically have a very positive emotional and functional response to them. But what about when the moment doesn’t seem worth living in even a little, much less fully? ‘I’m preaching to myself then’, and giving a philosophy and altar call to let hope into those moments, or at least hover nearby, in the well, hopes, that in the context of redemption they do somehow become worth living. In this sense then, I really am still committed to my moments, just allowing regions of myself to step outside of them, in an attempt to latch onto something that will redeem them, or at least make myself aware of the possibility of their redemption. This is not, i think, a betrayal of the moment. Its only, in a quite literal, (or philosophical) attempt to “redeem the [moments] because the days are evil.”  If you see any connections, if anything i said is ‘in need of correction,’ if you ‘feel blessed’, or for any other reason feel ‘called’ to give a testimony, the comment box is your amen corner.

Athens, Rome, & Ireland, and That Other Great Big Island off the Coast of France

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Sunset in Belfast

 

 

Athens:

Woke up on the night ferry at seven or something with the passengers trundling over me, and overhead speakers shrieking that we had landed. It seems like the few times in my life when I see sunrises, are in or around Greek ferries. I’m in favor of sunrises, honestly, its just that my schedule usually bypasses them. Under this particular sunrise, I walked the hideous kilometer or two across Piraeus from several ports away to the end of the Green Line. I wandered around below the city until emerging in Omonia Square, and stretching out my carcass in the morning sun. Granola bars and a cheese pie did me well for breakfast. I split the day up sitting an hour or two in Chikura Coffee, cruising around the subways, and charging through various Athenian ruins and markets and market ruins. At the end of the day or what I thought was its end, I eagerly metroed into the airport, and was about to check in at RyanAir when I discovered it was not the 22nd, as I had been supposing, but the only 21st. I was 24 hours early for my flight. I had been trudging about all day with everything I owned in the Eastern Hemisphere on my back. I have an enormous exterior frame military back pack, into the top of which I insert my regular sized backpack which serves as a laptop bag. I was dearly looking forward to checking my backpack, and being rid of the tired old thing at least until I got to Rome. No luck tonight. I bought a return bus ticket to the center of town the next day, as the metros were planning a strike, and settled down to sleep in the airport.

I slept hideously, as was to be expected, and at some despicable hour I dislodged myself from the steel bench, crawled beneath my pack, and lurched down to the bus. With the metro down, every Athenian and her cousin were with me on that bus. I wedged my pack between a seat and the wall, stuck my hands in my pockets, and gave up my personal space to invasion on every side by every sex and age. The bus ended at Syntagma, which was only slightly disappointing, since that was the square I had spent quite a bit of time at yesterday. I writhed in the sun a little, glowering at my pack, and then did the old “sit in a cafe for a couple hours” trick. Athens has an infinity of wonderful little coffee, cheese pie, and pastry shops, barely wide as a shipping container, but with spiral staircases in the back, and upstairs seating. I spent most of my Tuesday up hiding in the top of one of these.

Eventually though, I wandered back to Syntagma, and examined the weather. A group of teenage boys were practicing parkour on all the marble stairs and steps and balustrades and closed metro openings. I stacked my packs in protected visible place, changed from my boots to my converse, and after showing off with my break-dance repertoire, joined them rolling and jumping and ducking. After successfully scaling the wall above the metro, I struck a Willy Wonka pose and tried to hold it sliding down a giant marble balustrade. Unfortunately the balustrade was slanted away from its center as well as down hill, and half way down I abandoned my Wonka pose, transitioned through the wildly Springing Ape, and finished off with a Crumpled Umbrella on the marble ledge below. I leaped up immediately, insisting I was fine, and hopping about to distract myself from the frightful bruising on my left hip bone. I hobbled off to the bus station, grinning, damaged, and thoroughly happy.

On the way, I met the same tour guide shyster I had yesterday, a trim little old Greek with a good haircut, a face like the kindest cat you ever saw, and formidable grasp on the English language. Yesterday after failing to hook me on a custom guided tour, he tried to sell me conversation. Its not that he grasped an exceptionally large amount of English, its that he squeezed what he did have extraordinarily tightly. Every syllable came sighing out, a little relieved and broken, as if it had been under thumbscrews inside there. His technique was almost effective, letting go every word as if it really was worth Euros. I reached briskly back into my mind for his name, retrieved it, and said “Why hullo Jasper, how’s business today?” He blinked unsteadily, not quite recognizing me. “Ahah, its good to see you again in The City, how long have you been gone? It’s so good to see you back. Is there anywhere you would like to see? I know all the places. Is there anything else you plan on seeing on your trip?” “Only the airport,” I replied, which I believe was the same misinformation I had given him yesterday. I only hoped today it was true.

The bus out of Athens was idyllic. Sunlit, glowing, open windows, not too crowded. Greece is a nice place, but still leaving was still a wonderful thought. I read A Tale of Three Kings on the bus, a book by Gene Edwards I had been toting around for a while, and finally gotten to. It’s retelling of the story of Saul, David, and Absalom with a wonderful take on authority and submission that I would recommend to everyone.

Rome:

When I got to Rome, I had gained an hour, but things still felt like dark and bedtime. I had planned to sleep in the Ciampiano airport, but soon learned it closed at midnight. Apparently Italy shuts down with the sun. Restaurants close at seven, gas stations and bars at nine, and even the airport at midnight. Go to the Termini train station they said, it stays open all night. The sadists.

I bought a twelve euro roundtrip to Termini, which I didn’t think was a bad idea since it was in the center of town anyway. By the time I got to Termini, the paid potties were all ready closing, and although it was vast and beautiful, the whole thing didn’t look terribly promising. Pairs of soldiers carrying automatic weapons (butts up, muzzles down) stood at corners and patrolled the halls. I hiked around inside Termini for an hour, in all its many levels, terminals, and hallways, and found only one area near an entrance with raised public benches that looked hospitable for a weary traveler. They were smooth, hard marble benches, long and curved around some dried up fountains. I sat down in the narrow gap between the local homeless and the refugees, draped myself over my pack, draped my blanket over myself, and went to sleep. Around one o’clock or so, a trio of security guards came by and prodded us all awake. “The terminal’s closing,” they said, “Gotta move on.” The local homeless got up as one body, and headed for the all night McDonald’s; the refugees drifted away in a dozen directions. I stubbornly and forlornly shouldered my pack and went in search of some card board. I gathered several boxes, and laid them out in a narrow alcove under and overhanging side entrance to Termini. I dozed there until five, when the terminal opened again, and some kind young refugee invited me back inside. Once awakened and moved though, I couldn’t go back to sleep, and instead got on the subway, drifting around and popping up to ground level looking for a place to get a decent breakfast. My internal clock was set an hour later though than local time, so there really wasn’t much in the way that was open. I eventually stumbled into a croissant and coffee shop, and prepared to sit down, plug in, use wifi, and eat a big breakfast. “How much for a coffee and croissant?” I asked. “2.50,” the sadists replied. “Ok,” I said paying and going to sit down.” “Oh no!” the sadists cried, “it’s 7.50 if you want to use our seating area.” I stood.

Italy is a cold, hard place, especially to backpackers and refugees. I’m sure if you have plenty of money to spend the place is alright. I was about to give up my hope in humanity, or at least the Italian vector of it, when I discovered my first springing fountain. Apparently medieval Italy wasn’t quite as inhospitable as present day, and all over the city there are free-running water fountains, ready for the pilgrim and the stranger. This first one I found was a wolf’s head, and it filled my heart with joy as it filled my bottle with water.

Rome is a beautiful city to walk in though, and I walked a lot of it. Past statues, and fountains, past the Pantheon and dozens of remarkable cathedrals. My destination was St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. I made the mistake though of not entering the Vatican by the avenue Conciliazione, like the shepherd and the tourists do, but instead by another way. I wandered around through parking garages, elevators, bus terminals, gift shops, and labyrinths, before finally emerging through a little side door, and into the Vatican. I stood the security lines to St. Peter’s for perhaps an hour, walked passed the signs reading “No backpacks”, sent my backpack through the scanner three separate times, and entered the Basilica.

I love a good cathedral, the sense of awe, quietude, and grandeur that sort of seeps into you. On the other side, I’m well aware that in a broken world, heaping marble, granite, gold, and silver together in the shape of a temple is an awful use of resources. Of course God and our pursuit of Him is worthy for this sort of space and grandeur, and of course it would be better to worship him in providing solutions for the needy. The soul-ish, artistic side of me comes alive inside a good cathedral. But I know that for many, cathedrals have been signs of oppression. The anti-conformist side of me wants to shout, “This place is no different from any other greed-built monument to established human ambition!” I’m sure in the New Kingdom, when peace reigns, when wars are done, when every orphan is fed and every widow is clothed, we’ll build cathedrals to our hearts content. But is it justifiable in the meantime? I can only reconcile these two sides in my hope for redemption. Our best human attempts at worship (St. Peter’s Basilica) are flawed and broken. It’s only for redemption that our attempts have meaning at all. Even if a cathedral was conceived in pride and birthed in oppression, its beauty will still be redeemed. Though flawed, you can still enter into it’s beauty, enjoy and participate in it in a redeemed way.

As cathedrals go, the largest church in the world did not disappoint. Immediately upon entering, you are whelmed over by a great swelling sensation. Your sense of dimension is suddenly changed, and you feel as if you simultaneously both grew and shrank. I think you do a little of each. Everything you know about size and space just changes a little. It doesn’t seem that the place is really that large at all, until you look down toward the other end, and see the people dwindled by the distance. It doesn’t seem that the arches are really that tall, until you hear that the lettering atop them is in six foot font. Everywhere around you is a perfect garden of marble, of every color, the normal whites, and reds and granites, as well as spectacular oranges and yellows, and livid greens. Fantastic statues sat and stood in alcoves and on pillars everywhere as well. My favorite was the angelic faced cherubim roughly my size, but sixteen times my weight, fatter than Greek yogurt, with a face more patient than a cow and more beautiful than a woman. There were tons of popes as well, enthroned and ten feet tall. One pope sat on giant carved red marble blanket, with ghastly tarnished-gold skeleton crawling out from under him. This was my second favorite, and also where I’m pretty sure the american metal band Avenged Sevenfold got the idea for the skeleton king on their 2014 tour Hail To The King.

Ireland:

I flew into Dublin around my normal bedtime, went through customs, found a bench and bedded down. I woke up far to eager and early, and bused into town before anything was open. One kind bistro allowed me to sit in their hotel lobby and read the newspaper until they opened for breakfast. I made my acquaintance with the full Irish breakfast at that wonderful place, and read some pretty withering Irish critiques of Brexit. I made the breakfast and news paper last as long as possible, since it was still dark outside, still cold, and probably raining. When there was enough light outside to tell it wasn’t raining, I packed, paid up and shipped out.

There’s a little bit of bondage and commitment involved in tottering along under a backpack the size of mine. You’ve just doubled your size, and accordingly can’t quite go everywhere you’re accustomed too. The pace you can move and the spaces you can move into become limited. When you pop into a corner store just to look around, you can’t just turn around and go out again. You’ve got to look out over the old shoulder and back out, hoping you don’t trip over anybody. The first day backpacking, my shoulders hurt. The second day, it was my calves. The third my feet. The fourth day, I thought I had acclimated, but the fifth day in Dublin, my sternum started stretching apart. Writing this a week later, I’m fully acclimated, all except my sternum, whom I’ve come treat with care and respect.

From Dublin I bused down to Waterford where I was picked up Micah and Hannah whom I’d last seen in a rainstorm on Lesvos, and my wonderful step-grandmum Alice McGrath. I spent a delicious and quite necessary respite with them in Dunmore East at Alice’s place, called Quickentree House. My late grandfather William McGrath spent the last 20 years of his life here, riddling the place with trees and shrubs and hedges. In the back yard, he created a Ogham garden which is a circular grove corresponding to the ancient Ogham alphabet, complete with all twenty-five necessary species of tree and shrub. Of course, when William planted all this, things were quite small and manageable. Fifteen years later, however, the snarl is real.

I spent a few wonderful days at Quickentree, making friends with the cats, reading, lopping brush in the back yard, and feasting. During my stay, Alice made some wonderful creations, including two wholloping great shepherd’s pies, a lamb chop roast, and stuffed mushrooms about the size of young umbrellas. I’ll also say I cooked some decent breakfasts of white pudding and eggs with cheddar. This was much but not all. From the Mennonite run bakery Jabies: Your Local Market, we got delicious soda bread and mince pies. My fabulous friend Diane, the chief mince pie maker of south Ireland, cleverly designed some mince pies with so much butter in them that they fell apart, and then designated them for us Martins as unfit for sale. It pays, I’ve found, to have friends in the baking business.

I got to walk back the tree-lined road to St. John’s cemetery, the beautiful grave-garden church-yard where William McGrath is buried. In the evenings, we’d all sit around drinking tea, and listening to Micah and Alice reminisce about old comedies and war stories from the last half of William’s remarkable life. William had a powerful mind, and incredible social abilities. However, he suffered the last eight or so years of his life from severe dementia. The ability with which he hid this, and worked around it were apparently infuriating, comical, and delightful. I keep telling myself, that sometime, I must biograph this man.

After Dunmore East, I limped on through Cork and Limerick, gave up my plans for Galway for sake of time, and wound up spending a night again in Dublin. I jogged on to Belfast, that lovely cold grey place, saw a remarkable sunset, and hiked all over Port of Belfast looking for the Stena Line ferry over to England.

(The UK):

It was a night ferry, and so my ticket bought a place to sleep for the night as well as eight hours of transportation. Landing in Liverpool was underwhelming. I preferred the Port of Belfast to the Port of Liverpool, even though I dragged my backpack and aching carcass for literal miles over Belfast’s grimy landings. Paying two pounds for one stop on the metro line didn’t make me any happier, and the poor little Liverpool One bus stop barely had a spot to get out of the rain. It’s no wonder the Beatles did drugs, wrote escapist lyrics, and got up and went to America. I resisted picturing myself in boat on the river, but instead got up, took my broken wings and flew on to Oxford.

I had a bus layover in Birmingham, which I ended up liking well enough. Before I knew this however, I threw out my leaking dirty methane and Limburger cheese ensconced boots there, smugly but unfoundedly feeling like it was an insult. Birmingham turned out though to be charming enough. I wandered around St. Martin’s Market where I made a friend, bought a whiskey flask and filled it with chocolate milk, and ate a deliciously huge and meaty “breakfast bap” for just 2.50.

I got into Oxford about mid-afternoon, and promptly booked myself the cheapest room in the cheapest hostel, which was still about twice the price and half as nice as the Irish hostels. I spent rest of the day’s light wandering Oxford, climbing the ancient mound, and getting lost in the side streets. Eventually I ended up at the Eagle and Child, the legendary Oxford pub where the Inklings would spend their every Tuesday morning. The place was packed like a clown car. I had no plan as far as how long to stay, but was invited to sit on a stool near the fire, by a lone thirty-ish gentlemen in the corner. I was in the middle of writing a poem I had started in the street, so I paid most of my attention to my phone. He however, was conversational, well read, and had written several unpublished novels. Turns out he also was an Inklings fan, and here at the Eagle and Child because of them. I spent my entire evening there at the Bird and the Baby discussing literature and taking turns buying pints. He had read most of Tolkien, but left Lewis almost untouched. I convinced him to read Mere Christianity and the Problem of Pain, and he convinced me to read Proust and Zorba the Greek.

Next morning, I went to St. Mary Magdalene’s Anglican Church, and sat through a Anglican High Mass. The liturgy was the first Sunday of Advent, the air was thick with incense, and the choir was Oxford’s finest. After the service the little old ladies served tea and hobnobs, and the congregation was very friendly. In the tea line, I met Bethany S., a PhD fellow at Gresham College Oxford. When I mentioned I had been to the Eagle and Child, she said “oh, come along to lunch with us, we meet after church at the Lamb and Flag, the pub where the Inklings went after they were kicked out of the Eagle and Child for being poor customers. And by the way, I live at The Kilns, C. S. Lewis’ house. Would you like to come see it after lunch?” Neither of those invitations took any convincing.

After lunch, we stopped by Bethany’s office to pick up her work for the afternoon. We walked up to the door, and my mouth dropped. It read, “Alister McGrath,” and “Bethany S.”. “You share an office with Alister McGrath?” “Yeah,” she smiled. “He’s rarely here though, so I have it mostly to myself. But we teach together, alternating days. Apparently Bethany and Alister teach Religion & Science together, a study that builds on links between these two often disparate disciplines. (A quiet confession, I haven’t actually read any of Alister’s dozens of popular books, but after having been in his office, I plan to).

We got into Bethany’s car, which she named Strider, not after Strider himself, but after the little gray pony that Frodo named Strider, and drove just north of Oxford to Rising Hurst, the village where Lewis lived. Bethany took me proper tour-guide style through the Kilns room by room, leaving out no detail. When I had seen the houses every corner and aspect, excluding Bethany’s roommates rooms, I said my thankyous and goodbyes and wandered off along the nature trails behind the house where Lewis roamed. I passed through old growth and real forests, by beautiful ponds, under craggy trees, and through a lot of plain mud, singing and quite happy.

 

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“The Kilns”
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Lewis’s Study

 

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The kitchen, and Bethany S. Picture used with permission.

 

 

Sunday night I went to an international carols event at University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and heard some wonderful carols in German, English and Latin by some Oxford Choir or other. I can’t think of much else that happend in Oxford, besides a lot of urban tramping and this blogpost. I had dearly hoped to step on down from Oxford to Glastonbury, Amesbury, and Stonehenge, but even as it is, I’ll be just squeaking back into Dublin before my flight to JFK leaves on tuesday. This time to England I just hung in Oxford with the medievals, academics, and Christians. I’ll need to save meeting the ancient druids for another time. I’ve heard enough here though about Scotland, Glastonbury, and the stone circles, that I’ll be coming back sometime to see them.

Leaving Lesvos

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I slept last night in Moria, curled up in the tent of a Kurdish friend. This morning I woke to the grey din of camp, with children crying below us down the hill, people conversing in tents on either side, and the murmur of 6,000 waking voices in the two acres around us. I had meant to get up with the sun, and take some pictures before the populace was awake enough to notice. I don’t mind that photography is illegal in Moria, but I am concerned to protect the dignity and privacy of all the people living here. Some would support photography, as an exposé of the conditions, but others may resent themselves being in the photograph, as an infringement of privacy. I woke up too late for that though, and so wandered around taking pictures with my internal biological camera rather than my cellphone. In the last three to four months, the Isoboxes and housing levels in Moria have gone from being the main features, to poor lost ships ascatter in billowing seas of tents. Tents invade here like bacteria into an open wound, appearing first in neatly wrapped packages, then expanding into space after space, shooting down pegs for roots, growing tarps and awnings, and sending out rope tendrils lashing onto anything solid in every direction.

Whether technically authorized or not, the border has opened up again between Turkey and the Greek Islands. Averages of 100 people a day made the crossing from Turkey to Lesvos in the month of October, and 785 crossed in the first 10 days of November. I laugh every time I see the occupant safety and regulation charts inside the Greek offices of first reception, prescribing maximum numbers of people per toilet, and minimum square meters per sleeping body. At 6,500 people, Moria is pregnant far above its max intended capacity, and definitely showing.

Walking through Moria during its peak hours, feels nothing less than Times Square-ish: bodies, bodies, bodies, moving bodies. Driving a vehicle through Moria is a nightmare. You creep between the tents and chainlink, riding the clutch somewhere low between first gear and idle. Because the streets are pedestrian dominated, making way for vehicles is not priority. The kids are completely devoid of either fear or respect for a moving vehicle, abandoning their strollers full of infant siblings directly in your path to leap at a window or pry at a door handle. I love the kids to death when I’m on my own two feet, but wish Egyptian level plagues on them if I’m behind a wheel.

As camp numbers soar and winter begins to stalk, Moria becomes less and less of a fit place to live, and the standard mantra “Moria no good” becomes a little too true. Two months ago, it rained for the first time. An afternoon gully washer that swirled debris, soaked tents, and drenched new arrivals. A few hours of rain left the bottoms of tents wet for weeks after, and without improvements such as raising tents up on pallets, it will be impossible to stay dry when it rains everyday for a week. The last two days, it’s been raining again, and the even the streets outside my door were flooded. We’re being hit right now by the dregs of a hurricane in the Ionian Sea, and basically nothing left is dry. We’ve been doing as much winterization as possible in the last weeks. One day in October, we had sixty volunteers on shift, (in the end of August, we were lucky to have six) and we did as much winterization of tents as we had supplies for, but used up all our tarps and pallets long before we had reached every tent. EuroRelief may be inundated with volunteers this month, which is a wonderful thing, but financially we’re still broke like a box of dropped magnetic beads.

Camp swamped from both the east and the west is a very interesting place. But recently I’ve been spending less time in it. My job here for the last month and a half was NFI transport for EuroRelief. NFI’s are all non-food items, including tents, clothes, tarps, coats, blankets, hygienics, and bits as random as light poles, pallets, and rice mats. This meant I worked in camp a lot less, but got to meet more people in other positions and organizations facilitating donation distribution. I cruised around the island in a Eurotransport VW van in a close circuit between Moria and about half a dozen warehouses, picking up, and dropping of supplies. Much of my time was spent working with Greek government employees in their First Reception offices and military compound storage containers. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know some Greeks as well as POC’s, and to keep my hand a little wet in learning Greek. As a rule, the Greeks are fairly difficult to work with, having spent the last six years inundated with the refugee crisis, rather than the last few months like the majority of us volunteers have. I think at some point, your capacity for compassion just runs out. For some of the Greeks, I know it has.

Sometimes I can hardly keep from laughing, as I bargain with the Greeks for the most basic supplies, already authorized for release by both my superiors and theirs. Maybe it’s a conflict in mindsets, EuroRelief trying to distribute as much as possible, because the needs are horrific, and the Greeks reserving as much as possible, because they know the needs will go on and on. Tens or hundreds of thousands of UN donated items rest in Military compound storage just above camp, and piece by piece, they are signed over from Greek First Reception to EuroRelief for distribution. Some items like blankets are always in demand, strictly rationed, and often difficult to get. Even so, its perfectly hilarious to watch the First Reception faces fall in sorrow every other day when I request blankets: “…15 boxes of shampoo, 5 of toothpaste, and 300 blankets,” I might say. “And Blahnkets!?” blurts Thannos, moaning softly and looking genuinely shocked and hurt, “You will kill me, Obi, you will kill me.”

You’ll see anything in Moria, and I love the place for it. I remember 14 kids on a dumpster lid, careening down the hill. I remember riding with them, and baling out at the bottom to avoid striking a police jeep. I remember the driver of the police jeep in cold scorn demanding my name and badge and swearing he’d report me. I also remember nothing coming of it. I remember my sixteen year old friend Kahled in quiet panic screaming down the hill in a borrowed wheel chair without breaks and zipping like a train down a tunnel directly under the legs of an elderly Afghani grandpa. I remember a three-year-old bent double, trudging up the hill with an infant sibling of roughly her same size on her back. I remember leaving my van unlocked one day, and spending the next twenty minutes cleaning thirty-six clinging, screaming kids from every crevice. One of my favorite memories is chasing down a grinning two year old wearing only little rubber boots and slapping a number four pamper on his wiggling little bottom. You haven’t seen cute till you’ve caught and released a curly haired Syrian tot in bright rubber boots and a diaper.

This place is wonderful, for one reason and one reason only: the people it holds. The thousands of beautiful, resilient, generous people. Tomorrow though I’m leaving, and unlike the last time I left here, I don’t plan on coming back. There’s nowhere I would have rather spent my last three months, but I’ve been here twice and this time I don’t see myself returning. This is a place that people hate to leave, and long to return to, both because of the people and because the short-term needs are very visible, and it can be very fulfilling to fill them.

I’ve heard that serving others teaches you about yourself, and I believe it’s true. In truth, I haven’t always liked myself in the last three months. I’ve seen sides of myself that I would not have believed were there if you had told me. I’ve been in situations where my reflexive actions did not support my beliefs about myself. I’ve allowed myself to be crippled by the fear of men, and inner demands to be culturally inoffensive. I think last time I was here I was able to operate with much more compassion. I allowed myself to be hurt deeply, by the pain and stories of the people who I met. This time though, I allowed defense mechanisms to kick in early, walling myself off, and allowing primarily only superficial relationships. If you’re here long term, everyone will tell you this is necessary to prevent compassion exhaustion and burnout, but there must be a way around it. There must be a way to do your work effectively, and love everyone intimately along the way. It’s difficult though when you have a schedule that needs to be filled, as well as scores of people along the way who’s needs you cannot fill. To preserve yourself, your time, and your job, you have to turn a blind eye, and summon the effort to kill all concern for basic needs constantly in your face. It’s not possible to give the time and energy it takes to say “No” with compassion to everyone who asks. And so you’re left shrugging your shoulders, and pretending you don’t care. We’re told that simply making the system work is the best way we can help, and it’s possible to operate in that faith. But even in that faith, how do you offer the personal and compassionate love that Jesus does, to everyone both helped and unhelped by that system? All this is difficult, but possible. Unfortunately, it’s also possible for the system to become more important than the people.

By their absence in the last three months, I’ve come to value more highly the time and space to think well, to feel, and to absorb knowledge. I haven’t been thinking well in the last three months, I haven’t been reading much, and I haven’t been writing. It’s always pausing to recognize a disparity between what you like to do, and what you do. I suppose reconciling your actions and desires takes a reordering of energy output and intake, and so that is what I plan to do. I’m going to take more time to myself in the next month, and do so unreservedly. I’m not going to work, at least for a few weeks, and instead I’ll rest and cultivate my productive energy.

Right now, I’m sitting on the night ferry to Athens, comfortably drained and quite well tired. I’m spending tomorrow in Athens, the day after in Rome, and the next two weeks backpacking Ireland and the UK. Maybe I’ll record this time, maybe I’ll not. After this, I’m unashamed to say I’ll be very happy to return to East Coast USA. And trust me I can’t wait to see you all who’ll be there.

Sundried Tomatoes, Halvah, Stuffed Peppers and a Course in Xenophilia

IMG_20170928_154043Last week I asked our scheduling coordinator for this Thursday off to go to Turkey. I’m not entirely sure why Thursday is the day to go to Turkey, but it is, and so I asked for it. You would not believe the trouble I had getting the two old people I stay with off the Island and on to Turkey. To hear them, the trip would be more exhausting than double twelve hour shifts in Moria. Until I moved with them to Greece, I thought these two were some of the most passionate people I knew, vigorously living each moment to the utmost. Turns out they’ve almost fossilized. Don’t get me wrong, Micah and Hannah are perfectly content to run themselves to rag dolls working, but absolutely refuse to exhibit any energy or excitement off the clock. Passion for a stalwart German-American work-ethic is a fine thing, but how about a little consistency?

I let them know I’d be going “with or without you,” and the night before, they were still saying things like, “so what’s the deal with Turkey?”, “I’m just gonna sleep in the park”, “it’s OK, we don’t need to decide if we’re going just yet.” Nevertheless, at 7:15 the next morning they were up hunched over the electric plate frying feta, eggs, tomato, and basil and complaining about their joints.

We caught a ride to the port with Nate who was heading to Turkey as well, and bought round trip tickets for 8 Euro. The line for customs was mastodonal, but stepped along briskly. I could see why this Island held one of the borders most often chosen for crossing by international asylum seekers. All you had to do to leave this orifice of the Shengen Zone was stand in line, show a passport, and walk through two narrow doorways. The bag scanners and metal detectors were turned off, and the migration officials were barely awake enough to hold their coffees upright. There was a certain humanity to the thing. No expressionless TSA or barking Interpol, just a few sleepy Greeks.

We boarded our ferry, and ran to the top deck like good little tourists. There was a brilliant wind and some good stiff sunshine competing with eachother, making everything feel quite wonderfully alive and in motion. We chugged out around the light house and outer breakwater curving north toward Aynalik and into the waves. Throughout the entire ride, we could see both the Turkish and Greek sides, it’s just that the one got smaller as the other got larger. I reflected that the Mississippi river at its widest points is wider than this strait between countries and continents at its narrowest.

For the first bit, Nate, Micah, Hannah and I hurled conversation at eachother over and through the wind, but soon MicaHannah dropped down the main deck where I imagine they tried to sleep, and Nate descended into his phone where I imagine he used the last remnants of EU phone service to contact the friends he was meeting on the other side. I pulled out a book, Fall On Your Knees, by Ann Marie McDonald, and tried to keep its pages, my hat, and my eyeballs from blowing away. Bits of liquid kept pattering off my cheeks, and I was sure they were the sneezes, tears, lost bits of saliva and conversation from everyone up wind of me. This was not the case though, as wind whipped bits of spray were making it the entire from the prow to the stern, three decks up. Oceans of relief on my part. Three chapters later in Fall On Your Knees, we were creeping up on Turkey, sailing between islands and peninsulas, and breathing the westernmost air of Asia.

Our little ferry did a neat one-eighty degree maneuver bringing its stern around with lots of revvings, rumblings and vibrations up against the dock. We were all packing up against the gangplank all trying to be the first off and through customs. Then zooterkins! Down the gangplank, and a hundred yard dash to customs. The thing was a hilarious sprint, everyone spirited and laughing, going faster and faster to stay abreast or ahead of everyone else. Little old Greek grannies in their patent leather dress shoes would go scuttling passed you, clocking the speed of a good French cyclist and chortling with glee.

After the Turkish customs, the first thing my grandfather of a brother wanted to do, was see about changing his return ticket to an earlier time. The ticket agent misunderstood him about seven times saying, “yes! yes! Come back to the boat early for a good seat before the message was carried across and the answer returned negative. Having no luck on that front, we drug our eager and antique frames down to the city center where the Thursday bazaar was in full bloom. There was general disagreement about food, where, when and how much to eat of it. Nate and I succumbed to the first little street corner meat shop we happened upon, while Micah and Hannah tottered on toward their own ends and adventures.

It took a frightfully long time, but Nate and I eventually got service. It may have had something to do with us hanging over the counter drooling on the meat pies for upwards of fifteen minutes, I don’t know. Food service may operate on its own good old time in Turkey, but it does get the taste right. Our spiced meat sandwiches really were to drool over. The other really grand thing was the jars of little pickled Hungarian wax peppers on every table with which you could increase the volume of your sandwich by forty to fifty percent before combusting spontaneously.

We had been told that the everything was dust cheap in Turkey, and you could buy out the market for a couple Euro. This was not the case. It’s true that one Euro exchanges for four Lira, but the buying power is not equivalent. If you hunted long enough you could find deals, but as a general rule I didn’t think anything was that much cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Still though, I would much rather by my clothes and dish pans in the open air Aegean markets of Aynalik than in some sterilized big-box American retailer.

Far and away the most exciting thing I found in Turkey were the spice shops. Out on the street I was welcomed by walnuts, sundried apricots, and tomatoes, and big bunches of chamomile and coriander. Step off the street inside the door and heaven came down and glory filled my nose. The wild ascent of a thousand aromas competing and leaping around me like all the jinn and genies of the East. Step this way for the curries, peppers, tomato pastes and mushrooms, step the other for licorice and ginseng, saffron and ginger, cumin, allspice, and lavender. More spices than I could name, scores that I had never met nor seen nor heard of.

I’ll go into detail about one only: the sundried tomato. Dark red like a painting and leathery, the sundried tomato looks almost like a pepper. Stick it in your mouth and start chewing. Right away, the texture is delightful, but the array of flavors are still shy, and take a moment to untuck their little faces from the red hull of their mother’s skirts. One by one they come out greet you, sweet, tart, salt, and umami, shaking hands politely than clambering all over you laughing like little children over-eager to show you their newest trick and treat.

From the spice shop Nate and I wandered about the town, trying varies car rentals and phone shops for his week stay before ambling the clothing market. Around two we thought we found the spire of the mosque we were supposed to meet MicaHannah back at, took off our shoes, and laid down to sleep on the inches thick red carpet in the back. Most of the mosques in Eastern Turkey are proselytized Eastern Orthodox churches. Huge old grand arched stone edifices purged of all the icons and stain glass. Hulking stone shells with blue domed ceilings and the additions of the Muslim minaret. We stayed their for an hour dozing until some kind Muslim devotee came and explained to us that it was not a good place to sleep since women might walk past. We thanked him for his concern, and wandered off disconsolate into the dust and heat.

Around an hour later, and half the town away, we found the minaret that really was intended for meeting, with Micah and Hannah dozing sunglass-eyed beneath its shade. They also had apparently been to the paradise of a spice shop, and come back down to earth laden with curries and powders and pastes that reeked well of splendor and the Middle East. They had also been to a confection shop, and drug me back to it to introduce me to a wonderful dark green concoction named halvah. Halvah looks like textured green soap, and smells gloriously musty a little like someone kept the new heavens and the new earth wrapped up in a paper bag with pistachio nuts. Take one bite, chew it slowly. Take another bite, let it melt in your mouth. Take six more, and get your friends to hold you down and lecture on the sins of gluttony and covetousness. Google claims that halvah is made out of honey and sesame flower; I think that the tears of a unicorn and crushed halos of angels are more likely.

In the halvah shop, wonder generated and extended wonder. Cured sausages and cheeses hung from every beaming rafter and glowed from behind each glass case. Vats of pickled things hummed sharp harmonies, glimmering like Beirut at night time and all the jewels of the East. Peppers stuffed with soft feta and pickled in an oily brine of goodness won the prize. My palate singing the ode to joy and my lips dripping with oil, I bought and crammed a greasy tub of the lovely little critters into the top of my backpack.

The best part of our day in Turkey though was not the food, it was the company. Nate left around three, and MicaHannah and I retired to some old stone steps to simply watch Turkey go by. A smiling little old man fingering Muslim Prayer bead happened by, saw us three raggamuffins sitting, and offered to take our picture. It was a fine picture, I think, even though it was taken with my dump of a phone. Before he left, I had gotten a quick pat on the shoulder, and his beautiful string of prayer beads. In three minutes he was back with a stool, and we learned his name was Sammih. A minute after that, a waiter showed up from a nearby restaurant with four Turkish cups of tea, procured by Sammih. He spoke Turkish, German, introductional English, and about as much Greek as me. We limped along over our tea energetically with smidgens of English, Greek, German, and Plautdietsch. Again our demi-host disappeared, and came back beaming with delicious dried fruits for our sampling. We learned he was a real-estate dealer, married to a woman from Crete, and had two children. He then tugged us along to his shop, and we sat in in his office, drinking our second round of tea, and learning about Ataturk and the real estate in Aynalik. His hospitality was monstrous. He spent two hours of his time, and money on three strangers simply because they were strangers. “Who would do this in America?” I wondered—invite three strangers off the street and serve them like honored guests. Xenophilia is obviously still an extremely important part of many cultures, even in our inclement and boreal 21st century. We Americans travel everywhere and come back exclaiming about the wonderful hospitality we find there. Maybe we’re not surprised by everyone else’s hospitality because it’s so incredibly  great, maybe it’s because ours is just pretty poor.

It was crawling up on five o’clock, and we bid new friend farewell, giving thanks in a plethora of languages. We scampered back across town toward the customs, ferries, and Aegean. Along the way, we stopped once more at our favorite spice shop, converting our last Lira to saffron, oolong, paprika, and pepper corns.

The sea on the way home was huge, with great sinking troughs and swelling crests. We sailed southwest though, directly with the wind, and so the waves did nothing but speed us onward. The trip back was brisk and glorious, with sundried tomatoes, halvah and peppers to cheer us, while Mount Olympus loomed larger and larger from Lesvos, and the dear old sun died naked in the West.IMG_20170928_184530

Moria, 6:16 A.M.

 

Night shift is about the hollowest thing one gets into here in Moria. I haven’t a brain built to function between three and six A.M. without some sort of external stimulus. Staying awake indefinitely without coffee, laughter, loud music or some other drug drains you from the inside, leaving an empty, dried up space. The other hollow area is the stomach. From spending twenty years sleeping at night, I somehow got the impression that caloric intake is not strictly required after midnight. Turns out calorie requirements have everything to do with your physical and mental state, and nothing to do with the time of day or how dark it is. By five o’clock after having been awake for twenty hours and having not consumed carbs for nearly ten, my stomach is a coiled rattlesnake buzzing and gnawing on its tail like a metal bearings in a meat grinder. This effect combined with a bowl of soggy bandages for brains leaves one wise as pigeon and useless as serpent in a shoe store.

I’m sure that if I worked nights for more than two or three in a row, I could switch rhythms and be OK, but to share out the duty, and keep you in step with the main work which occurs in the day, you’re never scheduled for more than three at a time. A three-night pattern is shaped like this: the first night is a bit like a party, you’re up trying to have fun, and manage to until six o’clock comes and you beg to curl up with the dogs at your feet. On the second night affliction, famine and disease begin around two rather than six, and continue until nine or ten A.M when you finally get home and drift off. The third night you’re groggy and defiant, with an anger at your lot that translates into exhilaration. You’ve survived. You’ve adapted. Then blammo, back to dayshift.

Whether you are stuck guarding a gate, or drifting about as the shift-leader a.k.a. “floater,” the graveyard is about the same. Doing a gate is more boring than ramen, but at least you can count on dozing fairly comfortably between the leanest hours of four to seven when very little is stirring. Floating can be fun, since if you have the energy, you can hang out and talk with immigrant and refugee friends in the golden hours from one to three. You get to drink tea, play chess, eat fried things and smoke hookah. Plus, if there is an inter-national war in the olive grove or something, you can totally go watch. The sad part about floating though, is the false security you get around 4:30 when you feel liberated to migrate from dozing into deeper territory. You’ve already drank all the tea offered you, re-deposited all the tea offered you, made your rounds and sat a spell for everyone at the gates while they deposited all the tea offered to them, seen the last of the fights, and finally with semi-sweet conscience curled up in a clean corner inside Info. Then it’s 5:15, and you’re jerked up in an instant with two or three good sized anchors tied around your neck from a sleep-cycle so deep it puts the Marianas Trench to shame. From some tent somewhere there is panic attack or a blood-sugar crisis, and you are being summoned by a radio call or worried father to fetch the volunteer doctors out of sleep up on the hill or contact the police to call an ambulance.

Tonight I’ve been drug up out of just such sleep, and by the time the crisis has been averted, I realize roosters are crowing from farmlets over the hill, and the mountains of Turkey are beginning to breath gold and sapphire, while the only star left is Venus, daughter and lord of the morning. I want to crawl back into Info and nibble on another sparse half-hour of sleep, but the dawn is calling. I think about how few dawns I’ve seen in my twenty years, and decide not to pass up on one at which I am already awake. It would be like closing your eyes and sleeping in the cinema, at a movie you already paid for. But maybe that’s not so preposterous, as I’ve very happily done that as well.

In the daylight hours I’d never climb up onto the roof above Info except for maintenance, but right now I can. I walked out from a concrete retaining wall onto the tin roof of the shade structure. I test my tread against the dewy roof, and heel kick just one pebble backwards over the eve. The roof is peppered with rocks and pebbles, as all the roofs are in that area from one of the riots or another. At the peak of the roof, I stand and gaze at the morning.

All around me, is a tent and razor-wire city. A sea of Isoboxes, Red Cross tents, rubhalls, strung tarps and chainlink surrounds me. From here nearly half the cap is visible, eerily silent, unbelievably peaceful. I rejoice in the calm, and lift my two arms to heaven, thanking the Lord of peace and inviting Him into it.

Moria is lit by streetlights, yellow and blue, incandescent and LED. The sky is a blue deeper than the thoughts of Socrates, and as high above me as the heavens. It’s yellow in the East, full like a stove pot almost to boil over. The day is gathering its strength behind the mountains of Turkey which rim it back. A dawn held off, but that much stronger, ready to break over the top with force and power and glory. The sea is turning pink everywhere it is not blue. A warm pink, alive like the color of your deepest dreams inviting you to leap, or fly, or swim, or hold very still and quietly glorify the Lord. I’m tired as a 50 hour day, and hungrier than the shadows. It will be another two and a half hours before I can leave Moria, and another four until I can sleep. But I can forget all that for now, as I stand here on the roof above Info, surrounded by the morning.

A Bed Abiding Reverie

Do you know that feeling, lying in bed trying to decide whether or not to get up and put on a day face? You feel perfectly fine, in fact almost awake, but it’s your day off and you know you’ve only slept six hours because last night you knew today was your day off, and you stayed up until kingdom came and went and once again returned. Today is one of those days. I’m lying beneath the top cover with the linens piled all around the bottom of the bed because stability and bedsheets aren’t two things I keep quite close about me even while I’m sleeping. My mind eased out of unconsciousness only moments ago, so the shady lanes of sleep are still perfectly accessible if I want them. But I feel far too good. I feel too good to sleep. I stretch and roll over, vaguely flapping my feet to get the bottom of the cover to cover them once again. I feel like that guy in Proverbs who’s a door hinge turning upon his bed, but the feeling is delicious, and I know that today I deserve it. I’ve been working ten to eleven hour shifts for the past week in Moria, the main refugee camp here on the eastern coast of Lesvos. Today I have no pressures, nowhere I need to go, and nothing I need to do, which for me right now feels not only wonderful but necessary. What is comfort besides lying in bed tight full of sleep with absolutely no pressure to either stay or leave? I’m fully self-aware; left almost supra-conscious by residual access to my subconscious mind. I’m existing motionless in a stream of time. Not being swept along by it, but stationary, relaxed and fining like a fish in the slowest moving current. Do you know this feeling? Maybe not, but it’s delicious, and so I hope you do.

Right now I’m writing, because I’m comfortable and so its the easiest thing to do. Far easier than breakfast, or swimming, or anything else I love to do that requires getting out of bed. I’ve been wanting to write for weeks now, but hadn’t yet gotten the chance to become bored or comfortable enough to. Boredom and comfort are two things I normally wouldn’t associate with one another, but am willing to today. Reader beware: this association is risky; do not try it at home. Luckily home is something I haven’t established yet, so hopefully I’m still safe to do it. I do however have a well-established German/American phobia of laziness. But I have also, fortunately or unfortunately, a large capacity for it. When I like myself the best, I’m driven and passionate, and second best when I’m lazy and don’t know it. When I’m lazy and know it, I don’t like myself much at all. Today I do not believe I am lazy; I am resting sweetly resting. I’m not sure that the twenty-four hour segments of either Saturday or Sunday are important to keep holy. But I am sure that the concept and necessity of a sabbath falling sometime in your week is important. My sabbath this week falls on today, Friday, and I’ll enjoy it to it’s utmost. Or try to.

“Utmost” is a very difficult thing to achieve, and I’m only beginning to understand that trying can get in the way of achieving and while the thing itself is worth more than the path there, you can’t not enjoy the one and expect to somehow enjoy the other. Here the biblical injunction to “Remember the sabbath” expands to me, and I realize it could be very easy to remember the sabbath without remembering its Lord. Your sabbath is your own, so guard it, protect it, keep it, as your own. But in that ownership remember the Lord of your Rest. There’s no other way to enjoy a sabbath or anything else to it’s utmost, I suppose. The “utmost” the “ultimate” the “transcendent” is something we’re driven to as humans. It’s something that I’m driven to very personally, but recognize via thousands of years of human experience that easy, handmade solutions a baby’s step do not begin there. As William Harrison said, “oh my lord it takes so long,” but I’m afraid it takes much, much more than that.

I’m not afraid of getting into theological trouble. I’m sure that everyone has and everyone will. I think I understand a little what I pig I am wallowing in the mud, but unlike the proverbial pig, I will not turn and rend you, and I really am looking for good pearls. I love theology, and don’t think I understand the concept of a lay theologian, because I really don’t understand how one could be anything else. Besides the ratio of hard work, it’s only barbarous human invention that makes the churchman different from a layman. Or a church pig different from a lay pig. But whatever, I’ll try to quite thinking about theology now, because today is my sabbath, I am righteously lazy, and good theology is just far to much hard work.

Eventually my bed-abiding reverie was interrupted by Micah and Hannah frying chicken and hard-boiled eggs in olive oil for breakfast. These are two people certainly very capable of coming up with surprising and delicious meals, but I was afraid their concoction today would be nothing more than surprising. In lue of hard-boiled-chicken-and-eggs I made Turkish coffee and dumped a cup of granola into the last quarter of a Greek yogurt liter. Greek yogurt in the States is a half-masked compromise between common watery yogurt, and the Greek yogurt here. The yogurt here is thick as putting, far fatter than Buddha, and sweet almost with cream. Just the yogurt is worth traveling for. The stuff takes dairy into whole new stratospheres. Post the yogurt and coffee, our friend Yannah popped in, as he does whenever a moment of free time for him and a free day for us coincide. We discussed Germans, EuroRelief, i58, the Benedict Option and the Bruderhof. I believe our general conclusion may have been in favor.

Food is one of the events I look forward to here most. It’s the one thing that there is plenty of in Moria. There might not be clothes, tents, soap, shoes, books, electricity, any room to sleep or enough water, but there is always food. There is always left over food in camp: Arab bread, peaches, feta, and plastic containers of perhaps rice, lentils, potatoes, or mixed vegetables. I consume plates and wraps and tubs, tortillas and totes of delicious carbs here. Carbs for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight. Every four hours I pick up another carb fix. I’m a carb addict, I love it and need it. When I first arrived, people who were here a year ago when I was asked if I was the guy who was always eating. The great thing about the high energy output of working here in Moria, is that you can take in a high volume of energy too. Constant food supply in camp means that you can eat here very cheaply. You can pretty much count on free meals during your shift in camp, and on taking home what would be thrown away at the end of the day. When re-fried in fresh olive oil and fresh island herbs, the rice and potatoes become delicious. Melt a couple heavy slaps of feta over the mix, dip it out with flatbread, and you’ve got a first rate Mediterranean meal.

I spent the afternoon swimming and chatting with refugees on the beach. One 23 year old I met said he was a boxer, so we tied elaborate mummifications of shirts and plastic bags around our hands, and went ham on eachother until we were too sweating and tired and sore to continue. I think he held back a bit, but then and again I did too, and we ended with lots of hugs and a middle-eastern kiss of peace on each cheek. It’s fantastic to travel half way around the world and still find guys with the same passions and hobbies I have.

One of the main food events looked forward to here is the meal i58 serves every other Friday night at the Brick in Panagouida to the joint staff of i58 and EuroRelief. This being the every Friday night as opposed to the other one, we hungrily trooped over to the Brick at 6:30 or 18:30 as they say here. The Brick is a fine old stone two-story which i58 has converted into a community center down below and apartments up top. Everyone from EuroRelief and i58 who is not on shift at the moment squats down Middle Eastern style cross legged on mats for a full coursed Amish-Mennonite meal served by the i58 cooks. It’s a fantastic time of inter-organizational fellowship. Everyone sits around breaking-bread, laughing, talking and achingly shifting their inflexible western hips upon the floor.

I’m sure the most interesting thing we do here on Lesvos is our actual work in camp. However, for some reason, it’s quite hard to write about our actual work, and easy to write about almost everything else. I’ve tried to think why this is, and have come up with several possible contributing factors. For one thing, what you do in camp usually changes thirty-times a day, and generalizations are exactly impossible. It would be possible to make a page long list categorizing the different jobs we do here, but no one wants to read that or write it. It would be possible to take one day, and follow it from beginning to end, describing the jobs you did or tried to do, and illustrating a few of the characters you interacted with throughout. However, this approach would need be written at least largely the same day as the one being recorded. Even with the usual eight hour shifts this would be difficult, and with the current ten to eleven hour stints it’s quite impossible. Unless you needed super-humanly low levels of sleep, or were for some reason more addicted to writing than food. I unfortunately require super-humanly high levels of sleep, and am definitely food hooked.

Further, to write about a subject, you need to either own it, or be able to pretend to. They always tell you to write about what you know, and with reason. There are only two ways to write. The one is by and about what you know, and the other is by and about your imagination. It’s true you can research a subject you don’t know and write about it, but even research can’t let you write what you don’t know, it only increases what you do know. The other way to write, via imagination, is fine if you’re writing about dragons, cat’s, aliens, and humans you don’t see every day. But imagination is a completely unfair pen to use when writing about the conditions of real people living in a real refugee camp. I don’t feel like I know life and work in Moria Camp well enough yet to write about it well. I don’t know if I ever will. I guess I’m not yet comfortable enough in camp to employ easy-going levels of satire, cynicism, and tongue-embedded-cheekiness in speaking about it. So far writing about that would require tones more serious than I am quite willing or ready to take. I’ll need to keep thinking.