Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Questions about Angels

Questions About Angels
By Billy Collins

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God's body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Olympic Torch Ceremony In Cambridge

  I regretted agreeing to go from the start because I have less and less tolerance for crowds as I grow older, and I could just imagine the press of people.  But my Dad carried the Olympic torch for the '80 Olympics in New York State.  And I kept thinking that it was a thing, an event that I wanted my children to witness for good or for ill.  And by ill I mean a constant stream of muttered anti-capitalist trash talk from their mother.

I have such a love-hate relationship with the Olympics.  I mean, look, this human ideal of competing in peace and honoring physical achievement is so fantastic.  And the great truth that I keep reminding my son.  All these athletes are already champions, and they are champions not only because they have talent, but because they also work hard at it, day after day, and make sacrifices to be excellent.  This is a truth about life, talent is not enough without work.  And to see the Olympic teams is to see mostly virtuous humans.

And yet these excellent people are chiefly funneled by the Olympics into advertising fodder.  The expenses paid to the International Olympic Committee and the cost overruns are insane.  The demands of the IOC (six hundred air-conditioned limousines for their sole use during the London games) . . . the way that you HAD to have a VISA card to purchase tickets, the way that the tickets were insanely expensive and all the choice tranches went to corporate sponsors, the way that the remodeling of East London was done to maximize fascist crowd control measures, the huge portion of the tax money that goes to making private security firms rich, the privatization of the police and the evaporation of civil rights (at the complete discretion of private security forces, you can be excluded from the Olympics and there is no right of appeal or connection whatsoever to the courts), the passing of laws restricting what kind of t-shirts people can wear (those same private security forces can make you turning your Pepsi t-shirt inside out a condition of entry because Coke is a sponsor and Pepsi is not).  In fact, on that last one, I heard that the reason they did not release the route of the torch through England until very shortly before it began not because they were worried about terrorism, but because the sponsors didn't want their competitors buying up billboards along the route.

But Saturday at 18:50 the Olympic torch was going to arrive in Cambridge at a big park and my son wanted to see it, so we started the extensive logistics analysis that must be undertaken before a parking place can be agreed upon, packed rain gear and resigned ourselves to standing in a field for three hours.  I was curious to see the police presence and am happy to report that it wasn't that bad.  There were a number of concrete and metal barriers places to control the crow but there wasn't a menacing police presence (I guess that would spoil the effect of the advertisements?)

We got there and started the great British crowd ritual of queuing:  for drinks, for hot dogs, for the toilet, for some cherries.  We stood in the thickening crowd, angled so that if we lifted the children, they could just glimpse the actual stage plus they would have a view of a screen.  I was very proud of my son's reaction to the screen.  "If I just see it on a screen it doesn't count."  Thank you, Owain, I agree.  But as the crowd pressed in and our view was completely obscured, Liberty dropped her Bunny into the mud and my husband and I felt an overwhelming need to just leave.

The offering on the main stage was this bland, peppy parade of young people who tried to whip the crowd into cheering by performing backflips.  It did vary.  They had a sort of reality show format where they would pit one side of the crowd against each other and keep score on huge COCA COLA or LLOYDS TSB logo'd screens. When we first walked in, the main stage had a group of children dancing a tribute to the Olympics. Accompanied by a drum orchestra, the children pretended to lift weights and play tennis.  I had to look away.  The kids were not that well rehearsed, but that was not what was disturbing.  What disturbed me was that the look on their faces was just like the look I had seen in the North Korean propoganda festivals circa Kim Jong Il.  An odd adolescent halfway house located between duty-bound and I-don't-give-a-fuck.   The performers were to a person without soul, without truth.

And the athletes were not there and being lauded.  This was an excuse to gather a crowd, it was an extensive advertisement.  I found myself spontaneously asking people in lines with me why we were there.  I didn't get a satisfactory answer.  I felt like I was with a bunch of sheep. We decided to leave.

When a woman behind me said, "So you've decided to go?", I told her I felt like a participant in a North Korean propaganda campaign blended with a Coca cola advertisement.  I let some outrage out and said, "Yes!  We are going!  While I still have some dignity!"  - That was the best part of the evening for me.

  But as we crossed the huge field to find the parking garage, there were only five minutes left to wait,  Owain pleaded and we waivered and quickly in the distance we saw slightly above the crowd a flame, a small yellow flame. And the fact that that flame came from a flame that never went out was very impressive to my son, and the cheer that went up from the crowd was oddly heartwarming.  

It reminded me of my favorite fake folk dancing story.  One night at the Early Night Club (the monthly dance party for moms in Cambridge) at closing time the DJ put on a traditional Ceilidh.  And the eight or so happy tipsy women in my part of the bar started hooking arms and passing our partners on to the next person.  We didn't know what we were doing. We were fake folk dancing, because we were just making it up as we went along.  But we were at the same time really folk dancing because we were enjoying each other and celebrating being together in this authentic, exuberant way.  We were REALLY fake folk dancing.

And in that crowd tonight, despite the oppressive corporate presence, despite the three inches of mud, when the torch came through, there was an authentic whoop of excitement.  Excitement that sounded like other parents like us who wanted to make this moment a real memory for our children and wanted to believe in what was good about the Olympics.  It had the heart of the real fake folk dancing.

But the cheer was there and gone in seconds, but the corporate logos on the screens endured long after we trotted off home.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Consolation of Television When Faced With Fear

  I just heard Owain upstairs trying to sleep crying out in fear.  I came upstairs and he had worked himself up into a state of terror - sobbing.  And at the same time he condemned himself for interrupting my work late at night, an overlay of guilt that made his pain multidimensional.  When I went upstairs, I cuddled him to calm him down and then we talked.  He was scared of getting Alzheimers like his great uncle and being confined to a nursing home.  He was scared of dying like his grandfather.  And he was despairing of the fact that the fear was overwhelming him, that he couldn't control it.

We have been meditating most nights for five minutes or so, and acquainting ourselves with emptying our minds.  We do different things, child's pose or feet up the wall or just lying flat and noticing what we feel in our bodies.  I am doing it because he has such a hard time going to sleep.  But we talk about having a still mind so that we can recognize when the chattering monkeys of fear and the past and the future take over our brains and rob of of the present.  We always accept that they are there, but then we try to turn the thoughts into penguins and let them waddle on off into the darkness and leave us alone.

This is serious endeavor for me.  And I am 45 with years of shrinks behind me.  Imagine trying it when you are eight.  He gets nowhere near still and relaxed, really, but he definitely gets more still and relaxed than he was before we meditate, so it is worth it for me.

He was worried about being able to fight his fears.  But I don't think you can fight your fears, not in a brutal, wrestle them into the ground and vanquish them kind of way.  You can only accept your fears for what they are and not let them control you.  I also told him that every living thing dies and that this is a fact we cannot change and must accept.

[Side note:  may I just say the prevailing culture of fighting death and teaching our children death is the worst possible thing sucks? I feel like the culture of both the UK and the US is so dangerously myopic on this point.  We all need to adopt Dumbledore's view that to the organized mind, death is simply the next adventure.]

 His great uncle and grandfather were great men who lived happy lives until old age, and this is true no matter what, no matter how they died.  When we accept what is, we can see the good things and the bad things.  There are good things in most lives.

The only thing to fear is fear itself.  Of course that line came out, I am an American Democrat and former Washingtonian.  He considered my offering and then also mentioned that he would like to take the fear out of himself and put it in the kid who is giving him a very hard time right now at school .  So he ended on a revenge fantasy.  Fair enough.

Now he is watching TV.  I felt like I had to jolt him out of the brooding by occupying his mind swiftly elsewhere.  Television is excellent for that.   As I tucked him in on the couch, he turned to the Simpsons.  He said it was his old favorite, that it made him feel better to watch it.  And I remember many depressed years in my life when watching the Marx Brothers was a lifeline, was a reprieve from the mental suffering.  I felt the same about Danny Kaye.  Sitting on a couch watching a Danny Kaye movie to this day makes me feel safe and happy.  

I know moms are supposed to be all freaked out about screen time but I am happy that Owain has favorite movies and comforting shows.  Watching new movies together is great.  When we find one we both are really into it is absolute magic.  We pause it to talk about it because we are so excited.  We pause it and cajole his Daddy to join us.  A good story is really exciting.  Look, I am deeply distrustful of capitalism and like any good citizen of the Earth, I despise Rupert Murdoch but I love Sky Movies.  And I love the consolation of the screen for my son right now.  Perhaps watching the Simpsons and calming down is only a shadow on the wall of Plato's cave when it comes to a truly still mind, but still, it is something, something good, a respite from the sadness of an 8 year old.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

High Hopes

Writer(s): cahn/van heusen

Next time you'  re found, with your chin on the ground,
There's a lot to be learned, so look around

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he'll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant can't
Move a rubber tree plant

But he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes
He's got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time you're gettin' low
'Stead of lettin' go
Just remember that ant!
Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant.

When troubles call, and your back's to the wall
There's a lot to be learned, that wall could fall!

Once there was a silly old ram
Thought he'd punch a hole in a dam
No one could make that ram scram
He kept buttin' that dam

Cause he had high hopes, he had high hopes
He had high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time you're feelin' bad
'Stead of feelin' sad,
Just remember that ram!
Oops, there goes a billion kilowatt dam

All problems just a toy balloon
They'll be burst soon
They're just bound to go pop
Oops, there goes another problem kerplop