Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.

Where Was I?

Finally!  I have sent my proofs and the index for Holy Horror back to McFarland and I find myself in that state following intensive concentration on one thing.  Well, as much as work will allow such concentration.  Those who write books know how difficult it is to switch gears from fifth back to first while driving at highway speeds.  As soon as the email arrived stating that the proofs were ready, I dropped everything to get them read, outside work hours, of course.  With mind focused on a single goal—get the job done—I’ve managed to forget where I was before being interrupted by my own work.  I recall it had something to do with demons, though.

Perhaps the most taxing part of trying to write while employed full time is keeping track of where you are.  The luxury of spending hours outside of class doing the index, for example, is compressed into the little free time I have between writing for this blog and work—between a blog and a hard place, as it were.  Indexing, which can be quite pricey when a professional does it, is  much easier with a searchable PDF than it ever was going through a printout page-by-page to find obscure references you forgot you ever wrote.  It reminded me of the time I had Owen Chadwick over for dinner at Nashotah House.  I recalled someone asking him about something he’d once written and he looked puzzled for a moment and then replied, “One writes so many things.”  Indeed.  Millions and million of words in electrons, if not on paper, mark the status of a life.  And indexing will prove it to you somehow.

This morning I awoke with the proofs and index safely emailed back to the publisher.  What was I doing before that?  I know that work is looming just a short hour or two ahead, and I need to accomplish part of my life’s work before going to work.  I can’t afford to waste this time.  Nightmares with the Bible is coming along nicely.  A very drafty draft of the book exists.  I have some more research to do, however, and the annotated bibliography—ah, that’s where I left off!—is still a shambles.  Not only that, but I’ve got a stack of reading on the topic next to my chair.  Time to put on a pot of coffee and warm up those typing fingers.  I’ve got real work to do.

Free Cookie

So, it started out as a freebee.  The way I looked at it, I paid enough for my computer to justify some free software.  We had Quicken on our desktop for years before we started to use it.  Then came the notice that it would no longer work on our system (which upgrades apparently every nano-second).  If we didn’t want to lose our financial data we would, the note cheerily said, have to upgrade.  You have to buy what once was in the land of the free.  We consulted about it—I still have an objection to paying for something made strictly of electrons; when I pull the blanket off the bed this time of year I get a healthy jolt of electrons without having to pay for them.  We caved.  Then the notice came again.  Upgrade time!  Only you can’t buy Quicken, you can rent it.  The one-time fee for buying software is now an annual fee.  Isn’t everyone happier now?

I don’t mean to pick on Quicken, although that is the most insidious offender since you can’t very easily transfer all that data back to paper.  Services withdrawn.  Welcome to the internet of thieves.  Bakeries worldwide know that a free cookie leads to sales often enough that it’s worth the small loss in profits.  But electrons are free all the time.  Shuffle your feet across the carpet in you stocking feet and test it.  Amazon for a while sent the Washington Post headlines daily, for free.  Now, Amazon ought to know me by name since I’m a book addict.  Then, just at the midterm elections, they announced this freebee was over.  I don’t know what in the world has been happening since.  I do hope someone will tell me when our currency converts to rubles.

Who wants a cookie?

Humans are susceptible to the myth of permanence.  Although change is constant and time never ceases to flow, we tend to think things will stay where we put them.  Technological change, however, has become so swift that we now pay for the privilege.  Unlike that cookie which lasts a moment and the choice of buying more is up to you, the internet has swept up our lives and you can no longer opt out.  We pay our bills online because letter carriers drop things.  We communicate online because who has the time to pick up and dial an actual landline phone?  The fact that the signal cuts out now and again isn’t a problem, even when we lose valuable information.  It’s only electrons, after all.

Time Taking

Publishing is a slow business.  In a world of instant information, such plodding may appear to be old-fashioned.  Outdated.  Each step of the process takes time and anyone can sit down and type thoughts directly into the internet, so why bother with traditional publishing?  These thoughts come to me as I read through the proofs of Holy Horror, and work on the index.  This is time-consuming, and time is hard to come by.  That, I suppose, is a major reason for doing things this way.  Ironically, people don’t have a problem seeing that handmade items—which tend to take time and be less efficient than machine-made articles—are more valuable.  They represent care and quality, things that a machine can’t assess well.  This is the world beyond math.  It is the human world.

Those of us born before computers took over sometimes have difficulty adjusting.  The world of the instant goes well with inflation—the myth that constant growth in a limited world is possible.  The fact is that value is a human judgment and we value things that take time.  It’s true that most non-fiction books are instantly dated these days.  Often it’s because information flies more quickly than pre-press operations.  It takes a couple years to write a book and a publisher takes a year or two getting it into print.  Back when the process was invented news traveled slowly and, I venture to say as a historian of sorts, didn’t often carry the dramatic shifts we witness today.  A book could take a long time to appear and still be fresh and new when it did.  For the internet generation it may be hard to see that this is an issue of quality.

Most of us are content with the satisfactory.  We’re willing to sacrifice quality for convenience.  We do it all the time.  Then, in the recording industry, vinyl starts to come back.  Corporate bigwigs—for whom fast and cheap is best—express surprise.  Why would anyone buy a record?  The question can only be answered by those who’ve listened to one.  There is a difference, a difference that we’ve mostly been willing to jettison for the convenience of the instant download.  Our lives are being cluttered with disposable-quality material.  Even now I’m writing this daily update for my blog rather than continuing the drudgery of working on an index.  We all have expectations of alacrity, I guess.  The slower world of publishing is more my speed.

Creatio Nihilo

Just when I think I’ve reconciled myself with technology, this goes and happens.  These precise words, in this order, have been written before.  In fact, all words in the English language have already been laid out in every conceivable order.  Technology can be friend or foe, it seems.  The website Library of Babel—with its biblical name—has undertaken the task of writing every conceivable combination of letters (using our standard English alphabet) and putting them into a vast, if only electronic, library.  This was not done by a human being like me, with intent or even any interest in the meaning of the words, but rather as one of those things people do simply because they can.  This entire paragraph can be copied and pasted into their search box and found.

The Library of Babel has made plagiarists of us all, even as it plagiarized everything written before it was programed.  After I learned about this library the wind avoided my sails for a while.  You see, what’t the point in writing what’s already been written?  Then it occurred to me.  Context.  The fact is, had I not scriven these very words, and put them on this blog, they would never have come to the attention of the kinds of people who read what I write.  The words have been spelled out before, but they’ve never been written before.   Those of us who write know the difference.  We spend hours and hours reading and thinking of ways to combine words.  We’re not out to kill the creativity of our species, we simply want to participate.

There should be limits to human knowledge, otherwise we’d have nothing for which to strive.  The internet may make it seem that all knowledge has been found—it is so vast and so terribly diverse—and yet there are people who never use a computer.  Their wisdom counts too.  It may seem that everything is here, but there is material that still has to be looked up in physical books.  There are crates and crates of clay tablets from antiquity that have never been transcribed and translated.  When that finally happens, the words they contain may be found, in a strangely prophetic way, in the Library of Babel.  But they won’t have any meaning there until it is given by the context.  And what can a library preserve if it isn’t the context that a (human) writer has given the words?

Christmas Time

As children we can’t wait for Christmas because we’ll be getting things.  Now that I’m older I try to avoid the frenzy building up to the holiday, although I look forward to the vacation days that I’ll cash in to take time to be with family rather than business.  It’s not that I don’t like holidays—it’s just I’m no fan of hype.  Still, now that December is nearing, and Thanksgiving has reminded us that work isn’t everything, I can feel the anticipation.  Yesterday I attended the Christkindlmarkt  in Bethlehem.  Amid the backdrop of the truly colossal, rusting stacks of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, this is a seasonal event with nothing but good spirit.  People of all descriptions were crowded into the massive event, but rudeness and complaining were strangely absent.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

When I worked at Nashotah House, the atmosphere for Advent was austere.  We weren’t really encouraged to look forward to Christmas, bringing a tree home before the 24th was frowned upon.  It was a time to reflect on our sins, not to anticipate our rewards.  Still, I had a kind of epiphany among the secular crowds seeking to get into the spirit of things yesterday.  Bethlehem is a city that has known hard times.  Its industrial base eroded away, residents were left unemployed and wondering about a very (and increasingly) uncertain future.  Recasting itself as the Christmas City is a way of throwing new light on a holiday famous for its commercialism.

Christmas can be about resurrection.  It’s a season to think of birth.  It matters not if the mother is a virgin or if the child is for an exclusive sect.  People throng here for hope.  Beauty in the midst of ruin.  Some businesses clearly spend all year building up to Christmas, selling ornaments so delicate that I feared even to look too hard at them lest they shatter.  Handcrafted goods that represent the livelihood of others who compel strangers that art is worth more than money itself.  Wandering through the four tents of booths, the feeling of resurrection was palpable.  We were all here seeking something.  Loosening the grip on the wallet just a bit.  Wanting to make others happy for a while.  Birth is the symbol of hope.  Advent, it seems, need not be a dreary season of wallowing in unworthiness, awaiting a mythology taken too literally.  The proof of the goodness before us is just down the road in Bethlehem.

Family Names

Holidays are all about family.  In our society where families, due to jobs, often get spread across states, if not the world, we value holidays as times to get as many as possible of our close ones together.  They’re also rare days when work isn’t required, and true relaxation—a rarity—can take place.  This Thanksgiving break I’ve been reading the proofs for Holy Horror, but I put them aside after anyone else awakes.  We all, I think, come out of it feeling rested.  It has been many years, however, since I’ve had time to work on genealogy.  I don’t write much about it here because most people don’t find other people’s family history to be of interest.  Many of us are nevertheless fascinated by the ancestors without whom we would not be here.

One summer while I was teaching at Nashotah House I became fixated on one great-grandmother.  Nobody in my family knew her name.  I had a first name (a fairly common one), and, adding insult to injury, I grew up with her daughter (my grandmother) living in my home.  Kids, as nature dictates, aren’t interested in that kind of thing, and nobody thought to ask my grandmother her mother’s name before she died.  I found myself stuck at just two generations back.  I made trips to the repository of state and federal records at Madison, spending the summer in a basement room reading through microfiche—talk about ancient history!—trying to find her name.  Nothing.  I wrote to the federal agencies of vital statistics in Washington which gladly cashed my checks but never sent any information.  Later, when the internet began to fill up, I searched for her married name.  Nothing turned up.  I ordered books of gravestone inscriptions from the District of Columbia, where she’d died, but dug up nothing.  One of the cemeteries sends me newsletters now.  When my daughter asked why I was getting them in the mail I told the story.  We began to search online.

I couldn’t believe it.  At least a decade and a half after I’d found no clues, and after many web searches after that, we finally found her.  Someone had entered her on Findagrave.com.  As I pondered the dates, which seemed about right, my daughter pointed out that the site stated she’d been married to my great-grandfather.  My ancestry suddenly grew by two new surnames because her parents were also listed.  I was stunned.  I once calculated that, due to exponential growth, just ten generations back, (eight “greats”) we all have over a thousand ancestors, or 500 couples.  Genealogy could be a full-time addiction.  For the moment, however, I’m pleased to have found a long lost name, and an instantly larger family for this holiday season.

Post Thanksgiving

Yesterday morning, like many others mesmerized by the commercialization of holidays, I had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television.  I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but I know that growing up poor we used to watch this, and that my wife’s family, from different circumstances, also watched it.  The friends with whom we ate our main meal watched it, and given the advertising revenues, I imagine many other people tune in every year as part of the holiday tradition.  What struck me were the testimonials just before or after the commercial breaks.  Celebrities shared what they liked about the holiday and many of them, unsurprisingly, focused on food.  Many indicated that overeating was pleasurable.  I began to think of what it means to be a nation of foodies.

Not everyone is of a cenobitic sensibility, but focusing on the food seems to be paying more attention to the finger pointing at the moon than to the moon itself.  Commercials for television shows of sweaty, nervous chefs wanting to be recognized as the best cooks in the world struck me as somewhat decadent.  Like many professionals I’ve had occasion to eat in “fine restaurants” from time to time.  Do I remember the food for long afterward?  No.  More often I recall the people I was with.  What we talked about.  The food, chefs may be pained to hear, was incidental.  There were deeper issues afoot.  If the internet’s any indication, I’m in the minority here.  Foodies rule.

Special foods on holidays are, naturally enough, a holiday tradition.  Many have their origins in the changing foodstuffs available as the seasons wend their way through their invariable cycle.  Thanksgiving is like the ancient festivals of ingathering—the celebration of plenty ahead of the lean months of living on what we’ve managed to store for the season when winter reigns.  Some animals cope by hibernating until food becomes available again.  Others scavenge their way through chilly, snow-covered days.  Gluttony, however, isn’t primarily a sin against one’s body; it’s the sin of taking more than one’s fair share.  Unequal distribution of wealth is a national sin that grows worse each year.  On Thanksgiving there are many people who don’t have enough to eat.  Jobs can be lost through no fault of one’s own, and want can haunt late November just as readily as jouissance.  Driving home we passed a shopping mall brimming with cars after darkness had fallen.  The larger holiday of Black Friday had begun.

Proof in the Pudding

Writers anticipate and dread proofs.  After several months of delay, I have received the proofs for Holy Horror—it should be out in the next couple of months for both of you who’ve asked about it.  Anticipation is pretty straightforward, but why the dread?  Those of us who write books have to deal with the fact that publishing is, by nature, a slow business.  What I’m proofreading now is material that I wrote a couple of years ago; the final manuscript was submitted back in January.  The internet has accelerated the pace of everything, and now that I have a daily record of my public thoughts on this blog, I can see how my own outlook has changed in that time.  Reading proofs reminds you of whence you came, not where you are.

I suspect that has something to do with the internet and instant access to information.  I also suspect that’s why many of us trust books more than the “open web.”  The oak that has taken centuries to grow is a hardy tree.  The handcrafted piece of furniture lasts longer than the mass produced.  Books, hopefully, stand the test of time.  Writing is an exercise in building eternity.  These thoughts, the author hopes, will be around for some time to come.  As long as libraries endure.   Looking at the proofs, there’s pressure to get things right.  Was I correct in what I wrote down so long ago?  Since then I’ve read dozens of books more.  I’ve even written the draft of another book myself.  I face the proofs and shudder.

Part of my angst, I suppose, is that Holy Horror will likely sell better than my previous two books.  It may actually get read.  No, it won’t be any kind of best-seller, but perhaps a few hundred people will read it.  That’s a lot of pressure for those of us who’ve primarily written for other academics.  Perhaps this fear is the reason I’ve moved to writing about horror films.  Those of us blocked from the academy have to build our own credibility, one book at a time.  Reading the proofs, although already dated, I find myself liking this book.  It was fun to write, and it has a good message, I think.  Even prestige presses know that books about horror films are of popular interest.  As I read through where my mind was in days stretching back before the nightmare of Trump, I see that I had only just started on this path.  Before me are the proofs of that.

Dark Houses

A book can be whatever an author wants it to be.  When it goes through the publication process, however, it becomes a group effort.  Granted, the other parties are motivated by money rather than by the message of the book, but they are professionals.  Editors can point out what’s irrelevant, or beside the point.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  They change things, often, authors admit upon reflection, for the better.  The self-published book shows itself as just what an author wants it to be.  House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story, by Andrea Perron is a case in point.  In three volumes of about 500 pages each, it is (they are) the insider story of the family portrayed in The Conjuring.  After having finished volume one, it’s clear the book needed an editor.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some good stuff here.  The first couple hundred pages are fascinating, although there’s a slow build-up into moving into the Harrisville house.  One thing academics have always been too quick to do is dismiss the experience of non-trained observers.  We have to be skeptical, of course, to spot those who are intentionally deceitful, but a person doesn’t write 1,500 pages without cause.  People do experience strange things, and this book is a family’s recollection of events that inspired a horror movie.  There were a few points in the course of reading through that I found myself pondering new perspectives on the realm of ghosts—shifts of point of view.  There were many points, though, that I found myself muttering that an editor would’ve helped.

As a fully trained academic in the field of studies that handles issues of the soul, I am hungry for primary sources.  Sociologists and psychologists get their information from observers—ordinary people.  It’s only when the claims become extraordinary that such observations are called into doubt.  We have all heard of haunted houses.  We all know that sometimes strange things happen in them.  We can explain such happenings in different ways.  The skeptical explain them away as misperceptions, normal occurrences masquerading as paranormal.  The credulous accept everything at face value.  Truth, it seems to me, is a middle of the road phenomenon.  I’ve always sat on the fence regarding ghosts.  Too many people over too many centuries have reported them with great detail—witnesses include some very reputable and rational individuals—to dismiss them in toto.  After volume one, it seems that something worth exploring took place in the eponymous house.  For full impact, however, who you gonna call?  This time you’d better make it an editor.

Flight Home

Although I was not looking forward to the long, late flight home scheduled for tonight, I can’t help but think there was something almost prophetic in the weather that prevented my trip.  I awoke in Newark only to confirm with many other stranded passengers that this was not a lot of snow.  I’ve had to commute into New York when much higher amounts were in the forecast.  Many of us, meteorologists included, were asking why this storm was so devastating to travel.  Part of the answer comes down to belief.  Nobody believed we could have this kind of nor’easter in November.  Even now nobody seems to want to discuss the elephant in the igloo.  Global warming, we’ve known for decades, will make erratic weather patterns.  We need to think about weather differently than we have before.

One of the motivations behind writing Weathering the Psalms was that for all of our technology, we still don’t understand, or appreciate, the weather.  Driven by dollars in great collectives, businesses are reluctant to allow employees a “day off,” even when many of them have work laptops at home.  We believe in money, supposing the weather to be only a minor nuisance.  Having bought a house, though, has revealed something to me.  Home and hearth are all about staying safe from the weather.  (Well, and in keeping out wild animals too, but we’ll just drive them extinct.)  A house is a place to keep the water and wind out.  We want to keep dry and to prevent the wind from chasing away our body heat.  Homes are our places to keep the weather outside because we instinctively fear it.  Reverence it.  Weather may well be the origins of at least some religious thought.

Ancient peoples and modern religious fundamentalists believe(d) in gods literally in the sky.  They looked up when wanting to understand matters beyond their control.  Yes, predators attacked, but you could fight back.  Against the sky there’s no recourse.   Weather can kill, and can do so in many ways.  Building shelter helps, but we’ve all seen enough hurricane footage to know that even our structures are subject to the wind.  Computer models were suggesting that this storm might have been pulling back for a real roundhouse punch but our conservative views on the weather (such things don’t happen in November, right, Edmund Fitzgerald?) prevail.  The official stance of our current government is this is all a myth anyway.  It’s only when myths interfere with money that we start to pay attention.

Saturdays Past

Feeling somewhat between a state of self-pity and that of a salmon who couldn’t find his way upstream, I turned to horror.  The weekend before Thanksgiving has traditionally been AAR/SBL weekend for me.  I missed the Annual Meeting a few times due to unemployment, but for the most part I have been there every year since 1991.  As the representative of a publisher it is an endurance-testing event.  I had half-hour meetings scheduled all day on Saturday, Sunday, and today, and even a couple for the much neglected Tuesday morning.  Then I found myself home, awaiting a suitcase delivery.  United Airlines couldn’t say where the bag would be, and it only arrived Saturday night.  My wife had to work all that day, and so I turned to my boyhood.  Saturday afternoon was monster movie time.

For my current book project I’m discussing the components of The Conjuring diegesis.  I’m also trying to do some traditional research on the films.  Airport-lagged (I hadn’t been on a jet, but at my age being awake so late and sleeping so poorly has its own consequences), I pulled out Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation.  I wondered what it would be like to see them in the order of their plots rather than their actual chronological order.  Would the story hold together?  Would I find anything new?  The films discussed in my books are those I’ve watched many times—what I like to call “guilty pleasure research.”  Or just a boyhood Saturday afternoon revisited.  I couldn’t leave the house since I was told my bag couldn’t just be dropped on the porch.

From the beginning the story of Annabelle, the “possessed doll,” takes many twists and turns.  The demon is invited into the spooky toy by distraught parents after the tragic death of their child.  It then takes over an orphan who is adopted by a couple that she murders, as their natural daughter, in the earlier installment.  The doll is possessed in that telling because the girl Annabelle had joined a Satanic cult, like Charles Manson’s, and her blood dripped into the doll as she lay dying.  After claiming another female victim, the doll is sent to a couple of nurses as a present, where she appears at the opening of The Conjuring.  The story shifts with each sequential telling, leaving the binge viewer dissatisfied.  I haven’t had time for a double-feature since moving this summer.  Thick snow still covered the ground and the sky held that solemn haze of late November.  My colleagues were discussing erudite topics in Denver, and I was home using horror as therapy.  If you’re curious for further results, the book will be out in a couple of years.  Be sure to look for it at AAR/SBL.

Pleasant Dreams

The last time I watched Pleasantville I didn’t have this blog running to discuss it.  It was also during the Obama administration where it felt more like nostalgia rather than a documentary.  In case you’re not familiar, Pleasantville is a movie about how a nerdy teen, David, and his cool sister Jennifer get sucked into a 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville.”  They find themselves in black-and-white and in a world as regimented as Stepford, but somewhat more humorously so.  As Jennifer is eager to get back home, she introduces this colorless world to sex, and as the two-dimensional characters begin to experience strong emotions colors start to appear.  The “picture perfect” Pleasantville begins to let the plastic facade of the 1950s slip to reveal a complex and messy world of true humanity beneath.

Watching the film in the age of Trump, as with most things, interjected a current of fear.  The townspeople feel threatened by those who are different, colorful.  They want everything just as it was—women serving their husbands, everyone the same hue, and pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist.  It may have been originally intended as an homage to the the 1960s, but what became clear in an age of MAGA is that crowds easily respond to suggestions of hatred.  Many of those in the group, individually, are “coloreds” themselves, but fear to let it show.  Conformity is much safer even if it means hating those who are different.  I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the superiority of the white man apparently was.  One of the characters is, tellingly, named Whitey.

Initially drawn to the film seeking biblical references (occupational hazard) I knew there was an Eden scene before I first watched it.  Margaret, on whom David has a crush, has discovered actual fruit at Lover’s Lane.  She brings him an apple which, the TV Repairman (if you’re lost, please watch the movie—it’s quite enjoyable) points out, is a form of sin in this world of simple answers and unspoken repression.  A mash-up of Jasper Fforde and American Graffiti, the film exposes the lie behind the idea that all were put on earth to serve the white man.  Jennifer discovers books and stays behind in colorized Pleasantville to go to college, something of a rarity in those days.  Although the movie bombed at the box office, it has a serious message to convey.  There was no perfect 1950s iconic America.  The process of becoming great is one of evolution, rather than that of a fabled Eden, available only in black-and-white.

Righteous City

I’m a stomach sleeper, if that’s not TMI.  This began many years ago when I realized that upon awaking from nightmares I was always on my back.  I started doing what I knew was dangerous to infants, safe since I haven’t been part of that demographic for decades.  Terrazzo isn’t one of my favorite sleeping surfaces, however, and on my back on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport I realized I couldn’t roll over, for many reasons.  My glasses, for one thing, were in the internal pocket of my Harris Tweed.  For another, on one’s stomach one’s wallet is exposed in a way that’s maybe too inviting.  Before suggesting I could’ve placed my wallet and glasses elsewhere, let me write in my own defense that rationality isn’t my strong suit after midnight.

The night before

I found a spot next to a set of escalators where the constant thrumming alternately kept me awake and soothed me to nod.  I heard many languages spoken as I drifted in and out of consciousness for the few hours I had to wait for dawn.  And nobody disturbed me.  This is rather remarkable—a person asleep is a vulnerable being.  Doing it out in public with no private walls was a new experience for me.  I don’t sleep on planes, buses, or trains.  Or, until two days ago, airports.  It brought to mind the biblical world.  A town was considered a righteous place if a stranger could sleep unmolested in a public place.  The traveller—please take note, United—was in need of special consideration.  My situation revealed something unexpected about Newark Airport.

The morning after

It was full of angry, frustrated people.  I opened my eyes at five a.m. to find a very long line snaking down the corridor behind me—a queue that had been there when I first drifted off.  These were people trying to reschedule flights since United couldn’t bump that day’s passengers because they’d decided not to fly out the night before.  Despite the weariness and intensity of emotions, there was very little bad behavior.  We were biblical strangers, mostly in the same circumstances.  No creature comforts, no privacy.  An east Asian woman said the next morning that in her country the airline would’ve brought food, and blankets at least.  In the United States fiscal concerns reign supreme, however; do you know how much it would cost to care for all these stranded people?  When I opened my eyes the situation was about the same as when I closed them.  I couldn’t help noticing I awoke on my back.

Odyssey in Blue

Now I have the United bastardization of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stuck in my head.  This comes from listening to the same recording approximately a quarter-gazillion times while on hold.  I expected to awake this morning in Denver, but instead I learned a very valuable lesson about refugees.  It went down like this: yesterday’s east coast storm over-performed while United Airlines under-performed.  Seeing the forecast, I changed to an earlier flight to try to beat it out of Dodge.  I arrived in Newark only to have my flight incrementally delayed until it was cancelled around 9:30.  By this time all the hotels within 11 miles of the airport were booked solid from earlier cancellations.  Taxis were running into Manhattan only.  Access to New Jersey Transit was not possible.  I’d been awake since the 4 a.m. text alert from United that said bad weather was on the way.  Finally, around 1 a.m. I found an unoccupied piece of floor and slept next to total strangers.

The experience opened my eyes to the plight of refugees.  Weary airline employees (probably worried about getting home themselves) were not friendly and didn’t welcome questions.  The line for rescheduling flights was, by no exaggeration, at least 400 individuals long, one of whom told me this morning she’d waited 8-hours to talk to someone.  Since cancelled flight baggage is not checked, it had to be retrieved, and the line for doing such was equally as long as the rescheduling queue.  United was under-staffed, stressed, and not in control of the situation.  Nobody wanted to listen to you.  You were just another stranger with a sad story and all of us have problems, don’t you know.  The refugee has no place to go.  Nobody to care.

With my aging cell phone dying, my lifeline to those who cared was fading.  The shops closed, cutting off access to food.  Ground transportation was not responsive.  Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded, relying on their own wits (or in my case, lack thereof) to decide what to do.  I just wanted someone to say “Go here.  Do this.”  Instead I found myself wrapped in tweed, using my carry-on, Jacob-like, for a pillow.  I felt for the strangers around me.  They were suddenly friends as we were all in the same category—displaced people.  This nightmare lasted under 24 hours for me, but I am now keenly aware that it never ends for some.  Refugees need a caring glance.  A kind word.  And it would help if the powers that be would leave Gershwin alone.