Prophetic Breakfast

The irony doesn’t escape me—and why does irony always try to do that, anyway?—that Ezekiel 4:9 is about famine.  I’ve posted about the breakfast cereals from Food for Life (yet more irony, from Corona, California) before, but during this time of shortages at the local grocery stores, famine is an apt topic.  I don’t mean to underplay famine.  Death by starvation is something nobody should have to face, but looking ahead, who knows?  The reason I was eating Ezekiel 4:9 is that my usual cereal brand was sold out.  Empty shelves and the prophet seem symbolic, don’t you think?  The box quotes the verse as a kind of health-food recipe, but the point was, in context, that this was not something you’d normally want to eat.  This was food for hard times.

Ezekiel, you see, lived through the collapse of his own society.  In his case it wasn’t because of a virus, but imperial ambition.  The Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar was expanding and Judah was in the way.  The city was captured and Ezekiel, a priest, was exiled.  His symbolic action of eating poor food was to show people they ought to plan on this as “the new normal.”  Even now we hear people saying, “when things get back to normal…” but I also wonder if that will happen.  Collapse can occur slowly.  The thing about reading history is that we see centuries compressed into a few hundred pages.  Things take time.  Like restocking toilet paper.  Meanwhile empires crumble.

The Babylonian Empire didn’t last long.  Oh, it was long enough to mean some people knew nothing else, but looking back we can see that it held sway for decades rather than centuries.  In the middle of his book, Ezekiel changes his tune.  Once the temple is destroyed, when the worst has happened, he starts looking for a better future.  Many people have been under serious strain since November 2016.  Anxiety levels have been consistently high for damaging lengths of time.  I suspect the book of Revelation hasn’t been so well thumbed for decades.  The seventies were also apocalyptic times, as I recall.  Although we’re living through history, we each do it on the ground.  We experience it in our own little lives.  These seismic shifts can’t help but impact us.  It helps me to act like some things are normal.  I still get out of bed early.  I stumble into the kitchen and fumble on the light.  I settle down for breakfast with a prophet and wait.

Frankenstein’s Family

The story of Frankenstein has many unexpected twists and turns.  I’m currently reading a book about the writing of the novel—something I’ve done a number of times before.  There was an aspect of this story that hadn’t really caught my attention too much, but then, circumstances changed.  Suddenly old information became new.  It all started with a missed opportunity from childhood. 

It was a real puzzle.  Although my grandmother lived with us her last years, I never knew the name of her mother.  There had been hints.  My grandfather’s book with birthdays in it listed the first name, so I had a Christian moniker and birthdate only.  She’d died young, I knew, somewhere in the Washington, DC area.  This had been the state of my knowledge for many years.  My grandmother died before I was a teen, and before I took any interest in the family story.  I knew her heritage was Germanic, her father having been a first-generation American.

So young Mary Shelley (technically Godwin) was on a tour of Europe with her lover Percy.  Although they both came from distinguished backgrounds, they were cash poor.  Running out of money they made their way back to England as cheaply as they could.  They passed near Castle Frankenstein along the way, although there is no record that they actually visited it.  The name seems to have stuck, as does the story that they potentially learned about a mad scientist who’d lived in that castle.  This scientist was a theologian who dabbled in alchemy and experiments with dead bodies.  I know what you’re thinking—it’s like a puzzle piece we desperately want to go in this place but its fit’s ambiguous.  We’re not sure how much of this Mary Shelley knew.  The alchemist’s name was Johann Konrad Dippel.  I’d read about him before.

I’d spent nearly an entire summer some years back working on my grandmother’s family, finding little.  Just two years ago I did a casual search on “Find a Grave,” and to my surprise, I found my great-grandfather.  I knew it was him because his second wife’s name matched information from all the family records.  The cemetery record, in Maryland rather than DC, had his first wife’s name.  It was that easy.  After decades of searching, a few keystrokes revealed the mystery.  When it also listed her parents, the significance of her mother’s maiden name—Dippel—escaped me.  Now I have no way of knowing if this is the same Dippel family of Castle Frankenstein, but it put flesh on the bones of my long-standing interest in monsters.  Seeking them out may be the same as learning family secrets.  Perhaps it always is.

Die Besuch

It was both sweet and perhaps misguided.  I’ve not written much about the coronavirus because I’ve really had nothing to say on the pandemic.  Also I’m squeamish.  Being a remote worker I spend most of my time alone anyway.  So when the knock came to my door, I wasn’t sure I should answer.  Afraid that some vital bit of information was to be conveyed, I gave in.  Two young ladies stood there and at first I thought they were selling Girl Scout cookies, but one of them had some copies of The Watchtower in a folder and I knew that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had come calling.  I didn’t invite them in.  I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but those who go around knocking on doors might have been exposed to who knows what.  They were here, the older one said, to give good news.

Although she didn’t mention the coronavirus directly, she said people were feeling anxious.  But God—our creator—had promised everything would work out.  She read me Revelation 21.4, about God wiping every tear from our eyes, from an iPad.  I’ve read that verse many times on my own, and, tainted with decades of specialist knowledge, knew a good deal about the context in which it was written.  The Witnesses didn’t stay long.  As they walked away I couldn’t help but think how this current scare has been affecting us all.  We are afraid.  I don’t need any advice when it comes to social distancing (I am an introvert, after all), but there’s a kind of hopelessness afoot.  I don’t read the papers but every headline is about the virus.  The world seems awfully quiet.

This will go down in history, I suspect, as a strange episode.  I feel guilty for conducting normal business, as if there is anything I could do to prevent the disease beyond isolating myself even further.  It’s perhaps the waiting.  Those of us in circumstances where joy is more fleeting than a visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses often invest huge amounts of time waiting for things to get better.  The news, for example, that a piece has been accepted for publication.  Or that a long wished for promotion has come.  Or that somebody has actually read your book.  Such news is rare indeed and outside a disease rages out of control.  What else beyond missionary zeal would send you to strangers’ doors at such a time as this?  They didn’t even leave any tracts.

Icelandic Gods

There’s a lot to like about Iceland.  It has geothermal heat.  The people are literate and proud of it.  They don’t have an army.  Viking heritage and northern lights—what an interesting place!  A friend recently sent me a satirical piece on Patheos titled “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Mental Disorders,” by Andrew Hall.  I may not be as naive as I once was, but I have to admit I was nearly taken in on the fly.  Maybe because the idea seems so much better than what we have over here in our warmer, but less educated world.  Clearly, however, religion is extremely important to people, and if it is a mental disorder it’s an essential one.  Hall mades the astute point that Iceland didn’t want to become like the United States.  Who would, at this point?

Although this is a satirical piece, like most satire it works because it has chunks of truth in it.  Countries run by religions do seem to get into quite a lot of trouble.  I often think this is primarily a monotheistic problem.  If a nation accepts many gods, then adding those of other peoples is hardly an issue.  With a single deity, however, there is a single truth.  Anyone different is, by default, wrong.  When entire nations self-identify with a religion, it is only too easy to begin seeing those who believe differently just across the border as a threat.  Faith becomes fight.  As if a deity who always claims to value peace is only satisfied when we’re killing those who don’t share our same peaceful outlook.  Irony and satire have met together, it seems.

I’ve never been to Iceland.  It’s on my bucket list.  As a rockhound, the volcanic nature of the place calls to me.  I do wonder, however, how a vegan might fare on a far northern island.  My times in Orkney are among my mental treasures.  Those northern Scottish isles were places of wonder.  Not the most options regarding comestibles, however.  What they lacked in food they made up for in magic.  Iceland, despite the satire’s bite, has a considerable population that believes in the little people.  Anyone who’s too quick to dismiss such things ought to spend some time in the far north.  Driving to the ancient sites of Orkney certainly shifted my perspective a bit.  There’s great value in listening to the wisdom of those relatively isolated from the rest of the world.  You might, however, have to bring your own beans.

Vulnerability

Perhaps the most insidious thing 45 has been doing is undermining expertise.  If you’re like me you’ll be subject to that sudden, clenching fear that we live in a house of cards.  Everything is built on an extremely tenuous situation and we don’t understand the basis on which it’s built.  (That’s one reason I take such an interest in geology.)  So this morning I climbed out of bed around 3:30 a.m., my usual time.  There was no internet.  This has happened before, and I know enough to turn off power to the router and reboot.  This I did several times before finally calling RCN.  I pictured a tech sitting in a lonely basement at the wee hours, perhaps glad for a service call.  He was very nice.  Still, after having me do the basic checks again, he said he’d have to send a technician.  They, lazily, don’t start work until 8 a.m.

Now here’s where the expertise comes in.  Most of us use the internet pretty constantly.  We don’t know how it works, and when it’s broken we can’t fix it.  I can’t even figure out what some of these devices are.  In all likelihood the technician (my shining prince or princess) will not understand the underlying coding that makes the devices work.  They’ll be able (I hope, and if you’re reading this my hope is not misplaced) to figure out what’s wrong with the hardware.  I suspect even they, however, wouldn’t be able to lay the cable to my house, or repair it, if it were damaged.  We all rely on others farther down the line to know how to do their jobs.  Experts.  House of cards.  With a president claiming experts to be obsolete, I wonder how even the mighty could tweet without an internet connection.

All of this makes me feel quite vulnerable.  I work from home and I need a solid, reliable, steady internet connection.  The day we moved in, literally, two techs came.  It was a Sunday morning.  One of them fell asleep in the office chair while the younger one, who spoke no English, did all the work.  Every time I use the internet, I feel like I’m trying to add a new story to this house of cards.  I don’t know what to do if it goes wrong.  Since phone (and television, at least theoretically) is bundled in this, I can’t even call.  Well, I couldn’t if I didn’t have a cell phone.  My life is tied up with tech, and I can’t fix it if it’s broken.  I made it through a master’s degree without using a computer.  My frame of reference is ancient.  If a bird tweets and there’s no signal, does it make a sound?  Then, without explanation, the connection was reborn, just before 7 a.m.  Who says there’s no such thing as resurrection?

Human HU

In these times of extreme xenophobia, we desperately need to understand those who are different.  When my brother recently shared his discovery of The HU’s album The Gereg, I was at first a little concerned.  That deep-seated childhood evangelicalism suggests anything that unfamiliar is bound to be satanic.  How unfamiliar?  Mongolian throat-singing unfamiliar.  Songs sung in Mongolian, unfamiliar.  Album art that could be heavy metal.  I’d never come across anything like it.  I suppose it’s a natural, knee-jerk reaction to say anything so unfamiliar is potentially demonic, and it shows just how paranoid a culture can be.  We think of 1950’s America as “the norm.”  I wasn’t alive then, but I’ve seen pictures.  Buzz cuts still give me the willies.  I trust Mongolians more.

I don’t know if The HU is a deliberate play on The Who or not, but the word roughly translates to “human.”  Like many ancient practices, nobody thought to write down the origins of throat singing.  Traditionally it was what Inuit women did when men were out on the hunt.  Like many aspects of hunter-gatherer society, it fascinates.  Some cultures reported that when Christian missionaries came, with their cultural imperialism in tow, they suppressed throat singing.  It looks like I wasn’t the only one raised to be suspicious of that which is different.  I learned, however, of my own cultural biases.  I learned that ones’ own assumptions must be interrogated.  If humanity is to survive, we must learn to try to understand one another.

Although the actual roots of throat singing are lost in unwritten times, I strongly suspect it has a religious, or if you prefer, spiritual, origin.  When women gather it isn’t the same as when men consolidate power and institutionalize violence.  I’ve read that when women rule there is a strong impulse to cooperate, to suppress aggression.  Men can learn this.  Indeed, as those white, male missionaries took up their positions in far-flung parts of the globe they spread the idea that men alone held the divine right of, if not kings, priests.  Conversion, you see, is seldom gentle.  Making the world in your own image, if you’re a man, runs into certain obvious problems right away.  HU means human.  When I feel the cold paranoia of my own government creeping up on me, I cue-up the soundtrack of my life.  I’m no longer a young man, and I don’t fear the different as much as I used to.  I need to hear something different, something human.

The Reading Bug

With the sunshine coming in my office can feel pleasantly warm in winter.  I chose this location not because of its southern exposure, but because it is a small room and it’s a good place for books.  Although it’s January, the sun brought a shield bug to life the other day.  At first I didn’t know what it was.  I’d hear a loud buzzing followed by a rather obvious crash, but I saw no insect.  Since we had a string of sunny days it kept reawakening in the mornings, warmed by sunlight on my windowsill and spent the days climbing on and sometimes attempting to fly through the glass.  I identified the beetle quickly once I saw it.  As I watched the poor creature’s progress (or lack thereof), I was sorry that I couldn’t release it outside.  It was still quite cold out, and I didn’t think it would survive.

Spending long hours in the same room with my perplexed insect friend, I came to ponder what its experience of life was like.  I’m no Franz Kafka or Thomas Nagel, but I had to wonder when it chose to spend the night on a clay replica I had made of an Ugaritic abecedary.  I’d made this clay model when I was teaching, and I used it as one of several visual aids to help students understand how writing had developed.  (I had even ordered authentic papyrus to pass around, and the single sheet of vellum cost more than an entire book in those days.)  My doctoral work largely focused on Ugarit, and in the 1990s it looked like that sub-specialization might be on the ascendant.  We often live to have our mistakes rubbed in our faces.  But why had the shield bug picked this very spot to roost?  It looked as if it were trying to learn to read cuneiform.  It needn’t bother.

Although I habitually awake quite early, it isn’t easy getting out of bed.  Especially in a cold house during winter.  My entomological friend, of course, had to wait for the sun itself to come back to life.  Night on the windowsill can’t be comfortable, especially when the radiator is under the other window in the room.  No matter how much I try, I’ll never know if I’ve succeeded in understanding the experience of that bug.  How it is enslaved to the sun, and how it keeps on climbing, even after it falls, raising a tiny geyser of dust.  How it flies full speed into a barrier it cannot see, and then tries again.  I may not be able to understand this beetle sleeping on my Ugaritic alphabet, but I do think there’s something here to learn.