Abroad at Home

Now that I’m back in the United States (but still traveling), I’ve been thinking about impermanence.  That is to say, when you plan an international trip you like things to be somewhat familiar.  At least I do.  For example, when arriving in customs and immigration anxiety can run pretty high.  Having once been stopped at the border of Canada, I have bad memories of how even friendly nations can treat one with suspicion.  Upon arriving at Heathrow, however, entering the United Kingdom was simply a matter of scanning my passport and smiling for the camera.  (It was much more difficult getting back into my native US, ironically, in both these cases.)  Believe me, I don’t mind the improvements, but I didn’t know to expect them.  The same was true of the change in currency.  I even learned that all those pound coins in a box at home, so solid compared to American money, we’re no longer good.  Money for nothing, or nothing for money?

Currency is highly symbolic.  Retiring a form of currency, of course, disadvantages those who live abroad.  And I’m not picking on the UK here.  When my wife and I visited what used to be Czechoslovakia (which is now no longer even a country), our Deutschmarks exchanged for fistfuls of colorful crowns.  This was shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and times of uncertainty tend to devalue the symbols we use to represent buying power.  Although we went from Prague to Vienna, we didn’t have to change all our Czech currency to Austrian.  We didn’t exchange it all, knowing that it was very likely that Czech money would change before we ever got back.  Indeed, the country we visited is no longer a political entity and we’ve not had the opportunity to return.  Who can see the future?

Impermanence is part of being human.  Apart from issues such as global warming, which is creating a more and more inhospitable climate for all species, these changes are based mostly on human culture.  The British currency system was only decimalized in 1971.  Some forms of currency were then no longer legal tender.  I used to collect coins, and constantly changing money is a boon for those who stay with it.  If you keep old coinage long enough, its symbolic value increases beyond what it’s face value ever was.  That’s probably not good investment advice, but for me it was a matter, at least in part, of believing in permanence.  If I take a wheat-back penny from 1909 and hand it to a clerk (where pennies are still accepted), it’s legal tender.  It would have, however, bought much more back when it was first minted.  The symbol itself, it seems, has changed.  And that applies even at home.

Keeping Pace

I had no idea my life was in danger. I was out for a weekend walk with my wife, when suddenly, there they were. Snails. In case you think I’m over-reacting, take a look at Christopher Jobson’s piece on Colossal titled “Why Knights Fought Snails in the Margins of Medieval Books.” One of the main points is that the snails were symbols. We tend to forget the power of symbols today. Even modern vampires no longer react to crucifixes—what are we supposed to do? For those who are willing to linger a moment instead of rushing on immediately to the next thing, snails give us quite a bit to contemplate. In a world that hates slow-pokes, “consider,” as my friend Ecclesiastes might’ve said, “the snail.”

As highly evolved cousins of the snail, we suppose we were cut out for greater things. We build towers. We make new nations. We watch them both crumble. On the ruins of those walls we find snails. They have very little to do and expend no worries about getting there on time. Nobody emulates them, although some masticate them. They tend to disappear when the sun is hot. They don’t like the limelight. Yet snails contribute to our world in ways we simply don’t take the time to contemplate. Our time has been commodified. We’re told when to sleep and when to wake for our jobs. Then we’re told none of it matters anymore since 45 has decided to change the rules with his latest tweet. And still the snails crawl.

Before I learned to fear them, I remember happy childhood moments finding snails. This was generally not at home since we rented even then, and landlords have a weird compulsion about landscaping. When wandering far enough from home I’d find snails crawling on stalks of damp grasses early in the morning. They fascinated me. If I plucked them off, they’d pull in their eye-stalks and retreat into their shells. So secure. So symbolic. Eventually I learned that I was obligated to move fast. Keep pace. Be measured by my productivity. Pharaoh’s watching, after all, and that quantity of bricks required isn’t getting any smaller. Not many, I would learn, share my appreciation of snails. It takes a great deal of confidence to go slowly. Those who routinely ignore speed limits won’t understand my symbolism here, I know. Still, I can’t help but think we have a great deal to learn from our cousins who remind us that time isn’t everything after all.

Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.

600px-Hugieia-pentagram

The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.

Hidden Messages

Symbolic gestures are among the simple pleasures of life. Unobserved, and certainly unappreciated, they comfort only those who perform them most of the time. Nevertheless, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Upon being summarily released after long-term employment at a certain institution of higher education, the day I left campus for the last time, I left a note with a Shakespeare quote tacked to my office door before literally brushing the dust from my feet as I drove through the gates never to return. The quote was from Julius Caesar, a play to which my niece had taken me that summer for a Shakespeare in the Park performance:

Let me have men about me that are fat
Sleek-headed men, such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

I have no doubts that my symbolic gesture was overlooked and the chit summarily discarded as the detritus of a warped (i.e., liberal) mind. The act, however, had been done.

Due to a booking accident, I once found myself flying first class. Those who know me will understand just how vexing this was for me. I fly quite a bit for work, and I am a populist through and through. Airlines set apart special bits of feet-darkened carpet for premium-class passengers to tread upon. They cordon off a special “lane” for the pampered class that is a nothing more than a matter of a jump to the left and a step to the right away from where those of us who wear last year’s (or decade’s) clothes board the same vehicle headed for the same destination and to which we’ll all arrive at the same time. I don’t disparage those who like receiving drinks while on the tarmac and hot towels to freshen up, and actual food on real plates while those of us before the curtain insist that there is no wizard hiding up there after all. I’m just not one of them.

IMG_0899

So I found myself in a leather seat with an entire cow’s worth of skin to myself. I had never been so kindly treated on a plane, with perhaps the exception of flying economy on Virgin Atlantic. I knew from the in-flight magazine that those behind me received only little pretzels and overpriced snack boxes while I was offered warm food and champagne. I pulled out my reading for the flight, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett. I’m sure nobody else noticed. But wasn’t that precisely the point?

Merry X-Man

XMenComic books were hard to keep up with for a kid of limited means. Consequently, I never heard of the X-Men until the movies started coming out. Since I suppose I fit the profile of the guy whose life has devolved into day after long day in the office, superheroes are burdened with living life for me. I’ve watched the X-Men movie a few times, but after reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics my latest viewing took on a different angle. Of course, Mageto is presented as being separated from his parents at a concentration camp in Poland as the film opens. A child on trial for his ethno-religious heritage. That, and the fact that he’s a mutant, lends him a perspective on evolution not shared by many. His scheme to transform world leaders into mutants is premised on his understanding of evolution. He tells Senator Kelly, however, that God is too slow. That apparently minor line may bear more weight than it seems at first.

I can’t see the title “X-Men” without thinking of Xmas. Probably the fact that it is now mid-December has something to do with it, along with the bumper crop of Keep Christ in Christmas media this year. Yard signs, church marquees, bumper stickers. People who don’t know the history of their own holiday fear that they’re losing its meaning. Already by the twelfth century the abbreviation Xmas was in use—this is a centuries old tradition that predates American white Christmases by several hundred years. The X is not a substitute, but rather a symbol. A religion that has lost its appreciation of symbols has become just another set of onerous laws.

Maybe we can learn a lesson from our X-Men and their too slow deity. Not having read the X-Men when I was young, and even now noting that there are just as many X-Women as Men, I had to puzzle out the name on my own. Of course, it wasn’t too hard to see the connection of Charles Xavier with his clan of adopted mutants, and therefore the origin of their X. It is a symbol and no one disparages Cyclops his sight or Storm her lightning (miracles all) for having an apocopated title. I think, too, of how the Grinch stole, and returned, Christmas. Dr. Seuss created a tale that captured the essence of Christmas without so much as a religious vocable in the the book. And his eponymous character has come to represent all those who refuse to celebrate when occasion calls for it. So when God is too slow, X-Men, or even a Grinch in a pinch, can keep the X in Xmas.

Symbolic Confusion

While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.

I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.

This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.

Retrograde Hollow-days

Surrounded by the intoxicatingly ebullient aroma of balsam, it is difficult to believe that it is not yet Christmas. As 4-Hers decorate their wreathes, in November, I recall that the first signs of Christmas appeared in the stores before its unexpected cousin Halloween this year. In fact, stores hawking Christmas remain open year round. This retrograde motion of the holidays in time belies the very concept of the “holy day.” Ancients, and not-so-ancients, believed that there actually was something different about particular days. The trimmings and the trappings were secondary to the point of the day; something momentous had transpired on this very day, making it unlike any other. With the advent of industrialization and its unrelenting work ethic, holidays came to represent a kind of mini-exodus, a release from labor that falls outside the insufficient weekend. Leisure time encourages shopping. A modern holiday is born.

A child's Christmas in Bucharest

The increase in labor-saving devices has placed us in a twilight of leisure. Holidays can be anticipated many months in advance—gifts purchased earlier and earlier, until the holiday itself seems to pale by comparison. Moving retrograde into other seasons. The joys of the consumer holiday are hollow. It is too easily forgotten that money is a symbol, a mere medium of exchange. It has become an end in itself. Just two centuries ago nobody would have dreamed of collecting the symbolic patina of a capitalist system for a profession. Now accounting may lead to great wealth. The wealth, however, is transparent. Millionaires, like emperors, are disinclined to have the fact that their clothes are immaterial pointed out. They are, after all, where we want to be. Let the one with no dreams pop the first seam.

Holidays have the capacity to give symbolic meaning to life. They emphasize the cycles of nature and of life itself: birth, procreation, death. Removed from context, however, they lose their meaning and become just another excuse to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much. We call it celebrating. Those on the receiving end of the cash flow have the most to gain by promoting such hollow-days. Nothing is so easily exploited as child-like anticipation. The scent of balsam takes me back to a far-distant childhood this November night. The memories, no matter how dysfunctional the setting, are serene and full of anticipation. The symbolism suggests this may not be vanity after all. Until the bank statement comes, and the hollow-days begin all over again.