Category Archives: Thingishness

To Savor and Be Savored

First a riddle:

One of those beings whom it is difficult to describe pleasantly.  Overpowering, off-putting, unshapely. And yet…And yet in the right context, with the right collaborators, her essence transmutes her edges into something altogether irreplaceable. She softens into subtle appreciation, imbues her community with richness and depth, and vanishes entirely in the process. Closely examined, her powers are mystical, even saintly.

Next a clue:

She’s believed to have traveled across the Hindu Kush with Alexander’s army. Long after the would-be conquerors turned to dust, she remained in India, having vanquished the subcontinent without raising a finger. [Remember: To be mighty is not the same thing as to be long-lived.] Her perpetuity has something to do perhaps, with her gift of elevating all around her. Her talent for punching up the bland existence of others. Her wisdom lies in knowing that life aspires to savor and be savored. Her greatness lies in devoting herself unreservedly to this warm-blooded dream.

Now the answer:

She is asafoetida.

A speculation:

Unbeautiful and deeply desired, her strange charisma is such that you will find her written into ancient scriptures, praised for the medicine of her presence, admired for her virtues, invited into every home– but left out of almost all poetry. Not everything that delights us is deemed lyrical. Some entities travel on bright limbs and lithe syllables. Like hummingbirds, sunflowers, saffron and starlight. Ravens, and raindrops, driftwood, and snail shells. Tumbleweed, tidepools, barnacles and temple bells. They find their way into poems with the ease of an otter slipping into its river. Other beings are more burdened, in that their selves and syllables do not lilt, they lumber. They are not the sort to ripple or reverberate, rather they lie athwart, like a boulder on a narrow mountain pass. Interrupting the flow of traffic and thoughts, of rhythm and rhyme.  This does not empty them of poetic possibility. Not at all! But not everyone recognizes this. Perhaps this is why poems about asafoetida are few and far between.

A lesson in language

We humans are a fickle lot, fueled by a potent mixture of ignorance, enthusiasm, arrogance and grace. We make up our minds– but our minds are so very different. Contradictions are bound to abound. In bygone days asafoetida was called Food of the Gods by the Persians. Today the French, Turks, Germans and others call her some version of — Devil’s Dung. Celestial seasoning to some, an utter abomination to others. This is not a problem, but a paradox. They are not the same thing. Sometimes what is lost in translation is subtle and wafting, like a nuance. Sometimes it is teeming and weighty– like a world. 

The anatomy of a spice

No matter the name it is assigned, this noxious spice is derived from Ferula asafoetida, a perennial herb with lacy green leaves that grows to nearly seven feet. Every part of this plant exudes a fetid scent. The roots of this plant contain a milky sap. Cut the stalk close to the ground before flowering season, and the sap will dry into an odorous, plentiful resin–as much as two pounds of resin in three months. This reeking resin, long out of daily use in its countries of origin, ignored by much of the rest of the world, is a prized spice in India. To the native nose, a single whiff is enough to be unmistakable. This malodorous spice disappears into Indian delicacies and everyday fare alike, where it miraculously tempers itself, and all things alongside it into a difficult-to-describe form of deliciousness. If you think of asafoetida as an Indian spice, you would be both right and wrong. The country that accounts for an estimated 40% of the global consumption of asafoetida, imports it from the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan (more than 12,000 tonnes a year.) To be native to a place is nice, but one does not become a celebrity by staying at home. Every spice knows, to be properly feted, one must venture abroad. And so it is with this strangest and smelliest of spices. There is in this fact, odd comfort to be had.

The takeaway (that is also the giveback):

Maybe asafoetida reminds us that there is place in this world for every eccentricity– including our own. Reminds us that every obnoxious tendency we encounter is also a potent gift, awaiting the hot oil of life’s frying pan. Maybe we too are destined to spill our singular flavor into everything– and vanish without a trace.


Mountain of Light

I remember learning about the Koh-i-noor diamond in history class. That fabled diamond whose name means ‘Mountain of Light’ and whose fate was mixed up in a parade of invasions and colorful dynasties. Thought to have been pried from the earth in the mines of Golconda for a forgotten raja it eventually surfaced in Babar’s kingdom, who set its worth at “the value of one day’s food for all the world,” then left it to his son Humayun, who set it bouncing between the hands of emperors and sultans, several of whom were overthrown by ambitious offspring. Like Shah Jahan, in whose hands the Ko-i-noor twinkled for a bit before tumbling to Aurangzeb, his infamous son and captor. What a fickle life it led, this glittering rock. Gifted to hospitable Shahs, hidden in harems, sewn into turbans, serially stolen, traded for thrones, signed off in treaties, routinely tangled up in palace intrigues, ritual blindings, and mightily cursed. “He who owns the diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes.” There’s a catch for you.

In 1813 after decades of fighting, the Koh-i-noor returned to India (from a country that would become the country we now know as Afghanistan,) in the hands of the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. By this time it was so much more than a ridiculously large and beautiful gemstone. It was a dramatic symbol of unassailable prestige and unstoppable power. Singh’s plan to bequeath the diamond to a sect of Hindu priests after his death, was not well-received by the British empire. An anonymous editorial of the time lamented that, “the most costly gem in the known world, has been committed to the trust of a profane, idolatrous and mercenary priesthood.” But good (or at least expensive) things come to empires that wait. England waited. Four violent years followed Singh’s death, four years in which his throne seated and unseated four different rulers of Punjab in quick succession. At the end of this gory period, the only living heirs to the throne were a boy-king and his mother. The mother was exiled, and the son persuaded to amend a treaty, effectively relinquishing his rights to his kingdom and signing the diamond into the hands of the British empire. To be fair to the Brits in charge, the young king was only ten years old at the time, and most likely supremely disinterested in diamonds and kingdoms. I wish I could tell you they gave him back his mother, and threw in a shiny blue bicycle to sweeten the deal. But that is not what happened. Not by a long shot. But let us leave that, at that.

Before sailing to England and being cut down to size and set in a late Queen’s crown, where it winks to this day, this adventurous bit of bling is recorded to have been 186 carats and the size of ‘a small hen’s egg’. I don’t know exactly what the size of a small hen or her egg is, but I recently learned that a carat is a measurement of weight equivalent to 200 milligrams. As such it is not all that interesting. But what is interesting is that the word carat comes from the Arabic quirat which refers to the carob bean that was part of the ancient Mediterannean system of weights and measurements. And I don’t quite know why, but the image of bygone traders and merchants holding up scales weighted with gold and gemstones on one side and little brown seeds from a local carob tree on the other, pleases me greatly. 
Perhaps this is where your interest in the Koh-i-noor diamond ends. But not everyone’s.

There is an attorney in Pakistan for instance, who has written more than 786 letters petitioning the Queen of England to return the Koh-i-noor diamond to his country. [“More than 786 letters” strikes me as a very specifically general number of letters to write. I wonder if the journalist who was researching the matter just got tired of counting]. Prime Ministers of India ,and MPs too, have made polite and repeated requests of their own. Not to be left out, direct descendants of the various rulers who came into possession of the diamond at different points in its tumultuous history also come forward with fierce regularity to stake their own serious claims. To no avail.

Let us now ponder on what an elusive creature fairness is. Un-summonable, capricious. Now you see it, now you don’t. As a child I believed fairness was a law unto itself, like gravity. I believed there were forces that kept it in play, that there were no loopholes, no exceptions. I believed grown-ups would always set things right, that grown-ups could always set things right. This is why as a child, it made no sense to me, that the Koh-i-noor diamond is ensconced in the Tower of London. I remember hearing from relatives that, when they visited as tourists, the guard winked at them and said, “It’s ours now. We’re not giving it back.” Telling the story, my family laughed. But my young heart was silently appalled.

I did not know then, and do not know now, what to make of it all. This is the trouble with delving into history. Told from enough points of view it’s sometimes (not always) hard to tell the right from the wronged. Acquisition and ownership are troublesome enough, even without empires. How we, with the limited powers vested in us, participate implicitly in wresting things from the depths of the Earth. How we foolishly call them our own. How we build our individual kingdoms of selfdom, and do not stop nearly often enough to wonder who we belong to, if not to this beautiful, besieged Earth, if not to each other, and to that ineffable something which lights us from within. Rendering each one of us into diamonds of note. Each one of us, into a mountain of light.


Costco

And today I would like to speak to you of a place called Costco, whose full name is Costco Wholesale Corporation. The wikipedia entry on Costco says it operates a chain of membership-only big-box retail stores and that it is the fifth largest retailer in the world. Also according to wikipedia, Costco has 804 warehouses worldwide — including 27 in Japan, 16 in South Korea, and 1 in Iceland. I do not know if wikipedia is telling the truth about any of this, so if you are particular about facts, please do your own investigations. I want to believe that even though Costco is very big, it is also benign. More brontosaurus than T-Rex. But this might be wishful thinking. I do know, that even though Costco requires membership, like a club, unlike a club you do not have to wear fancy clothes to enter. Footwear, however, is mandatory. Also, you must be able to flash a membership card at the disinterested staff person stationed at the entrance. I believe this would be more entertaining for everyone involved if the cards were designed to look like FBI badges. But they are not. If you do not have a membership card, you must walk closely to someone who does (preferably someone you know and who knows you). Before you enter Costco you must take possession of a big red shopping cart. It is so big that you do not think you can fill it even with a year’s worth of shopping. This is because you do not know or do not remember what it means to shop at Costco. Once you enter Costco it is like you have died and gone to warehouse heaven– or hell (depending on your perspective.) The ceilings are very high, everything is packed in ginormous boxes and mostly comes in multiples of fifteen, fifty, or five hundred Every shopping trip to Costco feels a little bit like you are stocking up for Y2K even though Y2K was twenty-two years ago and very anticlimactic for those of us who believed that it would involve computer meltdowns and biblical floods. The first time my husband and I bought toilet paper at Costco we ended up having to leave it in the trunk of our car for the better part of a year because there was no room in our little studio for a package of 64 rolls of individually wrapped TP (it happens to be one of their best-selling items.) At Costco there are many people in plastic shower caps and red aprons standing behind little tables, and handing out exotic food samples — for example, granola bars packed with goji berries, chia seeds and cacao nibs, that have been cut up into little bits and placed in thimble-sized pleated paper cups. For the most part these people do not look very excited about the products they are selling. I think this might be because they are remembering a time when life was simpler and full of more poetic possibility. In any case they do not come at you with an aggressive sales pitch. They do not have to. Costco is full of weary warehouse travelers like me, whose energy has been vastly depleted by wandering up and down endless aisles of things one does not strictly need, but possibly wants (like a box the size of a carry-on suitcase, full of Belgian chocolates). Fatigued explorers that we are, we stumble upon these food-sample-stands with the delirious enthusiasm of souls lost in the desert who have miraculously chanced upon a verdant oasis. Soon we will be stacking our carts with cases of goji berry-chia seed-cacao nib granola bars that come 136 to the box. My fellow countrymen and countrywomen are known to frequent Costco in large numbers. You can see the mesmerizing array of dark mustaches on the men. You can hear the jingle of the mangalsutras on the women — we make every step sound like Christmas. We walk through this barcoded wonderland where you can buy frozen chappatis in a pack of 50, and a burlap sack of aged basmati rice so big you think you’ll need an elephant to lift it. We stroll through the store as if it were but a crowded city park. We point, we murmur, we move on, as our big red carts slowly fill. At no juncture do we give any indication that we are intimately familiar with another time and place. A time when taps were opened slowly and closed tightly, and leftovers distributed by nightfall. A time when shoppers could carry everything they bought in a medium-sized jute bag recycled from a sari shop. A time when drawstring coin purses were tucked into sari blouses, when plastic wrap was rarely removed and packaging never thrown away. A place where abundance isn’t the measure of how much you can heap in a big red shopping cart, but an unspoken awareness of how little it truly takes– to fill one small red heart.


The Framed Infinite

I believe windows are celebrated in direct proportion to the degree one is conscious of circumscription. For those who live a seemingly free range existence, oblivious of external limits, the window’s presence and function is assumed. Simultaneously looked through– and overlooked. Unregistered as the pattern of curtains in a neighbor’s home, or the direction of the thieving wind that rifles casually through the hillside untouchable by man made laws. 

Windows exist to be looked through yes, but they are not meant to be overlooked. Being transparent is not the same thing as being insignificant. In this way windows are related to the invisible. 

Put another way: if you do not have a meaningful relationship with windows, then it is possible, that you have some difficulty perceiving grace.

For those whose days are contained, and conscious, the window is as impossible to overlook as a peacock or a comet. It is a portal, a bridge, an altar and avenue whose significance is vital and imperative to life. 

A window is the infinite, framed in a rectangle of glass, granting depth, mystery and the possibility of exploration to actors who play daily in very small, forgotten theaters. 

Patients in hospital beds understand the silent sustenance of windows. So do prisoners. And largely housebound creatures with vast interior lives — like dogs, cats, very young humans, very old ones–and Emily Dickinson. 

It must be mentioned here that for optimal results windows must not be overzealously substituted for walls. A residence where all walls double as windows soon grows tedious and disconcerting. A reverse prison. Celebrities and goldfish understand this better than most. 

It is sometimes necessary to explain to denizens of the modern world, that television is not the same thing as a window. Neither is the internet. They bear certain overt similarities yes — but overt similarity is a very low bar for most things. A table and a panther are similar in that they both have four legs. But you cannot interchange them without attracting notice and untoward consequences.

If you find it absolutely necessary to draw comparisons, then a window is more like a book or a boat than a television or a computer screen. Should the occasion demand it you may swap one for the other without hesitation or catastrophic result.


The Private Shirt

The undershirt is the shirt that is not meant to be seen. The undershirt is a private shirt that exists primarily to preserve the outward appearance of the public shirt– the shirt that is worn over the undershirt. The private shirt, the shirt we do not see, is the shirt that does the heavy lifting. The private shirt is the shirt that absorbs the wear and tear of inner life, so that the public shirt, the shirt we do see, does not have to. Because of the shirt that we do not see, the youthful appearance of the shirt that we do see is prolonged, making it significantly harder, if not entirely impossible, to accurately guess the age of the public shirt. In this way the private shirt, the shirt that we do not see, in other words, the undershirt, is not unlike the portrait of Dorian Gray. Though as far as we know no Faustian pacts were involved in its making.

(And yes, it’s true. “Dorian Gray jokes never get old.”)


Hole

There is a very small hole in my husband’s gray pants. We noticed it a couple weeks ago when it came back from the dry cleaner’s. Not to imply that the dry cleaners are responsible for it, though they well may be. But just that that is when the hole first came to our attention. It is the size of a new crayon tip, and located in the region of the left pocket. Because it is in the locality of the pocket, it is not an empty space one glimpses through the hole but the whiteness of the white silk pocket lining. A small dot of white on an otherwise gray pair of pants. It is not very noticeable unless you already know it is there, in which case it is impossible not to notice it. We forgot about it until, this morning my husband put on the pair of pants and discovered the hole anew. “Why don’t we color it in?” I suggest. This proposal has all the sophistication of a first-grader. He is game to try it. I find a gray pen and begin to color in the hole, but my efforts do not go very far. The cloth does not take the ink. I pull out a black calligraphy pen then, working under the dubious premise that a black dot on a gray pair of pants is somehow less egregious than a white one. But even the stubborn ink of the calligraphy pen leaves little mark on our little white spot. It is bright as a tiny moon and just as persistent. I could try and sew over it with gray thread I say doubtfully. My mother is, but I am not, an accomplished seamstress. I don’t think that will work says my husband, who in most cases thinks I can do anything. But even his generous imagination falls short in this instance.


Merely to Say

“Praise, but tell the angel about the world,

not the indescribable. You can’t impress him

with your lofty feelings; in the universe,

where he feels with far greater feeling, you’re

just a beginner. So show him some simple thing,”

And here Rilke inverts the tendency of some kinds of seekers, to skip past the thing-ness of things to exalt their essence. The tendency to dismiss form and utterance, in blind favor of the rarefied, featureless, unsayable.

The poet reclaims for us then, the power of encapsulation. To be contained he argues is not a limitation, but a privilege. To give voice not a reduction but a ripening. And maybe we exist for these very precise possibilities.

“Are we here,
perhaps, merely to say: house, bridge, fountain,
gate, jar, fruit tree, window
—at most,
pillar, tower? But to say them, you understand—
to say them in such a way that even the things
themselves never hoped to exist so intensely.”

I think of my niece whom I met in the middle of her second revolution around the sun. Words only recently being minted on her tongue, they slip out like new pennies, potent with un-use and their coppery original meaning. How she traveled on unsteady, eager feet alongside a wide pond, up a sweeping staircase, around the precipitously growing circumference of her days– pointing to and naming whatever was in her power to name. Urgent, insistent, daring, as though carrying out and protected by, a God-given duty. A small First Person tasked with the enormous responsibility of granting things their individual identities. As if aware that to name a thing was to call it more fully into being, was to release it, like bird from a net, into its consummate thing-ness, free it from the benevolent tyranny of being indistinguishable from eternity.

Chair. Chair. Chair. Apple. Apple. Apple. Dog. Dog. Dog. Broom. Broom. Broom. 

How the world brightened in her twinkling wake, how it rose like a long-limbed princess stirring from a centuries-old spell. Shaking off the slumber dust of familiarity, the reverie of accustomedness, throwing the casement window open to the moment’s infinite arrival, its charmed variety, its alarming aliveness.

“Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent
and ours, how even the groan of sorrow decides
to become pure form, and serves as a thing
or dies in a thing, escaping to the beyond,
ecstatic, out of the violin. And these things,
that live only in passing, they understand
that you praise them. Fleeting, they look to us,
the most fleeting, for help. They hope that within
our invisible hearts we will change them entirely into—
oh endlessly—into us! Whoever we finally are.”

Whoever we finally are…how deliciously he leaves that ultimate identity unknowable, unnamed. And isn’t it unsurprising then, that identity and identical are twins who share the same cradle. Both springing from the Latin, idem et idem again, and again, over and over, the same. Identity a repetition a continuation, a fidelity to sameness, ‘the condition of being oneself, or itself, and not another,’ again and again. The difference that dances on the other side of sameness. Our identities are plural in identical ways, they grant shape to growing invisibilities.

“Earth, isn’t this what you want, to rise up in us
invisible? Isn’t it your dream to be someday
invisible? Earth! Invisible! If not this change,
what do you ask for so urgently? Earth, loved one,
I will. Believe me, you don’t need any more
of your springtimes to win me: one
is already more than my blood can take.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been yours
completely. You’ve always been right,
and your most sacred idea is that death
is an intimate friend.

Look: I live. But from where do I draw this life,
since neither childhood nor the future grows less . . . ?
More being than I can hold springs up in my heart!”

***

Look out your window. Be a First Person. Like a ruler portioning out her kingdom by the generous fistful, grant things their names.  Call them forth like gold medalists. Sky. Cloud. Tree. Street. Smokestack. Billboard. Old Man in a Beret. Let the names burst like first bite of an exotic fruit from a faraway land over your tongue.

May more being than you can hold spring up in your heart.


Doormat

“Welcome,” said the doormat brightly and the brown boot scraped against it once, twice and disappeared. “I am so tired”, said the doormat wistfully and to no one in particular, “of being treated like a doormat.”


Carry on Luggage

The poetry of carry on luggage was invented by snails, who eschew excess baggage, always travel economy and never with more than they can fit in. To move in this manner through time and space requires self-possession, simple tastes and an extraordinary talent for leaving things behind. (Self-pity, bathrobes, and irrational fears. Also blowdryers, ancient grudges and rearview mirrors).


Teaspoons

The poetry of teaspoons sleeps in kitchen drawers. Bright palms perfectly cupped, each in each. Delicate ovals graceful as easter eggs, poised above silver stalks. Lustrous godchild of the gruff shovel. Slender of build and possessed of exquisite table manners. Bred to travel a daily arc, faithful as a bus route. Conveying crystalline commuters to fragrant destinations. Stirring sweet rumors into cups perched like young birds in porcelain nests, their beaks wide open.