Everyday Sights, Never Quite Seen or Remembered

[Photo: “If they’d only realized that the killer was right there in the crowd,” by Christopher Boffoli (from his book/exhibition, Big Appetites)]

From whiskey river:

I once had a friend. He had been teaching a long time when I was just starting. He liked telling his students he’d seen them before. In another life, at another school, the same hairline, the same kid brother back home in eighth grade. In class, he gave them obituaries to read. And though we’re no longer close, here is consolation: I still believe in what he was up to: seeing if he could make them dizzy. Suggesting they write their way into or out of the disquieting facts he offered up. Offering the chance to find themselves breathless, to consider themselves a point on a circle falling and rising, falling/drawn up, as the wheel moved, moves, is moving relentlessly on. He wanted them to feel conveyor beneath their feet, when all along they’d assumed they were walking. To consider they might, somehow, for another, be a mark and a measure of vastness. A site…

What does my friend want his students to say, what does he want them to stumble into, considering those obituaries? “Nothing in particular,” he’d answer, meaning “I have no plan.” No one thing in mind. Only for them to skid to a halt, to go breathlessly forth, for here is their chance to see: the patterns keep coming, all the lives theirs resemble — in the newspaper photo, the deceased at age twenty, the jaunty tilt of that head so like the tilt of their own. That they share the same name, the same birthday and interests. That the most basic, seismic events daily converge and include us.

(Lia Purpura [source])


In the Christian calendar, November 1st is the Feast of All Saints, a day honoring not only those who are known and recognized as enlightened souls, but more especially the unknowns, saints who walk beside us unrecognized down the millennia. In Buddhism, we honor the bodhisattvas — saints — who refuse enlightenment and return willingly to the wheel of karma to help other beings. Similarly, in Judaism, anonymous holy men pray the world from its well-merited destruction. We never know who is walking beside us, who is our spiritual teacher. That one — who annoys you so — pretends for a day that he’s the one, your personal Obi Wan Kenobi. The first of November is a splendid, subversive holiday.

Imagine a hectic procession of revelers — the half-mad bag lady; a mumbling, scarred janitor whose ravaged face made the children turn away; the austere, unsmiling mother superior who seemed with great focus and clarity to do harm; a haunted music teacher, survivor of Auschwitz. I bring them before my mind’s eye, these old friends of my soul, awakening to dance their day. Crazy saints: but who knows what was home in the heart? This is the feast of those who tried to take the path, so clumsily that no one knew or noticed, the feast, indeed, of most of us…

(Mary Rose O’Reilley [source])


All Hallow’s Eve

In the great silence of my favorite month,
October (the red of maples, the bronze of oaks,
A clear-yellow leaf here and there on birches),
I celebrated the standstill of time.

The vast country of the dead had its beginning everywhere:
At the turn of a tree-lined alley, across park lawns.
But I did not have to enter, I was not called yet.

Motorboats pulled up on the river bank, paths in pine needles.
It was getting dark early, no lights on the other side.

I was going to attend the ball of ghosts and witches.
A delegation would appear there in masks and wigs,
And dance, unrecognized, in the chorus of the living.

(Czeslaw Milosz [source (2MB PDF)])

Not from whiskey river:

VII. Historical (The Bacchae)
(from Essay on Psychiatrists)

Madness itself, as an idea, leaves us confused—
Incredulous that it exists, or cruelly facetious,
Or stricken with a superstitious awe as if bound

By the lost cults of Trebizond and Pergamum …
The most profound study of madness is found
In the Bacchae of Euripides, so deeply disturbing

That in Cambridge, Massachusetts the players
Evaded some of the strongest unsettling material
By portraying poor sincere, fuddled, decent Pentheus

As a sort of fascistic bureaucrat—but it is Dionysus
Who holds rallies, instills exaltations of violence,
With his leopards and atavistic troops above law,

Reason and the good sense and reflective dignity
Of Pentheus—Pentheus, humiliated, addled, made to suffer
Atrocity as a minor jest of the smirking God.

When Bacchus’s Chorus (who call him “most gentle”!) observe:
“Ten thousand men have ten thousand hopes; some fail,
Some come to fruit, but the happiest man is he

Who gathers the good of life day by day”—as though
Life itself were enough—does that mean, to leave ambition?
And is it a kind of therapy, or truth? Or both?

(Robert Pinsky [source])


Whose Mouth Do I Speak With

I can remember my father bringing home spruce gum.
He worked in the woods and filled his pockets
with golden chunks of pitch.
For his children
he provided this special sacrament
and we’d gather at this feet, around his legs,
bumping his lunchbox, and his empty thermos rattled inside.
Our skin would stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing
and we’d smell like Mumma’s Pine Sol.
We had no money for store bought gum
but that’s all right.
The spruce gum
was so close to chewing amber
as though in our mouths we held the eyes of Coyote
and how many other children had fathers
that placed on their innocent, anxious tongue
the blood of tree?

(Suzanne Rancourt [source])

…and (concerning mnemonomorphs — “someone who can manipulate memories”):

The stories we could tell, the things no one ever remembers. It could make your head spin. But if you’ve had that strange feeling that you’re in a room and don’t know why, or felt that you should be doing something but can’t remember what, you can be pretty sure you’ve just had something erased. It doesn’t have to be big or anything, sometimes just a small part of a larger puzzle.

(Jasper Fforde, The Woman Who Died A Lot: A Thursday Next Novel)


Aside, for regular readers: Yeah, this whiskey river “Friday” post is a day late. Blame it on our several days’ Internet outage here at home, which lasted through late yesterday. For what it’s worth, I have a feeling next Friday’s is going to be even… more different.

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  1. When I first looked at the picture, I thought it was from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie. It looked like the Lloopma Ompas–or however you spell it–when they were working on the enlarging or shrinking the chocolate bars in the TV. And when I read the first writing from Lia Purpura, I was convinced it was you talking about when you were a teacher…maybe it’s just the week, but I was off kilter after that…thanks for the thoughts, I think.

    • Yeah — the Lia Purpura quote sounded a familiar chord in me, too. Somewhere here on the site I recount an episode when I brought one of the more brilliant students I had to a state of heated frustration: Mr. Simpson, I don’t know what you’re doing to us… but I am going to figure it out IF IT TAKES ME ALL YEAR!!! She was actually standing at her seat, gripping the edges of the desk, white-knuckled. Heh.

      I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen either Willy Wonka movie in its entirety. After seeing the Futurama parody, I’m not sure I could look at it straight anyhow.

  2. Loved those Boffoli photos!

    Of course, the caption to this one made me think of that Gary Larson cartoon where crime scene officers are examining a man lying dead on a New York sidewalk with a boomerang beside him. A nervous kangaroo backs into the crowd, under a ‘thinks’ bubble – “That was meant for me.”

    I had a Scottish maths teacher at school who was determinedly eccentric, had perhaps become bored with teaching maths, and spent a good third of his time musing on other topics – how weather systems work, how earthquakes might be predicted, why dams silt up so quickly. He’d often conduct odd little improvised experiments, with little or no explanation – seemingly mostly for his own diversion. Unfortunately, his classroom persona was domineering – utterly terrifying! – so he wasn’t engaging enough to really draw us into sharing these quirky interests of his. I think he was one of my key inspirations, though, for seeking different ways of teaching, and different things to teach; for realising that the really interesting stuff mostly lies outside the syllabus, and that learning how to think is ultimately more important than storing up knowledge.

    Ipsnaryi channels – says ReCaptcha today. Which immediately suggests a science fiction story to me…

    • I remember that Far Side cartoon — ha! Thanks for the reminder.

      Even now, if I thought I could find a class to audit which was taught by someone like your Scot, I’d enroll in a moment. It sounds enormously engaging. And I’d enjoy (as I can imagine you enjoyed) matching wits with him on occasion.

      P.S. Owe you an email.

  3. Mostly I want to know why the next Friday was going to be even more different. And was it?

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