In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.
The other evening, J. and I sat on the edge of the lake in Parc Lafontaine, watching people walk by, and as a male couple passed, hand-in-hand, we remarked on the ease with which same-sex couples seem to carry on their lives in this city. So it was with happiness that we saw the news this morning, that the same-sex marriage bill had passed in the Canadian legislature, after a four-month debate that had threatened Paul Martin's Liberal government (they had promised to introduce this legislation). The final passage was even fairly easy: 158-133, with the conservative reaction sounding pretty much the same as it does in the U.S.
Both the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP had been in favor of the bill, but I was still surprised by the following:
Thirty-two Liberal MPs challenged Martin's view and voted against the bill during the final vote, as did the NDP's Bev Desjarlais.
Party leader Jack Layton immediately stripped Desjarlais of her post as party critic for foreign aid and transport, and sent her to the Commons backbenches. Layton had ruled his caucus was not free to oppose the bill because it involved minority rights.
Well! When was the last time we heard anything like that? On the other hand:
Three Conservative MPs broke ranks to support the legislation, while a handful of Bloc Quebecois MPs opposed it, as did two former Liberals who left the party to become independent MPs because of the initiative...
Divisive politics, to be sure, but not as divisive as below the border.
Chenango river valley, New York state (click to view full size)
This is the valley I was born in, and the landscape that remains imprinted somewhere inside me: nature's own identity chip that a very sensitive computer someday might be able to detect in a flicker of recognition at the particular shapes of hills sculpted by glaciers and a long-calmed river. I'd probably also betray my origins if you could waft a particular scent of summer into the room: sun-warmed, fragrant bedstraw in bloom; daisies and Indian paintbrush; the first mown hay and barnyard manure mingling to sail on the wind along with the kee-ing hawks and the swallows, or the bobolinks and goldfinches who fly across the long beat of the wind in jazzy syncopation.
J. was taking pictures from this hilly spot, below a farmer's garden where tomatoes already grew stocky and strong inside two rows of black tires and onion stalks stood above the rows of beans like waxed spiked hair. He set up his tripod and shot for half an hour or so, while I stood on the edge of the unmown field and watched the scene. There was a flock of turkey vultures above the meadow, and the aforementioned birds closer by, and an array of summer wildflowers nodding and swaying as gusts of wind swept up from the valley. I watched the clouds, not overhead, but through their dark shadows moving in stately passage - a sarabande, I decided - across the fields on the floor of the valley and then up the hill, over us, and away again down the other side.
I could write, I suppose, how that march of clouds seemed a metaphor for the years which have passed both quickly and yet - I felt them - weightily, numerously, slowly. It had been a long time since I stood there last, as a young naturalist employed by the state to write field guides and make exhibits and draw flora and fauna and teach about ecology; longer still since I had been a girl in the town whose steeples and school and homes I could see clearly down in the valley. I had gone far away since then, called other places home -- including a city where people called those black and white creatures vaches and drank their lait and ate their fromage: a place these farmers would find intimidating and very foreign. And yet I'd never left, it would be impossible to ever leave this place, the only landscape that would ever feel this way to me, the only one that could come rushing back in the sound of the tall grass moving under the wind and the cry of the hawks and the summer clouds reflected in the silent blue eye of the farm ponds, rushing back like a soul re-entering its body after a long night of travel.
Windowsill sculptures: a glass insulator, some choice feathers stuck in an old padlock, a brass boat fitting, and an unidentified jawbone found in the woods.
I've spent the last few days at my parents' home on the small lake in central New York State where I grew up, and as the sun sets over the maple and ash trees in the woods across the road, accompanied on its journey to the horizon by the song of a wood thrush, I'm feeling like I should write a long post, illustrated with photographs, under the title of "Where I Came From and Why I Am the Way that I Am." Of course, the first 18 years of anyone's life are only part of the story, but this particular visit, as June turns into full summer, has brought back so many memories. Sitting here tonight, I can still feel some of the sun's heat on my face and the slightly-water-filled ear canals from an afternoon spent in the lake swimming and splashing with a dear friend's child - something I haven't done for years and years. My cousin, B., sat on the bank with J. and my old friend (he and I saw each other today for the first time since 1970) while I swam and batted a beach ball across the water, helping this very good-natured and precocious seven-year-old have fun in a silty lake instead of a city pool.
At one point, waiting for her to chase the shiny purple ball, I treaded water in the place where our old dock used to be, and talked to my cousin on the shore. "Do you dream about this place, about being on the dock when we were kids?" I asked her.
"Of course!" she said, matter-of-factly. J. has heard me recount so many dreams -realistic and fantastic - involving this lake; I was surprised by my own question and happy to hear B.'s answer. My cousin, who was almost like a sister, we played together so much, turned to him and added, "You have no idea how many hours we spent right here, in the water. All summer, basically!"
At least one, and usually several, of the adults would come down to keep an eye on us. B. asked me, "Remember how we used to come down and Grandma would be sitting in the rowboat, tied up to shore, reading a book, and we'd sneak up and push her out into the lake?" I nodded and laughed. The little girl looked back and forth between us, slightly astonished and delighted at the idea.
Earlier, her feet hurting from walking on the pebbly, rocky bottom, she had asked me, "Why would you want to swim in a lake when you could swim in a nice clean blue pool?"
"It's just different," I said. "In a lake you're free, and once you can swim pretty well, you don't have to stay inside the ropes..."
"...and bump into the walls," she finished.
"And you can see things," I said. Later I showed her the still-submerged concrete blocks B.and I used to use to stand on and jump off when we were little and our swimming was confined to the shallow sandbar to the left of the dock. I expected her to complain about how slimy they were from the silt and algae, but by that time she was too interested in getting up on them herself.
You can't convert a pool kid to a lake kid in one afternoon, but between swimming and learning to row a boat and fishing (the activity ended when the bobber and hook lodged up in some tree branches - along with numerous others from my own earlier years) and weaving a raft out of tall rushes, I'd say she had a pretty good time, and a day she's likely to remember. Me too.
My father-in-law was 96 on Saturday. He observed the event with a sort of detached amusement, but it was clear he was pleased and intrigued by the variety of people who called or sent best wishes. When we called him in the morning, he said to me, mischievously, "It's very strange, I just seem to go on and on. Do you suppose I'm eternal?"
"I don't know," I said. "It does seem that way. But that would explain why you have so many problems believing in another deity!"
He laughed a lot at that, and then said, "I certainly hope I'm not, though. Immortality would be a great misfortune."
Later that afternoon, at his apartment, he was more serious, and said, "I just hope I don't have a lot of pain. I'd like to just...not wake up. That would be the best way."
"Well, don't you think that's the most likely?" I asked. He looked a little surprised, then amused at my matter-of-factness.
"Yes, probably," he agreed. "But some people have a lot of pain when they are dying. If I have pain, I'll stop eating. Seriously, I will."
"OK. But I hope you don't." That's about as much as he ever says, seriously, about dying. I know he thinks about it, and needs to mention it occasionally, but he also wants us to know he doesn't mind the idea too much. It still doesn't seem imminent to me, though of course we could get that call any day. Most of the very old people I've known seemed to change somehow, both physically and emotionally, in the weeks before their death even if they kept on doing their same routines. My maternal grandfather became what I could only call "transparent": it was as if he became more and more spirit and less and less body. My mother-in-law became increasingly fragile, tinier, weaker. I don't see that happening yet, and of course, perhaps it won't in his case. My father-in-law still seems very much here.
A few days before, we had had lunch with him and a friend who had been a student of his many many years ago at the American University of Beirut. The two of them were excited to see each other, and the former student was still very respectful and deferential to my father-in-law. The friend was, by now, quite elderly himself, and was in the area looking at retirement/extended-care homes with his wife and daughter, who's our age. He is American by birth, but still speaks very good Arabic from his years in the Middle East. At one point during the lunch he put down his fork and recited a favorite proverb, first in Arabic and then in English:
If my origin is of dust,
then the whole world is my country,
and everyone in it my kin.
"What is the origin of that? Is it from poetry?" we asked. The friend reached up and took hold of his lapels with his fingertips, pulled them forward, and let go. Everyone laughed; it's a typical Arab gesture that means, "who knows?" or "beats me!"
"It's just a proverb," he said, repeating it in Arabic.
"You have a very good accent!" my father-in-law exclaimed. "Better than your mother had!"
"Oh no," he said.
"Yes, really!" He's still such a teacher, encouraging and drawing the student out.
I asked, as usual, for the translation so I could write it down correctly. "You write it down for her in Arabic too," my father-in-law suggested.
"All right," he said, and wrote out the Arabic script with the pen I produced.
"Let me see," said my father-in-law, taking the slip of paper and studying it. "Very good. There are just a few things..." He took the pen and started writing a second line of Arabic under the first. "Here," he said, in a few minutes, handing the paper back, "I've written it out just... a little more correctly." He looked sideways at his friend with a sweet, almost-but-not-quite apologetic smile.
"That's fine," the friend said, grinning back. "You're still my teacher!"
Yet another stunning and beautifully-written story about the 60s/70s today at Creek Running North. There are so many things I love about Chris's writing - the skillful weaving together of different ideas and subjects to make just about anything twice as interesting as it already was, the original use of language, the often-surprising subjects and turns of events. But what I love most is the way he controls the tone to convey exactly the mood and quality of experience and memory. Remarkable stuff; we're fortunate to be able to read it.
At Blork Blog, Ed wrote an excellent post about online writing and reading that I've been thinking about for several days. He's talking about the interaction of speed and technology and quality and skill: not only how these affect writing, but how they affect reading. As he said, this is not a new topic, but I think his take on it brings up several new points. I was going to quote a piece of it here, but it's better if you go read the whole thing - I was surprised Ed didn't get more comments on what he wrote, but maybe you all can change that!
Religious bullying at Air Force academy: This story about pervasive and unrestricted bullying of Air Force academy cadets by evangelical Christians is not new; this is merely a good article from the BBC with some details I hadn't read in the press before.
Christians need to understand clearly what is being done to Christians by the fundamentalists within our own religion, and how these efforts are being funded and supported, especially within the military. And American Jews who have been silent about the Christian Right because of the evangelicals' "Rapture"-belief-based support for Israel would do well, I think, to realize what other beliefs and behaviors often lie just beneath the surface.
I find the evangelicals' organized, systematic infiltration of organizations, and their brazen self-righteousness, now that they think they have government sanction, utterly appalling. We need to bring these human stories into the light where they can be discussed by society at large, not just in leftwing blog circles. As terrible as I find the Qu'ran desecration reports, discussing religious freedom in terms of Islam and foreign prisoners seems, unfortunately, to be too much of a stretch for many Americans, although of course it is vitally important to try. Perhaps we have to begin discussing this core value, like children, here at home among Christians and Jews. Surely we have enough perspective and courage in our churches and synagogues, and around our own dinner tables, for that.
In related stories, the latest issue of The Christian Century reports that a sign reading "The Koran Needs to be Flushed" posted by the Danieltown Baptist Church in North Carolina was eventually removed by the pastor, who originally said "We just have to stand up for what's right" but later said he "hadn't realized how highly Muslims regard the Koran."
In the same issue, another news brief notes that a federal judge has ordered the removal of stickers placed in Cobb County Georgia school textbooks in 2002, stating that the textbooks "contain material on evolution, which is a theory, not a fact." The stickers are being removed with a dissolving chemical and putty knives. The judge said that the stickers were "an unconstitutional endorsement of religion."