On my computer desktop, I’ve got a folder called “To Be Finished” containing more than a hundred files of ideas I thought I wanted to write about. Some of these are a few thousand words, others a few sentences. Today is Sunday. I’ve spent the day hiking in the Todra Gorge—as beautiful as anything in Arizona—and poking around the city of Tinghir. I am tired, too tired to move more files into that graveyard of a folder. Instead of writing a full piece today, I’m copying and pasting the things I’ve started this week, then abandoned. Thank you.
Running away from the circus
As one does, this morning I watched the sun rise over the Sahara. As one does, this morning I took photographs of camels. As one does, this morning I had a long and intricate conversation with two refugees from “big corporate circus,” as one of them put it.
I’ve written plenty about this trip, the desert and Morocco—and will doubtless write more. Right now, though, I want to tell you about Alex, 38, from a French “family of means,” and Jie, 29, Chinese by birth and early childhood, but educated in Montreal. Theirs is a story of a box and how they broke out of it.
Alex and Jie both worked for Cirque de Soleil, which most of you have heard of, and many of you have seen, as have I. Honestly, I love Cirque de Soleil, with its death-defying acrobatics and perfectly choreographed dancing. For Ji, a classically-trained pianist and one of the singers and dancers in the show, the whole thing felt like a player piano. She was just a few of the holes in the piano scroll that screeched out the same exact tune in the same exact meter every performance. Nothing was death-defying for her; it was all life-destroying.
Alex was a technician, making sure nothing gummed up any of the clockwork that was Cirque de Soleil. He ensured each performance was the same as the last and the same as the next. He showed no more creativity than a water valve or a fuse box.
Together, they left, with the dream of starting a real circus, where nothing was certain and anything could happen. They wanted to live.
Jesus, Jethro and superheroes
When I was a kid, I thought a Passion Play was like a dirty movie about Jesus, something grownups would attend in secret to see Jesus kissing girls. Frankly, the whole idea sickened me, Jesus quitting the He-Man, Women-Haters Club to spend time with the enemy, much less the kissing. I was just a kid.
Over time, of course, I learned A Passion Play was an album by Jethro Tull, the guy who had that song about the superhero, Aqualung. Because I was a DC kid, I assumed Aqualung was a Marvell character. Still, a song about a comic book guy was pretty cool. Over time, of course, I learned Jethro Tull was a they, not a he and repeated listens demonstrated Aqualung was NOT a superhero, unless a homeless man looking at little girls was a kind of power I did not want to understand.
Eventually I came to understand a Passion Play was typically a retelling of the last week Jesus’ life. Beginning with the triumphal entry into Rome, the play includes the last supper (the host’s flesh and blood), betrayal, lots of mockery, scourging, crucifixion and resurrection. What started off so well goes completely off the rails until the final scene.
Who wants beets?
I’ve always loved poetry.
There, we’re alone now. We few. We happy few. We band of poetalators? That opening sentence above is the equivalent of “Who wants beets?” or “I crave anchovy pizza.” It’s just us, those who memorized poetry as kids and can still call upon it today.
I’m a terrible poet (evidence to follow shortly), but the poetry considered canonical in my youth touched my soul. For instance, the A. E. Housman of Shropshire Lad XL: “Into my heart an air that kills/from yon far country blows.” It is a blowtorch to even my most frozen emotions.
Likewise, consider the first stanza of XXXIV “The New Mistress”:
“Oh, sick I am to see you. Will you never let me be?
You may be good for someone, but you are no good for me.
Oh, go where you are wanted, for you are not wanted here.”
And that was all the farewell when I parted from my dear.
How many times have I heard that sentiment, if not those exact words? And how many more times did I deserve them?
As threatened, I have written a poem in the style of Mr. Housman, intended as an homage but more likely read as an attack or the equivalent of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
To a Child Starving Young
Empty my cereal box of Chex,
Drop-less my jar of milk,
Starving before I have tasted of sex
Or worn a ribbon of silk.
Life in my skin is draining away,
Bones will be next to rot.
Lacking the energy to go and play,
I am a famished tot.
In the desert, it wasn’t Housman, though, or Omar Khayyam or Oscar Wilde or any of the other light poets of my youth. Instead, and it’s likely very obvious, two particular poems by two particular poets flashed for me as I stared at the Sahara sky. First, was T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” which I’d like to say I’ve memorized, but I don’t want to lie, and the second was Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” The following lines (from memory, so please forgive any errors) kept bouncing off the stars and back to me:
The best lack all conviction,
While the worst are full of a passionate intensity.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
Tools vs. Rules
I don’t have many original thoughts, but I do connect disparate ideas in original ways. One advantage of having lived a long time, listened to a lot of smart people and read widely if not deeply is I’ve got a huge pool of information, some of it coalesced into knowledge and a teeny, tiny part of it distilled into wisdom. I’ll let the reader decide which parts of this column belong in each category.
Although I am not a Christian today, I did spend a couple years in a conservative Protestant seminary and being a youth pastor at an evangelical church. At that time, I saw the Bible as a unified whole, that Genesis laid out hints of what was to come in Isaiah who predicted Matthew which foreshadowed the Revelation of John. Today, I think this was a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc or, more accurately, special pleading and combining individual threads to form imaginary strands to weave into a coat for the emperor to parade down the street in. Or something like that.
Today, I read the New Testament as an outline for two fundamentally opposed views of life, of humans and of God. Simply, these views come down to a single question: is Jesus right or is Paul right? From my reading, these two figures describe completely different worlds and prescribe radically different faiths. Call them the religion of tools and the religion of rules.