Curiosity #83: Who Has the Wits?

Travel, Uncategorized

Her mascara dripped into the wrinkles on her cheeks. I smelled her dog from where it lay by her stool, and she clutched the leash with one upturned palm, waiting to be led. “I just don’t get it,” she said to a young couple who looked eager to pay their bill. “How can we have this fucking tard for a president?”

At that moment three people ran into the brewery, the size of a small store-room. The first through the door was a young man wearing a bar shirt that clung tightly to his muscled figure, no shoes. He took a deep breath in and grinned. “I won,” he announced. The remaining adrenaline coursed from his mouth, onto the floor, up the legs of the barstool on which I sat, and for a moment (despite my distaste for the frat boy persona) I shared his euphoria.

Two other young people in their twenties, a man and a woman, came in panting after their victor. The few bar patrons turned towards the new arrivals, and the young couple who’d just paid their bill used this as an excuse to escape. The victor, who turned out to be an off-duty bartender at Hop & Craft Tennessee, stepped behind the counter. Mascara-face, now without a pair of listeners, turned to me and introduced herself as Ann Clare. She scanned over the rest of us, surveying the new victims for her tirade.

“I don’t want to deal with this,” confided the bartender to Justin and I, leaning over the bar to whisper to us. “That guy,” she jutted her thumb at the man beside her, who spoke excitedly with his friends.  She furrowed her brow as if he were a rabid dog. “He’s a republican.”

I successfully contained my excitement. I was looking at a real live republican. I yearned to encounter this above all else in my first expedition to the South, perhaps even more than a moist southern biscuit. Among my cohort, a Trump-supporter was as rare as spotting a 3-legged wolf in the woods, as inviting as a prickly Persian cat. But I was taught that democrat folklore teaches us all we need to know about those republicans: they’re uneducated, they carry guns in their pick-ups, they get their hair cut at Walmart and they speak in tongues when they’re not dismantling every advancement towards social progress. I was sure that such folklore was true of only a fraction of the South, but I wanted to gather a few seeds of information on my own.

“Fuckin’ tard!” Silence. “President won’t let the minorities eat cake!”

The young man removed himself from the conversation with his friends, and now he raised an eyebrow at Anne Clare. “Everything alright ma’am?”

“Not with our president! We’re all going to shit!”

“Now m’aam,” the man said, cocking his head, lifting up his palms in surrender. “This is a bar. We don’t need to talk about politics. C’mon. How about sports? How about those—”

Never hush a woman launching herself in the Age of She. “We’re in the midst of the apocalypse because of our shit-hole president, and and all you want to talk about is sports?!”

I watched the man. I watched the republican.

What does republican do when a democrat loses her wits?

In this case he goes calm. He listens. He assigns himself as an arbiter of peace. He does not deny his alignment with conservative values, nor his identity as a Christian and a marine, but addresses the wrongs on both sides, astounding the believer of socio-political lore.

It was clear the woman wanted to be listened to. “I’m liberal. I’m a Californian. I’m liberal” She repeated this, as if committing herself to a refrain. Then she said. “I’ve lived here 16 years. I just want this to be a nice place.” I nodded my head, reserving comment. What she meant was I want to be in a place full of people like me.

The republican listened patiently behind the bar until she finished speaking. “The way I look at it,” he said, “is that there are wrongs on both sides. Extremism in politics is causing the wrong people to get elected, and the wrong kinds of judgment to float around. I don’t like it either.”

Anne Clare drew a deep breath to unleash another monologue.

But the republican wasn’t finished. “But I’m sick of people who claim to be liberal and open-minded talking about how all Christians are the same, and that people who have conservative values are all uneducated. I’m Christian, and I’m highly educated. I’m also not the same as every conservative person out there.”

Anne Clare looked at me, gave the republican a sidelong glance over the bar, and spat. “Protestants. They think they’re so righteous.” She paused, tipping back her glass to finish the dredges of her beer. “I grew up Catholic.” Then she turned to look at the young man again. “But I don’t get it. I don’t get how republicans think they can refuse cake to people they don’t like. You think that if a neighbor was baking a cake, they should be able to refuse that cake to people of color, or a same-sex couple? That’s wrong!”

The republican tried to emphasize that he didn’t approve of discrimination either, but laws couldn’t stop racism. Laws were limitations, not inspirations. The latter came with the ways communities raise their children.

Ann Clare looked deflated. “But the cake.”

The bartender announced that the brewery was closing. If we wanted to continue the conversation, we could do it at another bar. As we prepared to pass through the door, Ann Clare bent towards me. “You know my friends say I’m like an angry black woman.”

I looked at Anne Clare: a lite-pilsner-skinned woman in her late forties, blonde hair hanging to the middle of her back, dressed in pink as if she’d been drafted into a sorority 30 years late. “Don’t call yourself that,” I said.

The man, the republican, opened the door for Ann Clare and gave me a hug. “I’m just trying to stop extremism when I can help it.”

I thought about the cake, how “the republican” gave the cake of service and attention—and the most essential ingredient in the slice, the act of listening—to a person who attacked all his values, along with the people who aligned with them. And Ann Clare?

“We women are smart and intelligent,” she said to me as we met the Nashville air. Her gait was lazy, and it was clear she’d consumed more than a healthy fill of alcohol that evening. “It would be better if all the republicans were just wiped free from the earth. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

I’m on board with Ann Clare in some ways. I believe that the historically silenced should be offered the first rounds of cake. But I do believe that everyone, even Trump, deserves some cake (though he should eat it following his impeachment). And as for “us liberals” observing the American South, if we truly believe in sharing whatever this perplexed country can bake up, then maybe we should stop shouting that we deserve the biggest slice.

IMG_5596After we walked Ann Clare to her home, Justin, who had been silent throughout the whole conversation, said “I got a free beer for not partaking in that argument.”

 

Curiosity #75: Fossils

Uncategorized

Fabric bunched around her waist, obscuring whatever curve might have been hidden there. She had age marks that looked like chicken tracks across cement, austere cheekbones, a gaze that dove out every time she turned her head — landing, revealing something between judgment and waiting. Her lips stood alone, as if they had been rolled up and pinned, preserving a sensual vitality that betrayed itself only at the corners of her mouth where her creases dipped in exhaustion.

She was the keeper of the home and a mother of two. From the way visitors overlooked her labors, the way her elephant-bodied husband bypassed her on the way to the kitchen, it was obvious that no one recognized how beautiful she was.

I had come here, to this small village in the center of Bali, to celebrate the festival of Galungan. Galungan was a Hindu festival in which young men and women took the places of departed souls; they lay open-mouthed under the hands of Hindu priests who tamed their inner demons by filing away at the bottoms of their teeth; and so children became adults, establishing holy unions through marriage, bridging families and shifting loyalties. Over the course of several days and on numerous occasions I rode side-saddled on Bu Ayu’s motorbike, propping baskets of food and flowers on my head, bowing into family compounds and offering congratulations to newlyweds who supplied pork in exchange for our blessings.

scan _0019 (1)

My original intention was to inquire about Bali’s resident spirits, but in the end what I learned, quite accidentally, was that reality is what we leave behind.

There used to be a beloved matriarch in the house. Bu Ketut, who had grown up in the family compound (but now lived with her children in Denpasar), told me of her mother, whose spirit sometimes slept beside her in her husband’s place, and whose voice followed her like a recording, singing. The “mother” she mourned was in fact her aunt, never married, an ordinary midwife. Word was that this woman’s selfless love was so effulgent that she made everyone feel they were borne of her own womb.

There were stories of Her guiding lonely children through hospitals, tending new mothers, taking visitors on walks through rice fields and taking dips in the river, pushing mattresses together in the living room and laughing late into the night. Bu Ayu said that when this woman died the condolences came like a sea.

Yet it seemed all she had to do was make time for people. And care.

Now that I’m back in the United States and I’m bound to my computer, I feel a new reality creeping in, one I hope won’t permeate. It’s a reality that says I don’t have time for anything apart from finding a path, reaching a ladder and climbing it.

At my first stage of reverse-culture shock, this has me scrambling in a void.

So for sanity’s sake I retreat to the rice fields in the Balinese village where I stayed, where stairs of grass are laid out like a bowl, and beside it runs a stream where Shiva is known to bathe. Grandma — Bu Ayu’s mother-in-law, the only elder living in the compound — waits for me there. She looks as bird-like as ever, perched by the steps with a stern, pretty set of features and slightly bulging belly. Like a sculpted Madonna, her face allows no expression and lets out little speech.

The scene unfolds as it did then. I look down at the stream and observe it flowing cleanly along its gutter of concrete. Step in. The water comes up almost to my waist. I lift up my nightgown so only my hem gets wet. Against the current of the stream my legs wobble like loose pegs and my torso stands exposed to the late-morning air. I’m cold. Down the river are children splashing in their underwear, older men soaping bare bodies. Sometimes they turn to look at me.

Self-consciously I bring each leg to the surface to rub each thigh clean, trying to maintain a grip on my nightgown, which I clutch to my chest using a free arm. Grandma stands nearby, watching me.

“Take off your clothes” she says firmly.

At the moment I’m still fumbling with my wet cotton, and pause to look up. I want to tell her I’m plucked enough. “Take off your clothes,” she says again. The children nearby are still playing, and the villagers who just entered the clearing pause beside Grandma, letting their eyes linger on me. My body bleats like a sheet. A woman as old as Grandma moves off by herself and squats at a place by the riverside, removes her blouse in one motion, undoes her bra, and splashes water over a tumor that protrudes from her neck out to her chin. She motions at me to Grandma and says something in Balinese. The two old women laugh.

I exit the water and walk to where Grandma stands. I remove my dress. Grandma takes it and drapes it over her crossed arms. Not a word, not a blink. “Thank you” I say and look down at my clothes, but I’m really referring to something else. Grandma observes me in my minimal underwear, waiting for me to hide myself, but I don’t. I feel my skin move beneath her eyes like parcels of a used temple offering. But then I see her blink and nod, and this is how she accepts me. Perhaps she recognizes her own youth in my shapes, or perhaps my act of self-exposure has suspended my origins so that, without grace but with humility, they could come to rest within her traditions.

Now, I am neither here nor there.

I am in the United States, sitting beside my mother at our kitchen table. I am half-way around the world, passing a dormant temple on the back of a little boy’s motorbike.

I can teleport myself to where I’m haunted by the love of an immortal midwife, where I watch Bu Ayu inspect my grandmother’s locket, wrap her arms around her children and look out at nothing. I can try to establish a nest in a country that raised me, simultaneously cling to Indonesia, where I can reveal the most volatile part of myself to a strange old woman and no one looks away.

These memories and sensations have their own agency and are tethered to me, more real than whatever it might mean to reintegrate into my own country —

or to be a citizen of anywhere.

"Potong Gigi" or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory in the adult initiation process among Balinese Hindus

“Potong Gigi” or Teeth Filing Ceremony, mandatory when becoming initiated as an adult in Balinese Hindu society

Six children of the same family before the "potong gigi" ceremony

Six children of the same family before the “potong gigi” ceremony

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Gates of the local temple, Pura Dalem. The two figures on the door represent the polar forces of Hindu cosmology.

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Bu Ayu (sitting far right) in front of the family compound during the Galungan parade

Steps down to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the reserved path for the spirit of Shiva.

Shady route to the river, unused by locals because of its status as the path for the spirit of Shiva.

Curiosity #73: Tree Magic

Uncategorized

Javanese myths are full of ordinary folks who acquire magical powers under trees. Men and women practice asceticisms in the forest, acquiring heirlooms, encountering long-dead princesses, discovering immortality. Accumulating sperm. Sitting under a tree might seem a dull path to sorcery, but the complexity of seated meditation – or perhaps the very process of purging the self of complex materialism – is beyond Western comprehension, especially now that the ubiquitous, perhaps mis-led correlation between sophistication and chairs have ruled out cross-legged sitting. Not to mention trees (see Curiosity #71).

In a village called Bandungan, Central Java, there lived an Islamic spiritual teacher (called a Kyai) who, instead of sleeping, meditated under trees to acquire spiritual blessings. As a hermit he cooped up inside a simple dwelling at the center of the village’s neighboring forest, beside a river and field of rice plants he cultivated himself.

One night on a full moon, a scream was heard from the depths of the forest. No Javanese civilian in her or his right mind would venture into a forest at night, and so the villagers waited until morning to investigate. First they inspected the Kyai’s home. They were devastated by the scene. Surrounding the dwelling, they found a spattering of blood like a bed of strawberries splashed beneath an ogre’s foot. The village leader told the people to gather the bloody dirt and bury it, resigning to the fact that, despite the absence of a body, there was no way their Kyai could have survived such a spill.

Forty nights later, second cry was heard from the forest. In the morning, a village widow was found dead in her bedroom. It was clear that whoever conducted these killings sought more than power, and the villagers panicked. Some of them fled the village, fearing they would be pulped like guava. The braver ones resolved to stay, seeking a shaman to get down to business.

Shamans in Java are of various specialties: some of dark magic, others of love, many employed for the trolling of businesses (we hope forever outside the hands of American capitalists), others for the control of rain, the provision of prophecy, restoring relations with the patronizing dead. The shaman of Bandungan could see beyond material reality and into the soul of the present, peering into truth like a jeweler unzipping a purse of diamonds. The shaman pronounced to the villagers that the killer did not come from outside but rather lived among them, and that only a confession from the offender would save future generations from an irrevocable curse.

One hundred days after the first disappearance, on the day the villagers planned to commemorate the Kyai’s death, the chief elder of the village was found dead. He had stabbed himself with a bamboo rod uprooted from the Kyai’s grave. Like a film noir, this shadowy mystery came to a twisted but conclusive end. The villagers perceived the suicide as evidence that the village leader was in fact the murderer. It seemed the village leader’s act of skewering himself served as sufficient “confession”, since after the village leader was kicked to the dirt, Bandungan suffered no more mysterious killings. The villagers lived in peace.

The grave of the Kyai, known as “Oncak Ancik” (“the act of standing on one’s leg”, referring to the late Kyai’s state of unbalance), is a haunted space. Locals say there was once a visitor to the village who, upon nearing the grave out of curiosity, was possessed by a spirit that forced him to roar like a tiger. It is believed that this beastly spirit belongs to the Kyai, who is still ravenous for a human form.

Those who take the tiniest twig of bamboo from the site suffer disastrous consequences: degrading illness, combusted homes. Infertility. The grave occasionally attracts power seekers who aim to one-up the Kyai’s wisdom by spending a night in the forest, but before their meditation is complete they—without fail—are chased out by forest demons, attacked by animals, or consumed by a mysterious force that causes them to disappear before the morning dew rises off the canopies.

OncakAncik2

Curiosity #72: Guilt Never Goes Dry

Anthropology, Indonesia, Religion, Travel

Rongkop3

Thank God the religious archipelago still prizes stories over science. Despite the fact that there are several geological factors that lead to water shortages in Gunung Kidul, nobody in Java gives a damn. Instead the locals cling to two old tales that pin the local people at fault, and God (with his handy saints) on high.

Back when trespassing wasn’t a concept, an old beggar stopped by a widow’s home to ask for water. He wished to rinse his soles, because even Muslims even who are uneducated and homeless know that God hates dirty feet. He knelt before the widow, who sat weaving on her porch, and asked for some water to cleanse himself. When Mbok Rondo (“Mrs. Widow”) ignored him, the beggar drew his breath, spurned. Was it too much to ask for a little acknowledgement?

Stooped to a reverent kneel, the beggar renewed his efforts to earn Mbok Rondo’s attention. He waved his hand (in the only abracadabra known to ancient South-East Asia), at last blurting aloud that a pond had magically appeared in the widow’s back yard. On the house. But the widow didn’t want to hear absurdities from a rag-of-a-man who made a living by whining his way from home to home, a lifestyle she imagined charred away whatever sense or use he might have otherwise tucked away inside those old bones. The widow mumbled a rebuff into the stitches of her weaving, something that might translate to “Stupid old kook. Full of crap!”

Too bad kooks can sometimes be saints. The old beggar, who was among the revered Javanese spiritual figures known as the “Wali Songo,” frothed at the woman’s appalling hospitality. Before disappearing like a Las Vegas magician, he cursed the region of Rongkop and sucked the already thirsty land dry.

In another tale, upon otherwise parched land there was an old pond of rainwater, in which people farmed fish and took their drinking rations from the same sordid hole (but hey, it was better than the chalk-loaded eau-de-fatale that came up from the wells). It’s said there was a spirit, or danyang, who guarded the lake to make sure it never evaporated.

Maybe it was because the resident spirit was an illusive, pretty thing. Or maybe it was because Indonesian Muslims were weathering nudges from the Middle East telling them to trash their local spirituality. But for whatever reason, some men in the region of Rongkop conspired to lure the danyang from the water. With the help of a shaman, they coaxed the spirit from the pond.

The shaman’s spells were overpowering. The danyang waded from the reservoir’s center like a Bond girl on an abandoned beach, swinging her hips over the waters as she neared the bank, sprinkles of contaminated water flinging off etherial thighs, and upon reaching the shore disappointed drooling onlookers by evaporating into thin air. She brought the pond with her, transforming the land into a bed of brown. The men at last realised their misdeed and fell to their knees, begging the danyang to return. Even had she heard them, her self-respect left them weeping, her knack for justice leaving their children susceptible to skin disease.

Thanks to modern pipelines, the people of Rongkop no longer rely solely on rainwater. The dry land reminds locals, in a way hard science might never manage, that lack of gratitude leads to lack of sustenance, and that blessings may come in filthy disguises.

Curiosity #36: Byzantine Mosaic

Archaeology

On June 20th, Huqoq revealed its greatest masterpiece.

I had been placed in the synagogue square on June 18th and was assigned the task of hacking at modern plaster fill covering the West end of the square. Along with several other archaeology interns, I pried at the earth with a large pick and hoe, ignorant — like everyone else — of the elaborate mosaic surface that lay underneath. Certainly, sifters had found handfuls of mosaic pieces in the region’s soil; however, everyone faced the possibility that the original mosaic had been robbed out or destroyed.

Just one day before the discovery, diggers worked dejectedly through 7 centimeters of soil fraught with mysterious plaster shavings. The dig administrators presumed this fill was still modern in relation to the ancient wall beside it, and that diggers had a long way to pick before finding anything interesting. Jodi Magness even suggested that the synagogue wall might have been re-used as a cistern by the modern Arab village and that the contents of the cistern resided in this particular area.

Miraculously, everyone was wrong.

The following day, after spending the first hour of the morning sifting for small artifacts, I re-entered the synagogue square and commenced digging at the chalky substance beneath my trowel. About ten minutes later, just as I left to dispose of dirt at the dump-site (perfect timing), my co-worker discovered a mosaic image beneath a pile of plaster shavings. From the account I heard, he was greeted with the portrait of a placid woman depicted in the Hellenistic style, with round features filled with colored mosaic pieces expertly illuminating the dimensions of her face: indeed, an artistic masterpiece. Presumably, the mosaic was implanted in the Late Byzantine period (between 4th and 6th Centuries CE). As a result of the discovery, everyone, including me, was asked to exit the square to make room for meticulous excavation in which amateur archaeologists were not expected to take part. From this point forward, I was placed elsewhere for assistance.

Throughout the remainder of the excavation, I watched from a distance as more of the mosaic was uncovered. The team brought in a professional conservator, Orna, to facilitate and supervise the unveiling process. Nearly the entire Western side of the square contained significant stretches of mosaic tile, and — towards the Southern end — a scene from the Hebrew book of Samson. The experience of working in such close proximity to this monumental discovery is one that will always give me a great deal of pride, and I’m confident that Huqoq will reveal even more great discoveries in the future.

In the mean-time, recovery is in order.

On the right: the mosaic face uncovered by my co-worker. The left portion of the image displays a dedication to the depicted woman, who likely provided financial support for the construction of the synagogue.