December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Author: Brian Vandenberg

Cockfosters and EMPIRE

London Postcard

9.17.171

 

Before we left for London, my hair stylist asked me what my highlight of the trip would be. I was a bit taken back, as we hadn’t yet gone so it would be hard for me answer. However, as I now consider the question, I realized that what is most memorable, and what is most striking, is that we are HERE; the sheer thrill of walking down the street and seeing double-decker busses; Black London cabs; drivers on the wrong side of the street; beautiful, novel and historic architecture; upholstered seats in the Tube; the quite politeness of the people (in contrast to the bold, brassy look-at-me Americans); the daffy and striking names and use of language (the destination of the northern direction of the Piccadilly tube line [that name is, itself, a tickler]: Cockfosters—really! What about the children??); and most enchanting of all, hearing the lilting sing-song of British English being spoken in nearly every encounter.

Do you think it possible that a successful restaurant chain in the US would choose the name for their establishments, ‘Slug and Lettuce’? Of course not. What would possess someone to do this? Equally surprising, it works—at least here. And I love these;  the first, a moving truck (or whatever a “Master Remover” is…) with the company slogan in the side—it is an aphorism of humorous wisdom, not compelling sales hype, at least it would not be in the US.

“Tell the Truth and Run”

The second, another large truck with an admirable, if puzzling, mission for a vehicle this size.

We have chosen to return to London rather than go to somewhere new and I now know why. Our favorite places, which we love, and are drawn to, are New York, London and Rome (and Paris). The reason is that they are the capitals of empires that have shaped Western history:  Rome from 1st century BCE to the 16th century (via the Church); London from the 17th to the 20th century; (France in the 18-19 centuries); and the US in the 20th century. They are bursting with the art and architecture of empire; both what was plundered and what was created, housed in the great museums, and with deep historical markings woven into the fabric of everyday life. What I particularly enjoy, especially in London and Rome (because of the reach of their historical past), is walking down the street and encountering historical “mashups”. Here are several pics of what I mean:

A view from inside the British Museum of the column of Ramses II, 13th century BCE (Egypt being part of the British empire and the column taken from Napoleon), looking through a glass roof constructed at the beginning of the 21st century, looking through and out onto a 18th century building constructed in the model of ancient Greece and Rome to confer the imprimatur of EMPIRE.

A traffic stop in the London financial district with “Greek/Roman” buildings from the 18th century, stoplight/double-decker modern foreground, and striking 21st century glass buildings in the looming background (the “Shard” and the “Gerkin”), with cranes promising more.

Greenwich, a lovely town outside (but a part of) London, is the location of the Royal Observatory, a naval museum, and Greenwich Mean Time. This spot, longitudinal ground zero, marks where the shipwrecking navigational uncertainty of east-west seafaring was solved using astronomy and time keeping. It is also the resting place of the Cutty Sark, the last, greatest, and fastest clipper ship (see pic; it is moored on a pedestal).

It is sleek, elegant and shark-like, built in 1869—the culmination of human history of sailing, soon to be replaced by smoke, fire and iron. We saw the Turner painting,  “The Fighting Temeraire” at the National  Gallery that captures the moment of steel replacing sail; very evocative, and it will be on the British 20 Pound note in several years.

And finally, the visible effects of empire are to be encountered in the people: many dark-skinned people from the far reaches of the empire; the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, many speaking the Queens English. And many not. The first language of over half of Londoners is not English. The mashup is in the streets—in both the architecture and in those walking the streets.

The London skyline is a cultural Grand Canyon, where the strata of history is visible in the architectural layers; from the Tower of London to St. Paul’s to the Shard. The strata of the Empire is also visible in the people; from the Anglo-Saxons to the  accented speech of the  Scots and Irish (that hint at centuries of enmity, conflict and compromise); from to the brown faces of colonialism to the  newly arrived EU members  speaking many languages, seeking work (who, ironically,  are the byproduct of Hitler’s failed attempt for racial purity).  Unlike the architecture, however, the people are the living, breathing, dynamic presence of history that walk the streets, make love between the sheets, and shape what is said, sold, eaten, discussed, disputed, legislated.

“The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past”—Faulkner.

Indeed.

 

 

 

Footprints

 

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Shoes on the floor where they were tossed after yesterday’s walk. The frig, with the tomatoes, special lettuce, mushrooms, beets and milk for the day’s meal. The radio, tuned to NPR, for the morning chat. Porch chairs askew, as they were left after we spent the evening reading. Laundry basket, checkbook, a pile of unopened mail; desk clutter, yesterday’s newspaper, phone charger, to-do list and purse on the counter. TV clicker on the couch, half completed crossword, grocery list, opened book with bookmark, pills to be taken. The pillow with the impress of where she laid her head. Habits, routines and concerns of daily life leave behind a trail of our presence; the intimacy of the mundane, overlooked in our headlong rush through our days…into the night.

 

 

footprints
in the sand
incoming tide

 

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Water

 

 

I swim for exercise several times a week, and undergo a species transformation. Vertical to horizontal, gravity-bound to weightless, a lumbering biped becomes an aquatic mammal.  Immersed, massaged, chilled, my entire body tingles from the supporting surround of water. As I ‘crawl’ along, head swinging from down to up, my vision turns from watery shimmer to sunlit solidity…and back. Embedded in this frolic in an alternative universe resides a thorn. Lose a breath, sense the remoteness of landed safety, gulp the aquatic environ, and a stab of fright reminds me that my shape-shifting self is not untethered. I must breathe. The water that supports can also kill. Whether in the pool, the page or the mind, we can gain blessed respite from our fate, but we cannot be rescued. I swim, I sing this joyous panic.

 

 

 

weightless in the surge
jeweled creatures
snorkel dreams

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“Why Me?!”

“The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar wisely advises that we are not doomed by the heavens, but by ourselves. I would like to add a corollary—that how we regard the stars can doom or liberate us; that our lives are deeply affected by our cosmology.

Consider: “Why me?!”

This is an oft spoken lament when fate delivers a mishap, a crisis, a tragic blow. The emphasis of the query is on ‘ME’. Of all the people in the world, why have I been singled out for this misfortune? What have I done to warrant such unfair treatment?!” The misfortune is experienced as a deeply personal violation of the natural order, of how things are supposed to unfold. We presume an implicit causal structure in this lament; that the universe is fair, that cosmic justice privileges us, and that we have been dealt a dirty deal.

How we understand the cosmic order gives rise to our experience of “Why me?”.

I would like to briefly explore the cosmic order as it applies to me; that is, myself as a unique, conscious being, present and alive at this moment. I begin with the basic causal question: What are the origins of ‘me’? How did I get here? Biologically, I am the product of my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg. But what are the circumstances of ‘me’; of my unique presence? This is a matter of probability. Of the millions of my father’s sperm, the singular one that impregnated my mother’s singular egg is ‘me’. One in millions—that is the probability, or improbability, of ‘me’. But while this is the improbability of the biological event, it does not encompass the circumstances that gave rise to it. What if my father had been too tired or my mother too busy? What if a phone call or an emergency had interceded? Another untold million contingencies of intention, motivation, happenstance and caprice now magnify the biological improbability exponentially.

But this is only the first order improbability. What about my father’s parents? And my mother’s? And their parents. And then, again, their parent’s parents— and so forth. Indeed, this generational regress eventually traces the lineage of the human race. And, further back still, as the genome of our human ancestors emerges from earlier primates, and these, in turn, harken to earlier unions of more distant life forms. Each coupling, and the circumstances surrounding it, stacking more orders of improbability on improbability, receding into the mists of the first primordial awakenings of life.

This, however, is not the end of the causal thread. Life emerged only because of a host of remarkable planetary developments— the appearance of water and of oxygen among the most notable. And these, in turn, are descendants of big-bang cosmic events that created this precious globe and its sweet-spot orbit around our life-giving star. My being here, now, is a point on a singular trace among the near infinite number of possible trajectories that could have spun out after the big bang.

From cosmic beginnings to the formation of our planetary outpost, from water to life, from slime mold to ape, and from my father’s sperm to my mother’s egg, one single moment askew in this house-of-cards tower of improbability stretching to the stars… then—no ‘me’.

The singularity that is me also embodies the entire arc of creation: In my star-dust body, animated by the elixirs of water and oxygen, my heart throbs and my breath heaves to the rhythms conferred to me by my evolutionary heritage.

This cosmic order brings me to my knees in gratitude— and in astonishment, I ask:

“Why me?!”

 

 

 

Statues in the Park

Billy Collins 1

 

 

I thought of you today
when I stopped before an equestrian statue
in the middle of a public square,

you who had once instructed me
in the code of these noble poses.

A horse rearing up with two legs raised,
you told me, meant the rider died in battle.

if only one leg was lifted,
the man had elsewhere succumbed to his wounds;

and if four legs were touching the ground,
as they were in this case—

bronze hoofs affixed to a stone base—
it meant the man on the horse,

this one staring intently
over the closed movie theatre across the street,
had died of a cause other than war.

In the shadow of the statue,
I wondered about the others
who had simply walked through life
without a horse, a saddle, or a sword—

pedestrians who could no longer
place one foot in front of the other.

I pictured statues of the sickly
recumbent on their cold stone beds,
the suicides toeing the marble edge,

statues of accident victims covering their eyes,
the murdered covering their wounds,
the drowned silently treading the air.

And there was I,
up on a rosy-grey block of granite
near a cluster of shade trees in the local park
my name and dates pressed into a plaque,

down on my knees, eyes lifted,
praying to the passing clouds,
forever begging for just one more day.

 

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