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“There’s nothing equal to wearing clothes and eating food. Outside this there are neither Buddhas nor Patriarchs.” ?Zenrin Kush?
“Always historicize.” ?Fred Jameson
“Always hystericize.” ?EL Jagoe
Jane Jacobs didn’t spend as many years as I have wandering around the unsavory parts of great American cities, yet our practical recommendations for urban life are in every particular but one remarkably consonant. I loved the old girl. And who wouldn’t?
Nevertheless Jane sure got one thing wrong. Alas, it’s the most important one, the one about whether we should send our souls across town and nation to be kept by others, or whether we should keep them snug right here in our selves.
Like most late second-millennium / early third-millennium (C.E.) thinkers, Jane was a devotee of soul transfer, the belief that the power or essence of a person or neighborhood should be sent elsewhere. Also called leaderville or, more commonly, democracy, the belief that leaders can do things better than people was adhered to by Jane with the intensity of religious compulsion. The practice remains five years after her death as a welter of unscrutinized pernicious instincts clustered deeply in the brainstem of participants. Democracy emerges from early childhood beliefs about parental authority so pre-conscious that even mild inquiries about the utility of leaders are likely to be met with blank stares. In the neighborhood I share with Jane, and in the West more generally, democracy is the last taboo. Better to chant the mantra than think about it.
Here in Jane’s neighborhood, which is to say my neighborhood, I saw a man going by yesterday with a bike trailer and flags for the Green Party. That would be the Green Party that supports the notion of a massive military machine for the occupying power here and abroad, lavishly funded at rates slightly less than that of the three major parties but considerably higher than for any budget from any party prior to 2005. Frankly, if this bikesaddle warrior thinks killing and maiming abroad are such a great idea, I don’t think I’m going to let him pass my house again without making him submit to a checkpoint. If he likes killing, why doesn’t he go to Afghanistan himself?
* * *
That was a few days ago, that edge-of-pit lament I recognize as bearing the signature of my style, the restless pacing of an injured animal. The “me again” poking fun at myself for appearing in so august a journal alongside serious thinkers and policy analysts, people with plans. Isn’t my writing here just like showing up without trousers at a convention in a dream?
Note the confident Buddha quote.
I see me in this selection, these few paragraphs. There’s me, for example, in the compounded meanings: something of Narcissus I gleaned from one too many French texts: the triple entendre, if not complete polyentendre: the pit and the pit and the pit. The pit in my neighborhood (an inconceivably deep and wide police hole, deeper and deeper every week to accommodate the dungeons beneath a new jumbo police station, the hole ringed about with signs featuring the name of Jane’s champion) is also the pit in my stomach and also the quarry (and for any legitimately paranoid activist, the quarry is always me) in Shelbyville?no, that’s in The Simpsons, says my friend Jeff?in Shelburne not so far away. Not so far that there aren’t?and there are?signs on my neighbors’ lawns, “Stop the Quarry,” nor so far that I wasn’t passing our library a few days ago, and I was, sort of on my bike juggling and half falling on Bloor, felix culpa, on Bloor where I’ve gotten police tickets for not having my hands on the handlebars, and suddenly there’s a whole bevy of bike cops yellow as forsythia, and I’m oh shit, but it turns out to be a Stop the Quarry march with the forsythia cops as bookends or brackets, and just as suddenly (how many activists does it take to screw a thought into public consciousness?) it’s quiet again and no ticket, just distant anti-quarry chanting and a splash of receding yellow.
But the pits don’t end. From my old Concord River watershed a friend writes to say he likes the word “envaginate,” which I must have used somewhere, and I use again now, add that pit to my lament, to my laments, compound pits to infinity, the women in caves and as caves, the caves in Afghanistan, all the sockets we’d need to screw to stop the proliferation of pits in our pit-deep sorrow, the strife in activist families when they split on pre-stressed class lines, pitfalls to infinity, a cherished one’s pit stops with corporate men, salaried men, enemigos, friends. If I point out a half dozen more pits I’ll be consigned to the basement, where they keep poets, so I still my tongue and stay my hand to avoid burning holes in the bottom of my containment vessel.
Stopped up, my thoughts circle endlessly, but all this brooding is a gyre?the surface is rising, the sorrow o’ertops its dam, finds new channels, runnels.
I’m stapled to the page of life by the love of my children, else my untethered thoughts would pour through the pits of my eyes and bear me away, down that river I promise myself every day. The Humber I mean, or also mean, and some other lakes and rivers tending Hudsonward, and so by what paddlers and journeyers in my, or their, seventeenth century called “removes”?each night on the journey is a remove?to the sea, which welcomes all men.
It is May second, election day amongst the Puritans, total depravity, limited atonement, and rain. Rain for days. Unending rain. Holes vomit worms, who are displayed in the antic shapes of cuneiform along the sidewalk, where men might read their own deaths if they’d like, and women in acoustic heels take stabs at the lusts of men. I make the discovery that the pathetic fallacy?one’s sadness can be found in the natural world?might be pathetic, but it’s not a fallacy. I hoard my secret: it’s my eyes raining from this sky. On the morning of The Wedding my wife, if she is my wife, is in London, but she takes flight and alights here with a bottle of Ardbeg and applies the Spock hold to me and I slump into oblivion. Better to marry than burn, advises the apostle, and for want of a third plan I do both. I awake not on the edge of the pit but in it.
Now it’s election day, and confident men, serious men, salaried men, plumed men, creased men, men who can order at a restaurant with confidence, ambidextrous men who can do it left or right, men who order other men’s wives like take-out, like take-away, men with trousers, men, in short?are out and about in their world, the world they own. The worms have gone flaccid in the deluge of forty nights, and the men with shoes that are Italian concepts secured to Chinese chassis, men who dress for success?in short, the men?step on the worms on their way to grip the levers of justice.
A CP sympathizer brings by a Japanese novel, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, but by page forty I realize it’s about a man and a woman kept in a hole from which they have to dig the sand all day in order to stay alive, and that they will never escape, and I put the book aside. Fukushima might be enough Japanese littoral horror for one springtime. It’s May second and I hear they’re killing men who’ve lived in caves. Osama bin Laden. Ich bin da. I been there, pal.
The world ends, but somehow we’re still here, and the forsythias rage counter-intuitive colors and sketch out broken Buddhas. I’m crying and she holds me to help me breathe she says and I hear bleed but even that’s a release. We are the spittoon, the spitting image, of the Piet?. I used to be David.
And even with all that, time passes again, and again, and I continue to be here. And for no reason the heart can name, the grass grows.
David Ker Thomson writes about the intersection between activism and family life under capitalism. He lives and paddles in Torontonamo Bay, where activists are dragged away by the wardens on trifling pretexts. This week’s drag: Jaggi Singh. And at least fifty people are still ensnared in the system since the G20, perfect examples of meat for Jane’s dungeon when it’s ready. “And in the darkness bind them” appeared in the text above not as words but as spirit. The Kush? quotation is from The Way of Zen,152, 224; thanks to this Zen Sayings site for the reference. On the occupying power (Canada) in this watershed: any difference between parties in their commitment to military budget? Unlikely. My street informant tells me that “leftist chicks” are to be obtained at such a thing as “NDP campaign headquarters.” See this on how leftist they’re likely to be. dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca