nothing that didn’t sound illusory
By Judith Beveridge
Today I watched a boy fly his kite.
It didn’t crackle in the wind – but
gave out a barely perceptible hum.
At a certain height, I’d swear I heard
it sing. He could make it climb in
any wind; could crank those angles up,
make it veer with the precision of
an insect targeting a sting; then he’d
let it roil in rapturous finesse, a tiny
bird in mid-air courtship. When
lightning cracked across the cliff –
(like quick pale flicks of yak-hair
fly-whisks) – he stayed steady. For
so long he kept his arms up, as if
he knew he’d hoist that kite enough.
I asked if it was made of special silk,
if he used some particular string –
and what he’d heard while holding it.
He looked at me from a distance,
then asked about my alms bowl,
my robes, and about that for which
a monk lives. It was then I saw
I could tell him nothing in the cohort
wind, that didn’t sound illusory.
* * *
It is difficult to get into the territory of defending intangible things. And by intangible I don’t mean spiritual things, necessarily, like the invisible prayers wafting from the cliffs of Mount Athos, although of course these would be included. I mean just about anything that has no quantifiable value. Kite flying might be an example; or just having a nice Saturday at the park when you really need the rest. Or staying up that extra hour when you’d rather go to bed in order to really clean the kitchen so that the next day will begin more peacefully. Or giving your dog a bath and washing his bedding in hot water in order to relieve his ragweed allergies, which are causing him to scratch off entire patches of fur on his haunches. Or listening to an audiobook by George Eliot while you fold laundry. Or sitting and having tea in the afternoon with your kids while reading to them a fairy tale. Or knowing when you need to be strict, even though at that moment you don’t even feel like getting up from your chair. Or making a conscious choice to loosen up when you don’t feel like being easy going. These are among the things I “do” these days, staying at home with my kids, and these sorts of activities do not really cut a very impressive figure at university mixers, among the colleagues of one’s spouse, if for no other reason than they are too varied to summarize easily. They are what one might do in a typical week, but there is no concise way to express all or any of this when someone you have just met is looking at you expectantly with unblinking eyes. I tend to feel like a deer in headlights when people ask me about what I do now. It would be much more convenient to have a degree and a job title to flash about, like (in my case) a dog eared birth certificate proving you actually exist.
At the university my husband teaches a class on Christians in the Middle East. It’s an undergraduate course. A few weeks ago he showed a documentary depicting the lives of Eastern Christian monks who live in monasteries which have been pilgrimage sites from ancient times until now. The reaction was unexpected: a lot of the students were angry. It must be nice, they said, to sit around all day doing nothing, contributing nothing to society, and thinking you’re really special. This was their scathing assessment of the grey-haired, bearded monks who were interviewed in this documentary, who, by the way, are self-supporting, live in an inhospitable desert, and spend most of their waking hours in prayer. My husband spent the remainder of the class coaxing them to see the matter from another angle, if not to completely change their opinion, which was unlikely, at least to lead them to the admission that their way of perceiving the world is not, well, you know, the only possible way. There are ways of framing human experience that may have never occurred to a nineteen year-old American college kid who has never lived anywhere outside of America.
I suppose we could all stand to have our minds pried open a tiny bit further than we might think. And that is kind of the whole point of college. But where am I headed with this? Maybe I’m not making any grand point other than to say that I can sympathize with those monks, who, though they will never hear about the dread judgement being pronounced by these college kids and likely wouldn’t care (or would certainly strive not to care) if they did, I feel that my life’s work at present falls into a similar category of illusiveness, which, as such, because it is not quantifiably valuable in any obvious way, might illicit the same cultural biases, in the form of fiery coals–hot, judgmental, rather stupid, fiery coals.