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Monday, September 15, 2003

Riding the New York subway yesterday, there was this poem from a series "Poetry in Motion":

"I made myself a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked."

I didn't have my glasses on, so I could not read the name of the poet.

This is all about walking naked.

There is a little Japanese story about he afterlife of a human being, after they die. In order to get there, they must cross a wide river. When they reach the other shore, they are greeted by a fierce guardian gatekeeper, yes, it's a roadblock. In front of a huge tree, which spreads its branches all across the sky, stands a mean demon. He doesn't want to see your passport, or your credentials, or your wallet. He wants... Your suit jacket. Your give it to him. Without even looking at the label, he hurls it up into the air, straight back behind him into the tree branches where it catches and remains caught. Then he demands your pants, which he also hurls up into the tree. Eventually, your tie, your shirt, underwear, socks and shoes are all decorating the branches. Can you now proceed into the hinterland of the hereafter? No, not yet, wait a moment, the guardian demon now wants your Seiko watch, the golden chain around your neck, and your wedding band. Finally, when you are completely naked, you may proceed.

So we all go out of this life into the unknown future, stripped of all our treasured possessions, including our dignity.

Just as we came into our present life, naked, helpless and scared.

In between this unpromising beginning and this uncompromising end, we accumulate what we can, according to our natures, our tastes, our abilities, and our circumstances. We learn to talk, and walk, and grasp. We learn what we like and what we don't like; we learn to choose more of the first and to avoid as much as we can of the second.

Because no newborn child can survive without support, we learn to attract attention to get our needs met. We learn to negotiate, when those in charge don't want to give us what we need, and eventually we learn to manipulate when they don't give us what we merely desire.

All our actions and reactions are based on these two goals: getting more of the desirable, and avoiding as much of the unpleasant as possible.

Nature is there to teach us that there are phases to everything, both the good and the bad, the dark and the light, the hot and the cold, and so on, which constitute a whole, two but not two. The four seasons; the growth of a tree from seed, to sapling, to blooming, to seeding or fruiting, to composting; the flow of the tides; our very personal private processes of the transformation of our foods; all these are there to teach us the lesson that there is a time for everything and that everything changes, nothing remains the same. Even the birth of a child, from a feeling shared by his two parents, to a single cell that retraces all of evolution, the fetus resembling first the simplest of life forms, then the fish, the bird, eventually the mammal, finally the fully human being (and yes, a chimpanzee is 98% the same genetically as a human being), all this marvelous transformation takes place in the short span of a mere nine months, to desmonstrate to us that there is purpose behind every change and that it is safe to trust it.

When we like something, whatever it may be, when it is successful in making us feel good, or even just a little better, we do it again. This is how we develop recipes. This is how we develop habits. As groups of people, this is how we develop families and tribes, and cultures. When the numbers grow, those who know develop rules and regulations to help those who don't know, that is how we establish laws and religions in order to try and keep things safe for all. Of course, there are huge variants involved, based on idiosyncrasies. A tired mother might want her child to stop screaming, for a small instance; a) so the sound will not attract the sabertoothed tiger to the dainty snack the baby represents; b) because the decibel level is driving her to distraction; or c) because she has no more milk right now, just put up and wait until it comes up, I'll be sure to let you know.

Raised in specific cultures, we receive our beliefs untested along with our daily diets, our hygienic training, our education, our place in society not always being decided either by our deep desires, or our natural propensities or abilities, or even necessarily to benefit the greater good of our particular human group as a whole, let alone the good of the planet we all share.

My parents' stated intention in having a family was to produce "worthwhile, useful human beings". My mother's childraising techniques could be summarized as turning small wild beasts into civilized people. Her methods did not allow for natural evolution or even gradual development. We clearly were not equals, there was no room for discussion. She believed far more in the stick than the carrot. Apart from some vivid memories, I have it all documented in the form of the letters she wrote to my father. For instance, she reports having had a dreadful fight with me, lasting for hours, one evening when I refused to kneel beside my bed to say my night prayers. I was not even two years old.

What I learnt very early on in life was that you could never take anything for granted, and that included beliefs handed to you by grownup people, who otherwise were in charge and could send you to bed without supper for their very own reasons any time they chose.

I grew up in a war zone as a small child. The world around me was dreadfully dangerous, the people in it most scary. We were bombed a lot, there was shooting, there were mine fields, and curfews, and tanks and patrols. During one bombing, the house we lived in took a direct hit. I was sitting on my mother's lap when one of her legs was blown off and she died. At the same time that my mother was bleeding to death and giving me her final pep talk about being a good girl from now on, because she would no longer be there to teach me how to behave, we heard my grandmother, my mother's mother, die as she attempted to finish her night prayers. I was six years old. At the time, I thought the God my grandmother was praying to must be the very Devil. I never believed in God after that, it made me an outsider to my entire environment.

Anyway, during the last two years of my mother's life, while she was educating me, training the small wild animal into a useful human being, every year just before Christmas, for weeks she would warn me that if I didn't behave Father Christmas would only bring me a whip, instead of toys. I was not really rebellious or disobedient. I lived in my imagination, in a world I had created for myself because the real world I lived in was so bleak and frightening. I didn't disobey my mother, I just never heard her, I never listened very much to her constant scoldings. So, I was always ended up in trouble. Those last two Christmases of my mother's life, there was a whip and a single orange in my shoes on Christmas morning, and each time there were toys in my little brothers' shoes. I could never figure out how Father Christmas knew about me, living as he did in the North Pole.

"I warned you," my mother would say.
"How does Father Christmas know I'm bad?" I wanted to know, "Who tells him?"
"Nobody tells him, he knows everything", my mother would answer.
"He knows EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE?" I would persist.
"Yes, everything, everywhere" my mother would repeat.
"A little like God?" I would ask.
"Yes, just like God" she would answer, and I would be quiet, until my curiosity would rise again, and we would have the conversation all over again. In a world where my experience showed me people told on other people, I could not conceive of a being who was everywhere at once and who knew everything without being told.

About two years after my mother's death, I was walking with an old friend of hers just before Christmas, when she suddenly asked me:

"Do you believe in Father Christmas?"

I was in shock for a moment, and then I exclaimed:

"OH! Noooooo! I'm so sorry, I thought he was real!"
"He is, he is," she exclaimed in a hurry, "Of course you can believe in him."
"Oh no," quite firmly. "I certainly can't believe in him now that I know he is not real."
"Why not? You believed in him before, why can't you just continue believing in him now?"
"Because now I know he is not real."
"How do you know he is not real? All I said... All I asked you is whether you believed in him, that isn't saying he is not real."
"Yes, but don't you see, that proves he's not real. After all, nobody asks me, ever, whether I believe in Aunt Martha, or not."

And that was that. Inside of me, it sort of confirmed my feelings and doubts about believing in God, too, and how if there were such a God he had to be the very Devil. It also revealed to me the reality of my relationship with my mother, as I suddenly understood the whip came from her, not courtesy of some fictional Father Christmas.

And I walked forth naked from a whole bunch of stories of my early background. Naked, but not free. Like Adam and Even sent out of Paradise, I was naked, ashamed, and lonely.

This was the first of my discarded coats. More would be woven and embroidered in due time, the accumulation of more illusions, lies and deceptions, because of the human need to make either sense or myth of the mysterious, the inexplicable, the frightening, and the need to understand both the meaning and the purpose of life.

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