Thank you, Morgan, preschool prodigy of likenesses. I hadn’t considered my propane heater so closely, its hot imagery, how, as you declared that winter evening in my kitchen, munching a chip two-handed like a squirrel, the heater’s line of flames looks like people. And as your younger sister Ella whirled in pink britches around the kitchen singing flames like people, people dancing, and as you grinned at your own brilliance and the brilliant line of half-blue half-orange folk you culled up with spark of thought and vapor of breath, I saw them too, figures swinging hips with whippy fervor to the beat of ignition.
Born seeking likenesses, each of us. We secure a simile, like the wild Ella scooped and wrapped in her father’s arms, let it burn to purer metaphor, let it cool as we celebrate, as we praise our precocity. Really, we praise the world, we delight in its many wrought likenesses.
Great stories touch on many themes and give us a long list of things that they could be said to be “about.” As I tell my students, if you think Moby-Dick is just about whale- hunting, you weren’t paying attention.
It came to me as I waited at the desk, thinking how to turn another scattered group toward the day’s work: I want a bell. Not the electric commands that drilled through our younger days,
not some jingly tinkle. No, something small but clear—a signal, a reminder, a request. After Christmas we went looking and my son found a pair of heavy, small brass disks joined
by a leather thong at the import place in town. They had eight raised symbols in a ring, some scratchy lettering inside. When he struck them the pure tone hung for seven seconds
in the air, shimmering and clean as the sun. Of course I bought them. Each day now I put them on the desk, try to keep them quiet. They want nothing but to ring. They desire not to join but to meet.
When it’s time I hold the thong close to each disk and strike them at right angles to each other, as I learned from a man who told me that their true name is tingsha, that in Tibet the monks strike them
when minds start to ramble. Inside, he told me, were the great and ancient words, Om mani padme hum. We might say: See the jewel in the heart of the lotus. He rubbed the symbols on the top: here
is the conch shell, he said, here the prayer wheel, the umbrella, the flower. The students smile each time I strike the chimes, hold them as the sound wavers, fades. It lasts such a long time.
Such a short time. And then we begin, teasing new sounds from the old tongue as we can, taking the next steps across the rocky plain, following the smoky thread on the horizon.
We fold out the map and it tells us where we might be. We study the compass and it offers some names. We open the timepiece and it says, Be quiet. Bring the chimes together.
You can snarl and rage and roar and snipe at thugs and liars, Sure you can, and right you are for doing so, and you maybe Actually enjoy letting the lava soar out all righteously, right? But even so, there are lies inside you like viruses. You know What I am talking about; we don’t need to go into any detail. And we have been too familiar with a little thuggery, haven’t We? Not battery: You’ll say, rightfully, that you are innocent. No: I mean the times you knew about assault and battery, and Did zero. We just stood there. We pretend to be fascinated By something else that just happened to be happily elsewhere. We turned our heads, so it looked like we just hadn’t noticed; We can surely be excused if we didn’t see it, right? Right?
During Hitler’s siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1941–42, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the entire Leningrad Philharmonic were evacuated from the city. A performance of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, dedicated to the city of Leningrad, was planned for August 9, 1942. There were barely enough musicians left in the city to perform it. The score had to be flown in over German lines, and musicians were pulled from the front lines to bolster the meager ranks of musicians left behind. This performance was a show of resistance in a city which had just lost 1.2 million people (NPR, November 2).