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.
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.
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.
The Pigeons Couldn't Sleep
The Best of Jonathan Rundman: 20 Songs from the 20th Century
Peter Himmelman, formerly the bushy-haired hero of the New Wave band Sussman Lawrence, has transitioned into a middle-aged rocker, and his music reveals only the best results. His songs have a muscular, energetic groove that begs comparisons with Bob Dylan—his father-in-law. The lyrics balance pungent humor and well-versed, poignant observations.
Here’s your Ash Wednesday story. A mother carries her tiny daughter With her as she gets ashed and the Girl, curious and wriggly, squirms Into the path of the priest’s thumb Just as the finger is about to arrive On the mother’s forehead, and the Ashes go right in the kid’s left eye. She starts to cry, and there’s a split Second as the priest and the mother Gawk, and then they both burst out Laughing. The kid is too little to be Offended, and the line moves along, But this stays with me; not the ashy Eye as much as the instant when all Could have been pain and awkward But instead it led to mutual giggling. We are born of dust and star-scatter And unto this we shall return, this is The Law, but meantime, by God, we Can laugh our asses off. What a gift, You know? Let us snicker while we Can, brothers and sisters. Let us use That which makes dark things quail.
Between 1990 and 2010, Iowa lost over 500 churches. The numbers reflect migration from rural to urban areas and the fewer number of people who identify with a faith community. The decline in churches is having a direct effect on the social fabric of the state. According to research at Iowa State University, nine out of ten rural people said they rely less on their neighbors than they once did. Surviving churches have gone back to older patterns to find leadership, engaging itinerant pastors or lay leaders. Some are surviving through cooperation with other denominations or with ethnic Christian groups (Pacific Standard, January 20).