from The Compleat Memoirrhoids

 

Chipmunk Man

Marry the sagebrush; its heady scents after a cloudburst, and its grey kink that sweaters the north Nevada hills. Marry the switchback dirt roads into old mining camps. Marry a world of buckaroos, of cattle loose on open range. That big red bull won’t budge from the middle of the road. Marry the hard rock mining. Marry Buckskin Mountain. Marry the cabins of the mining camp – main house, tool shed, assay office, outhouse (two seater), where you lingered (everyone lingered) to gaze off down the cottonwood, juniper canyons of Dutch John and Cabin Creek forty miles past Hinkey Summit to Paradise Valley and beyond that to Winnemucca. Marry Pat (Jingle) Bell. You never could have anticipated the arrival of the real west in your life. This is not San Francisco, L.A., Portland, Seattle, which are an easy toggle from New York, Boston, D.C., but a West where people wear denim not as a fashion statement, but because it holds up to the rough work. Woody, Jingle’s brother, didn’t believe in washing his jeans, nor in brushing his teeth. He left school young, to work on ranches as a buckaroo. He had a way with horses. He became a professional rodeo cowboy, before he became a successful rancher. Bulldogging was his event, the most athletic, and he happily competed and broke every bone in his body at least once. As Jingle’s husband, I married the privilege of spending summers at the family’s mining claims on Buckskin Mountain. Since I lost real contact with my real father when I was eight, his heart condition taking him away to rehab centers, finally killing him when I was fifteen, I had never received a lineage of New York City manhood. I was overripe, searching, ready for the tradition of rugged Western manhood. I needed it.

I had put new tin on the roof of the tool shed, and some time later I built a second outhouse below the assay house, an A-frame one-holer. Harry Rogan didn’t like the way I built it. He was a quiet old Norwegian sourdough miner coffee brewing lumberjack bean aficionado perfectionist guy who married Jingle’s mother after Forrest’s lungs gave out to silicosis. His strength was legendary in the Minnesota woods, known as the man with the strongest grip in the world. He liked to show it off when he shook your hand. Your fingers would come out of the handshake crushed together, corrugated from the imprint of his clamp. I never heard anyone pronounce the word “potato” with so much love – puh-day-duh. He grew up at the old National Mine, on the other side of Buckskin, famous in the region for having briefly produced the richest ore ever seen in the West. What was once a lively small town there had crumbled into the sagebrush. When you walked around with Harry he told you where every building once stood, and who lived or worked there. Once when we were standing in the brush, where he remembered the old schoolhouse to be, he kneeled and lifted from the dust an old inkwell, and held it as if it was Yorick’s head, caressing it with his gaze, tears in his eyes. He said he recognized it, and it might have been his inkwell at one time. I admired Harry a lot, and his disapproval of my outhouse construction bothered me, but I still argued that the shape was appropriate to the activity within. Almost fifty years later that outhouse is still erect and functional. That’s how at the time I slowly armored my manhood with small accomplishments.

Wild Bill Maquerquiagua, the one-eyed Basque buckaroo, left a couple of old cutting horses in a rocky pasture that Forrest (Jingle’s father) had fenced off. (One skill I did claim was that I knew how to fix fence, which I learned on rugged Catskill farms.) Wild Bill said they were quiet old horses. “I always like to be close on some steers,” he liked to say. “Then if anything blows up in the world I’ll always have something to eat.” I rode one of those horses every day to work at a mercury prospect a man named Clark was developing at the top of Buckskin. Every morning I rose early and climbed the pasture to where the horses were grazing. Hiding the halter I extended a fistful of oats to entice one of the old ponies and bring it down to the house. I tied it up, threw on a saddle blanket, and gave it another measure of oats to calm it down. I went for breakfast myself before saddling the horse and riding up the mountain to work with Clark. The old horse bucked a little every day when I first mounted, threw me a couple of times, just to show it knew that I was a ringer from New York City. Clark was trying to develop the rich vein of cinnabar at the surface. People had known it was there for fifty years. No one had ever found any extension of the vein into the mountain. A prospector is the ultimate gambler, always can cook up some optimism to sell. Clark, however, was mining for stock; that is, he had handsome stock certificates printed up and spent time up in Montana, carrying a flask of mercury, and some super rich hunks of ore, selling the certificates to his wife’s Mormon relatives. Clark was a handsome man, tall, wiry, and capable, though he was somewhat “salivated” because the mercury had got to him. He had lost most of his teeth, and his hair was falling out. Sometimes Jingle and I would go for a picnic up cabin creek or one of the other canyons, with himself, his wife, and his eight kids, and we would stay there into the dark, and he liked to talk about the stars, which were so penetrating and close in the wild Nevada darkness. “The stars jump around,” he would say, his eyes staring off like a visionary’s. “They ain’t always in the same place. I seen them jump across the sky. Every night they move.” Jingle defended his observation at first; after all, his cocksure charisma easily sold chancy mine stock. Both she and Clark were desert people, and had never thought much about navigation. I saw no future in starting an argument.

This was one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had. The rock was a rich cinnabar red when you first cracked it. I loved looking at that color, but it quickly oxidized to a dull yellow brown. Clark didn’t have the luxury of a jackleg to hold up the jackhammer, so I had to breast it into the hard rock. My body went on rattling long after I shut the hammer off, and it was difficult to eat after a few hours on that machine. The chances Clark took were downright dangerous if not foolhardy. You have to cook the cinnabar to get liquid quicksilver out of the mercury sulfide. He found a used retort through which you could distill the fumes and fill flasks of mercury at the end. This equipment had a big crack in it, and leaked fumes. Anyone who went near this operation, including his eight kids, breathed those fumes. Mercury affects your brain. I’m sure I came away from my months working for Clark a little stupider.

Everything I did added merit badges to my male qualifier sash – one more layer of male armor. As a concession to my position as an artist I cut back on work in the mine so I would have half a day to write. Some men write. I suspect that in this case perhaps I wrote to reduce my chances of killing myself at work. I assigned myself three hours every afternoon for writing. Each day I chose a mythological name (one came to me) – Hermes, Sampson, Wonder Woman, Achilles, Mandrake. I sat in the assay office in the zone of that name and wrote around it for three hours. My rule was to make a complete story in three hours and not change it after I timed out. This was the way a man would write. I called these works “Mythologies,” most of them published in Creamy & Delicious.

I had a little gun. It wasn’t much, a 22 caliber repeating rifle. I never wanted nor thought about a gun before I married Jingle. Her family had respect for firearms, and used them with discretion, killing only what they could eat. I thought we should have one when we took the job as fire lookout and smoke chaser in the Clearwater in Idaho. There I got us an occasional grouse, and one porcupine, the only fresh meat we had while on the lookout. I enjoyed my gun. I swabbed its barrel, and kept the workings clean and oiled. At Buckskin I’d practice shooting cans off fence posts, just as Montgomery Clift did in Red River. John Ireland really admired Montgomery Clift’s gun. In a titillating scene of male bonding they examine and fondle each other’s guns. I never became much of a shot. I sometimes swaggered out through the rabbit brush, hoping to bring home something, a jackrabbit, a sage hen. I stumbled down several gulches, and up to the rimrock again, across saddles and rockslides. Small clouds puffed across blue Nevada sky. A red-tailed hawk circled above me. Ravens perched and waited. After a while, finding nothing to shoot, I got itchy. A man walks around for hours with a gun, and he doesn’t find anything to shoot, that man becomes restless. That’s how I reasoned with a gun in my hands. A man wants to shoot the gun. Just in time I saw a fat chipmunk sitting on this lichened outcrop. In Sergeant York Gary Cooper could hit a wild turkey in the eye. He licked his trigger finger first. Shucks Steve, I told myself, you’re not a good enough shot to hit that fat chipmunk at this distance. I licked my finger and aimed quickly and squeezed the trigger. The chipmunk deflated instantly and flopped off the rock. I couldn’t have hit it. I didn’t hit it. I crossed the shallow draw and found that I’d shot a chipmunk. It made me sick of myself, and confused. I could never tell Jingle or Woody about this. I couldn’t explain this to Forrest Bell or Harry Rogan or Marian Bell. I never told anyone. Steve Katz shot a chipmunk.

 

 

Clarence Schmidt

I thought of this as a pilgrimage, in the late Sixties, early Seventies, to visit Clarence Schmidt and the tumult of his demesne in Woodstock, New York. He was the chief “outsider” artist, famous all over the country, his life and work a living spectacle of barely organized debris. The house and his assemblages festooned four acres on a hill outside of the town. Going there was to visit a chaos that was bearable in contrast with the unbearable chaos, violence, and deceit perpetrated by our government throughout the Vietnam war.

Clarence’s welcome was always huge and physical. The great Kodiak guy of Woodstock engulfed you in big arms, pulled you into his heat and smell. Anything that moved, he hugged. He pulled your face into the thickness of his yellowing beard. You carried the reek home, pleasant as Liederkranz. His story, as I knew it, was that he was a stonemason in Queens, though some say he was also an architect. In his early thirties he inherited four acres of land on Ohayo mountain outside of Woodstock, and soon moved there with his wife. After he worked on several houses around Woodstock as a stonemason, his brain shifted into a different modality. He started laying stone walls in abstract patterns against the hillside on his acreage, and he started to build a house. Soon his wife left him and moved into a trailer on a lot above his place and rained her garbage down off the cliff onto him. I don’t know what his emotional response was, but physically he received the stuff with grace and enthusiasm, and began to incorporate it into his project. That was how the place he called Journey’s End began.

He started building his first “House of Glass,” seven stories of stone and tar and old windows and doors, around a large beech tree, against the side of Ohayo mountain. Spreading out from the “mansion” he developed shrines and totems out of tin plates, empty jugs, plastic flowers, product wrappers, broken dolls, discarded prostheses (a nearby prosthetic factory delivered their discards to him). The dolls limbs and heads made certain nooks in the scrapscape downright spooky. Ranks of broken dolls, some of them dressed, some cracked, burned, pierced, distorted, some with hair of straw attached with tar, looked like a three dimensional, even wackier version of a drawing by that other outsider, Henry Darger, though Clarence’s inventions seemed more sinister than Darger’s playful, erotic fantasy wars. One time when I was there someone delivered two large broken demijohns, useless to everyone but Clarence. Clarence was amazing with his pleasure at the gift of these waste objects. The next time I came the cracks were healed with tar, embellished with limbs of dolls and plastic flowers, placed as if at the entrance to a cave.

“What Egypt took centuries to build,” he spread his arms from his tar stained blue coveralls, his eyes spiraling with apotheosis. “I have made this in less than a lifetime.” He swung his arm as if he were perched on a camel swaying across the plain of Giza.

I tagged along with Greg Blaisdell and Bill Lipke, who went frequently from Ithaca, New York. They were trying to document the accomplishment, and eventually published a book about Clarence. The place resisted photography, and the shots in the book are much less coherent than the experience of being there, though coherence was never as pertinent a value as energy and invention. Kathy Porter, a brilliant painter, and revolutionary spirit, often came with us. She was related by marriage to Stephen Porter to the family of the photographer Elliot and the painter Fairfield Porter. Clarence loved to hug her generous body. One of the great elements of her abstract paintings and drawings, is the power of her impatience. Her work barely contains her expansive energy. Perhaps Clarence’s work reinforced in her that feeling of momentum in stasis. His place threatened to bust loose if you turned your back on it. This intimidated most people. Clarence was their boogy man, and they feared his effect on their property values.

His preference for highly flammable tar as a binding material caused his “mansion” to burn down in 1968 and then again after he rebuilt it. Sometimes when I visited he wasn’t there. I’d smoke a joint and relax. Without his intervention and guidance I felt submerged, swimming through a strangely breathable liquid realm. It was like entering a Blakean world, a visionary other place. All around the discarded world of detritus, of garbage, floated in an immeasurable equilibrium. Sifted through his mind all this was made possible and gorgeous. My own relatively bourgeois attempts at writing were shocked into a lesson in artistic freedom, although I also understood that free as his art seemed, Clarence was not a free man, but tightly wound in tentacles of his own neuroses.

Clarence once offered to let me stay overnight in one of the “rooms” of his mansion. This was a cubbyhole, a tubelike space similar to what I’ve seen advertised as accommodations in cheap Japanese hotels, but his was slathered with tar. He had embedded a TV tube in tar at the foot, and another on the ceiling at the head so lying on your back you might watch it. I doubted they were hooked up but didn’t stay to find out. It felt cowardly to refuse the hospitality, though I don’t think Clarence even noticed me gone.

Clarence’s fans wanted his place preserved, turned into a national treasure, but we were in a minority. Many of his neighbors despised him as they looked to their property values. Despite Woodstock’s reputation as an open liberal place, it had a persistently bourgeois heart. Clarence’s wild looks and recycling survival strategy was too extreme for the town’s population. Vandals often attacked his place. He was tossed into the hoosegow in Kingston once for defending his art from three men who were tearing down the “junk” in his backyard. He whacked at them with the butt of a rifle. “This fateful day is a day of infamy,” he wrote in his Bible while in jail “shrouded within a dark cloud of bereavement and deeply rooted in the regretful act of vandalism thrust upon my hopeless art. Art is the only clean thing on the face of this earth except venerable holiness. Art may err but nature cannot miss its everlasting beauty, and dust is for a time only.” Bill Lipke said that Clarence didn’t think of what he did as art until several people introduced the idea, then he locked onto it like a barnacle onto an oyster.

He wrote in his Bible, from the rest home he was put in after he could no longer maintain his life at Journey’s End, and was found sleeping in doorways, “Lost in a deep sea of bewilderment, quandary, hoping upon hope of my successful pulling myself up and out of this travail maelstrom of dire circumstance that has so vilely engulfed me somewhere out of this impenetrable darkness of suspense and untold anxiety that completely surrounds me, holds me captive, and so subject to the emanation of the gods of fortune and judgement sentenced upon me, inconceivably powerful forces, of my mind, carries & graciously transports me along, a flower strewn path of hope, fortified by the blissful sphere of righteousness to guide me in my desperate pursuit of happiness, via my creative art.” These notebooks have pages of this overblown rhetoric of despair, always redeemed by his luminous visions of art.

As Clarence succumbed to diabetes and other health problems his place quickly deteriorated, reduced to rubble by 1974, nothing left there any more. It would have taken a devoted establishment to preserve his accomplishment. Everyone was too willing to forget about him. No one wanted to do the work. Perhaps it was fitting. Garbage back to garbage. Rubble to rubble. Thirty years after his death someone found his ashes, forgotten in a corner of a Woodstock mortuary, no one to mourn for him, no one to celebrate his passing.

What is left for me is worrying the idea of what he meant for me at that time. Whatever miseries I conjure and embrace for myself, I expect to be redeemed by art. The artist and the pursuit of art seem some of the few elements of sanity available now in our society so grotesque with greed, ignorance, selfishness. Clarence was outside all controlling establishments, including the art establishments. Including the comforts of family. From that I took enormous reassurance and inspiration, struggling against each tentacle of the establishments that squeezed myself. We live on our planet both overwhelmed and undermined by our own garbage. Clarence seemed to provide an antidote to that. He was the septic superman. It wasn’t absolute freedom. He was perhaps more trapped than the rest of us by his own mind, but he dealt deliriously with whatever was thrown at him, with his own visionary panache.

 

 

Crow-Dog

Henry Crow-dog, full-blooded Sioux, seventy-four years, stands straight up, face regal and craggy, noble hooked nose, his hair long and black. He is shaman of the Native American Church, an “institution” built on a jute sack full of peyote buttons. He lives on the Rosebud Reservation, in South Dakota. He calls his place Crow-Dog’s Paradise. In the portrait on the sign above the entrance to the paradise Henry hovers over the ground seated in the lotus position, arms extended right and left. In the right hand he holds a peyote button. In the left he holds a cross. Real Crow-Dog refuses a cigarette offered by Leo Garen. “Tobacco is a sacrament,” he explains. “We smoke in ceremony, not as habit.” Leo is negotiating a wage for Henry to be spiritual adviser on our shoot at the Cheyenne River Reservation. He also needs him for a couple of shots. We meet in his house, a sprawling shack near the Rosebud River. The structure is tacked together out of corrugated tin, salvaged windows, car doors, road signs, refrigerator pieces and other odd scraps. Henry refuses to live in one of the prefabs the BIA erects on the reservation. Leonard, his son, lives in one of those with his family. Two young Navajo braves visiting Henry greet us with “How!” as they are leaving. The greeting stuns me. I’ve heard it before only in movies. The sound drops like a stone through my consciousness. That one syllable resonates from the gut, from something real and ancient. It comes from the core of a whole people. This lens that starts to focus me into looking at Native Americans as they are rather than seeing them distorted through filters of white American mythmaking.

II

We get a call from the Pierre, South Dakota police, that Leonard Crow-Dog is in jail, and has given our name as someone who would go his bail. Leonard is Henry’s son, a well-known shaman in his own right, famous for selling his powers and skills around the country in shows for the white man. He is bringing Henry, and intends to camp with his wife and kids near the set, and feed them all at our mess hall. This speaks both to the depth of their poverty and to Leonard’s freeloading skills. He has been busted for driving an “Indian car” off the reservation. Leonard doesn’t have a license. The car was stopped because it has no tail light covers. It is almost midnight. Henry sits in the jailhouse with Leonard’s wife and kids. Both kids are asleep, their heads in their mother’s lap. Henry doesn’t stir when we walk in, stares straight ahead, hands folded in his lap. We arrange the bail, and Leo loads Leonard and the family into the company van. My assignment is to drive the Indian car to the set with Henry Crow-Dog. At an all night gas station 7-11 I buy a couple of cans of car wax, with transparent red caps, and tape them over the taillights. The car has no rear view mirror and only one cracked side mirror. The steering doesn’t engage until a few revolutions of the wheel. The brakes want at least thirty seconds of pumping before they engage. It’s 2 A.M now. With Henry Crow-Dog riding shotgun I pull out onto the road for the Cheyenne River reservation.

Henry stares straight ahead, not at the road, but into the darkness barely scooped out by the one dim headlight. Every time I look across the seat at his profile I feel an odd thrill, as if I am riding with an avatar lifted straight off the buffalo nickel. The first time he chants I almost fly out the window. It is very dark in South Dakota. There is no traffic. It’s just Crow-Dog and me. He chants every few minutes, the songs somehow reassuring. Between Pierre and the Cheyenne River rez there is one turn in the road. I miss it, don’t start turning the wheel soon enough. We bounce off across the prairie. Luckily there is no tree, no rock in the way. The car rattles to a stop. Indian car survives. I look at Henry. He gazes straight ahead, laughing. “Ha ha ha ha ha! If we make movie we make good movie.”

III

After a week Leo asks Leonard and family to leave. The film is on a tight budget, he explains, can’t afford to feed the extra mouths. Leonard drives the Indian car back to Rosebud without incident. Henry and I share a cottage – the shaman and the wordslinger. You don’t need to go to the Himalayas, to Pune, to Kyoto, to find a spiritual teacher. Here he is in South Dakota. The traditions of wisdom and spirituality on which Henry floats are as rich and goofy as those of any yogi anywhere on the esoteric planet. His instruction comes from power and confidence as he holds himself within himself; for instance, he has a guitar. He knows no chords, no tunings, no picking techniques. He slaps, strums, shakes, spins the instrument, treating it as some ritual object he has found in a gulley on the prairie. It makes magical sounds. All night he sings his songs for us, and jokes with us, while in his own trailer, with his golden lab, Sun, Keith Carradine works up his song, “I’m Easy,” that later becomes a minor hit. Late one evening, Gary Busey, ecstatic with listening to Crow-Dog way into the night, exclaims, “Thank you, Henry, for helping all of us.” Crow-Dog laughs, that deep visceral laugh I first heard in the car. “Who says you can help the people?” I learn from Henry Crow-Dog an aspect of love nearly disappeared from our society, called veneration.

IV

Leo Garen gets the two shots that he needs, and I get a touch, a vision of Buddha consciousness, from being present with Henry; but things soon start to get weird. He insists once that I drive him to Rosebud for a very important meeting. There I get a sense of conflict within the rez between full-blood and half-breed residents. When we are pumping gas, a couple of young half-breed braves approach Henry, and get practically into his face and say, sarcastically, “Henry Crow-Dog, full-blooded Ogallala Sioux Indian. Ha!” Henry’s important meeting is at a makeshift brothel, where young girls sell their stuff to older men. Henry likes to carry naked girls around on his shoulders. The girls must experience altitude. I don’t know what Henry experiences.

Henry invites me to drive him to the house of a woman near Eagle Butte far out on the prairie. She is the keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe. White Buffalo Woman gave this pipe to the Lakota people long before anyone can remember. With this sacramental pipe she taught the Lakota people how to live. This offer was a bit like someone tapping you on the shoulder in Jerusalem, and saying, “Pssst, buddy, you wanna see the true cross?” I am tempted. I am flattered that he offers. I am also wary of Henry’s coyote trickster shenanigans. I am busy on the set. I don’t accept. All my life I regret that I didn’t accept.

Back at the set, one of the carpenters who admires Henry greatly, is returning to L.A., and gives Henry a gift of a gallon of wine. Big mistake. Henry drinks it all in one afternoon, sitting in a cameraman’s trailer. He plays his guitar, sings his songs. When he leaves, towards evening, he forgets there are steps from the ground to the landing by the door. He forgets to turn left down the steps, walks straight, and plunges eight feet. To save his guitar he holds it up and lands on his face. Luckily he is very drunk and loose, and breaks no bones. When he comes to he shuns all help and stumbles off into the prairie to find the herbs he needs to heal himself. It doesn’t work. His face swells up and infection sets in. I rush him down to Rosebud, to the hospital. Delphine, his daughter, is furious. She thinks I beat him up. Once I convince her I didn’t she still wont accept the actual story, believes some braves from Cheyenne River mugged him. She is furious with me also for taking him to the Rosebud hospital, where everyone would know, and the Crow-Dogs would lose face. I should have taken him straight to the hospital in Valentine, Nebraska, and then told her about it. It is November. Cold winds blow across our locations on the Cheyenne River reservation. It’s going to snow soon. We are about to wrap. Henry Crow-Dog never returns to the set. I learn in the spring that his daughter is murdered, her body found on the prairie. The murderer is a white man from Valentine. Everyone knows who he is. He is never brought to trial. I still cherish a beaded medallion I bought from Delphine.

In Cape Breton I settle the cover on my tipi poles, tap in the stakes, and insert the lacing pins. I spread the smoke flaps above, then bend over and move inside. It’s a huge tipi, a cathedral-like space. The confluence of the poles is an image that remains embedded in my mind, exalting upwards like the architecture of any holy space. A black feather drifts down through the smoke hole to land in the fire pit. “Thank you, Henry,” I whisper, knowing that he knows.

 

 

Poles

Richard helped us raise the tipi tripod. It was a job of some modest engineering to get the long heavy poles to vertical in the small clearing. It had taken us the good part of two summers to fell, peel, and smooth the poles for the tipi. It’s best to cut them when the moon is waxing, because then the sap rises, and loosens the bark. The design causes rain to hit the confluence of the poles and guide itself down to run off into the ditch behind the dewcloth. A small drip sizzles occasionally into the fire pit at the center of the living space. You smooth the poles as best you can. Any slight chip or irregularity causes a drip onto the blankets or books. Lodgepole pine is the standard, slim and smooth all the way up. All we had was spruce, too thick, too irregular and full of knots from bottom to top. The tripod poles were thick and heavy, the longest one thirty-six feet, all the others thirty-two. I was impressed, though unprepared for it, how every tiny detail impacts on the result.

To fasten the three tripod poles you wind the rope around them at a point just above where the cover ends, at twenty-eight feet in this case. It seemed counterintuitive that you don’t bind or tighten the rope while the poles are down, but once the poles were up the reason was clear. We tied a long rope to the top, and then tossed that rope over the highest limb we could reach, backed off into the primrose and raspberry, and pulled. The tripod rose slowly, but more easily than I had imagined. I moved the center pole around, and then another, and made a stable triangle that cinched itself at the top, which it couldn’t have done if the rope had been bound too tight. That tripod stayed up in place for many years. The tripod alone looked quite noble, powerful. I watched Richard stand back and look up at it. I think he said something like, “Wow!” I like to imagine that this was one of the inspirations for the great vertical Cor-ten steel pieces he made in the mid-Seventies at the Stedelijk Museum, called Sight Point, and in London at Liverpool Station, called Fulcrum.

While I was making the tipi I thought about Henry Crow-Dog a lot. I was privileged to be in his company while I was working on a film in South Dakota. He was a shaman and a man of profound mischief from the Rosebud reservation. He appeared in a couple of shots, and remained on the set as the “spiritual advisor”. On the reservation he called the place he lived, Crow-dog’s Paradise. Above the entrance to his paradise was a portrait of Henry levitating in the lotus position, a peyote button in one hand, a cross in the other.

My poles were too thick at the top, so I couldn’t fit all fourteen poles, and had to use only eleven. The imperfection bothered me, but didn’t seem to make too much difference. We tied the dew-cloth to the poles, moved the bed in, and the chairs that Jingle built according to the design in the tipi book. Before we stretched the cover over the poles a black feather floated down between the poles, and landed inside the tipi. I took that as a blessing from Henry. We stretched the cover across the poles and tied it down, put the smoke-flap poles in place, and so we had a home. It was a sanctified space. To lie on your back and look up through the smokehole is exalting. Sometimes now I close my eyes and visualize the poles rising like the apse of a great cathedral. It imprinted particularly during a lightning storm that came a few days after the tipi was up. We closed the smokeflaps. Rain beat on the canvas and the wind swelled and smacked it against the poles. Lightning lit us up every few seconds. I’d never seen before how each flash was a different color. This was a great revelation of how our lives are lived in power and beauty.

 

 

Shattari

“That little Arab. He’s done alright for himself,” Marisa says. We sit on the floor watching the young women belly dance around our Sufi teacher. Marisa is Spanish, so her take on Arabs is tempered by her country’s history. Adnan grew up in Baghdad, and loves to wax nostalgic about warm summer nights, and sleeping on the roof as the scents of bougainvillea and lavender waft across the city. He leads his Sufi group through a system he calls “shattari,” which essentially means to learn by doing. For that reason I am attracted to his practice. Any spiritual revelation for me has to come through a source preliterate. Words are too entangling, though sounds, syllables, can penetrate.

Despite some ironic distance, Marisa is an earnest participant. She is a great professional dancer from Barcelona, capable of ecstatic movement, of dancing herself out of her mind. The practice is complicated and varied. Adnan is the ultimate camp activities counselor. We follow him through calisthenics, belly dance, whirling, drumming, chanting, games, walks into the woods, improv and skits, prayer. It is all done to the lilts and rhythms of Arab music – Oum Khalsoum, Fairuz, Koranic chanting. Adnan is a small man with an unimaginably strong and supple body. He can do a thousand push-ups or sit-ups without fatigue. When he plays his doumbek he can drum a whole roomful of followers into trance. It’s addictive. People beg him to pick up his drum. His abilities transcend Marisa’s prejudices. They totally obliterate mine.

For his summer workshop this year, Adnan has rented a former Jewish boy’s camp in Fleishmanns, New York. On the walls next to the bunks the boys inked graffiti in Hebrew. Stars of David are carved into the bedsteads. The place is ripe for a Sufi intrusion. Days of the workshop are divided into two sessions, with two or three hour breaks in the afternoon. You are encouraged to eat only once a day, at around midnight. People often cheat, and rush off in the interim for pizza. The rupture of routine accounts partially, perhaps, for experiences I had that I’ll never reconcile with my daily life. I usually keep the fast, and Marisa does too. Although we rarely get together in New York City, I always feel a kinship when Marisa is there, the experience enhanced by her reinforcement.

Sometimes the evening session involves a talk, or a presentation by one of the participants. This evening session is all movement done to a tape of strings and voices stretching syllables of the Koran through mysterious melismatic curves. Adnan on the platform is dressed in loose pants and wife-beater undershirt and at first seems to be leading us in slow belly-dance. We all move in imitation of his supple grace. We wind our hips around, bend our torsos, wave our arms. It is an undersea forest waving in the currents, a knot of hibernating snakes waking up. Hours pass in this moving meditation. Adnan is imperceptibly slowing his movement down. At a certain point I notice he has lifted his arm only a few inches in the last fifteen minutes. We are trying to keep up with him, and are failing. What is this slowness? Adnan’s eyes drift upwards in his skull, showing only whites. He is in a trance into which it seems you can’t follow him. How can anyone move so slowly? The women most dedicated to him, whom Marisa calls his harem, are already frying onions in the kitchen. The dissonance and temptation that scent creates is painful. I am raging with hunger. Feed these people, Adnan, I mutter. Just get the damned arm up where it’s going and feed your people. Hurry up. We get the point. Arm goes up. That’s good. Get it up there and let’s eat. Your people are hungry. We haven’t eaten since yesterday midnight. Fucking get the arm where it’s going and give us food.

Suddenly, when I am practically blind with anger, something happens. I don’t understand how or why. Something within my chest bursts open, like a sudden blooming. A flower within my breast spontaneously tears open and light and love pours out. Marisa can see something is going on with me, and she grabs my arm as if to hold me down. I love Marisa. I love all the people in the room, the ones I know, the ones I hardly know. I love all the Jewish boy campers who preceded us in this place. I love Marisa’s tight grip on my arm. I love the floors the walls the ceiling the stage. I love Adnan who is hardly visible now. I love myself, each molecule of self that flows with ease into the molecules of other. Everything in the perceptual world I love, and everything imperceptible as well. Every atom every quark of every atom. The feeling floods out of my breast as if a spigot has opened to release a gusher of love. I want to dance with every particle of being that surrounds us. This is the ambrosial flood. This is the honeyed road from my open heart.

Nonetheless the scent of onions frying penetrates my bliss. I follow the crowd I love into the dining hall. The session is over, except I am riding this tsunami of love. My heart chakra has opened. Heart chakra. I never believed in, never trusted the new-age eastern gobble-de-gook, but here I am witness to a truth, here I am surfing in the curl of love. Suddenly I panic. Can I shut this down? Clamp the spigot? I’m returning to New York in a day. This won’t play on the subway. It could get me big hurt. Can I love New York down to the last bullet? I look at Marisa. She understands; at least, I think she does. In front of me is a plate of dates, eggs, and onions. I take a forkful. With this taste the flowering slowly retracts into my chest. These feelings do a slow fade. It happened, and now it is done. Will it ever happen again? It is frightening to think that it can. At some point without warning, quick as a breath when you come up from a dive, and even in contradiction to what you are feeling at the time, heart can spontaneously open.

Contributor

Steve Katz, out now on Starcherone Books

Steve Katz has written and published continuously since the self-published novella, The Lestriad, in 1962. His collection of stories, Creamy & Delicious (1970), was mentioned in Larry McCaffery’s list of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century where it was called, “The most extreme and perfectly executed fictional work to emerge from the Pop Art scene of the late 60s.” His other works include The Exagggerations of Peter Prince (1968), Moving Parts (1977), Antonello’s Lion (2005), the collections of stories Stolen Stories (1984) and KISSSSS, a Miscellany (2007). His 1995 novel, Swanny’s Ways, won an American Book Award. He has taught creative writing and literature at a number of universities, including the University of Colorado in Boulder, from 1978-2003, and an Emeritus Professor since. He lives in Denver.

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