March 8, 2015
Commenting on two photos posted online that compared youth activities in the 1970s (guitar playing/singing) to today (screen viewing/texting), I got in trouble with a younger friend who accused me of judging the earlier to be superior to the later. He said he was tired of older people whining about how it is compared to how it was. He had a point, but at the risk of being called an old whiner, I do think it’s useful to bring past and present together for a little practical contrast.
Although things may seem just-of-this-moment as we stand in it, the past is at least as present as our hippocampus. That memory-sorting center of our brain is our gateway to the past. Keeping this brain-presence of the past in mind it’s probably a good idea to regularly plumb earlier moments — as long as they don’t completely supersede what’s happening now. Why do we have memories, if not to thumb back through them to assess and reorient? There actually may be something to learn from bygone days without pitting then and now against each other in a dog fight. Tradition, innovation— they’re both vital to who and what we are.
For instance, as a carpenter at age 20, I danced the tops of walls. I was as at ease atop a second story stud wall nailing off joists as the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was in his ballets. I’d likely fall and break my neck, or worse, if I tried that now, but there was a time when it was true. How my dancing and Nijinsky’s come together has to do with a few words attributed to him.
“God is fire in the head,” Nijinsky said. “I am alive as long as I have a fire in my head.”
When I read that, I thought, “now there’s a definition of god I could live with.” It spoke of fresh experience not tangled in theology, or even msticism; an experience as direct and awesome as Moses’ burning bush as told in the Bible, but without the tortured literalism often brought to it. Nijinsky’s god was in his head, firing-up his vitality, his creativity. It was a blaze that made him dance.
Brilliant — god was a fire in the brain! That, I thought, is as close to the truth as anything a dancer might dance with a bonfire burning in his head. Nijinsky’s god was not remote, was not incarcerated in scripture the way god typically is even today. That same fire burned in 20-year-old Jim as he danced on walls, lifting sticks to be placed and nailed as he held their tails against his boot, as he walked the wires of gravity’s net as a spider commands the filaments of her web. That same fire energizes even the humble spider.
Today we Lilliputians are still prone to bind god with our oldest, tiniest ideas, water-boarding god to extract answers we’d most like to hear. We redact truth instead of appreciating this spectacular world of which we are integral, this miraculous but lethal world which often returns less welcome replies to our queries.
We’re often so trained in narrowness of vision we can’t see beyond our box of holy books and cramped skulls. We place more stock in the thoughts of ancients than we do in our own, as if they were not exactly as ignorant as we are when it comes to stuff unknown. Like them we obsess on single grains of sand and refuse to scan the wide beach.
Some of us are certain of our grasp of the unknown to the point of lunacy. Some would like to dictate the terms of others’ lives based upon their personal beliefs of what is essentially unknown, beliefs founded upon the three or four thousand year-old speculations of ancients.
But our brain-blaze is as real as that which scorched the insides of the skulls of cave dwellers, creation myth writers, scientists and artists — flames that also combusted in the muscles of carpenters and all workers from then to now. Having that fire hasn’t been the problem, understanding and directing it has been the rub.
While the past is the foundation upon which we build, the present is where young thinkers and carpenters with fires in their heads do their work:
—sweatskin slickkening in the light
breath as sure as the bellows of god
biceps built by the truth of weight,
muscles doing their natural jobs:
arms of sinew, bone and grit
reaching to haul the next board up
to be lifted and laid wall to ridge
and fixed by hammer blows on steel
fueled by blasts of the burning bush
in the orchard of god that has ever spun
like the fire that made big Moses reel
the burning bush we call the sun
Successfully joining old fires to new understanding is what makes the world work. Failing that, we resort to the hoses and axes of fire departments and the keyboard clicks of insurance company clerks.
by Jim Culleny
for the West County Independent