The first story in which I remember reading about a personified Death, and one I still love, is The Appointment in Samarra (or Samarkand). It’s a very old tale, said to be from Mesopotamia, and is included in the Talmud and collections of Sufi wisdom, and is sometimes also called When Death Came to Baghdad. In it, a man sends his servant on a long journey to avoid Death, only to find that Death had expected him there, in that other place, all along. I remember feeling that there was a certain injustice in that – if only the man had stayed home! How unfair that the man’s fear of dying drove him to flee straight to the place of his death. Yet, how foolish to try to run away, only to spend his final days on a long journey to a distant land, far from all that he knew and loved. That is where Death brings us in the end anyway. In many old stories, Death is portrayed as a neutral, or even benevolent figure. Not frightening or evil, but someone who is just doing a job. These stories represent a way for us to make peace with mortality. Not to say that we shouldn’t cling to the beauty and joy and connection presented by a life well lived, or mourn the finality of separation from our loved ones. Rather Death represents everything that is unknown, and our complete inability to return to what was before – that is to say, death, (with a little ‘d’) in a very literal sense, or any process of change or transition. Not bad, and maybe not good, but inevitable just the same.
My sister, God keep her, was a troubled girl. She was beautiful in every way, as you have heard, but fair doesn’t always mean fair. You look at me now, all of you, with your wide eyes and your shock and horror at the things you have heard. I’ll not tell you that they’re lies, but the truth can have a way of shifting and stretching and spreading like silt in water before it finally settles out, and you can see clearly what’s at the bottom of it.
When my sister was a little girl, she would follow me around. I was barely older, but it was enough, and with a new baby, my mother put me to work while she coddled the young one. So I did make her eat dirt, and I did run away from her. I felt she had stolen my mother’s affections, and was only little yet myself.
As we grew older there were little pranks, the things children will do, none of it intending real harm. But didn’t she take a swipe like a punch, and fold herself over, always just when my mother came near. My own scratches and bites and bruises were left untended. I brought them on myself I was told. But I learned, and so I stopped fighting back, thinking that would show my mother. But still she said I brought it on myself, if not for what I did today, then yesterday or last week, or some other time wasn’t too long ago to warrant reprisal still. And didn’t she feign faintness and tremors at the wisp of a cough, to be bundled into bed with me to wait on her, with none to nurse me on my own sickbed, for she would be too fragile, and I was decided to be the one who would stretch my illness for laziness.
Meantime, if I wasn’t married, I was to be working to keep myself, and she, my sister, would only talk herself blue in the face. Being younger and now fragile my mother didn’t press her. So it was I who sat in the yard to get the better light to finish my work, and I who lost a thimble and followed it down into the well. She did lower me down to get it, and in the waters, I did find a gift, which she demanded a share of if she would pull me back up, and so I agreed rather than be left to drown in the well.
When I came up, this young man was there with her, and there we both stood, one dry and one wet, and she made jokes to humiliate me, and then she showed him both of our work, mine nearly completed, and her few, precise stitches, which were indeed smaller and more even than mine, but which she said she had just started on. Tell me, with such an introduction, what chance would any young girl think she had, even if she wanted to steal away such a suitor?
I took my work and my thimble and the treasure and made for home, but, “Ah-ah!” my sister called after me. “I believe you have something that is mine,” she said, and put out a hand. So I handed over what she had asked for, and as I left, she related to the young man that not only was I slovenly and unindustrious, but also a thief.
My mother wanted to know how I came to be wet, and so I told her of my shame and humiliations, and she remarked that she supposed a young man could choose whichever girl he preferred. But it wasn’t about the young man. It was about the unkindness. I would do the same, my mother assured me, though I may assure you that I would not have.
So this man indeed came to call, and seeing me dry and presentable, he approached to apologize for his laughter and then inquired about my new piece of work, and saw that my sister’s few stitches had not progressed. She complained to my mother that I was ruining her chances and spreading lies to turn her suitor against her, and I was thereafter relegated to the kitchen when he called. His interests were his own, not persuaded by me, and this you may ask him yourself.
In time as you know, yes, his affection turned to me, and I found much enjoyment in his company as we walked together about town.
My sister became dissatisfied with the part I had given her of what I found in the well. She wanted me to go down again, and I would not. She threw my thimble in for spite, and I told her she would have to go after it. She would not do it, and this time our mother came to my cause and told her she should. So I lowered her into the well, and I did pull her back! And I have the thimble to prove it. There was nothing but frogs down there anyway, she told me.
After that I can’t say with any certainty what happened to her. I was planning to marry, you see, and my mother, happy enough to go to much effort on behalf of my sister, would not do so for me, as she said I had stolen my sister’s chance. So I was on my own, grateful merely to have not been put out of the house. I did not see my sister. I did wonder after her, but determined she would not be seen as she did not wish me well.
Then we did notice her missing, my mother first of course. We all searched. We were all there.
And then someone went to the well. My wedding was delayed, of course, and it is only now that we are all gathered here, and this young man still beside me.
How this bone harp was made, I cannot account for, nor how this musician came to have it, a piece of my own dead sister. Yet, some part of what was left down there, some part of what I found in the well, caused this spell, and now we know what happened to her, and her own accounting of it.
But I did not push her into the well, and I did not leave her there, nor do I have any knowledge of how such things came to be. Now, you good folk, I tremble here as I say it, yet surrounded by you, now you must judge between us.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Do fairy tales always remain the same or do they change to suit each generation?
Some people have been very upset recently about the results of a survey that found that parents are changing fairy tales in order to make them more gentle tales for their children. Changing these classic tales, many an argument goes, is nothing but political correctness run rampant.
Yet fairy tales have always been retold, embellished, and otherwise changed to suit the mores and preferences of the current generation. Our current standards of child-rearing, begun with and passed down from the Victorians, is that children should be coddled and protected. What should we expect but that it should include the stories we tuck little ones into bed with? And why not? They’re small and it’s definitely better than the workhouses of yore! However, very few children, even among those parents and grandparents now bemoaning the loss of the “good old days,” ever actually heard the original versions of fairy tales while being put down to bed as tots to begin with.
Someone commented on a picture I posted recently. It was a picture of me as a tiny baby in my dad’s arms. We were a military family, and my mom had gone home to give birth, so this may have been one of the first times my father held me. We are content with each other, peaceful in that way unique to new parents and tiny babies. The commenter was someone my dad grew up with and who I grew up calling “uncle.” It was odd, I thought, that we weren’t already friends, and clicked the button that would make it so. Within days he posted something ugly and inaccurate about the state of the world, a snide and casually cruel thing that highlighted his lack of knowledge and understanding about the issue at hand, and I remembered, that’s probably why we weren’t already friends.
What to do? I asked myself. I could say something, and sometimes I do in these cases. When a friend shared a crude meme that suggested that a woman’s choice of clothing made it okay to grope her, I reminded him – mildly I thought – that consent matters. The result was as might be expected. On another occasion, I shared the Bill of Rights with people defending barbarism and terror with the First Amendment. They responded, more or less, that the Constitution was drivel, until it was pointed out that the words I quoted actually and literally were the First Amendment.
But it didn’t really make any difference. No one’s mind was changed, and I’m fairly certain the number of perspectives changed by debates on social media remains solidly at zero.
I’ve often felt that when there’s nothing else we can do, we have an obligation at least to speak – my skin and education and gender and sexual orientation all generally afford me that – and when we can’t do even that, to bear witness. It’s important, I sometimes think, simply to combat inaccuracies and fabrications, just so that facts and truth are spoken as often and in the same forums as errors and lies. Maybe, I think, saying something will lead a person to do a little more research. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement and philosophical differences, a difference in perspective and understanding that leads two reasonable and good people to different conclusions about how to tackle a problem. And over time, with many long conversations, I have seen people’s perspectives begin to shift. My own has changed over the years, and I think few of us are truly the same person, with the same perspectives and thoughts and opinions we had a decade or more ago. We look back on our youth and talk about “when I was young and foolish,” for a reason. But in this “post-truth” era, we seem often not to be debating philosophical differences but facts themselves; and so, maybe, I think, it’s worthwhile to simply speak the truth, even if into the void. Even if it opens me up to harassment, cries of “liberal” and also actual insults, alienation from old family friends.
This isn’t a coffee table conversation between people who hold each other in mutual regard and respect. I’m not afforded years, in this case, to identify the things we can agree on, to tease out the fears and misperceptions driving an unyeilding and callous perspective, to call upon his better nature. It’s an ignorant post on social media – his own speaking into the void – that by now has already been lost in the never-ceasing updates of modern personal newsfeeds.
So I didn’t say anything then. I will say something here.
The facts are these.
We are a nation of immigrants. The question of legal or illegal arrival is a modern one.
Our government has allowed so few H-2B visas, via a lottery system this year, that farming, crabbing, and other industries (our economy and food supply) are expecting a significant downturn due to insufficient labor – because the people working in those places come here legally, and now can’t get visas to do so, and so are not coming.
More than 2300 children, some as young as a few months old, were taken from their parents by U.S. government officials. There is no formal process to track separated children. Many of these parents now do not know where their children are, and when or if they might be reunited.
Separation was not a legal requirement but an administration policy, a fact firmly established, and it was ended by executive order this week, such that further separation, significantly with caveats, is no longer required. There’s currently no public plan for how those currently separated families will be reunited.
Images released by Customs and Border Control, like the one above, show boys housed in chain link cages, and later moved to tent cities. We haven’t seen pictures of, and don’t know where the girls and the youngest children are, leading many to ask the question, amid increasing child trafficking concerns, #WhereAreTheGirls ?
These are people. These are PEOPLE. THESE ARE PEOPLE. Human beings, scared and desperate, wanting only to make a better life for themselves and their children. Isn’t that the same thing any of us want?
We can have different perspectives about law and order, fairness and freedom, about what it means to be American and who gets to decide that. We can all agree that nobody wants children to be harmed, yet that is exactly what is happening. Regardless of all else, it is imperative that politics be put aside and every child be restored to their rightful guardian quickly and safely. Regardless where you fall on the so-called immigration debate, everyone in American custody must be treated humanely and with dignity, and housed in safe and sanitary conditions.
Sometimes she woke and didn’t know where she was, stuck in that strange space between dreaming and the rest of her life. The man beside her, wrapped in the rumpled sheets, would seem a stranger, and she would try to piece together just how she had ended up here and who he was. She would either fall back asleep, or struggle to wakefulness, and the familiar would settle over her again.
Day to day passed with little change, but she found she was more or less content. Her home was modest, but clean and orderly. The garden plot was neat, and the animals well cared for. She had a good life. In the distance, on a clear day, she could sometimes see the parapets of the castle, the colored flags unfurled in the wind on their narrow stilts. Sometimes, unaccountably, the sight of them would leave her feeling melancholy, and she would sit inside at her spinning wheel, instead of outside enjoying the good weather.
Strange sensations, like memory, would sometimes come over her when she sat spinning. A room, empty, but for a wheel, and piles of flax. A door barred, walls bare, and only a narrow window, high up, so she could see nothing through it but a sliver of blue sky. The skin of her hands was dry from working the fibrous material. And she despaired of escape.
The man, her husband, knew about nature and humors and the elements that made the world. It was a point of pride for him, but she only felt disgust at the work. Confused, she called it piety. There were some things that it was not for man to know, that were not to be meddled with, she reasoned. It brought in coin, though. They were not wealthy, but they had enough. He reminded her of this, to know her place, that she was no grander than he, and that his work had saved her life.
Yes, that. She did not remember that. Or rather she did, but it was more like a story she had been told than something she truly recalled. Pricking her finger, the infection that followed, a delirious fever, the herbal remedies that cured her. It was all so long ago now. The skin opened up, there must have been blood, and she imagined the long, narrow spindle, stretching up like a stilt overhead as she collapsed to the floor, her dress rumpled beneath her. Yes, that must be what happened. Who had found her? Her father? No, he was long gone. Her mother? Her mother had sent her away… Something nagged at her. Her mother had sent her away. She felt anger at this, mingled with despair.
I was really saddened to learn of Anthony Bourdain’s death. I first watched him on No Reservations back when Netflix was still sending dvds in the mail, streaming didn’t exist, and binge watching meant playing a season at a time off of a disc. He was an great storyteller of far flung adventure at a time when my husband and I needed that a lot, and it was his show that finally had my husband agreeing, unreservedly, with my crazy plan to drop everything, join Peace Corps, and move to Africa.
Once we got to the Northwest Region of Cameroon, Anthony Bourdain was there with us again, showing us glimpses of the rest of the world, of people and places and food that were far distant from the sometimes very challenging circumstances of living and working as a foreigner in a developing nation. He was with us, too, as we planned our trip home again, and the stops we made along the way. We came to think of him almost as a friend after welcoming him into our living room night after night over years. I loved his writing, his frank and honest perspective always tempered with kindness and respect for the people who hosted him. My husband loved the places, the cultures, the adventure – the example of how such a thing might be done. Tony made it possible to imagine ourselves in the places he visited. He made the world accessible.
And the food always left us both with mouths watering, and plotting our course to the nearest restaurant that might serve the most similar food to what Tony had described. He was like a ship captain of old returning to the seaside inn to regale us fireside with his tales of wonder at the world, all the places we’d never been, might never be – but could dream of following in his footsteps, or live vicariously through his stories. And he was always one the first people we looked to whenever planning a trip to a new place! He could find the heart of a place, and the best places to eat, which is almost the same thing.
He had such a love of my adopted city of New Orleans, too, which was only one more point of affinity. He was, in my impression, a slightly awkward, smart, thoughtful, and deeply caring person, under a layer of sarcasm and ironic witticism. As like calls to like, he was in that way someone I thought I recognized. I’m sorry I’ll never meet him. As someone who lives with depression and anxiety, deeply thinking and caring about the whole world can trip us up, and become crushing. Even so, after “oh, god, no,” my next thought was still, “why?” And that’s not a question we’ll ever be able to answer, because what we call depression is a different monster for everyone.
At first, I thought the most fitting tribute we could offer would be to go out with a group of friends and eat and drink and toast the memory of Anthony Bourdain. But it’s been a little rough lately – not terrible, just not great. I haven’t been doing any of the things I know I should do to sustain my creative pool, and to sustain me. It’s all felt like a step too far. So I’ve been up too late, drinking too much, not eating well enough, not meditating, not sleeping well, not reading, and going and going, and just busy. And those things all demand their toll if one is to pass through them. I’ve paid it in lack of focus, lack of patience, irritability, and sometimes just meanness out of a general overabundance of surliness and sass, toward myself and others, and other times I’ve been just casually, incidentally, accidentally unkind, or at the very least careless. Because my spirit is weary. So I decided instead to practice the self-care I preach, to be wiser and kinder and gentler with myself in order to be wiser and kinder and gentler in the world too. I stayed home and drank water and ate because I needed to even though I didn’t want to, I meditated and spent a quiet and nurturing night at home, and then went to bed at a decent hour even though I couldn’t sleep – but that’s just the nature of the beast.
Sometimes these terrible things, like a death or national politics or world events, can turn a good day on its head, or make a hard day so much worse. The best thing I thought I could do to honor the memory of this person who had been a source of inspiration and encouragement, from whom we’d learned and gained much, this friend we never met, was to do what they tell you at the beginning of every flight – in the event of an emergency, put your own mask on first.
Tony, thank you for sharing your stories and adventures with us. We’ll miss you.
This is a great blog post I read about how to ask for help or support, or just a little extra care if you feel like you need it. Be gentle with you.