Oh fish all
Oh fish will
Off fish ill
All fish are ill
So be it.
It is said she burned with holy passion. I do not know. I know she burnt. It is said that flames purify the soul. Hell must be free of blemish. It is said she heard saints speak. I hear voices. Who speaks i do not know. She heard them before she burned to a crisper version of her former self. Voices. She scared us because we hear them too. But we fear fire more. We impure ones. She spoke too freely. Damn her. There are things we know to be true and there are reasons for the great silence. We all have voices, thoughts. The voices. If you knew what mine said. It is said she was loved. It is said they respected her. Still, they watched her burn. Is this what burning love is? They must have heard the wood crack and spit back her fat. Some were sickened as they salivated at the familiar smell of roasting flesh. I always notice the one who vomits first. I want to say to him: What did you expect? A spiritual cleansing at the spectacle? A symbolic demise? No mess? The devil in a cloak to descend with her? No. He ascended an hour ago to take up his seat next to Beaufort and Cauchon. They who commanded I do my duty. With their mitres and gold they cross us. Their light. Let the games begin. I do not hate them. The heretics i burn. It is theatre. I am an entertainer, the hand of God. I am the distance between their thirst for blood and the blood. I am the interregnum. They demand satisfaction, protection, justice. But not one will step forward to do the work that delivers it. They are not bad people. They are spectators. They are mostly ordinary. Ordinary spectators hoping the warmth will pass on a degree of purity. She burns for hearing the voices of saints while dressed as a man. Heresy. Hear say, here see? It’s not her we kill but thinking. Thinking is a voice and now we fear it. Tonight we will all sleep speaking prayers to drown out the voices. They, I … I burn her. I release her soul and I lose mine. I have earned the right to say these things having despatched souls for twenty years.We are mostly all ordinary, the burners and the ones who burn. These are the two types of people in this world; those who burn and those burnt. The pure and the purified. Only gold holds back the flames. To hold gold others must burn. We must eat and they hold the gold. I think of today as an exchange. They are buying the security of purity and the soul is a weighty substance. None dare burn those who burn others. They are exempt from the fire, for they are the voice of God and are jealous of other voices. Will it not always be so?
We must be careful of voices, even our own.
Geoffroy, Rouen, 30 May, 1431.
Physical distance seems to amplify feelings of love and loss. In this world of instant everything we learn the hard way that live video chat does not substitute a relationship. It’s why books beat e-books, vinyl beats i-tunes and why a warm hug beats electromagnetic, pixelated internet talk. But, video chat is better than none. Sound waves beat no waves. Physical proximity may foster contempt. We take for granted who is closest to us, we expect them to be there always, like the stars and the moon. Then life happens and strips us clean of certainty. When you experience loss at close quarters it’s awful. Loss with the separation of oceans is numbing and with little to hold onto we clench our fists and breathe the hurt deep down into ourselves. There is nowhere else for it to go. This is the migrants lot. Three of us in our small circle of friends have each lost a parent. We have had to co-ordinate visits with relapses in health and where travel used to be about seeing new places it has become about saying goodbyes, seeing up close the people we love whom we know we shall never see again. When a mother or father we love dies, we are physically and emotionally stranded and loss is amplified by guilt and regret. We new it would be hard, and it is.
Death is only one of the difficulties of migration, forging new identities is the other. We embrace the new country that has opened itself to us while mourning the one on whose soil we were born. We should be accustomed to death when it comes. We have practiced loss. But losing people is not a rehearsal and proximity does not ease the pain. Near or far the distance death cleaves between us is interminable. Maybe the pain of it for us trans-continental mourners is that we mix into our grief the echo of the migrants chorus ” you ran away”, ” you took the easy way out”. However, I remember it was a slow walk. The slowest of walks, almost a shuffle. We all run, it’s only the direction that differs. Some run forward despite the cost, some run backwards, despite the cost.
To pacify the people of Rome the Caesars promised them bread and circuses. The French Revolution was ignited by bread. Lenin promised “Peace, Bread and Land” to the Russian people and orchestrated a worker’s revolution. For the past 30 years I have been working on my own domestic revolution, and it involves bread.
I was raised properly (there are certain things-all evidence to the contrary-which one is honour bound to insist upon) to understand what constitutes a sandwich. It is formed by placing the food of your choice between two slices or pieces of bread. If I were, as is customary, to slice a sandwich in two I would have a sandwich, halved. Simple? I thought so too. At this point the domestic ritual becomes rather complicated. One of the first debates with my wife was about whether two slices of bread (sandwiched) remained a sandwhich when cut in half. If I offered you a sandwich I would use two slices of bread, sandwiched, cut in half and I would then present to you both slices as a sandwhich. I maintain that no matter how many times one slices the sandwich, it remains a sandwich.
Three decades of often heated kitchen debates have ensued, evolving into a philosophical debate of ontological proportions. When is a sandwhich not a sandwhich? When we apply deconstructionist thinking to this noble victual, regarding it rather as a cultural item shared, signifying a yielding of hostility. An edgy stalemate currently exists in our household. Thirty years later I still ask “one slice or two” when I construct the bread thing. It has become a matter of principle. I forget which principle, but that is besides the point. I ask the question to remind my much loved wife that my opinion, indeed, my character, on this issue stands. I have conceded much in my time for the sake of peaceful coexistence but on this point I intend to stand. Bread has become an ideological touchstone.
Some give thanks for their daily bread, I offer heartfelt gratitude to the bread roll. Not for its nutritional blessings but for its honesty, its lack of ambiguity. A bread roll halved or quartered remains a bread roll. They are culinary diplomats: easily bending to the demands of others whilst simultaneously original.
The sliced loaf is unpredictable. Seemingly innocent and ordinary, it belies the domestic anarchy lurking beneath its seedy crust.
Upon one slice of bread spread soft butter so as not to shred the texture of the bread. Onto one slice carefully place one’s desired filling (mature cheddar cheese is my default preference).
Place one slice neatly above the first and press down slightly. Cut in two, usually from corner to corner, creating two triangles or straight down the centre thus creating two rectangles.
The final product: a sandwich plated for one, halved and yet reataining it’s original identity of sandwich. We can learn from the sandwich.
The language game with bread extends to our perception of being. Bread is bread whether you are talking about a slice, a loaf or all of the loaves of bread in the world. Whether you are here or there, it remains you who is somewhere. Geography does not alter the state of the soul. The paradox of language manifests in the sandwhich. If there is no common agreement on what constitutes a half or a whole sandwich what chance is there for peace between warring nations? Our suburban ideological stalemate over bread tranlates to politics and religion. We assume our differences are immense when in fact we have always been talking about the same thing. There are no ideological conflicts, only conflicts over language.
Since life is so short, I’m leaving now to make my wife a sandwich. A single sliced one at that.
After all, it’s only bread.
In the beginning there was man and the soil. In some places, notwithstanding occasional conflict, most people got on with the task of surviving together on the soil. In other places man toiled and the stronger among them claimed ownership of the soil. Why in some places men claimed ownership and in other places only membership is a question for the ages. One man got clever and made a plough. For the machine to be effective he bought a horse and so the horse trader liked this machine. Soon everyone had a machine and a horse. Those who could afford neither machine nor horse nor land worked for those who could. Ownership determined wealth; it’s not rocket science. Where people did not own things it was different. They did not have a word for wealth.
Later the machine was improved, older ones sold or melted down to make newer, better machines. Some men left the land to make and sell machines. Other machines appeared to cut wheat, mill corn, spin yarn and weave cloth. This made some people glad and others who could not afford machines became angry. Those who had land and horses and machines became wealthier and more powerful and eventually owned all the land. Those who did not own land or machines were greater in number and worked for the powerful men. Amongst them all, powerful and powerless, there were good and bad men. In some places men were valued for their contribution to those around them, in other places a man’s position in relation to those in power determined his value.
Not all people thought of a man in terms of value but where there were machines, it seemed like the right thing to do, even logical. Machines made life easier, those who made and improved them were highly regarded. It’s not rocket science. It seemed to be the natural progression of things and people did not ask whether it could or should be otherwise, “Thus is the world” people said and as it was said, so it became true. If God had wanted it otherwise , he would have made it so. In the places without machines people said pretty much the same thing.
There were some places where people felt it was silly to claim ownership of land since they all lived off the land and the land had been there long before them. Land to them was not something you owned but a place where you lived. People belonged to the land. They respected the land and the animals and also every person’s place on the land. They did not make machines because they never wanted more, only enough.
Over time the machines got bigger and better and from out of the soil men dug old dead trees and burned them to power the machines. They called this fuel. Fuel begat steam which begat bigger machines which begat trains and boats. Men saw the value of land and powerful men trained soldiers to conquer other lands and put soldiers in boats to conquer them. Machines harnessed great forces. Force became the way of the world. The places without machines were easy to conquer. Where soldiers found people without machines they claimed ownership of these simpler people. The powerful, machined men thanked God for giving them the machines and assumed that those men without machines could not possibly have God so they gave them their God and killed any who refused to accept their gift. How could anyone who refused such a gift ever be trusted? It’s not rocket science.
By now there were many powerful men and fewer places with dead tree fuel so these men went to war and fought each other for control of the land. They did this for many hundreds of years. During the course of these wars the places these powerful men owned became clearly defined by boundaries and they called their allotted parts countries. To differentiate them from one another they took coloured cloth and wove these into flags, which they waved and they said that these signified their loyalty to their country. They said that those who lived together within their well-defined boundaries were different to other men with different cloths. Difference became more important than being alive. It was no longer sufficient to be alive. You had to live differently so that maintaining difference kept you too busy to ask questions like aren’t we actually the same?
And so the men of power wrote down what they had they said and it was believed because everyone knows that when something is written it must be true and if powerful men write it, it is so true we call it law.
Each country became peopled. Still, there were those who were powerful and those who were not. Those who were powerful claimed they were naturally in better positions to lead the many who were not. Since those who were powerful were most valued, this made a great deal of sense. To show their concern for the powerless, the men of power, in a great act of faith, offered the powerless an opportunity to share in the power. They presented to them, every four years, two men whom the powerless could choose between to lead them. Thus, having chosen, the men of power reminded the powerless when they were given to complain that the rules that bound them were their own rules. It’s not rocket science. Besides, if it were meant to be otherwise, God would have made it so.
Centuries passed. Countries became accustomed to their flags, their soldiers, their wars fought because of the natural differences that existed and their rulers and their rules. As people multiplied so did the rules. Machines became more sophisticated but they still needed dead tree fuel. The powerful became more powerful and the powerless more powerless. The differences between them became greater too. Stories were told of places and times where things were different and people loved these stories and the men of power liked these stories too because everyone enjoys a story and because it kept the people from complaining because, after all, they were only stories, and besides, they had not written them,
After many centuries people became confident that they represented the high point of human progress. Life was well categorized. There were rules, borders and soldiers to protect the borders. There was a multitude of machines and machine makers and fixers. They invented ways to perpetuate their existence. Machines were made to break or else machine makers would have no one to sell their machines to. If machines were too well made the fixers would be out of work. It’s not rocket science. People expected things to break because nothing lasts in this world, even people break. Broken is good. The powerful men created rules, which they knew very few people could keep so that when men broke the rules they could be withdrawn from the society of their peers. This helped to reduce the numbers of people they had to rule and made the rest of the people more likely to obey the rules. They also modernised some of the older rules. For example, where before it had been wrong to kill another person, now it was all right if someone was killed upon instruction from the rule makers. It became complicated. Soon there were too many rules for the average person to know about so a new community was created in order to know all of the rules and people paid them to read what no one else could understand. The powerful men made an army just to catch offenders and to bring them before the Law. The poorer among them could not afford law interpreters and it became their lot to lose their land and spend much time in prison to amend for their sins. People became very compliant, most of them anyway.
Furthermore, people had to apply for identity, they had to pay for this and needed consent to marry, buy a house, have children and work. It was not possible to live without government consent, official written acknowledgment of your existence and this approval cost money. In return the leaders told people that they were free so long as they had official approval and as long as they did not break any of the rules which existed for their protection. If it is written that you are free on official government paper it must be true. People were happy to pay for the privilege of being free. In some places people were not free. In those places people did not have governments to make written declarations of happiness. Luckily that was changing fast. Wars were being fought to protect freedom and to extend these gifts of freedom to the lesser peoples of the world. The story is not yet complete but it’s an easy story to follow, it’s not rocket science.
Words. Life distilled. The endless returns, returned to one last time. The furry creature in a dark room trapped. It is a hunt. It is the aah yes in the surest, quietest place of self, located somewhere between the toe and the brain, that the condition of life is now forever changed and then the compulsion to set out the truth of that in words. To say for oneself something true for the first time. To locate an original idea and attach to it words. Words. To write for oneself. To write oneself into the event of life. Because in the beginning were words and I am not yet ended. It is learning to look. To trace in the creased linen of the bed sheet the valleys and hills of one’s being. It is a reason to find reason to continue, if only to watch dead leaves and breathe softer in the trudge.
It is archival for the soul. The soul’s bridge home from the toothless, friendless age. It is a note to self (a parenthesis in everydayness in which i say what i did not know i knew). It is the breathe of the soul spoken. The unutterable uttered. It is the deep yes, the womb where words first find form. It is the why of our woes and bliss. It is the eternal isness of a thing stepping into the light. A closing of the eyes to see.
I watched a plastic bag dance in a breeze. The way its creased grey skin responded to the air felt remarkably familiar. Gravity is the heaviness that living on earth imposes on the body. If the soul expands and comes close to the surface of the skin, the weight of air upon it is enormous, and often escapes as a sigh. Let us call this force by its real name, life. There are two forces working simultaneously on our existence. There is the downward thrust of gravity, the earth force that keeps us on the ground, ‘grounded’ as some call it. Pushing out against this from deep within us is the force of our own being, some call this force ‘soul’. A silk balloon in the centre of a stone. We measure living, not coincidentally, by the gravitational ellipses of our planet around the sun and all the while the soul expands proportionately outward. We begin our lives battling the physical force of gravity. We are easily toppled, must struggle to crawl, learn to walk and in our youth must endure scrapes and knocks as we collide with the earth in our endeavour to move with speed and grace on top of it. During these early stages of being human we are mostly muscle and identify strongly with the body we inhabit. Then we begin to hear the whisperings of our soul, realising we are more than the flesh and sinews we have thus far fed and adored. The soul begins to inflate from within. Physical routines lose their novelty and we notice the slow decay of the body in wounds that take longer to heal, aches that linger and teeth that crumble. Falling scares us, our mortality takes hold, caution makes sense. In the following decades the people we love begin to die. The once eternal vigour of youth is gone in a flash. Exercise is not what we do for fun but for staying alive and sometimes we wonder why we persist. Easier to yield to the downward thrust. We push back. Gravity crushes us in the end, grinds our particles to dust. It always wins. Thankfully, as the body grows weaker, the soul grows stronger, if you pay attention to it. You realise it has always been there and has been fighting the battle since day one. It defies gravity, it brings nobility to living when the muscles do not. Living is not an act of ascension. Fairytales invite us to reach for the stars, to fly, to soar, to reach great heights but in truth we are just dropping by slow degrees of entropy from the womb to a hole in the ground. We begin by descending and the soul provides the downward journey with narrative, with a history of presence.
Some of us love airports because they remind us that the soul is made of lighter stuff. We find ourselves looking up from whence we came and the homesickness feels like a dream we can’t yet pronounce. Some of us have embraced our fate and will mine the earth to teach the soul that like coal or gold or iron it is trapped. Some of us walk on the ground and watch birds with a longing beyond our present comprehension. None escape the velocity of life. Whether we dig, walk or fly we move in the direction of ourselves. The laws of physics depend on location and direction. We are always going somewhere, toward something, from some place, but in truth these are irrelevant signposts for the space within. Scientists cannot locate consciousness because it is like looking for the act of looking. Some people dispute the existence of the soul. It doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to prove it exists, or anything really. I’m just working on my narrative, like a plastic bag caught in the wind.