Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
My life is not and never yet has been one in which the Sunday sunrise offers complacencies or green freedom ... though I have found other ways to dissipate the holy hush. Around ten past nine every Sunday my son Alex and I take the ten minute drive from our home down Wisconsin Avenue to Temple Micah, in a quiet area of DC called Glover Park. We buy a bagel and share it before entering the sanctuary, where we sing some Hebrew songs and listen to a brief, hilarious, and profoundly philosophical meditation on this week's Torah portion by the rabbi. I leave Alex at 10:00 for his class, focusing upon a Deep Issue (today was death and the the nebulousness of Jewish conceptions of the afterlife), followed by a unit on Israel (as problem rather than as propaganda). He typically enjoys both.
While my son is being indoctrinated into Good Jewdom, I take my book bag and hike along Wisconsin Avenue south into Georgetown. The walk is beautiful, a highlight of my day. I stop at the Marvelous Market at P St, buy a coffee and an orange muffin, and read frantically from whatever text I am going to lecture on to eighty students come Monday morning. I say frantically because no matter how many times I've taught a work, I still obsess the previous day about how to make the coming class one which my students will not -- amid the deluge of demands for their attention -- quickly forget.
Today I was reading Marie de France; tomorrow I teach the final six of her lais. As I sat in the café thinking about my thinking about Marie, I flashed back to a picture I'd snapped at Temple, when Alex placed his hand over mine and crisscrossed our Mayan friendship bracelets (his gift to me last December). I'd glanced at the space between the two arms, and saw Hebrew letters peeking through -- an inscrutable allegory, I thought, suggesting some moral about endurance and history, about alliances with things and words and generations that you can know imperfectly, if at all (dark encroachments, old catastrophes). I then looked at the words of Marie's lai Yonec, a story about a woman imprisoned in a tower and saved from her hated solitude by a hawk who transforms into the king of a distant land. This visitor promises her a realm that has so far been denied to her, a realm possessed of histories and stories she can only imperfectly know. I thought how strange that something so fragile as a poem of love and transformation should have survived eight hundred years, and still speak of worlds as yet uncomprehended. And that is what my lecture will focus upon tomorrow: how at the moment in the lai when the lady feels so imprisoned in her present life that she will never escape its constriction, she dreams a past full of possibility and a bird arrives (not a cockatoo, but an avian full of green freedom nonetheless) to lead her to unimagined futures.
That's what I like about the scorpion bracelets from Mexico resting upon a Hebrew song ... a song that Alex and I have not been asked to sing reverently, but that we do sing well.