July 7, 2009


I just finished reading Rag and Bone; A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, by Peter Manseau. He’s an intelligent memoirist who isn’t embarrassed to mix intelligent research and genuine human respect into his narrative. I recommend it to your bookshelf both for the pleasure of reading and the more difficult business of thinking about it. His writing in a memoir style balances attractively between genuine memoir (which used to be a form reserved for those whose lives appeared to merit remembering) and the old New Journalism. In addition Mr. Manseau brings a level of scholarship that surpasses the I was a tourist in my own life—now I’m a writer new memoirs that appear twice daily in Amazon ads. The fundamental question Rag & Bone presents to me is how (or why) do fragments grow to surpass the whole in reverence?

 This morning on the radio I heard two vaguely related stories, the first was the guilty pleas of the family and friends in Utah who had been convicted of stealing and selling Native American relics, and the second the international media carnival that surrounds the sad death of Michael Jackson.  Already E-bay had posted five bids for a signed Michal Jackson faux fedora for over $2,500 and the bidding is climbing even  as his public  funeral takes place.

I’m spending the summer in New Mexico and hiking distance to Pueblo ruins where it isn’t impossible to find polychrome pottery shards. This morning I checked the Antique Tribal Art Dealers website for stolen artifacts and found thousands (It’s worth a few amazing minutes to check the list of stolen artifacts at ). Our trade in relics has continued unabated since before the middle ages. Whether it’s a stolen Haida mask, a membership to the Natural History Museum or an autographed copy of a “Thriller” album, we share a desire to possess fragments of the past. They’re talismans; they give us some comfort and power over the long conglomeration of deaths that is reaching for us. They put us in proximity to things larger and greater than our lives. They give us a brief feeling of well being and control. Owning, venerating, wearing, trading and sharing items of the dead are as human as eating a turkey on Thanksgiving or dragging a family heirloom to Antiques Road Show. Perhaps it speaks to an evolutionary period when ritual cannibalism was part of our physical history.

I’m a dilettante saver and collector. Stuffed into drawers and falling off shelves, I have blossoms from Emily Dickinson’s garden, a tennis ball used at Wimbledon, old vinyl records I don’t have equipment to play, dozens of paper machie muertos, water pictures I refuse to use, Chinese New Year currency, mixed with my grandfather’s old baking books, magic tricks, cheap second hand religious art and of course, shelves, files and piles of books, postcards and letters. Some days (not often enough) I rearrange them. I remake gates between my interior and exterior worlds and wander around in my labyrinth of intimacies. So when I read about the Native American Chief of Police traveling to Manhattan to retrieve a war club, I understand both the impulse to steal and trade it, and the desire to recover it and return it to its ancestral place of origin. It’s almost like a dance.

There are days feel so lost and alien—like a wanderer, or petty thief or trinket peddler waiting to be admitted into the same different foreign, worrisome city. The way I fight this is have secret familiars to depend on that I only intuitively understand.  In the bottom of a trunk I have my father’s speed bag gloves and revolver. I have the crucifix my great grandmother brought over from Slovakia. Old sweaters, favotie tee shirts. In and of themselves these things have no function, the gloves are dry and cracked, the revolver may or may not shoot and the crucifix is a crucifix. But somehow they refract some of the power  and belief that were invested in them. In the same way at Christmas I cook seven fish dishes for as many guests as I can. Not because the dishes or I aspire to level of spiritual and culinary orthodoxy, but because I believe the hands that fed me and the hands that fed them go back to the sea that feeds us still.

There is an unaccountable power in believing in the spirituality the physical world however fragmented we find it.

So if my friend wants stylizied ocean waves tattooed to cover her arm, or a divorcee in Santa Fe wants to wear Navajo turquoise squash blossoms, or a send a Tibetan scarf to her daughter, or the guys at the bar want to lean their Larry Mahan’s on the barstool…or if  someone wants to cry all afternoon at Michael Jackson’s televised funeral. I appreciate their willingness to reach beyond the cruel greed of logic and the money that pass for power for most of our days.

Most of the world I travel through is tired, sad and frightened. If a 40 year old man can no longer  believe he’s a delightful child who can sing, spin and dance as if he were weightless and hear the fragmented world scream in delight. If he shatters into pieces trying to crossover from Wacko Jacko into a redemptive magic world one last time. I understand why some of us race around to find a relic to keep. The brutality of our world is so relentless.


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