Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What the Duwamish Taught Me

It’s disconcerting when one finds oneself at variance with the values of one’s culture. Money, for instance, has always been problematical. It’s not that I don’t value money, I just don’t automatically assume someone is superior to me because they have more money. I don’t assume they’re inferior, either. The possession of money is arbitrary, incidental. Accidental. People come into wealth for a huge variety of reasons, only a few of which have to do with talent or discipline.
Too bad people aren’t provided with maps when they grow into adulthood and leave home. Or grow into adulthood and are forced to stay at home because the economy is so out of control that nobody can get a job that pays enough money to lead an autonomous existence. The maps for being marooned at home are as equally important as the maps for entering the world at large. Let us assume, for the sake of convenience, that you call your home planet earth.
Earth is large, and round, though not as large as a lot of other worlds, and not entirely round, but more of an oval. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of it: a big blue marble in space veined with thousands and thousands of rivers moving in a broad ellipse around a single star. It’s not as huge as Jupiter or Neptune, but big enough to support seven continents, five oceans, numerous mountain ranges and a great deal of furniture. Trust me, you need a map.
Space is largely rhetorical. When I worked at Plant No. 2 at Boeing and sat out on the loading dock overlooking the Duwamish I couldn’t help but notice that rivers move through space with a kind of elegance. Anything that flows has an intrinsic grace, an ineffable elegance. I liked sitting on the dock eating a lunch out of a paper sack because the river went about its work differently than I went about my work. I was terrible at what I did, which was to remove the excess metal, or flashing, from newly pressed ashtrays. Ashtrays for the Boeing passenger jets. This was at a time when people were still allowed to smoke on board airplanes. I was very slow and disinterested in the task. I wasn’t the only one to notice this. I was continually reminded by the supervisor, who was a middle-aged bald man with a fringe of dark brown hair on each side of his head. He had a way of glaring at my ineptitude that was eloquent in its contempt.
I envied the Duwamish because it was totally unsupervised. It flowed into Puget Sound liquid and grand, spreading its waters with prodigal facility and reflecting the sky with vivid, unrepentant serenity. I learned a great deal from that river. When I returned to my workbench in the dim light of the plant and the supervisor set his two glaring eyes on me I returned his look with the shine of the Duwamish and its great indifference to critique.
All rivers have what the French delightfully call a debouche. It comes from the verb ‘déboucher,’ which means to “come out into.” My debouche came in June when I quit my job at Boeing and headed south to California. A friend let me stay with him at his parent’s house in a Santa Clara suburb. I spend most of my time in the garage listening to Blonde on Blonde and the Velvet Underground. I felt hugely disinclined to do anything but listen to music. It wasn’t long before my welcome wore thin and I went to live on a bus with three other men. We each had a bunk and access to the bus owner’s bathroom and kitchen. That, too, came to an abrupt end one morning when we stood in brisk November air holding our bath towels and toothbrushes and reading a note informing us that we were no longer to welcome to use the house facilities or rent bunks on the bus. I don’t know to this day what prompted that note, but that was when my life assumed the full message of the Duwamish and places and events took on a decidedly transitory nature.
What else can anyone do but flow? Flowing runs contrary to the idea of ownership and capital. Flowing is an impulse opposite to that of acquisition. Avidity has no place in a life that drifts from place to place. I think of the Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq. All the conflict in that desolate land. And the rivers keep on going. Because that’s what rivers do. It’s what the Duwamish did. It’s what the Duwamish does. It’s what the Nile does, and the Mississippi and Danube and Amazon and Mekong and Yukon and Orinoco all do: flow. Like the language in Shakespeare. Like coffee poured from a pot into a mug. Like electricity through a wire.
Like words in a song.
Like the Higgs boson going from a state of energy into a state of mass.
Like a drug diffusing into the bloodstream.
Like the wind flows over the state of Kansas west to Colorado. And comes up against the Rockies and makes it rain and thunder. And the rain comes down and becomes the Colorado River. Carves a canyon out of Arizona, forms a large delta in Mexico nourishing elf owls, bats and the flowers of the saguaro before what is it left of it after some 70 percent or more of it has been siphoned off to irrigate 3.5 million acres of cropland trickles into the Gulf of California.
It also occurs to me that meanings flow into our lives, meanings that come to us from different tributaries, circumstances and language, harsh necessities and the fruits of desire.
Hegel introduced into philosophy an interesting term: sittlichkeit. Sittlichkeit means“ethical life,” the kind of ethical life that is built into one’s character, attitudes and feelings and so emerges as a second nature, as a matter of instinct. There are laws, but we agree to the laws because it is in our nature to agree to the laws. We are not compromised. There is wiggle room. Sittlichkeit is based upon individual autonomy and personal conviction and the way these impulses interact with a community. The law is not an absolute outside its human context and so differs from Kant’s notion of a morality that we ought to realize. There is no ought with Sittlichkeit, because there is no opposition between particular interest and the universal, between subject and object. Reality is a single field with two elements reacting against and absorbing one another.
The Duwamish suggested a similar paradigm in the way that it absorbed, clashed, flowed, reflected and debouched into the sound carrying all the corruptions of industry with it. But water is water and human blood erupts in different expressions.
Human consciousness craves analogy. If it rains, the rain must answer a question in our nerves. And if it does, something cracks in the logic of things and takes us around the bend to a new reality.

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