Sunday, April 24, 2005

Licking the Beach

The ocean has a million eyes, each one shining at me as I sit here on this cool beach day in April during spring break. The beach is infested with children, a veritable sea of diminutive humanity as vast and enormous as the desert of ocean that lies flat before me. The flatness of the water is highlighted by the sparkles of light: here, I think, is where the stars go during the day; here is where they sleep, as if dropped into a great palm spread out wide and petulant.

All around me are a billion worlds too. One mother tries to launch a unicorn kite but does not move from her spot on the beach chair. From her vantage point, she barks instructions to the girls but there is little wind today and the kite remains as earthbound as the children’s spirits when they cannot get it in the air. No matter. There are other forms of distraction. The kite family sits and eats lunch – Mother handing each of them the latest in designer prepackaged lunchables and sippy juice boxes replete with napkins. Then it’s off to the wet sand, where all the real magic happens.

I am reminded that I was born and raised on an island. Our dinners were usually luke warm meatball hero sandwiches wrapped in foil. We usually ate as much sand with the meatball as sandwich. I recall how the hollow monotonous call of the curlicue wave, almost waving for us to come into the water, would lull me to sleep on the beach. It reminded me of our own mythologies we created: how certain flat shells were the fingernails of mermaids, and how dead and defunct horseshoe crabs washed up on to the shore would inspire fear since its prodigious stinger could tear away flesh if one touched it.

The kite sisters now go down to the frigid water where they play a game we used to call “lava” - I’m certain they don’t cal it that. The objective of the game was to get as close to the swelling water as possible then run away as fast as you could never letting the water touch you. In my time, we imagined the water to be lava and we had to avoid it or else risk being burned alive. The kite sisters shriek each time the water nearly touches them. It is a pitch that is so shrill that it is nearly only audible by dogs, if any were around, though I suspect there might be some dolphins in the water who are wondering what all the fuss is about.

On the horizon I watch the ghostly movement of a tanker as it hangs onto the thin line that separates water from sky. It glides by without calling attention to itself. It measures time in the way it slowly crosses my line of sight. I cannot take my eyes off of it but no one else seems to even notice it.

One of the kite sisters – what appears to be a three year old – with olive skin and a face covered with her lunch has the charm of one of those street urchins you see in third world countries. Her name is Isabella. I know this because her Mother – the same woman who moments ago tried to orchestrate the kite raising from her beach chair – repeats the name like some sort of maternal mantra. “Isabella, not so close!” “Isabella, not so far!” “Isabella, put that down!” “Isabella, pick that up!” Isabella was wild; this much could be seen in her wild hair and dark, rabid, penetrating eyes. All three year olds are wild. She wanders the beach like a drunk, carrying pale and shovel in tow, alternating between pulling her lime green bathing suit off and then vainly trying to put it back on. “Oh, Izzy!” the sitting Mother says. She barks out more instructions her voice being stuffed right back into her mouth by the roar of the ocean. Suddenly, I hear the sitting Mother’s voice ring out right through husky ocean voice like a razor. “Izzy! NO!” It’s too late. Izzy has licked the beach. The look on her face is one of utmost calm. I can’t even imagine what she thought the sand would taste like – clearly she does not like it – because she mindfully walks over to sitting Mother whose nose by now is all wrinkled up in disgust. Sounds emanate from her as though she was going to cough up a hairball. Isabella, meanwhile, just waits, with her tongue covered in sand, for sitting Mother to find a clean towel with which to wipe off the sand. I startle at how long I notice her tongue is and how she just waits, looking around at the other kids playing and just sighs. Soon the saliva just runs down her tongue and she is drooling like a panting dog.

What made her think this was a good idea? I learn later that this is actually a behavior of hyperactive or autistic kids who have mineral deficiencies. I read later that about 25% to 30% of kids have this condition known as pica. But I don’t imagine Isabella to be one of these. She is wild I tell you.

I begin to think of this action in a larger scope. Maybe she thinks the sand looks like cookie dough or maybe she thinks the sand is sugar. Maybe it’s her way of exploring.

What beach have I licked lately? What spontaneous act of nonsense have I engaged in recently that didn’t involve that part of my brain that said “no” to everything? That part of Isabella’s brain clearly is not developed. Was there ever a time when I would let the curious things of the world rule me this way? Surely, I know better now. I know that licking sand will taste like… like what? I don’t know that I have ever licked a beach or if I had, it was so long ago as to be a repressed memory by now.
I know this sounds crazy but we all do things that we know we hate out of some sense of duty or responsibility. How can licking a beach to see how it tastes be any more crazy? Watching Isabella lick that beach and then simply deal with the consequences with no crying, no fuss – just a look of mini-enlightenment, at least in the area of how beaches taste.

So here I am well into my middle life with my own children and yes, I have traveled the world a bit and have gone to college. I’ve worked at numerous places learned many things. But here before me this three year old, this Isabella, this tabla rosa knows what a beach tastes like while I do not. I do not believe it is fear that keeps me from licking the beach – well, maybe not the fear of what it might taste like – but rather the fear of how I would look. Soon the thought dawns on me that the real reason this distresses me is that I would never in a million years ever have the idea to lick the beach.

Suddenly I feel sad. I know what it is like to have all the doors of perception closed tight, locked and the key tossed away for good measure. Isabella’s doors are wide open. I wonder about Isabella. I wonder if as she grows she will keep some of those portals to the imagination open. Maybe she will be a great painter some day, painting landscapes of beaches. Maybe the colors she uses in her palette are a direct though unseen reflection of her licking the beach today. What will happen in her life that will start to close these doors in her life? What has happened in my life that has caused these pathways to creativity to close down to me? How many other ideas whiz past my head at dizzying speeds daily, hourly, even by the minute, that I am so willfully blind to?

It’s a special thing when I learn from those who seem to know less than I. I learn for one thing, how little I really do know. Today is a special classroom, a special schooling for which there are no diplomas or life credits to be earned. Maybe next time I find myself at the shore, I will try to lick the beach though really, I know this is Isabella’s thing now and not mine. Thoughts don’t always come with copyrights. Maybe they should. Who knows where they come from and who know where they go? Maybe I will top off my beach with some M&M’s though to be sure.

Creativity is a great thing, but chocolate- well, that is quite another.

M C Biegner

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

POEM: RiverBed

Before the
Day has a
Firm hold on you,
When it is
As pink as
An Easter egg,

When the
Is a ribbon,
That becomes
A starting line,
A breathy pause,

The river
hustles by,
Speaking in
Low, moving
Syllables –

To a shoreline
Which finds Truth
As stillness
And wearing,
shaping hands
Of water.

M C Biegner 4/2005

What We Bury Today: The Death Of John Paul II and What It Means To Me

Okay, I’ve let enough time lapse. When I first heard the news of the passing of Pope John Paul II, I had mixed feelings. I mean I really believe it’s not a good thing to speak ill of the dead, no matter what their political leanings are or what you thought of that person. I just think that invokes bad karma or something. I feel it lessens me.

So how do I sum up what I am feeling in an intelligible manner in a way so that I can disabuse the world of this papalmania (the only word I can think of) for a man who was the leader of every Roman Catholic in the world?

I am a Roman Catholic, so this is a tricky thing.

See, although I firmly believe in the element of ecstasy in spirituality, generally, watching large groups of people taking the death of a man few of them have met and who was in essence a Catholic celebrity, just...(how shall I put this?) scares me ... a little.

We need to understand that the Papacy occupies a most interesting political/moral leadership position in the world. The Vatican mystique is part political, part spiritual and part historical. The world no longer looks to it for any sort of political guidance as it once did. But it is not like the good old days when the pope actually determined who sat on the thrones of countries, had a standing army that could kick some serious booty and was a true force in the secular political world of its day. The church had a strange role as a power broker in being both secular AND spiritual.

As for being an ethical beacon, the Vatican certainly has its place. Generally, Vatican opinions on all sorts of topics are duly noted by other foreign leaders who then weigh the political expediency of their own political realities and make their decisions accordinly. In short, other countries treat the Vatican much like American Catholics seem to: they listen to the teachings, and ultimately, decide what is right for themselves. Oh, some leaders make the pretense of listening, such as a certain president of a certain country that still executes its citizens. This president may (and I emphasize “may”) call the pope for guidance – oh, wait, that was a West Wing episode wasn’t it? Sometimes reality and fantasy are tough to tell apart.

But the Vatican is a human organization and as such is subject to human criticism. How do we separate the pope as a man versus the pope as the leader of an institution that has sometimes lost its way?

For the record, I am not here to give any credence to conspiracy theorists who suggest that Pope John Paul II was part of some plot to murder Pope John Paul I because his views of things did not fit a particular conservative agenda. I do not even intend to talk about the various historical abominations which place the Vatican Bank in league with the Mafia, or that John Paul II worked in concert with the CIA in the fight against communism or that past popes had conceived illegitimate children, or even those accusations that the Vatican conspired with the Nazis during World War II. (Hell, so did IBM, but you don’t see anyone asking for a boycott of IBM equipment these days. It seems we like our spiritual institutions pure, but our business institutions can just have at it.)

All of these things may be true, or none of them may be true. I come to bury, Caesar, dear friends, not praise him!The last time I recall giving this much thought to the Papacy of my Church, was during the heady days of liberation theology in the ‘70’s. I know there aren’t many today who would think those grand days, but I recall them as being so full of potential. This is the climate in which John Paul II ascended to the papacy. The cold war was in full swing, and the dilemma of how priests in Latin America should serve the poor was the hot button being discussed. People of Latin America were suffering mightily at the hands of brutal dictatorships - dictatorships, I hasten to point out, which were often supported by this same Church over which John Paul II ruled. Does anyone remember the rebuke John Paul gave Ernesto Cardinale, then a priest in the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, during his visit? Cardinale, awkwardly kneeling, nearly falling over as he rose to the Pope’s admonishment, wagging a disapproving finger – all on film for the world to see.

This was a time, after the Paul VI died, and before the first John Paul died, that I really believed the Church was in for some change, that perhaps women could be included; that maybe the Church would speak out on more human rights issues; that maybe the Church could update it policy about artificial birth control.(It was Paul VI who gave us Humanae Vitae. If you want to see what the fuss is about, click the link. This one simply eludes my comprehension. ) )

The Catholic Church, to its credit, is a strong opponent to the death penalty, a cause near and dear to my heart. The Church, in following Jesus’ teachings of corporal works of mercy, adheres to a message of social justice for all people, regardless of stage of life.So the Church has that right at least. It is consistent with its stance on preserving life, even if it muddies the waters on some issues. (Now how one goes from that point to not allowing artificial contraception is a leap even the Great Wallendas would have trouble with.)

In the end, John Paul II carried on the tradition of Paul VI. He did, in fact, speak to human rights issues. He warned of the potential dehumanizing effects of globalization, against capital punishment, spoke out against the war in Iraq (how many pro-life sign carrying Catholics were aware of that? How many of these protestors stood in lines holding signs not to invade Iraq?)

As the Berlin Wall fell, and then, communism, he found himself with only one adversary left in the west: the materialism of the MTV world. That is, at least before the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic movement, when lo and behold, we a brand new crusades just in time for the new millennium was born.

It’s really no surprise that his message of social justice rings most true with people of the third world and why the church is growing there while it is shrinking in the countries of Europe and America. It’s really no surprise that the youth of the world loved John Paul II either, since he more closely resembled an old Polish pastor, with a grounded sense of the people around him than some sort of ideological reactionary. The world is in no short supply of charming, charismatic leaders. People – especially young people – need their gods (if you pardon the analogue) to be accessible, and human.

They are already affixing the title “The Great” to his name. (I tried this at home, but it didn’t work as well for me, maybe you can try this where you work – send out a memo insisting that everyone from this date forward, add “the great” after your name Let me know how it works for you!)

Looking back on his papacy, the Catholic Church of John Paul II has not changed much. In fact, it has gone from the uncertainty of the 70’s with the possibility of a whole new spiritual order, to the same comforting paradigms we grew up with and were terrorized with as kids. John Paul decided social justice was needed in other parts of the world, but not, it seems, for practitioners of the Roman Catholic faith. That is still a puzzle to me.

The lack of allowable dissent, the lack of critical thinking, the lack of expression - these are all of great concern to me. Ideas are not things that come from a vacuum. Ideas require the fertilizer of debate, doubt, counter-intuitive thinking to grow. I understand the Catholic Church is not a democratic organization and I am not suggesting it needs to be.

It’s just, how can we proclaim the need for human justice when one half of all the humans on the planet are deemed unworthy by this institution to simply consecrate bread and wine at the daily Mass? Verily, I say, what would Jesus do? Frankly, I think He’d be just a tad pissed.

As I watched John Paul’s burial, I got a little teary eyed, I admit. I mean, the pomp, the ritual, the splendor of the event and the waves of humanity are impressive. Who doesn’t like a grand show?

I suspect that he was really a man of peace; he sought to bring life to the forefront of all human endeavors. He found himself on both sides of the political spectrum when it came to important issues, (abortion, death penalty, stem cell research, contraception, ordination of women) and you have to respect a man who makes decisions based on his own informed conscience. And isn't that all anyone can ask of each of us - that we act in accordance to what we believe?

Does all this make John Paul II a bad guy? Should we not honor this man? I don’t know. Maybe he’s misguided; maybe he’s malevolent.

I only pray he has found the freedom in his death that his Church seems to refuse the rest of us here on earth. I pray that his quest for peace and for creating a culture for life includes most importantly, the quality of tolerance. There is so little of that these days, and the world is in such short supply.

I just hope that someday my Church can feel less threatened by new ideas. I pray that She can learn that one can adhere to tradition and still allow growth. I hope that She learns that being tolerant does not mean abandoning core doctrine. The challenge for any Christian church today is to bring the living message of a gospel that is thousands of years old forward, while leaving behind the chaff of the old cultural baggage.

I only hope that a belief in God’s goodness prevails. Let’s hope that this goodness, which He imbues in each of us, has not been buried with John Paul.

M C Biegner4/2005

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Three Things


The pink plastic flamingos gather in a pat outside an oversized contemporary house in the rural woods, leaning and a-flame, gathering as if at tea, conversing at the mouth of the driveway. Perhaps they are there to welcome. Stoic, still, blushing with no sense of coolness, landmarks of kitsch or misunderstood highbrow art – take your pick – like a piece of Warhol art, a parody, iconic; or perhaps just really, really bad taste or really, really good taste – I don’t know.

Perhaps those who live in this house promote an artist life style, with the fake fowl a sign that art is larger than the commonness of everyday; that perhaps a Cristo of the lunatic fringe art world lives here and perhaps there are conspiracies of art just like there are conspiracies of everything else. Perhaps right now someone in this house is contemplating a plan to put these birds everywhere through the New York Botanical Gardens, or throughout the Cloisters in the Bronx – pink flamingos – a pat of them everywhere. “What is their meaning?” people would ask. “What is their purpose?”

I roll by the house slowly, for I do brake for cultural anomalies. I look in my rear view mirror and see the birds at various angles, slanted, almost animated with conversation, suggesting a certain exotica that is foreign here in this snowy New England climate. But this a) stain of human taste or b) cool parodic high art – pick one – just diminishes as I drive away.
Perhaps they are returned from the south guided by some migratory urging, part of a resurgence of flaming, plastic, pink flamingos, up here in the north to mate and bring us a revival of pop, cult art.


We have assembled around this table many times before and we have often recited lines from our favorite movies. One of our favorite moments is when one of us repeats in his worst (or best) Austrian accents a line from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: “It’s not a tumor.” You have to say it just right. It is definitely in the telling: “It’s not a tumor.” Drop the voice and close the back of the throat as you say it. Try it next time a friend complains of a headache. “It’s not a tumor.”

The only thing is though, this time it is a tumor. It is an anaplastic astrocytoma, a brain tumor. It is a brain tumor in a fifteen year old girl. It was discovered after this girl fought for years with a form of lymphoma. They had hoped it was in remission, but it spread. The headaches, the dizziness – she thought it might be nutritionally based, since for a while she was concerned about losing weight and wanted to be really thin as she progressed through high school. She wanted to be thin, and so she thought that was the reason for the dizziness. It spread like jam throughout her cortex, radiating fingers of the disease, defying true measurement like most cancers. These are cells that grow out of control, without a plan. Who would have thought that growth could kill? It is the flip side of everything, it seems, that always gets us: it is a fifteen year old with anaplastic astrocytoma. Now it’s more procedures, more waiting, more experimentation – it is a race to kill off this pat of cells, like a pat of pink, plastic flamingos multiplying, the ultimate of tastelessness in a disease. The rapaciousness of the disease is alarming.

“It’s not a tumor,” I tell her, trying my best not to invoke Arnold’s voice, but I can’t help it. It is a tumor and it is not as funny. Still, it makes us want to laugh. This cancer, this thing, sits in her head waiting but there is a complete desert in this waiting. “You need support groups,” “You need to visualize the disease,” “You need to personalize it,” “You need to vocalize what you are feeling,” “Try journaling,” we all tell her.

“Need?” she thinks. The concept of need is a million miles away. She is only fifteen. Have I said that already? She has already gone through chemotherapy; she has had lymph nodes removed. She knows the sickness brought on by the poison they pump into her. Every cell of her body has a memory and remembers this. She knows the tiredness like the dimensions of her bed, like every single square inch of her bed that she will now know even better. She knows boundaries. She will gather up her strength and muster enough saliva to spit at the disease. She will live.

“It’s not a tumor,” she says to me in her best Arnold voice ever. She is lying of course, but we love her so much that we laugh anyway.


During the early days of spring I drive to work very early in the morning. In part, this is to get a jump on the day, to begin my day with a regimen of exercise, but mostly because I love to open the day in the same manner that I love to close it: alone. This does not make me anti-social. It is not because I dislike people though the thought does cross my mind occasionally, but rather it is because the diffused sunlight as it rises and sets creates for me a sort of confessional. It creates a place where I must account for everything and to so, I must do it alone.

Have you ever noticed the flat stillness of the sky in the evening as the sun begins to set? It is small and delicate like the nape of a woman’s neck. It begs for relating to – the dripping purple clouds, like paint that has not yet dried, like fantasy artwork. It creates a space around me that is like a confessional.

The rest of the day – the fat middle where everything happens at lightning pace, the part that unfolds billowing like a flag – that is yours. Mine is the start of daylight and its dissolution – grand tutors of temporality. They are mine alone and are my gods and truth be told, sustain me.

This winter is a sort of cancer – the great overgrown dearth that follows us like a shadow: overgrown despair, overgrown bleakness crowding out everything. This has the tendency to make living so stony, like flaking shale, coming apart in your hands. It seems so much more geologic than it needs to be.

M C Biegner 4/1/2005