But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Rig Veda X
"Okay," the bony boy from Fresno began, with his callow attempt at sounding scholarly, "this is the best proof there is that there isn't a god. You just read all this stuff and it's all different. If there was really a god, everybody's account of creation would be the same. So we should all be atheists."
I'd heard it all before. In nearly every class there's some anxious little creature who wants everyone in the world to notice him or her, and tries to get the attention by being quarrelsome. Not in my classroom, Chuckie, I thought to myself. "Really? Okay," I said, mimicking the droning voice that he'd used, "everybody get your notes and write down a paragraph, seventy-five to a hundred words, that tells about the student body's experience of the Student Union Building." Gods of heaven and hell, how could these kids get so far being so clueless?
Creation myths were the subject today, and we'd looked at the accounts of Popul Vuh of the Mayans, when Tepeu the Maker and Gucumatz the Plumed Serpent take counsel with shadows in the night sea and with the Thunderbolt, Hurakan, to plot the course of creation; and of the Boshongo tale of Bumba, who, all alone in dark water, began to vomit, and barfed up the sun, the moon, and nine creatures who went on to create and populate the world.
While they wrote, I pondered. Was I ever that much of an ignoramus? Didn't I have an open and inquisitive mind by that age? Memories answered me, no, dummy, by that age you were already screwing James, and no one's advice or opinion mattered to you a damn.
"Done? Let's hear them." One student described the walkway and the shrubs outside the building, and how the bushes grew halfway up the windows so you can never see if anyone is inside. Another one wrote about the overstuffed chairs on the west side of the building, mentioning that evenings are warmer there than in the dormitory rooms; the next talked about the snack bar, and the next illustrated the long north hallway with its bulletin boards and tables of free pamphlets; one student's words painted portraits of the types of students who habitually occupy specific parts of the building. "Why weren't they all the same?" I asked. "Why were the descriptions different?"
The class came, as others in the future will come, to the right conclusion for this exercise: they perceive differently because they are individuals with various perspectives and interests and experiences. Some describe what they see; some tell about what the building is for. Fresh out of discovering they are creatures apart from their mamas and papas, they have yet to fully explore their separateness from each other, and are still on their way of finding out just how alone in the universe each one of them is.
Part of my job as a teacher of religion is to try to open their eyes to this fact. You are alone. No one sees the world quite the way you see it. You will learn to see the universe through others' eyes, and learn to say, "I'm not perfectly gifted with intuition, you're not perfectly gifted with intuition, but perhaps together we can make our vision more clear."
"Aren't you are all human beings who are literate?" I challenged them. "Don't you have some description written down somewhere so that you can all see the Union Building the same way? No?" I paused to let them draw a parallel between the accounts of their views of the Student Union Building and the accounts of an unknowable creation. "Well, there you have it. These accounts of creation are from so long ago you can't even fathom how the people managed to stay alive let alone how different their points of view are. Their myths represent a way of describing an event that is utterly mysterious. No one can know how it all began, so people try to tell a story that captures the mystery and explains the form of their world as they experience it."
"But wouldn't it be great to be able to go back in time, all the way, and see how it really happened?" an enthusiastic kid blurted.
"Yeah, good idea," said a sarcastic girl with black-painted eye sockets. "Let's go watch Bumbo puke up a crocodile." Her reward was a scattering of laughter.
"Do you think, if you went back in time to the creation itself, your description of that event would be any more universal than what you've seen in these descriptions of the Student Union Building? And if you all went back, and all tried to write what wonders you had seen, would your stories match?" Their furrowed foreheads and thoughtful expressions told me that they had reached a mental saturation point. Anything more and they wouldn't internalize the concept, and this one was too important for them to drop. "Time's up, folks. Have a closer look at Chapter Two of Eliade, and make a few notes about which creation myths have similar symbols or concepts. That way you'll be prepared for the 'surprise' quiz instead of being unprepared as well as unsurprised."
"Well, someday I am going to go back in time and see how it really happened," said my optimistic student. "In the spirit, anyway."
"Like, you mean when you're dead?" said another, less hopeful about an afterlife.
"Duh, dumbo, how else would I get to do that? That would be part of Heaven, getting to go back in time to see what things were really like -- like Creation, but more: the building of the pyramids, and who it was who actually got to America first, and the meteorite that made the Gulf of Mexico, and who invented money!" Her buoyant curiosity made her a couple fans, and they chattered about mysteries of the past to put on their spiritual itineraries as they exited the classroom.
If we could travel back in time, even just to view our own lives, would we understand what we were seeing? Would we discover that what actually occurred was nothing like what we thought we experienced? My experience of the world today is so far from anything I could have imagined as a child, or as an adolescent, or even as a young adult. Or if, as a child, or teen, or new wife, I had traveled into my future, what would I see? Miracles? Disasters?
En aquellos dias ... zhili bili Dyed y Baba ... once upon a time ... when we learned about marriage as children, we lived in an age of the world, in a place in the world in which marriage was the flashpoint of transformation from separate people to union of man and woman, from which issued the rest of existence: happily ever after. The Disney cartoons, that is to say, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and 101 Dalmations, taught our forming psyches what they needed to know about meeting and mating. We would find the perfect person. We would experience Love flowing like a geyser of bliss. All obstacles would disappear, and to the tune of grand waltzes and happy cheers, the rest of life would be spent upon the pinnacle of this mountain of joy.
My parents met during World War II in a whirlwind romance as victory in Europe infused America with pride and hope, which led to a speedy marriage between the private school socialite and the Army-uniformed country boy with a knack for extravagantly adoring poetry. In spite of the appearance of her despising him, and his withdrawal into garden and beer, both were, to the very end, adamant about the miracle of finding each other out of all the millions of people in the world. And they lived together in matrimony if not harmony for all the rest of their lives. Virginal in the intersection of their pasts, they remained faithful to each other to their graves, and that was the truth they taught and the only truth they saw in the world. Anything else was aberration, heresy, failure.
Unrealistic, yet it was a prevailing theme. There was my friend Nancy, whose mother was fat and peevish, married to phlegmatic Saul, who just grinned and went to work and did what he could to keep the kids fed. Met, wed, faithful.
Darla, the mother of one of my high school friends, was a townie girl with delusions of society, who married a chicken farmer, slow to anger and easy with good nature. My father shook his head over Darla, saying she was one of the biggest assholes he had ever met, and pitied her husband. Yet married, committed, indissoluble.
Grannie Murphy up the street was fond of talking about the past, and how she had married Danny Thompson, the handsome, sweet-talking skirt-chaser, and how she ended up divorcing him because he wouldn't work, and he wasn't faithful, and after long hours in the factory, Grannie (though she wouldn't have been a grannie then) would come home to find that he'd pulled her jars of canned vegetables and fruit out of her cupboard to give to his floozy. Faced with the hunger of her four children, she did the shocking thing and divorced him, but that was just to legally keep him out of the house, she said; in the eyes of the Lord, she told me as I sat wide-eyed on her porch, they were still married, and she never dated anyone else while he was alive. "I waited thirty years for that man to die," she told me. "As much as he drank and the way he lived, you'd have thought his body would have given out sooner."
I did not know even one of my friends who had a divorced or remarried parent until I was in college. It simply wasn't done. Grannie Murphy was a singular and tragic case, but had done what she had to do along the lines of the Rules of the Right Life. Broken, alone, but still faithful.
Did that mean it was a better time, or a more moral time, or a time filled with greater courage and fortitude? I cannot say. When I was 17, I decided that if I was Darla's chicken farmer husband, I would have kicked her griping ass right out onto the county road, because she was so rude and cruel in her comments about my friend, her own daughter, who had the misfortune to look like her dad. How could that husband support such a woman?
One of my classmates in the seventh grade was found to be pregnant. Out of school she was yanked, and the father of the fetus married her. Norma had always been a sensitive and backward child, whose entry into first grade was delayed by some months because the activity frightened her so that she would throw up under the pressure of the teacher asking the class a question. At a precociously big-bosomed thirteen she was married off to this (statutory rapist) man of twenty-one, and that supposedly saved her poor reputation. God, what kind of sense did that make, unless the motive was to get rid of a daughter who could barely read! Why did the parents let him take her out on a date? What were they thinking?
Well, like anyone else, they were thinking the thoughts that formed their perception of the universe. Norma looks like a woman, must be ready to be a woman. Norma gets knocked up, the daddy marries the mama and makes her an honest woman.
Women who had no husbands were sluts. Women who were divorced were sluts. Widows who had the gall to try to make themselves look attractive were at the very least suspected sluts.
Was that better then?
Nowadays it's unusual to find people who have the same spouses they started out with. Maybe part of that is California, that hotbed of change and experimentation, compared to the small towns of Back East, but I don't know. One man I know has children from no less than five marriages -- eight children in all, and he works all the overtime he can get to pay the child support he owes. He isn't a figure of dishonor in his community, and neither are his former wives.
Divorces are more or less expected to be amicable these days. One of my favorite students told me her parents had divorced. I had been acquainted with them through a fund-raising project for the community years before, and had been entranced with their obvious regard for one another. I expressed my regret at their dissolution of marriage. The girl responded, "Oh, me and my brothers were really relieved. They're much nicer people apart." She was sincere. She found it more agreeable to have her parents in two separate places.
I suppose that I could see that -- in my own parents' situation. What if Mom had gone back to the city and made herself the career she craved, and he had immersed himself in poetry and garden? Could I not have shuttled back and forth between them, sampling the glory of both lives, instead of the bitterness and resignation of their incongruous entrapment? Would the romance of their relationship have stayed alive if they only visited each other in their exotic habitats?
The beautiful mallard duck and the otter fall in love. "How entrancing are your twirls in the water, my dear!" says the duck. "How you gleam in the glancing sunbeams as you scamper about the roots of the trees where they tickle the water!"
"Your head is as iridescent as dark opal," says the otter. "You make me want to undulate, dancing, in the glitter of the rippling shallows. I long to shelter from the inundation of the afternoon sun under the span of your broad wings. And by the way, the way you twiddle your tail makes me crazy."
If, in the old myths, Otter and Mallard fall in love and are married, their offspring are mentioned, but not how they sorted out their differences. Did Otter get screamingly bored with watching Mallard sift goodies underwater with his bill, and grow teeth-grindingly irritated with his signature "Waak, waak, waak"? Did Mallard find Otter's dark, damp underground den claustrophobic, and her giddy headlong approach to turning over stones and racing into unexplored side streams simply nerve-wracking?
Go on, go back in time, go ahead in time, and watch. You won't have any more of a clue than you did before you traveled. Mystery lives eternally in origins, and the eyes of mortals are clouded with the cataracts of their flesh.
Otter and Mallard can tough it out for the sake of their passion for a while. "We'll spend half the year in my den, and half the year on the surface of the pond in the reeds. While the sun is high and hot, the children will play in the water and sleep underground where it's cool; as the nights grow colder they will go south with you to forage in richer grounds." Time will pass and then what? As their children go on to populate the world, becoming the beings who play and tend the fish, and the beings who sift and patrol the water, what happens to the romance of the graying, stiffening otter and the molting, senile duck?
Marriage is rapidly becoming out of fashion these days, because once you sign the marriage license, or hell, even an apartment lease, you are becoming financially obligated to the other person. Forget that love may dim to embers from its raging firestorm, forget what sacrifices you may have asked the partner to make for the sake of relationship. Marriages and formal relationships are more and more money-oriented.
Got a lot of money, and the honey doesn't? Sign a pre-nuptial agreement so that the honey can't take it all if you both (or one, or the other) get bored in six months, or a couple years, or a couple weeks.
Same sex lovers want a recognized marriage contract, not because it makes their love any less true, but because, by damn, medical insurance through the spouse's job has a hell of a high priority; sometimes higher than simply knowing each other's love.
No, I could never have imagined a time of such acceptance of fluid and varied relationships had I traveled from the 1950's through time to the year 2000. Nor would I want to go back to that time and live in it. I stopped believing in the myths of romantic love long ago. Had I been married in that time, divorce from James would have been impossible, and I would have become one of the many who got and hid their bruises and just went on living with them.
My parents never gave any approval to my divorce. It was sinful for me to leave that man, they let me know; you made your bed and you have to sleep in it, they told me; go back to him and make peace, they insisted; you weren't married long enough to even give it a chance, they ruled.
That's why I didn't even tell them before the day I withdrew half the money from the bank accounts and got on a bus for Pittsburgh, where Kimsky met me in her car and spirited me away to Ohio to stay with her.
When I left the bank, one envelope was stuffed into the post office drop downtown to get to my folks; one envelope was left on the kitchen table for James to find. The one that I sent to my parents said, "Dear Mom and Dad, I'm leaving James. I will be safe but out of touch with you for six to eight months. Don't worry." James' message, folded around my wedding band, read: "James, I am leaving you and am going to divorce you. Get a lawyer."
Really, what more was there to say?
Most of my clothes I left behind. I wouldn't need anything fancy for quite a while. What jewelry was good, I wore -- wasn't much. I'd been systematically mailing Kimsky any papers I thought I'd need, and destroying stacks of saved letters so that once I was gone, there would be nothing of the essential me left in the damn place. James never even noticed. My oil paints and my pencils and sketch pad I had just put in the garbage can one day because every time I looked at them I thought of the bruises on my wrists, and I didn't doubt that James did notice that, judging by his triumphant sneering that week. The day I left, out of pure, vengeful spite, I spilled a bottle of refill ink in the drawer in which James kept his diploma and teaching certificate carefully wrapped in blue tissue paper so that they would not yellow.
My address book I carried in my purse. It took five days for James to consider that my best friend might know what had happened to me, and I wouldn't doubt that he had to search his memories viciously to recall not only her married name but the town in which she lived. He never had been much interested in my friends or what might be going on in their lives.
Her husband Burlie had answered the phone with his usual booming, "Yello!" Then he shouted, "Kimmie! For you!" and as she came near, he covered the mouthpiece tightly with his big hand. "It's that fucker James. Give him a dose of tall tales," he murmured low. As she took the phone from him and answered, "Hello, this is Kim," Burlie leaned toward me and whispered, grinning, "You watch that fox at work."
James asked if she had heard from me lately. Would she lie?
"Why, James? Did something happen?" Oh, such concern in her voice. "Is she all right?" What a smooth sidestep that was.
"You're kidding!" Kimsky sounded appalled. "Just up and left? Oh, my God."
He asked her if she had any idea where I might have gone. "Jesus ... I can't believe this. If I'd have known she was actually going to ... " she let her words trail, to lure him along. "Oh, dammit, if she finds out I said anything, she'll never speak to me again."
She pulled the phone away from her ear with a wince and Burlie and I could hear James shouting on his end. Burlie raised his eyebrows in false surprise. "Okay, okay, okay. She met some guy at the library, and was ... well, she said they were picking books out to read together, like, oh, jeeze, I think they met at the library every Monday or something. She just called him her 'Personal Book Club.' No, she wouldn't tell me his name. Oh, about three months ago, I think. I didn't think she'd run off with him!" Oh, yeah. She'd lie. Like a dog.
She pulled the receiver away from her head again and we could hear James shouting, "Was she screwing him??"
Kimsky said, tartly now, "You don't have to shout at me, mister." And that was apparently Burlie's cue, for he bellowed, "WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON? IZZAT GUY SHOUTING AT YOU? GIMME THE GOD-DAMNED PHONE! HELLO? HELLO?" He put the receiver back on its cradle. "He hung up," Burlie said, his eyebrows up again. "I'm telling you both, if that fucker shows up here, I'm going to do him his tonsils with the goddamn twelve-gauge."
I was only about half certain Burlie was kidding.
Out of fear of James' pursuit, for the next six months I lived in Kimsky's sparsely furnished attic, going outside the yard very little, and speaking to no one but Kimsky and Burlie and a lawyer, a woman lawyer. Then, having seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth, and having given James time to go through the usual shock and separation issues of anger and resentment, I filed for divorce, asking no alimony or further division of assets. I took the state teaching boards, and found a job teaching fourth grade in a Catholic school in the little city of Defiance. Once my state residency was established, I began taking courses and earned my master's degree, and then a doctorate. There followed a lazy, restful summer spent fishing and drinking beer with Burlie and Kimsky, their two little boys crawling on my lap and making me laugh at their antics; during that summer I collected all my paperwork again, for a different reason this time.
This was the last step in the plan I had made those years ago, while I shivered on a rainy morning counting bruises over and over again. That morning was the origin of my re-creation, the bottom of the stairway I'd climb to step into a new life at the top.
Did I just run away from trouble rather than face it head on? Maybe. Maybe that's what we're supposed to do sometimes. Who ever taught that you have to take it on the nose every time there's a conflict? Running away from trouble, I suppose, but with a definite direction in which to run. Like a snake when it gets too big, I shed my marriage to James like an itchy skin. And then I shed my tiny dreams and grew again. And shed my vulnerability by getting the highest qualifications I could. And on that day in the courtroom in Defiance, I shed the skin of my family and past, and thus, the new woman was created, a woman who would no longer need to hide, a flamboyant being able to walk on the clouds and paint herself into any landscape, any tableau. My petition for change of name was granted, and in the muggy July air, with great pleasure, wrote with a bold pen, formally signing my new name for the first time: Augusta Renoir.
Artist and masterpiece, both.
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows -- or maybe even he does not know.
Rig Veda X