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May 27, 2024

Time Traveler 11

By Sand Pilarski

"There is a tendency to treat religious writings as either literature or as fantasy," I said to the class. "As though the words represent an attempt to make personal ideas beautiful, as poetry or prose, or a pipe dream that sounded so enticing that a body of people chose to espouse it to the exclusion of reality.

"However, there are folk songs that are poetic, but they don't carry the weight of religion. Plenty of prose has been written that was forgotten in the space of days. Even the most erudite of academics can be mislead into forgetting that religion, first and foremost, is a chosen way of life that expresses a belief in a sacred universe, not a hobby or a profession."

"Do I have to buy a dictionary to figure out what you're saying?" said Mr. Smarts. "Does 'erudite' mean 'stupid' or is 'erudite' just one of those I'm-smarter-than-you words like 'pedestrian'?

"If you need a dictionary to understand the lecture," I told him coolly, "then, yes, you need a dictionary. English, preferably."

"My mom says she's a Christian," a girl in the back row offered under her raised hand. "But I don't see anything in what she does that is a 'way of life.' Does that mean she's not really a Christian?"

I put my hands up in the air as though arrested and held at gunpoint by police. "Sorry, just an innocent bystander. I don't know your mother and wouldn't comment if I did. Professional contacts don't name names."

"If you can't name names, and you don't tell us which religion is the true one, or which stories are true, then how can we tell which ones are right and which are wrong?" said Mr. Smarts.

"Did I say any of the sacred writings we're observing are true? Did I say that any of them were false? And, just to mention, did I say that this course was a search for The One True God?"

"Then we have to judge anything you say. You could be feeding us a line of bullshit every class."

"Yes, Mr. Spokesman, I could." I gave him the space to disbelieve. "But no, you don't have to judge anything I say more than you have to judge what your Math teacher has to say. This is a time to repeat that this class is about the sacred writings of the world's religions, not a poetry contest or Best Novel of the Year according to Playboy. The course isn't offered here to convert anyone to anything except an appreciation of the message some ancient peoples wanted to tell. Which is the focus of the next couple classes," I went on, bulldozing Mr. Smarts' objections under the weight of my lesson plan. "Now, let's get back to business. These writings come from times when paper was either non-existent or at a papyrus or parchment premium; initially they wouldn't have been writings at all, but rather oral traditions, passed down the ages, until they could be one day written down to preserve them more accurately. The Koran would be an exception, of course, as it was written down at Islam's inception, and yes, Christianity's Scriptures were written and collected -- and argued over -- not long after the death of the Christ.

"However, by and large, what we're going to look at was remembered and then written as a means of saying something sacred to succeeding generations. We're going to speculate about what that sacred message was, and what similarities and differences we may find."

We looked a few creation myths, and a few ritual songs; we examined funerary chants, and parables of various religions.

Speculation is a difficult thing for the very young to do; their impatience to be getting on with life leaves little time for just pondering. My entire goal for these sessions on speculation was to lay the foundations for the contemplation the students will do once they realize that they, too, are mortal, and that time is finite and fleeting. Well, that, and I wanted them to think for themselves, and not swallow whole some dumb-assed interpretation by a desk-jockey whose knowledge had more foundation in self-importance than it did in exploration of mystery, specifically not mentioning any head of my own department.

The students were getting restless by the time we got to the account from the Christian Bible about the expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve. Most if not all of the students in this class had grown up with the story of the snake and the apple tree and Eve suckering Adam into disobeying an unrelenting and trap-laying god.

"Note that in this text, there is no 'apple' and no 'snake' -- they are 'fruit' and 'serpent'." I commented.

"Does that matter?" demanded Mr. Smarts. "Seems like it could be a snake or a telemarketer, the point is just that if you disobey God, you're screwed."

"Is it?" I asked him (and the class) in return. "I've read hypotheses that this myth was intended as a story of how deliberate agricultural activity corrupted the healthier -- as well as completely dependent upon the providence of Nature -- hunter-gatherer patterns of primitive humanity. So that far from being screwed by a wrathful god, the message might be 'When Humans stopped relying upon the world for sustenance, they found themselves bound to the seasons and hard labor to produce food for themselves.'

"There are more to these writings than literal or face value, Students. And just in case you forgot, the definition of the word 'student' includes 'a person who examines thoughtfully' -- not a person who swallows information whole and passes it through unchanged and unchallenged to the next generation."

"I know what the definition is," carped the indefatigable Mr. Smarts. "The student is the person who examines thoughtfully to try to figure out what point the teacher is going to put on the exam. Which is what I'm not getting here. If there's some deeper meaning to this stuff, why didn't they just come right out and say so?"

Some days this kid was just a big, loud, pain in the ass. However, he did liven things up, and as a foil to my teaching, could be useful to get the class attentive again. Already students were swiveling in their seats. How will Dr. Renoir slice and dice the smartass today?

This encounter could be productive. "Think back to your remorseless past," I said to him. "What were the circumstances under which your mother -- or your father -- first told you not to lie? The very first?"

Mr. Smarts was stumped, and looked at me as though I was a wizard who had just conjured a dragon out of thin air. "Wow," said another boy, "I can't even remember how I knew what a lie was."

"That's because it's instinctive," said the blonde in the front row. "Everybody, everywhere, does it."

"Hey! Original sin, right?" enthused the girl in front of Mr. Smarts, happy to deflect conversation away from him.

"That would be like saying that only the religions that teach 'original sin' are universally true." The pedantic boy Johnson in the back had little patience for less serious scholars. "Lying is a behavior that is learned as a result of early moral development -- avoidance of pain, same as you learn to move away from fire or a pinch."

"Or Hell," said the kid from Fresno who leaned against the wall with an expression of a light bulb coming on in his head.

"Don't get too far afield." I herded them back to the point. "If you can't remember the first time you avoided pain -- you're absolutely right about the moral development and pain avoidance, Mr. Johnson -- then how about the first time you learned that lying is unacceptable behavior all the time?"

At least six students chanted, "Thou shalt not bear false witness!"

"You were 'told' that ... yes, in a sacred writing, of which you know the exact words of a particular translation, isn't that interesting. How do you know that command to be worthwhile? If everybody does it, and it's a normal attempt to avoid pain, why bother to have a specific holy command not to do it?"

"Because if everyone lied when they felt like it, you wouldn't know what was real and what wasn't," said the blonde.

"Chaos," said Johnson in the back.

"You couldn't believe anybody about anything," said Ms. Original Sin.

"The Boy Who Cried Wolf," said Mr. Smarts, his jaw sagging.

"Tell the story," I ordered him.

"A kid who was supposed to be watching the sheep kept saying a wolf was attacking to get attention, and after a while no one believed him, even when a wolf actually came."

"No, no, no, tell the story. Make the little kids understand its message." Scanning the class, I nodded to a freckle-faced sophomore who was glowing with inspiration. "Go ahead, prophetess."

"Once upon a time," she began, and the hair on my arms began to prickle with the thrill of their discovery. With the new understanding of the message behind the tale, she laid it on thick. Three times she told how the shepherd boy sounded the alarm, and the class listened like tots hearing the gruesome story for the first time. "But the villagers, when they heard him crying 'Wolf! Wolf! Help!' just shook their heads and went on about their business, and the wolf ate up all the poor sheep, and the shepherd boy as well."

In the silence as she finished, Johnson said, "Truth as responsibility for the corporate good." And clapped his hands together, joined by the rest of the class.

"And how did you know that this was a story that needed to be listened to?" I prompted.

"Once upon a time!" brayed Mr. Smarts. "Like ritual words!"

I pointed at him and nodded. "I had a friend who used to say that the fairy tales his grandmother told in Russian all began with 'Zhili, bili, Dyed y Baba' -- that is, 'There lived, there was, a grandpa and grandma...' the beginning words of these stories set them apart, asked the listener to suspend prosaic thought in favor of pondering something important. In our Jain parable of the man in the well, the first words are 'A certain man ... ' Does that put the writings in a different light? Not all of them are clear, not all are fables, but they've been preserved for a reason."

The bell rang in the hallway, three sonorous gongs. "Have a look at the readings we did today, and if you feel like getting some extra credit, find three more in Eliade with speculation on the message that needed to be preserved."

"How much extra credit?" asked Smarts.

"Not much," I told him, "but some."

The students filed out, I erased the boards, and I was pleased with the world. I turned off the lights in the classroom and stepped into the hall, to find Valentine leaning against the wall.

"How long have you been lurking out here?" I asked.

"Since the beginning of class." Observing my raised eyebrows, he explained, "You came to hear me play, I came to hear you play." His face was unusually still.

"And so what do you think?"

"I want to have your babies."

Between my schedule of students, classes, and assignments, and his, which was even worse during the horrid football season (band rehearsals all the time for football games), we couldn't meet often for playing at romance. August was gone in the space of a couple dates, though we spoke on the phone at least three times a week. Finals of summer semester for me took so much time, and then the symphony season began as well, and for two engrossed academics, the chances for leisure were uncoordinated and brief.

On a thickly fogged Sunday morning, Valentine and I met for breakfast, and afterwards, he accompanied me to my Post Office box while I picked up my mail. "You don't have home delivery?" he asked.

"I'm sure I do, but I don't want a street address on my correspondence," I told him, sorting the shameful amount of junk into the Post Office trash.

"How come?" he asked, and I looked up at his quizzical expression. He was just curious; I could find no sinister motive in his eyes.

"I don't want students showing up on my doorstep with late assignments," I said, and that was truthful enough.

"You're the Wolf-woman. You just don't want anyone knowing your lair. "

"Yes," I mumbled, with more truth than I liked to reveal.

"Not even me," he said. He picked up an advertisement that fell to the floor when I tossed it toward the waste can, and crunched it to a ball before he added the paper to the overflowing bin. "Does that mean that I'm just a temporary acquaintance in your life?"

The question caught me by surprise, in mid-breath. "How can we know the answer to that, Valentine?" He was a very good-looking man; how long before some Barbie-aged sweetie put the moves on him and he forgot about The Fascinating Older Woman? I shook my head, disheartened by that prospect.

"By asking you," he replied, gently lifting my chin with his left hand.

Mail splattered all over the floor as a result. After offending other Post Office patrons with the lingering kiss, he whispered, "I'll take the first step. Come see where I'm living. No commitment required, I just want you to know about me in case you decide to trust me. Or in case you want to find me."

Tense and suspicious, I went with him (a short walk from the Post Office) to his apartment. It was what I would call a dump. The access stairs and halls were indoors (a very invitation to crime) and the entire complex was in need of repainting, from the stairs up to the second story to the windowsills. He opened the door to his apartment and I went in, trying not to appear stiff-legged. The place was clean, a meagerly appointed studio apartment whose only focal point was a nice area rug upon which stood some music stands and instruments in cases. "Open drawers," he said, "check under pillows. You won't find any weirdness beyond me being a musician." There wasn't much to walk around in to see, and he never closed the door. "When I find the right part of the city to live in, I'll move. For now, this is where I sleep."

Against the cascade of emotions that began to belabor my thoughts, I walked to his door and faced him as he held it open. "Okay. Now it's my turn for show and tell." I walked down the hall to the stairwell.

"And God help me if I ever betray you," he said after me. I turned and looked at him. "Jesus, Augusta, I was only kidding. If I spook you that much, I don't even want to waste another hour of your time."

Did I look that grim? "Come on, Teshenko. What are you waiting for? I'm fresh out of engraved invitations."

The closer to the western end of Port Laughton we drove (his car was there at his apartment, after all) and he realized at what end of the "B" line bus route I lived, the quieter he became. "Turn right. This is Baycrest." I pointed towards the cypresses that shaded the bank in front of my house. "There. Just pull into the driveway."

We climbed the thirteen wide steps that wound to the front porch, and I let us in the front door.

There's a clear view straight from the front entry to the wide glass doors and windows facing the ocean, and on that day, the thick fog was just beginning to break and sun illuminated patches of the deep blue surface of the water, making the haziness holy and golden amidst the bluish-white of the thicker clouds. The house was all in order, except for a black lacy brassiere hanging on the bathroom door. "Have a peek at the ocean," I suggested to him, opening the back doors. As he stepped out onto the patio, I grabbed the out-of-place undergarment and stuffed it under the pillows on my bed.

"You didn't need to do that," he told me as I joined him, trying not to laugh.

"Yes, I did." I stood beside him, looking out at the sea, attempting to stifle my snicker. "How untidy."

Valentine sat down on one of the patio chairs and covered his face with his hands. "My god, you're human," he laughed, muffled.

"Not really," I answered. "At least not intentionally. Possibly it was a burglar." I sighed and put a hand on his left shoulder. "Just don't let on to any of my students."

He placed his right hand over mine. "Promise," he said.

"You were surprised to see my house," I observed.

"Yeah, I was," he commented, leaning his head back to see me. "As skittish as you were about me knowing where you lived, and what with your insistence on traveling by bus, I thought maybe you lived in substandard housing somewhere that you were ashamed of."

"Now you know." From behind him, I looked at his dark hair, short on the sides and intoxicatingly curly on top, the short and the longer accenting the fine shape of his head as though he had been created that way. He had two gray hairs in the short sideburns on the left side of his face. "Though if you grew up in San Francisco, this is pretty small apples by comparison."

His brow furrowed with a frown. "We moved to San Francisco when I was about ten. Dad was through med school by then, and had an offer to work in one of the city hospitals. They have a nice condo now, but we weren't children of privilege, Augusta, if that's what you mean. Mom worked her ass off to make sure Dad finished his education after they got married. We lived in a flat in the Mission District until things got better."

A flat in the Mission District until things got better, I mused, standing beside him. Poor fellah, what a hardship that must have been, living in the most beautiful city in the world.

Growing up in post World War II rural America was in all probability beyond his imagining. Until things got better, he said; not having any idea how bad things could get, was my guess. Did he ever have to endure an outhouse in summer, with its attendant flies and wasps and the occasional snake? My earliest memories include that horrid indignity and danger. Was he ever set to the task of hulling black walnuts for their meats as an afternoon's activity? Not bloody likely, and not only because there are no black walnut trees in San Francisco. I'd wager big bucks he had no idea how to darn socks, or turn soil in a kitchen garden, or can tomatoes, onions and peppers for a cooking sauce when the harvest reached a peak. Children of privilege, I huffed to myself, and then looking down at his nose and lips, and back again at the decorative curly hair that graced the top of his head and fell onto his brow, I was glad that his rough life had been so easy and civilized, because if it hadn't been, I would have wished it was.

"Were you going to play downtown today?"

"The weather is good enough yet, so I thought I would, but maybe it depends on you," Valentine said.

"I have a couple of lesson plans to work on," I told him. "I can either sit alone here and fiddle with them or, if you wouldn't be offended, take my notebook to First Street and jot down some ideas, inspired by your music."

"Then I will play, provided you tell me about your inspirations afterwards."

I withdrew from him, reopening the patio doors. I wanted him out of my house quickly, before I invited something I was not yet ready for.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-09-26
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