by Simons Chase @slchase
How clean was the lengthening shadow of the seven star Burj Al Arab Hotel, stretched out, totem-like, across the waveless Dubai coast. Forty stories above sea level and jutting out two hundred feet from the man-made coast, the hotel’s metal and glass exoskeleton glows amber against the slow-motion rocket launch of daily sunrises. A hard salty mist hangs in the air. Workers toil the beach down below, raking sand to mimic Saint Tropez. Royal palm trees validate the boundary line between beach sand and grass. Songless fronds hang from the palms to shade the coming afternoon sun.
I had been up most of the night, compressed by electronic trading on the distant New York Stock Exchange, and now had to switch gears by stepping into the tactile reality of the weightless dirt and dust in the gilded sands of the wide-open desert. I still had some youthful urges that were not diminished by the burden of too much early success in some narrow spectrum of trendy commerce. This was honest work out on the frontier beyond the glitzy hotels – cranking cash out of old minerals. I could prove it by the microscopic travel dust that blasted into my interior spaces – my clothes, my body and even my toothbrush, invaded by the details of the desert. Dust, earth’s breathful revenge for aggressive commercialization of her rocks, uncoils upon the slightest perturbation, a fact I learned on regular visits to the actual mine site in nearby Jordan. Jordan’s Bedouin tribes people shoulder silence when they walk, and in the desert they stand like tent poles, clean and spacious. Excessive reserve is their style. Their arid faces trace subtle crevasses like the contours of tree bark. Yet when interaction is personal, I had learned, the Bedouins’ real aspect is familial and warmth.
heads enshrined in red and white utility cloths called keffiyeh. Around them, in their neighborhood, the geological violence from the hammer mill belches plumes of red dust, scratching the heat-shimmered sky, curling out in spindly trails from an unseen fire, squelching the brilliant silence. At a distance, the clocking tick tock sound of the mill spirals through the breeze, spilling time. Up close, the physical roars from the torn open earth stir up squalls of curiosity in the Bedouins whose desert fluency compels them to see the earthen plunderage as a symbol of opportunity, perhaps gifts from Allah, but denied like the lure of the smell of sizzling bacon. Dubai is different and out of proportion. The place thieves reality. The biography of Her textureless geological features coalesce towards two things, sand and sea. Despite the reprieve from the monotony of sand, the sea represents neither treachery nor bounty. Breezes only come at night, and Russian hookers only leave in the morning. In Dubai, nothing is produced and everything is sold.
With the shades and shadows of the early morning gone, I popped the pillow mint in my mouth and stepped out of the hotel’s entrance and into the teeth of an alien heat. Depending on the particulars of the route and the coordinates of the destination, my daily journey passes far beyond the skyscrapers. Instead, bushels of imported Sri Lankan workers, their blurred faces inflamed into work by some distant obligation, dominate the scene. There are other sights that border on sensations. Spastic funnels of wind-blown sand, tableaus of sound and brilliant light and, most memorable, the desert’s iconic symbol of travel, the camel. I grew up
surrounded with by glossy snakes and birds and creek-bottom salamanders turtling over patches of wet bog, seeking the release of flowing water. For me, the camels were toys framed by the desert. In the late day sun they throw long shadows on the sand like thin-trunk trees with huge swaying canopies.
My professional boot camp, the study of developing country economics, transitioned to the theater of actual earth moving in a Middle East mining project after I completed graduate school and joined the senior ranks of a new commercial operation half way around the world. It was possibly the only true venture-back mining operation in the world if you consider the high probability of uncompensated risk and the rugged psychic landscape required to survive the depredations of commerce on one of earth’s few remaining frontiers. I was stepping into a landscape so lacking in personality that the ideas we inserted into it became our own possibilities. The Greeks called zeolites boiling rocks and the ancient fascination with this quality extended into modern times in the same way science eventually fills in for superstition. This special form of volcanic rock belongs to a tribe of hydrated aluminosilicates (more precisely, Phillipsite Zeolite), born out of rapidly cooling magmatic squirts of unfinished earth just below the surface in pimple-like volcanic vents scattered like tossed coins across a rocky desert landscape. The sharp elbows of shifting plate boundaries resulted in a vicious Oligocene feud about whether to make the crustal fault of Jordan’s rift valley rich in dry sand or rich in water. This went unresolved for millions of years until, suddenly, the east side of the valley lurched up – pushed by Africa – preventing the sea from flooding the area, and produced the lowest point on earth where bible-writing humans played and walked on water. Israel sits on one side of this split personality and the Arabs on the other. Breaching the normal rhythm of rock and roll land-shaping processes birthed the deep-earth volcanic tantrum and an orchestral blast of little mountainettes where our mine site was situated. The stirring up of these extreme forces no doubt manifested on humanity’s stage in the form of an equally hot theological cauldron we call the Middle East, the place we’re barley able to survive, dormant guns always on the edge of conflictual death. In today’s venture-geoscience-capital terms, this meant squeezing the right dot could yield a special form of zeolite, possessing not only great water-holding capacity (the source of its mythical boiling quality) but also a mineral endowed with a hexagonal molecular structure and an ionic charge that lends itself to exchanging ions in commercially viable ways – together with the magic of ever-diminishing unit production costs should demand tug consistently towards increasing volume. People exposed to these rhythms tended to exhibit strange behaviors, mostly related to the private language created around the numerous shared epiphanies that result from mineral speculation in remote environments with rocks that are indifferent as to their next move. A small founding team of three, including myself, formed bonds far beyond professional obligations, as the strangeness of far-off places tends to magnet affinities. Abe Dwairi, who held a doctorate in geochemistry from from a well-know British university, was a Muslim who drank cheap local beer out of a Coke can as a subtle tool for self-examination. And there was Jerry Zucker, a self-made billionaire Jew from the United States, a man on a mission. Team building exercises flowed imaginatively, without the need for corporate-scripted exercises that too often side-step the deeper issues of personal vacancy and private murdered spirits among employees. They are built with empathy from the barriers of language, religious tradition and commercial uncertainty.
Jerry was a force of nature, something deep and flowing. Electromotive forces seemed to emanate from the dense and spiraling coils of his mind. To spend even a small amount of time with him was to witness an impossible thrust of information and a mental vectoring of vast experience, deep intelligence and a fluid imagination. Dots, people, industrial processes, financial statements, cunning uses for trapezoids and an occasional movie script coalesced into rivers of deal flow and intricate little streams of economic possibilities, always meeting at the highest possible points, always thinking at the top of his voice, always flashing from a young inner fire – a Forbes-list industrialist who had earned it by creating one of the world’s largest commercial behemoths. Jerry’s intelligence went way beyond social graces and feats of photographic memory, and if those two qualities were all you brought to the table, the conversation was going to be short. His real passion and unmistakable style was speculation. He thought about and acted on investments and, when not busy doing that, he built businesses, some of them large and global and some of them fascinating like the Chatterbait patent and a billion fish lures a year. Like the mining business in which we were engaged, opportunities emerge from unlikely places and have potential that is not apparent to a casual observer. He started out his life with virtually nothing. His first invention was made in the context of a high school science project, a revolutionary phase factor for Colinear Electromagnetic Waves, which was used as part of the first lunar landing module.
Periodic geogligical surprises, like the magical rocks residing at our mine site in Jordan, reveal earth’s way of speculating. In fact, the volcanized desert (the kind of desert that does not exist in Dubai) is the Apple store of minerals. There is excellent lighting, ruthless minimalism and a need for imagination. How else could Basaltic rock, heaved up from deep earth pulses, sun-stroked and gravity-entangled, rapidly cool into crystallized minerals and then lie inert in a lifeless, treeless desert, where the sky ran out of water, on a speed-of-God 100-million-year journey of absurd irony to become a rain forest. Oozing ancient earthfire matured over millennials to produce something novel and valuable. In fact, if you compressed time from billions of years to just a few decades, you would discover the adventurous nature of earth’s minerals and the liquidating geological forces swirling around them. Life emerged from this kind of inert matter, from rocks, sand and salts, and through lifeless fundamental processes that relied on atomic level ion selection and purification and an as-yet unknown force shepherding spontaneous self-assembly. At room temperature, with no external force, these chemical processes occur naturally in zeolite through ion exchange, a molecular manipulation so simple as to mock our complex industrial processes. And moving up in scale from the molecular level to the physical level, a hidden depth of tiny cavities produces great internal surface areas with remarkable water-holding capacity. The whole natal package, the basaltic rock that you can crush with your bare hands, contains iron, magnesium and other life-affirming trace elements. Mineralium vitae. If there were ever a avant-garde mineral, this is it. More important, zeolite captured the meaning I projected on to it and reflected back building blocks, with a narrative capacity, metaphors and a time dimension.
The threads connecting earth’s geology to our biology remains a mystery beyond the basics, like the parent materials we humans are made of. These elements that give life to all that exists includes carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Zeolites are just a temporary fleck on the much larger canvas of earthen mineral speculations that have been going on for billions of years. Earth’s early bio-geochemical musings likely relied on ion exchange mechanisms that echo today in neuronal voltage-gated ion channels, the central mechanism active in human brains, even in the glial cells that make up more than 90% of brain matter and that were once thought to be inert. From early man up until the present time, minerals have been mingling with humans’ daily activity and also telling stories of the deep past. Zircons, crystalline minerals containing silicon, oxygen, zirconium and sometimes other elements, form inside magma and last forever. Their relentless memory goes all the way back. In some cases, their carbon-isotope ratios implicate biological forces at work yielding a narrative three and a half billion years old. Another rocky relation is igneous rock, which forms when molten magmatic material cools so rapidly that atoms are unable to arrange into a crystalline structure. In some ways igneous is the anagramatical cousin of zeolite, lacking zeolite’s light and breezy personality despite being born in the same places. Earth rearranges molecular structures with time-dependent processes instead of letters in her alchemy of earthen anagrams. Deprived of its cousins’ sparkle, igneous has a distinctive shiny appearance that gives the a “volcanic glass” quality and is blackened by small amounts of iron and other impurities that are really just novelties but also a bit gloomy. Humans can fracture igneous rock to create sharp, curved edges. Evidence among artifacts associated with Stone Age man show that the first factories created by man were likely a collective effort to produce arrowheads, spear points, knife blades, and scrapers from a special igneous rock called obsidian. Today, obsidian blades are placed in surgical scalpels used in precise surgery settings. Studies indicate the performance of obsidian blades is equal to or superior to the performance of surgical steel. These people too were dabbling with the fundamental earth materials for a specific purpose, to find purchase by shaping rocks to gain an edge, to get above the ruck through individual mastery of a skill or intellection.
Some of the people whose job it was to prosecute the rules of childhood conformity were also my gateway to the thinkers who rejected the safety of neutrality and who understood the possibilities in the idea that calamity is what defines people best – or the best people – in a world where everything cannot be calculated, predicted and understood like a periodic table. These thinker-writers could be trusted to mean what they say and would never fear a thirteen-year-old would lose his luminosity at a funeral but would instead gain it.
Nostalgic curiosity about Canada’s Yukon gold rush, combined with a poem’s powerful words and imagery, was probably my first experience with language’s power to scaffold a bridge between the actions that happen in the physical world and the energies and confusion of my emotional inheritance. I felt like a boy at the keyhole.
The Yukon region was the setting for an epic migration of men and animals propelled into feverish speculation. The world’s newspapers screamed, “Stacks of Yellow Metal!” The shack towns of Skagway and Dyea in Canada overflowed with novice prospectors unfamiliar with the killing cold. Until tramways were built late in 1897 and early 1898, the prospectors had to carry everything on their backs. The White Pass Trail was the animal-killer, as prospectors overloaded and beat their pack animals and forced them over the rocky terrain until they dropped dead. More than 3,000 animals died on this trail – many of their bones still lie at the bottom on Dead Horse Gulch. Robert Service, an English poet, became the voice of the region and an interpreter for a period that was marked by death and tragedy more than by riches.
Here is the first and last stanza of Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
“Midnight sun” is the first visual spark hinting that the work is alive with meaning. The irregular rhyme scheme of the poem approaches free verse, and a child can easily be enticed with all the action happening on the surface. But there is a deeply embedded narrative underneath Service’s story as the poem reaches through the fog and tinkers magically with language and imagery. The first stanza is a handshake with the reader, a salutation that is repeated again at the end of the poem as if to say GodSpeed: the words may drift out of range but the questions will remain. The poem’s internal stanzas approach the boundary line of reality and chaos – in a slow progression. The jurisdiction of the poetic form sustains the mystery of the ballad that seems to roll along with sing-song levity. There is contemplation (“promises are debts”) and writerly craft (“cold stabs like a driven nail”) that at once isolates the narrator’s voice and escalates the tension against the backdraft of a winter squall and men enraptured by the furious Yukon gold rush. The debt in this case has to do with a curious promise the narrator makes to an expiring Sam McGee, whose mania can rest only in the licking flames of a funerary fire. “Sizzle,” inserted fang-like near the end of the poem, describes the macabre sound of the cremation, and it is here that the plodding tale is thrust off the two-dimensional plane, right out of Service’s molars, out of the dark. With an ease of expression that belies the risk taken with such a poetic twist, the narrator’s lens snaps its focus on the secret locked within, in search of an understanding ear, and puts a demand on the reader to listen to the dead. This is where the ligature between what’s real and what’s “queer,” as it becomes flesh, as if to remind the reader of where the poem’s vital detail is lodged, in open possibilities and emotional extremities. With a sorcerer’s wit, Service chops down death with the tip of his pen.
Once ascended into the realm of pure fire, Sam McGee is more real than ever:
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
Service’s poem is carnivalesque, winter-demented, volcanically summoned, monstrous with fire and wild energy and, for me, unburdened by empty reactions like treating bleak childhood calamity with a glass of warm milk or a purchased adornment from a shop called My Sentiments Exactly or through empty rituals couched in symmetrical words like, “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Service’s cosmic lottery of destruction was looking for a way to get in, and the doorway fit us both, containing all the mystery, danger and opportunity.
Fire and sword.
The mine development plan was simply to get 100 million tons of phillipsite zeolite reserves under the yoke of human commercial creativity, one ton at a time, for the first time in history. I fanned out like the trade winds on a map, spreading indiscriminate fingers of commercial potential across vast distances, four continents even. The long haul to market started with samples of various sizes (1-2 millimeters, 3-4 millimeters and so on) sent via air freight for purposes of testing. Next we stuffed 30 ton shipping containers with zeolite in one-ton bags for large-scale in-situ evaluation. When crushed to a size or 1 to 2 millimeters and inserted into a bag labeled “Desert Rose,” zeolite delighted thousands of English cats in the form of a premium cat litter. The huge facial expression of a cat-loving child on the label betrayed the violence that was required to produce the stuff. This was my first and only experience with the $500 billion pet care industry that was in the nascent stages of pet “humanization” driven by higher spending per pet, per period. The truth is I preferred applying zeolite to living things rather than to the tail pipe of the cat food industry. In fact, when mixed with manure, it became a whole soil system whereby large patches of desert had youth and possibility inserted, and what came out was fierce green grass or tomatoes or flowers, and money potential.
One of Dubai’s more pizzazzful projects in which I supplied product was Plantation Dubai, a glamorous equestrian community concept built literally on sand and colossal extravagance, like desert estates with grand chandeliered dining rooms and adjacent air-conditioned horse barns and eighty million gallons of annual irrigation. From the single satellite image, the earthen patch pops out of the desert like a private garden in the fast lane of Dubai commerce. I later learned that the quick-witted Arthur Fitzwilliam, a stern-looking expat cut from proper British cloth, was evicted from the desert while angling the treacherous landscapes between prosperous and preposterous. Before there was a single horse or human resident, and before the ink had dried on his aceful Plantation Dubai CEO business cards, Arthur was arrested and vigorously questioned by some sweat-soaked forensic bureaucrats about the whereabouts of more than $500 million missing from company accounts and owed to Dubai Islamic Bank, which is the quivolent of owing lots of money to God. The two most contradictory elements in the universe are hope and abundant desert water. I am unsure where this guru of the grass-for-cash desert operation tipped into madness but the words, a “world full of fun and adventure,” are as good a meridian of his ambitions as any, a wild mouth on a word safari suspended on dust.
There is a global system of soil biology most of us are not aware of. And the fast lane of soil biology involved novel ways to recondition degraded soils and improving sandy soils to support animal and plant production. Intermediating in this space When zeolite is mixed with potassium nitrate, it fed thousands of Costa Rican banana trees until the growing trial ended upon Chiquita Banana’s bankruptcy filing, the day I arrived to access the trail’s performance, November 13, 2001. On that day, the company signaled doubt about repaying $862 million in debt, with the crashing of several Saudi-flown planes into the World Trade Center in New York City apparently decimating banana demand. Hope flared anew on the putting greens of many British Ryder Cup golf courses when our zeolite, reacted and mixed with ammonium nitrate, was inserted into the surface wholes created by a machine that excavated tiny pellet-sized aeration vents. And when crushed to a fraction of 30 microns (like talcum powder), it was demonstrated by a researcher at North Carolina State University, at the 95th confidence interval, our zeolite bound toxins (ie. removed toxicity) in animal feeds, thereby improving bovine yields. Tubes of zeolite powered intensive cultivation of strawberries in Saudia Arabian greenhouses, the output of which made a brief layover at the Athens airport to pick up EU-origin before reaching their final destination in posh London shops. I later learned the phyto-sanitary certifications were acquired illegally. There were bigger ideas too. Set against the mustard yellow haze of Earth’s lowest sunset and the mercurial waters of the Dead Sea, Abe, Jerry and I constellated fantastical applications for the zeolite. It even had trailblazing geo-engineering potential. Poured by the thousands of tons into the sea, in the gentle wake of lumbering container ships, a resulting algal bloom may have been capable of sequestering some of the world’s over-abundant carbon dioxide as the algae consume carbon dioxide, die, and fall to the sea floor with the gas permanently sequestered until the sea floor returns again to the surface as an island or maybe even a high plains desert. And enabling the soil to capture carbon through “rewilding” holds the potential to correct decades of over-serving the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.
The most adventurous elements of our minerals-for-cash ambitions would not happen. Concurrent with those sleepless nights at the Burj Hotel was the special angiogensis of tiny vascular pathways that were forming to supply cancer cells with oxygen and nutrients, like little meat hooks tearing at the flesh in the living bodies of Abe and Jerry. This ticking machinery would soon flare in near synchrony. Abe and Jerry would evaporate from my life. Abe’s chest imploded with cancer, his last breath a wind, and Jerry suffered swift neurologic decline that even I was not aware of other than through his disappointing silence. The cold gray-blue gunmetal sky coalesced with the hot red earth to produce for me the darkest clay, like an idea taking physical form, refining itself, becoming more essential and accessible before disappearing into the shifting dunes of black sand.
Before I knew Abe or the action of industrial earthworks, personal fulfillment meant stirring up emotions in the people and friends in the neighborhood. My chronological story began there, in the moist, temperate woods of the Southern United States, behind my childhood home where I experimented with upward mobility by mixing small amounts of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate as a way to cope with mild moodiness and urges towards rebellion. The organic boundary between subdued American suburbia and untamed forest seemed to me a natural place to speculate about chemistry. The peak of my early infamy coincided with lighting fuses in the wild. To the horror of the adults who were familiar with the schemes, I tooled the resulting detonations to bend the natural surroundings into conformity with my sensibilities. My senses swelled at the wild pulse of light, the amplified throb of earth, and the smell of sulfur mixing with the ripe organic decay of a forest absorbing my ambitions. What could be better than to blaze with all speed – and wild delight – away from the deep, primal vowel sounds breaking through the woods and then to witness smoke plumes, mushrooms even, twisting up through the gloomy moss and the thick canopy of majestic water oaks. With some luck, the police would arrive to quell the grief of a neighborhood briefly shattered. I heaved air into my stinging lungs, hiding out on the fringe of the action after a bolt of muscular propulsion. There were other forms of unbridled mischief, harmless spectacles that symbolized my angst with standing still too long. Then, I was more attracted to incubating innocent violence and placing sensitive elements next to each other, unaware of the risks of volatile reactions. I only wanted to prize up out of people and me some authentic spark, a sliver of Midnight Sun. I was creating my own earth out of the psychic geographies of my young mind and with it I got in touch with some interior place with sounds I could understand. I hammer-stroked into existence, with childlike lack of awareness, the people they themselves didn’t know. Rammed through the center of my childhood were rainy nightfalls, funerary ambiguities, plowed entanglements and indifferent ant armies dismantling fallen trees – together with a depth of feeling that I could not have known was connected to the force that would snake its way into my father’s DNA and provide the genesis of his leukemia. I remember wandering into the edge of the woods at dusk where giant-eyed summer Cedecas wailed with metallic urgency in a chorus of high-pitched undulating chirps against the infinite silence of the stars. The warm blanket inside my family’s house no longer made much sense to me.
Abe was an admired teacher and geochemist, a gravelly-voiced narrator of earth’s history, born into the landscape. He was gone, or I could say he was part of the earth, no longer a rock slinger, his biology now inserted like dust into the earth, his buoyant hints of mischief gone too. His mischief and curiosity were really about optimism and child-like play that was always honest. On other trips to Jordan I would drive out to see Abe at the Mars-scape mine site near the border with Syria and get into mechanical sympathy with the dusty production team: lumps of friable volcanic rocks, excavated by bulldozer from a two-million-year slumber, forced into the steely mouth of a hammer mill the size of a house. And then the upward thrust of dust. But today would be my last day in Jordan. I glided up the rutted driveway with an exaggerated slowness to show respect for the occasion.
Abe’s home is an artful, informal melding of concrete and wood that is a rare sight in a country with only one forest. Darting lizards, grinning dogs and far-off chicken sounds mingle in the breeze: cluck, crow, cheep, chirp. I had become so familiar with the feeling of permanent abundance surrounding the house and the garden and the orchard that the harvesting processes seems to betray the sense that the house now felt emptied of vitality. Inside, in the sanctuary provided by one roof, I could see the many weathered, funerary faces of Abe’s Bedouin family seated in the large room overlooking the fertile orchard scene. Feeling my way into this was the only way through. Inside, invisible lines of respect determined the seating positions of most of the mourners and revealed the social scaffolding I had only seen previously as faint signals among this family. Tertiary members stood in the rear. The oldest members sat in what can be described as the front row seats. In the center of the room, a large upholstered chair with hand-carved adornments and dense embroidery waited for me to undergo what looked like a litigation. The seating arrangement seemed too formal for these people, and I speculated that they too were unsure of protocol. This gathering was not the main event after cancer had liquefied Abe’s chest cavity, but it was special given the distance I had traveled and the measure of familial closeness in our friendship.
Outside a worker labors against the weight of a cart filled with ripe olives. They must have just harvested from the olive tree orchard, a sign of things not stopping. A goat wonders in the yard, the tiny bell around its neck tinkling in rhythm with the animal’s pre-slaughter indifference. Abe’s wife meets me at the entrance and, as we embrace, the tears flow, her wet eyes still smiling from the joy she believes Allah had gifted to her in the answered prayer of Abe’s love. For years I referred to her as Mom and she always treated me warmly, closer to something like a brother-in-law or first cousin, looping me in on the important decisions that involved Abe’s career and our project. For her this is the end of a life partnership, a gentle vice of earned love that emerged in adulthood after the blanket of a parent’s gift of love recedes. It’s quiet in the room except for the clanking of earthenware pots participating in the olive operations just outside the open window. The house was filled with the familiar smell of garlic and olive oil and baked bread. In Jordan, flashes of hunger always coincide with nutritional needs. Mom, the world needs more people like Abe – Abe’s son translates my words for benefit of the mostly non-English speakers in the group. Forty pairs of kind eyes look at me with approval and with the concreteness of operating room lights. I slowly made my way over to the appointed chair, shy about the evidence of my man tears, wondering whether Bedouins accept public male crying. There was a moment of long silence and hand staring. I tried to force relaxation by mentally recalling that there were no complicated areas in my relationship with Abe and his family. Simple questions were always met with direct answers. I could hear the whisperings of private, Islamic prayers, the treads of unity weaving through the room. There is a strange familiarity when a family of foreign voices are united in volume and tone. Then I am addressed by the eldest woman in the room. She had a permanently turned out lower lip and deep facial lines that were baked by decades of sun exposure. She gave off a counter-intuitive energy of being fully alive at 100 years old – and infinite calm. In Arabic, I discerned her kind welcome for me after my long journey to Jordan. She says she has one question. Abe’s son translates again. I nod in approval. Do you see this man sitting next to me? She points to her equally-ancient husband. Not sure what to think, I acknowledge with a slight head nod. He won’t stop complaining, she says,…will you take him back to America with you!? I’m stunned, what am I missing in this comment? My eyes probed back and forth looking for answers in the faces of the others sitting next to her. Without warning, a silent, gaping laughter peels down the old woman’s slender form like the ocean seizing the bow of a ship in a furious wallop of froth. Then the pulse of her words, a huge, wild invitation swarming and swelling, detonated an eruption of riotous group laughter, a contagion that twitched even the goat. When I tasted her words, the waters of her desert, they were like a sweet, deep-earth pyroclastic flow from deep time, and I cried with laughter in her true bliss, it having emanated from Abe’s spirit in this territory the old woman had created for us in that moment. Her spinning the axis mundi out of the ether was no doubt a tradition from her ancestors who inhabited those dry spaces that nurtured humanity out of rocks and dust. For a moment I got to know the heart of this tribe and the time-stretched feeling of belonging.
Even now I’m coming to know the dead as they fall into the past and at the same time I feel feel the groove of the road behind of me, the radiance of an inner landscape, and the future roads they don’t have that are mine now. They live inside of me like revolution, upheaval, my biographical rhythms torqued and also sheltered. I want to let loose the life’s cold grip of predictability, find a preposterous odyssey, and accept the only life worth living is the one I can barely survive, with small kernels of truth unearthed from these dead people, who gave me gold for my rust, who measured my heart first. What I learned most of all is to take all emotions as permanent equal partners in life, like a map of familiar patterns, and savor each one no matter the depths or the heights, fire or ice, because a life filled with the satisfaction of greedy impulses or pizzazzful narcissistic expressions contain nothing but the hollowness of a desert or the chafe marks left by a velvet rope. These emotions and memories contain intelligence locked up in the messy biology of living. I want to get out there and play and get dirty again and melt into the forces shaping my external reality.
Love is humanity’s highest expression of intelligence. It doesn’t require the ability to read or do math. It only requires food and water. And it is solely responsible for human survival since the beginning.