My personal life is particularly political. In fact, now that I ponder the subject, I see that I was one of the first personal-as-political activists. Here is a list of my achievements:
- I have not watched television for twenty-eight years.
- I have not eaten meat for twenty-nine years.
- I have meditated every day for twenty-six years.
- I have worked full time for a total of nine and a half months. (The rest of my working life — twenty-seven years — I have worked part time.)
- The most money I have made in a year is $11,806.
But these are just my most visible accomplishments. Please accompany me through an account of my personal political life:
I speak to Julie on the phone. The conversation turns to fleas. (Julie has two cats.) “We’ve had severe infestations,” she says. “I go through their fur two or three times a day, looking very carefully for fleas.”
This piques my sadistic curiosity. “How do you kill the fleas?” I ask. “Do you drown them in kerosene?”
“I just put them in water. Soapy water or plain water.”
There is a thoughtful pause in the conversation.
“Actually, I like fleas,” Julie reflects. “I’m sorry I have to kill them. I admire their tenacity, their talent for survival. And they can leap really far!”
“Good,” I reply. “I am happy to hear of your love for fleas.”
To express love for the despised and the forgotten — particularly fleas, who have no voice in the human world — that is real politics.
My mother-in-law gave us curtains of a heavy olive-colored fabric decorated with flowers — almost a camouflage pattern. These curtains shut out the light so well that, even on a bright morning, the room is dim, and you cannot distinguish the pants hanging in the closet.
Nevertheless, at these moments, I never turn on the light; rather, I go to the window and pull open the curtain. Why waste the earth’s riches, in the form of electricity, when the purest sunlight is available for scant exertion?
When I’m walking down a street and need to spit (I have become quite a spitter in the last six years), I pause to consider: Where can I best bestow my spit? What flower or tree is most desperate for whatever nourishment my spit can provide?
Suppose I see a yellowing, four-inch-high plant with spoon-shaped double leaves and a thick brownish stem. Before spitting, I attempt to guess whether this creature is thirsting. If I suppose that she is, I give her my small feast of saliva. These are my politics.
On the stone wall of a toilet stall at the college in New Paltz, a man has scratched, DEATH TO — followed by the ugliest word in the American language, a word used to justify slavery and vigilante murder.
Luckily, I always carry a felt-tip pen, so I quickly cross out this last word and then deliberate over what to put in its place. Should I write, DEATH TO WHITES? Or, DEATH TO IDIOTS? Or, DEATH TO RACISTS?
Finally, I settle on DEATH TO BIGOTRY, proud that I have chosen to kill an abstract wrong rather than a group of humans.
When we moved into a new apartment, a relative gave us plastic plates. They are off-white and flat, with a little rim. In the manner of plastic plates, they have no ornamentation. They are so simple that there’s even something aesthetically clever about them. Yet I do not use them.
I make it a point to use the china plate left to us by my wife’s grandmother, which has roses and sprigs of ferns pictured on it. There is a tradition of china plates that goes back centuries, and plastic breaks that tradition. Touching plastic to your sandwich is like gargling with contact-lens fluid. It introduces that alien technological presence, that sense of self-disrespect that is so modern.
Why don’t I discard the plastic plates? I can answer that with a joke: A Jew is stranded on a desert island and builds two synagogues. When he’s rescued by a passing ship, the captain asks him: “Why did you build two synagogues?”
He points to the first one. “This one I go to every week,” he says. Then he points to the second: “And this one I wouldn’t set foot in!”
For me, the plastic plates serve this purpose. They are a spiritual temptation to resist. (And they might be useful someday, if we have a lot of guests.)
An overweight man boards the bus in Rosendale, carrying many bags. He stops opposite me and opens the luggage compartment above the seat. Whamp! An enormous knock on my head. I look up and see that he has slammed me with his shoulder bag. He hasn’t even noticed that he hit me.
I am angry and wish to shout: “Watch where you swing that deadly shoulder bag, you fat egomaniac!”
But I realize he did not mean to harm me, and he would learn nothing from my angry outburst. Instead, I will remain silent and consider the possibility that this pain is karma for some previous thoughtless deed of my own.
A grave problem facing this nation is its name — or rather its lack of one. “The United States” is more of a description. Most nations are groups of united states. What else would they be? “The United States of America” is misleading, since America is a huge area comprising two whole continents, and this nation does not unite all its states. A more precise name would be “Some United States of North America, Plus Hawaii,” or susoNAPH, for short. And of course, “America” is so hubristic as to be almost funny. Why not call ourselves “Earth”?
Isn’t there a name that describes what’s distinct about our nation, the way “France” seems to capture something quintessentially French?
Hope arrives today in the form of a New York Times article titled “Ancient Site Offers Clues to Vikings in America: Ruins Tell of a Norse Settlement”:
Sometime at the end of the tenth century . . . [Leif] Ericson set out from the Greenland colony in his sturdy longboat with a soaring prow and a large square sail. Another seafarer, drifting off course, had sighted land to the west, and Ericson went to see for himself. . . . Here, at L’Anse aux Meadows [Newfoundland], they established the base camp, their beachhead in Vinland. . . . Of Vinland, Adam of Bremen wrote in 1070, “There grow wild grapes.”
Vinland! How succulent and true this name rings! We are a land of grapes and berries. Why, just this morning, I stopped on my way across New Paltz to sample some ripe mulberries — dangling black amid a tree’s profuse leafage. Sweet Vinland! This is the name I will use forever.
In Gainesville, Florida, the public library has paintings. For three weeks, you can borrow a little Juan Gris still life and mount it on your wall. You live with this painting — of a fish on a plate and two pears — for most of a month, and then it moves on, to a new apartment or house. A short woman named Allison, perhaps, will have it next.
I believe in the expansion of libraries to embrace all things: place mats, wrenches, chess sets — even food. Suppose a woman (let’s call her Mrs. Culver) buys a box of oatmeal at the Boiceville Market. At home, Mrs. Culver opens the box and discovers it’s cinnamon-flavored. She despises cinnamon oatmeal. So she brings the box to the Pine Hill Library, and an elderly man — a Mr. Gormar — checks out the oatmeal. For twenty-one years, he has wondered whether he would enjoy cinnamon-flavored oatmeal. (He is too parsimonious to buy an extra box of oatmeal.) Now, due to Mrs. Culver’s error, he discovers that he does enjoy cinnamon oatmeal!
This is the library I envision.
In the morning, as I await my bus to New Paltz, the cold sometimes forces me into the ATM shelter at the Key Bank. Today three insects were crawling on the inside of the glass door. They were thin green beings, winged, considerably smaller than flies. I watched their progress for a time and gradually deduced that they were trapped in the ATM room. I opened the door to set them free, but they did not escape. So I blew on one. She faltered for a moment, then fled by air.
I blew on the next. She, too, drifted off.
I blew on the third. He was freed.
Then I continued to wait for the bus.
A different version of this essay originally appeared in Ulster magazine.