Monday, October 28, 2013

Lares and Penates

For a non-religious person, you have quite a few symbols about your small living quarters that could lead the observer to think otherwise, starting with the seven-branched menorah  candelabrum roosting on the kitchen window adjacent the persimmon tree.

What about the two Hopi kachina, depending from the wall?  They represent spirit messengers who perform in rituals necessary to keep the universe running as it ought.  And what about the bronze casting of Kali, no less than the Mother of the Universe, right up there in the Hindu panoply before the Reality, which is to say Brahman?  There is also a representation of a Navajo woman who is likely Na ashje'ii Asdzaa, or Spider Woman, who counts big time in Navajo creation myths as the one who brought and taught weaving to The People.

You walk into the main room and you are immersed in it:  more kachinas, a Haida or Kwakiutl raven, two--count 'em, two--representations of Ganesha,and back to the Navajo again with a carving that may well be one of the Hero Twins.

Tucked away in a drawer of your mother's Queen Anne secretary is a rosary given you as a gift by a nun whose civilian name was Phoebe Nixon, who at one time was the Queen of the Cotillion at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and who made the mistake of attending a lecture by a strikingly handsome Bengali swami whose monastic name was Prabhavananda.  The beads of this rosary came, as indeed all Hindu rosary beads come, from a large evergreen tree called a rudrashka.  The rosary is used to recite the mantra given the initiate, a portion of the process of meditation by which the initiate's goal is to recognize and identify with his or her Atman, which the Hindu would translate as the true self and which a Christian might recognize as the soul.

All these things have some significance for this non-religious person, many of them pure sentiment or respect for tradition rather than any sense of sacredness or holiness, whatever those qualities may mean.  

In a larger sense yet, the rooms of your place are filled with what ancient Romans have called lares and penates, various types of household gods, items which, in early ventures into anthropology, you learned were called fetishes, things that represent things, in recognition of some form or other of cosmology.

Interested as you were in creation myths of numerous cultures from an early age (as in, "Hey, Mom, did you know that nearly every creation myth has a flood in it?"), you have come over the years to recognize you were assembling a collection of sacred and holy objects, some of which might, indeed, have been sacred and holy to others, others of which have about them a sacredness and holiness of a decided secular nature.

For instance.  Well, your mother and Mary Conrad, the wife of your oldest and dearest friend, had little in common, although you think they'd have got on well.  You have from each of them, in the kitchen, a slotted spoon, which each assured you you could not be without if you had any thought whatsoever to maintain any kind of kitchen.  "A slotted spoon,"  your mother said,"allows you to lift things from a stock or broth without the pesky need to stop and blot or drain."

Mary Conrad, who once said of an acquaintance, "She cannot keep help.  Sooner or later, they all quit her." has said of the same person, she not only does not have one, she can't imagine what one would do with such an instrument."

You have photographs, of course; these are proper household gods.  Jake, your father, feeding ducks.  Enormous power.  A pencil sharpener in the shape of a typewriter, given you how many years back, at least twenty-five, by your students?  Various Indian lizard and animal pottery, a pre-Colombian woman, oil portraits of your two most recent dogs, a tiny photograph of a bluetick hound named Edward Bear, two paintings of F. Scott Fitzgerald by your pal, Barnaby Conrad, a watercolor given you by Henry Miller, an oil impression of San Francisco by a pal from Virginia City, Nan Fowler, books, of course, and Sally's sleeping pad you cannot yet bear to dispose of.  Plus the very library table on which your computer rests as you type this.  A wind-up toy that was a party favor at your place for the last birthday celebration of Barnaby Conrad.  A small statue of Kali, allegedly made from mud taken from the Ganges River but just as well from some deserted beach in China or Orange County.  A Mickey Mouse watch that has long since stopped running.  Your father's pocket watch.  A splendid letter opener made from any number of exotic woods, the gift of a student whose thesis advisor you were.

A battered old metal tin that once held fifty Lucky Strike cigarettes and which now holds odd, useless parts of fountain pens.  A marble with what appears to be a green origami figure embedded within.  A portion of a tooth that could have been yours.  The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.  A number of Big Little Books you used to read before you knew what you wanted to do with your life.

Lares and Penates.

Household gods, all of which are of even more vital importance to you because, when, if, and as they will move on to their new lives, either as trash or household gods for other domiciles, they will have lost the power they have for you and assumed new power and sentimentality for another.

Who would wish the marble or the Esterbrook fountain pens with steel nibs or even the delightful Ancora with the mother-of-pearl panels and the most exquisite nib?  Who would care for a small photo of a cranky bluetick hound named Edward Bear, who taught you what it was to love someone impossible?  The slotted spoons?  Ah, they could go for fifty cents, possibly a dollar, at a sidewalk sale, because their use transcends their hidden powers.

There, you have said it.  Where ever possible, you surround yourself with things you have chosen in order to invest them with powers that will protect you from the awful loneliness of being somewhere without the powers of your own memory and associations and love.  

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