lenten season 2020: marriage, pandemic, home ownership. i took advantage of the day-before-lockdown to jog on mostly empty streets. Without meaning to*, I found myself in Tuscaloosa’s overwhelmingly african-american southwest side, and occasionally snapping phone pictures of things that caught my eye: the attractive mid-century modern office attached to a pocket-sized steel mill; a gigantic aloe plant in someone’s front yard; various items of poignant rubbish, the kind of things my eyes always catch on. I say hi to people as I go and they reply in a guarded-friendly way.
i snaked around and across the train tracks and overpasses and six-lane 45 mph thoroughfares and went to publix. some people were plague-shopping and other people were just getting sandwiches. i got a pint of scientifically concocted diet ice cream and sat in the sun while dining. I read news stories on my phone, which were chiefly discussions of whether the president is bad, and if so, how bad, and whether badness matters. i realized during this moment of attenuated consumption that my recent and ongoing conduct was pretty much an exact match with a running gag from Do the Right Thing. The white guy in the celtics jersey, jogging through bed-stuy, talking to people like he knew them.
I am not in the habit of reading poetry and i don’t know much about Rumi, apart from his odd position as an ecstatic devotional poet of Islam who has somehow found this butchered life in translation as a bard of big white feelings – all I know about Rumi, apart from that stuff, derives from a conversation I had maybe two years ago. It was about how people pray in present-day Iran, which is not my normal line of talk, but I was the listener in this case.
The person I was talking to told me about this Rumi poem, which is called “Moses and the Shepherd,” or something like that. In that poem, Moses is doing his God-haunted thing and walking around and he comes across the shepherd in a grove, and overhears him praying in simple, clear, vernacular language, asking God for help. Essentially showing his ass to God, not as a gesture of defiance or insult but because his pants were sliding down a little. And Moses comes rumbling out of whatever thicket and says to the shepherd, Don’t you talk to God like he’s your uncle. And the shepherd isn’t quite sure what to say, but before he can reply, God actually takes up for him and tells Moses to shut up, more or less. I am thinking a lot about what it means to talk, not just to God but to the whole world (which is to say, God, which is to say, you, which is to say […]