Saturday, December 7, 2013
singing them dead
For reasons that escape me, I find myself sitting down to lunch again with Dr. Haddon Alderton today. It is only a memory but it is a memory, like a shot of whiskey, that dulls the confusion and ache and anger of current social concerns.
How tiring and exasperating and helpless-making the rise of dictatorship in my country, as for example the Department of Homeland Security. Memory has a comfort, however false, and I like comfort increasingly.
I met Alderton aboard the Prince Yuri Dolgoruki in 1968, the 50th anniversary of the Glorious Russian Revolution. He was in his late 60's or early 70's and, I suspect, an old-line socialist visiting the Mecca of his philosophies. I was 28 and had decided to take a three-week tour of Russia on a contrarian lark. When the airplane had landed in Moscow several days earlier, my seatmate looked out the window at a sunlit body of water on which sailboats coursed: "So that's the enemy," he commented. And it was indeed a time when the Russians were portrayed as the enemy of the United States. Enemies in sailboats ... was it ever any different?
Alderton came from New Zealand and was a pleasant companion with whom to take meals as we floated down the Volga River. He told his stories with a British diffidence that was not freighted with secrecy. We ate our cabbage-heavy meals and chatted.
When he was a young man, Alderton told me at one point, his girlfriend had dumped him. And what does a man do when his girlfriend dumps him, he asked rhetorically? Alderton went out and got drunk for three weeks. At the end of his bender, he found that the pain had not disappeared, so he got on a boat and traveled to Australia where he bought a horse and rode into the outback all by himself. All by himself.
Once in the vastness that had no edges, he came into contact with a tribe called the Arunta. He lived with them and learned some of their ways. For example, the little twisters of dust that sometimes rose up from the sandy soil were an occasion for one man or another to leap into the middle of the "willy-willy" and bang pots and pans until the evil spirit was dispersed.
And then there was the custom of gathering around in a member's final moments and "singing him/her dead." It was loving. It was gentle. And more than that, it was effective. Alderton told me that in several instances, a man or woman might be afflicted in ways he knew that he, as a doctor, could correct. But if the tribal members gathered around such a person -- even if s/he were not fatally afflicted -- and then sang the songs that bid a loving farewell, then that person would in fact die.
Alderton told many tales over lunch or dinner and in me he had a willing listener. Later I would wonder how many of the tales were true and how many were embellishments of unfilled wishes. As I listened, it didn't much matter, but later, I would do a little research. Yes, the Arunta did exist and they did seem to have a mystical view of things as expressed in "dreamtime." Based on this little research, I decided to believe that singing someone dead was a powerful and credible exercise... a musical example of moving from harmony to harmony. A blessing.
And perhaps that's what entities like the Department of Homeland Security are doing in its soft and insidious and artificial-sweetened way ... singing my country dead. Send in the drones -- take no responsibility.
Or perhaps that is too much hyperbole.
Still, hyperbole or not, I do know that it lacks softness and love and harmony.