Sunday, October 12, 2008

Still life without my neighbor, who was playing table tennis in the basement

Yesterday evening I was drinking a beer and reading a book in the driveway when I heard a familiar and, to me, soothing sound coming out of the creased-open windows to my neighbor's basement. Two people were playing table tennis down there and admiring one another's shots (or, for all I know, talking the most savage trash) in Chinese. (My neighbors to that side are both research scientists from mainland China.)

I had my sketch book with me, which has become something of a blankie over two weeks of raw grief, when I have often felt the urge to do something that takes me away from language, because I have not often liked the language in my thoughts since I heard that Sali had been murdered.

Among other series of sketches, I have embarked upon a series of still lifes associated with people (my friend Bradd Young, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce) who are not there. So I started sketching their house. It was an added incentive that my basketball hoop stood between where I was sitting and their basement windows, since my five-year-old daughter had sunk her first two-pointers earlier that afternoon. Sure, she was perched on my shoulder when she launched those shots, but still, they dropped, and they counted.

When I had finished everything but a fragment of the front porch that looked like it might be tricky to capture, one of my neighbors from the other side of the house wandered up my driveway and joined me. We had been owing one another a conversation since he got back from the reservation, so I was glad to see him. He unfolded a second chair and joined me.

His mother is a full-blood Mohican Indian who grew up on a small reservation in Wisconsin. Mark spent the summer living up on the res with his grandparents, who are elderly. I had been wanting to hear about his time up there and his reasons for coming home before we had expected him back. As it turned out, those stories were full of interesting but intimate family details. Out of respect for privacy - and because Mark is an aspiring writer, who will find his own uses for this material - I'll just say they were very typical reservation stories.

Mark and I talked shop about the craft of writing. He mentioned that there is a larger Chippewa (Ojibway) reservation bordering the Stockston-Munsee res where his family lives. This reminded me of the amazing pictographic transcription of an Ojibway shamanic initiation chant that I had found in Picture Writing of the American Indians and used as the basis for a song. (The internet being one it is, you can see this pictographic chant online; start on page 232 of the Google Book page devoted to the volume.) I talked with Mark about Winter Counts and the many other narrative forms innovated by American Indian peoples that had not been explored or exploited fully in fiction. He seemed all lit up at the prospect of exploring these forms.

I sent him home with the book, which was compiled by Garrick Mallery, a fascinating character who deserves his own novel. Mallery was the Philadelphia lawyer son of a Philadelphia lawyer father (also a state legislator who established Pennsylvania's penitentiary system). He served in the union army during the Civil War, rose to the rank of general during Reconstruction and was detailed to the West as a pioneer in the Signal Service Corps (later to become the National Weather Service), where he started stumbling upon American Indian rock art and what would become his most lasting contribution to knowledge.

My city-dwelling friends have learned, from visiting me in the County, that civilization and human diversity do indeed extend west of 170. In fact, I'll be curious to hear if anyone living in the city can beat this spread of diversity, taking into account just their home and the two homes next to them on either side. We have a Chinese couple (with two kids), a black African/white American couple with a mixed kid (that would be us), and a white American/full-blood Mohican couple (with three half-blood kids). What do you all have?

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