A monk toiled away for decades in isolation in an ice-bound Himalayan monastery, shivering through the mountain seasons in threadbare blankets and thin orange robes. He was allowed only small bits of boiled vegetables with cold rice every day year upon year, this to sustain his body’s basic needs while devoting his entire mind to his assigned studies of the higher planes of existence. He was instructed by his abbot that his only task in this life was to search for the infinite source of all knowledge.
The monk bore down with his considerable intellect and his solidity of purpose until one day he finally felt the end coming, a light was glowing in the darkness of his existence, and sure enough as he woke from his night’s sleep, he suddenly felt that his life was complete, and that he knew everything.
He ran from his chilled cell into the stony echoing corridors of the sacred complex, and was sprinting down the abbey’s central hall toward his master’s quarters when he chanced upon another monk, and slid to a halt just in front of him, breathless from both his knowledge and the run he was making to impart that revelation. The other monk also stopped, looked into the enlightened philosopher’s eyes and said: “Hey aren’t you the guy who knows everything?”
* * *
I do not, and perfectly well realize that I cannot, know everything. Though I often find myself scruffing about in what might pass for a personal way of life, looking to find the grander scope of existence, the more encompassing worldview that will allow me to dwell on this planet among these people in greater harmony. This could possibly be listed on my federal census forms as a religion, if I could only find a decent label for the process. Possibly Pragmatic Deist?
My friend Corazon Accuardito, owner of the XXX Botanica and avowed commercial hoodoo entrepreneur, has often told me that he loves many aspects of the culturally-morphed Catholic faith in New Orleans, especially Lent, that season of denial and repentance introduced annually by Carnival. He uses forgiveness in many of his own functions as traiteur, or spiritual healer, to the masses who are too embarrassed to tell their failings to the family priest. He will let those who feel the need unburden their souls to a sympathetic listener. Felix himself. He lets it be known that he is a much easier confessor than the Roman-collared variety, and if the guilty party brings him a chicken or a fragrant bundle of dried sage leaves or a bag of ripe tomatoes, Felix will always advise a very light sentence of prayer -- and the discounted purchase of an additional Uncrossing Candle.
Again, he doesn’t claim to know everything, but will listen to it.
I cued to this remembrance passing St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. I was in a hurry to get home to the Faubourg Marigny, on my way back from a last regrettable stop at the bank. So I was not happy to have to take a number of extra steps to walk around the enormous tarot card reader who aggressively hawked his psychic wares on the Square, calling himself Hubba Bubba -- for that was indeed the name inscribed on his sign -- and his sidewalk fortune-telling salon. He, I can tell, is unaware of any irony in his nom travaillant, his working name for the tourist trade, which he is plying as I pass.
“A single, very basic place, has always held significance for you,” he hisses directly at me through a handful of chubby fingers, each digit resembling three plump links of tied sausages. Mr Bubba’s vast clairvoyant derrière temporarily overwhelms his steel folding chair. The device beneath him creaks ominously as he speaks. He is not talking to me, and yet he is. He has deemed me touristic, and therefore of monetary value.
“It was, my kind friend, a place so normal and unremarkable that it would not even be noticed by others, but it was important to you as a child, and remains so still.”
That is all I hear him say. I walk a few steps further, then forget whether I meant to continue. It is unimportant of a sudden.
I look up. The sun is bright on my face. I squint. I remember. It is another of those moments that lately clear my perception, and I have learned to be open to them.
Real knowledge comes hard no matter your location, whether you stand in the windy Himalayas or upon the beer-soaked flagstones of the Vieux Carré. And I recognize now as a grown man that finding the complex and various sources of truth and human value is a life-long struggle.
Things were simpler on Boeuf Trace, the rural neighborhood in which I was reared, than they are in the multifarious machinations of urban New Orleans. My neighbor and friend Paul took accordion lessons. His was an unique honor in the Cajun value systems of his doting parents -- learning the squeezebox was their cultural equivalent to studying concert piano. My other buddy, T Joe (“Tee”, “Petit”, ”Little” Joe), named after a popular TV character of the day -- ironically, he was to weigh over two hundred pounds at age eleven -- slept in a used Greyhound bus shell that his father, a mechanic, had purchased to relieve the overcrowding in their tiny brick house, and had parked permanently in their back yard.
I envied him that bus. I was jealous of his sole possession of a bedroom that had traveled the whole country. When we played there, we always spent part of our time inspecting crevasses in the floor and frame, looking for clues to the people who had ridden to their destinies in the very place where Joe now slept. If we found anything good, like coins or baggage checks or travel brochures, T Joe got to keep them, but I did not begrudge him his treasure or his hide-out. We were forced to attend to the superficialities of French Catholicism in school and at Sunday mass, but we thought of ourselves only as wild boys, and reveled in it.
There was a class society among kids of the Trace who frequented the clearings of the overgrown field where we gathered, mostly based on age. It was there that we hid all evidence of our exploration of the sinful territories: half a pack of unfiltered Camels I had purchased at double price from a pock-marked Fort Polk army recruit, a muddied girlie magazine Paul found discarded on the banks of Bayou Robert, a single unopened can of beer T Joe had liberated from the family fridge after his father’s Saturday night beer consumption had passed the point of accurate census.
There was also a dictionary. We had surreptitiously removed the Webster’s Collegiate from the school waste bin after our own teacher had opened it, gasped, and thrown it out. Someone in a previous generation of fifth graders had meticulously gone through the entire volume using a red fountain pen to color the sexual organs of what were purportedly depictions of the Greek gods and goddesses. We understood the rules: their nudity was excused by the fact that each of the deities’ feet were pictured as imbedded in a Doric plinth. Naked statues could be viewed without the immediate incursion of sin. Though our teacher felt that there was a serious question if their organs were painted red.
We weren’t unanimous on why the vandalized book was valuable to our life’s education. The black and white line drawings weren’t sexy. We figured that out right away. I always thought it was simply the determined completeness of the rebellion, the perpetrator taking the time to create an intricate scarlet flood that colored the divine gamut, from Aphrodite to Zeus. There was power in concentration of effort.
We also practiced cursing. In the isolation of our sanctuary no one could hear our foul mouthed training, or if they could, they could not accurately determine the origins of the profanity. The tall grass secured us from offendable ears as we trained to be formidable providers of insult. However, in this altogether admirable endeavor, my friends’ Cajun accents hindered my own proper development.
Case in point, from ages eight until twelve, I called my enemies “Bostons”, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was so bad about the town in Massachusetts. But the vehemence with which Paul delivered the word convinced me it must be pretty bad. It was only on entering high school that I was to find that the word I had been instructed to use as an ultimate insult was, in fact, “bastards”. Though I felt some relief at the knowledge, I was still puzzled over what made that term so dreadful. By then, I thought the town had so much more evil potential.
To their credit, T Joe and Paul also tried to teach me the more potent vilifications of their own language, mostly exclamations they had picked up from their parent’s occasional stubbed toe or marital strife. But unfortunately, the two Cajun boys suffered as I did, knowing the sound and presentation of the word, but having no clue as to its meaning.
Most prominent in this collection was a much respected curse, a single word (I think) which I can still only spell phonetically, since after these decades of research and use no one has been able to tell me what the true French word is, much less what it means. I remember it most clearly, as its introduction into my vocabulary was framed in a formal lesson by both Paul and T Joe.
The three of us stood in a triangle in the clearing. I was staring at Paul’s hand, which was held chest high with all five fingertips pressed together, thumb inward. T Joe stood to the side, nodding his approval of the hand position.
“Now come on, Jim,” Paul encouraged, as he moved my own hand up. I relished the way he pronounced my name Zheem. “Get it right up dere. Dass it. Now hole it steady, an when you says dat word, you push em down wit a snaps, pull dat tumb out an quick point at dem bad guy toe.
“T Joe, you be Jim bad guy.”
“Oui, Paully.” Joe moved into position, balling his fists, scowling, and bringing his substantial weight to bear in looking threatening. He succeeded admirably. I was intimidated, even though I knew this was my friend.
“OK, Jim, now you give it to em. You give him dat word.”
I steadied my stance, inspected my hand to make sure it was at the correct starting point, and then stared back into Joe’s eyes. As hard as my eighty-five pounds allowed. I was determined to out-mean him. I growled as a preface, then began the downward hand movement the same instant I mouthed the word.
“Sock-ay-TAHHHRRR!” I cursed.
“Hoo boy, dassum serious cussin, Jim! Dassum good stuff. Give it to em agin!”
“Sock-ay-TAHHHRRRRrrr!” I yelled.
T Joe did his part by looking properly repentant and backing off, chin down. Then he stopped, looked up, and broke into a wide grin.
“You got em, Jimboy,” he said.
Thus was I certified into the school of profanity. I knew everything about the subject, with the exception of a word whose meaning I would never discover.
In spite of our intense study of such adult matter, all of us emerged from our senior year of high school happily naive and inexperienced, in normal developmental terms. We knew nothing.
We were resilient, growing children, and quickly assigned bad memories to the bubbling dark cauldron where all boogey men are finally boiled down over time into a bland, tasteless porridge of purposely forgotten experience. But by age eighteen, we had begun to resent reminders of death, in any form.
The lessons of youth are not so painlessly assimilated by adults. I know that now. T Joe became an advertising mogul, Paul an anesthesiologist. I take pictures.
Back in Jackson Square, I find that I am grinding my teeth. The spherical tarot card reader is only a few paces away, and beckoning me toward his shoddy card table. A couple of Japanese tourists are trying to decide if I am worthy of a snapshot. I lower my chin. My face stings to the touch, and I realize I have a minor sunburn. I must have been standing still for some time.
With a shake of my head to partially clear the muddle, I continue on my way.
It is late summer, and I have promised myself to lay some winter plants into soil this afternoon, get my back yard looking less like a toxic waste dump.
The quick rhythm of my pace lets me continue to think about the dose of recollection I’d just swallowed. I hadn’t really dwelled on my days on the Trace in decades. Not since forced service in the US military finally and completely cut off any access to childhood. I am not sure why it has come to the surface just now, this memory, though I figure that my mind was in a highly suggestible state, what with the fast pace, the summer heat and the sight of the Cathedral. All that. There are dozens of possible connections.
Hubba Bubba’s unwanted intrusion into my conscious thoughts had opened my eyes, though simultaneously clouding my vision. I consider this brand of random, obscure revelation a defining characteristic of any experience deemed “religious”.
A wide expanse of muddle is available to the faithful. And even the unfaithful. Who will continue to want to know everything, but will sooner or later be forced to realize that their version of everything continues to grow. In both the past and present.
And on that paradoxical note I would like to bring this discussion full-circle with another Zen tale, this time from Groucho Marx who confronted a contestant a half-century ago on his great show “You Bet Your Life”:
CONTESTANT: I’ve been married for thirty-one years to the same man.
GROUCHO: If he’s been married for thirty-one years, he’s not the same man.
It is possible that Groucho knew everything.