Wednesday, March 16, 2005

How Not to Be Yourself, in 3 Easy Steps

Hey everyone. It’s been a challenge for me to put words to things lately.

Salvador comes to me in my dreams. When I dream I’m back there, it is always unreal, always quite the same, a city teetering on the crests of hills, with twisting streets leading to coloured churchyards above the sea, crumbling doorways opening onto strange, half-grasped histories, and me unsure about my purpose there: Shouldn’t I be in Canada? How long is my trip? What am I supposed to be doing? I’ve had these dreams, off and on, for years now, and I navigate that phantom city with the same familiarity as I felt back in the real Brazil this year – but today was the first time I ever remembered my dream version of Salvador in waking life.

This month I’ve started painting a series of the colonial ruins that have trees growing behind their empty windows. Buildings like these are scattered all over the city, behind apartment blocks and above thoroughfares, and before sunrise this morning I filled myself with water so I could scout some out in a new stretch of town. One cobblestone road, snaking up the cliff-side, looked safer than expected in the morning light: farther up, where it ducks under the huge freestanding elevator that joins the cliff-top and cliff-bottom sections of downtown, the view over the bay is spectacular, but enjoyed only by cankered prostitutes serving the lowest of the low in run-down bars. And yet, the base of the road was full of parked middle-class hatchbacks – which I took as a good sign as I nosed my way forward. The rock retaining wall against the mountain was lush with ferns, and directly above that rose a majestic tan structure, a revelation to me. Three tiers of blank windows, foreshortened high above, old scrollwork clinging wherever the walls weren’t corroded back to naked brick, and everywhere vines and leaves and flowers, inside and out. I slowly stepped around a sleeping street-girl to follow a second cobblestone ramp that zigged back up past the building, and while I watched the shifting angles of sky through crumpled arches, the branches overhead grew thicker, and the strangler vines grew more tangled, until I was standing in front of a great tree-lined waterfall at the very heart of the city, a stone’s throw away from the crowded reclaimed tourist squares up top, in a place I’d never seen or imagined might exist.

A black man, about my age, was watching me as he washed his clothes in the pool. We were alone except for the street-girl, and he told me it was dangerous there. I was carrying a backpack of painting supplies, a plastic stool and ten bucks to get me home. I poked my head around one last corner, and said it was a shame that the most beautiful places had to be the most dangerous. As I turned back down the hill, he stepped closer and asked for a buck to get something to eat. Normally I tell people I “don’t have the conditions” to help, which has the virtue of being simultaneously vague, firm, and a good street-wise expression that shows I actually know the language. This time, I didn’t want to leave the guy in any doubt – I lied and said all I had were my paints. He then asked me what time it was, I said I didn’t have a watch, and he asked what the cell-phone shaped bulge was in my pocket. I frowned and slipped it out just enough to read the time. He asked to hold it. I said I wasn’t asking to hold his stuff, and by this time I was at the hatchbacks again, and he backed away, back up to his waterfall.
I sketched from that point of relative safety for the rest of the morning, getting to know the locals as they passed by. I’m coming to understand the fearsome, transformative power in my paintings – people approach me with evil in their eyes, but break into a smile the second they see the art I make. The guy came down and paid me another visit about an hour later, this time with a few scarred, tattooed friends. Out came my latest work, and suddenly one of them, Fábio, was saying, “Damn man, you gotta be fucking intelligent. That’s a gift. Draw my son for me.” And drawing sons is easy. A homeless man named Oliveira lit up when he saw what I was doing, and I flipped back to more finished pieces for him too – and he looked at me, and mumbled, “I’m unreal. You see me, but you don’t see me.” And I talked with him, and he said he lives “in the air.” I said our true home is heaven, the sky, but he shook his head and said heaven is only for God and the angels, that Jesus created a determined spot where men can be with Him, and it’s called Jerusalem. Before I could figure out how I should help, the parking attendant, Valter, came and told him to quit bothering me, and Oliveira looked beseeching as he was hurried away. A middle-aged woman, Sandra, came over from the nearby bar where she works and asked to be drawn, and I said okay. I sat down inside at a metal folding table and sketched her in pen, and she laughed and said I made her look like a man. A light rain started to fall, and while I waited it out, I drew the woman behind the bar too – and Derivalda said the same thing, I made her look like a man, and I apologized profusely. She smiled and said it was fine, that I just didn’t understand what was happening. …What? What was happening? She asked what I knew about Candomblé, the African religion here. I said, “Only a little.” She indulged me and said everybody has a bit of man in them, that it was the “Indian” – a male spirit who can descend and manifest himself in women – that I’d seen and drawn. I’ve seen the Indian take over women’s spirits here, and make them talk in a croaking voice and smoke a pipe, but I do not know what the experience is from within. Derivalda is a kind woman, and instead of putting a wall between us, she simply said, “Sleep on it, and you’ll understand.”

And so I’m told to return to my dream Brazil to understand this place. Everyone who comes here is confronted, at some point, by the unreality of the waking Salvador, as if, just here, just this once, our dream life might be the more true of the two – and the tension is palpable. Maryam, a Swiss psychology student living at my house, says she feels like the whole place suffers from a psychological disorder. She met a student from Côte d’Ivoire yesterday who tried to explain the feeling by claiming the city clings to an Africa that doesn’t exist. And if the prism I see the world through is writing, then I’m reminded of the first Portuguese story I read about this town, way back in 2001. Jorge Amado was Salvador’s great populist writer, a ribald communist whose novella Quincas Berra d’Agua detailed the death of the title character, an erstwhile accountant who one day without warning flew the coop, merrily landing among the whores, voodoo herbs and lowlifes on those cobblestone ramps. When his upper-crust family hears he’s died, they snatch his body back to lie in state, as if his humiliating fall had never happened. But! His drinking buddies come to pay their respects, and they suddenly see it’s all one big joke – he’s pretending to be dead, just for kicks, and they grab his limp grinning body and go out for a night on the town. This is the mental juggling that the dream-Salvador celebrates in its inhabitants: to be happy, they’re asked to believe people can be living and dead all at once, and that in degenerate, rum-soaked death they might be more alive than others were (are? or will be?) in life.

1. Through a trick of grammar, even the language here tells you that you aren’t yourself. The Portuguese for “It’s not me who understands” is “Não sou eu que entendo”: in other words, any time you want to say “It’s not me,” you have to say “Não sou eu,” or literally “I am not myself.” The effect that this construction must have on the nation’s collective psyche … it boggles the mind. (Conversely, when someone calls asking for Nathan, and you want to say “Speaking,” you have to say “Sou eu,” or literally “I _am_ myself.” Which would be reassuring if these constant mixed messages didn’t give you such a headache right between your eyes.)

My parents came to visit me here for my first two weeks in January, while my head was even more aswim. They wanted to find out what their son’s other life was like – I showed them all over the city, they declared the trip a success, and I think reconfirmed their desire not to have any more kids. One evening on our way back from night-swimming at the local beach, they were walking so far ahead I had to call them back to join the group: Aneri, who’s the head of the household where I live and a leading light in the Brazilian Bahá’í community (earning her the overlong title of “Auxiliary Board Member”), had noticed some piles of ribbons and hard-boiled eggs that I wanted my parents to see. The hill we live on is surrounded on three sides by the sea, and on top of it stand a beautiful old church built by slaves and a Franciscan hospital fronted by manicured gardens and high, spiky gates. It is one of the most sacred points of land in the city, holy to Catholics and believers in Candomblé alike – and one of the latter had left an offering outside the hospital gates, which Aneri was busy interpreting. On the left, at the intersection between two of the walls surrounding the hospital, lay a scattering of sugarcane shavings and plastic bags in the outline of a human being, with a dead black chicken deposited at the head. A black chicken means death, but then Aneri noticed the glass in one of the effigy’s hands, and she realized it must have been made on behalf of an alcoholic interned behind the hospital gates. To the right, at the roots of a tree, lay clay plates and a shapeless heap of red ribbons and roses, with white popcorn and eggs – colours directing the supplication specifically to Iansã, the Lady of Storms, who was no doubt the ruler of the alcoholic’s head, and with whom he needed to make peace to hope to be healed. My parents shook their heads, saying when they’d walked by, they’d wondered why people would dump trash so carelessly in such a beautiful place – and were amazed at how the meaning of their surroundings could shift from under them so utterly, and so fast. Candomblé offerings are called ebós, after the Yoruba word shipped in hundreds of years ago from Nigeria, spoken today by believers all down the hillside to the sea. By morning, the Franciscans had made sure no trace was left of their blasphemous gifts.

2. Time is out of joint. After my parents left, I spent the month of February finishing the script to my comic, and, necessarily, drifting down to the ocean to doubt whether I shouldn’t be doing something else with myself instead. From the loopholes in the whitewashed walls of the 17th-century fort above the beach, you look down on girls in scanty bikinis and skin in countless casual shades of brown, who in turn look down with frank interest on believers casting flowers into the waves for Iemanjá, Lady of the Sea. The business district spreading out from the base of the cliff downtown must have been an elegant Europhile dream at the turn of the last century, but the city of five million seething miseries that ballooned out around it has orphaned the delicate rococo-looking centre, and until very recently I’d seen it as a purely sinister place, block after block of cement eagle ornaments, peeling paint and caved-in roofs, by day usurped by bankers and reclaimed by crack fiends at night. But when I sketched at the base of the cobblestone ramp leading up the cliff, I heard 1930s jazz coming from a record store at a lively street corner there, and it seemed so in tune with its surroundings, making such hopeful sense of the passage of time, that I felt the shopkeeper at least must be a happy man. On every grassy slope from the downtown core to the beach near my home, horses and goats are tethered in the evening light – and while it can’t be said on good conscience that any place has been frozen in the past, Salvador does give you the impression that you yourself have been slowed down, so that the past has caught up with you instead.

A few years ago, Aneri dreamt she was walking down to a river, perhaps the one where her family caught fish and fresh-water shrimp to sell by a country road when she was a child. An immense serpent ordered her to look into the water, and at the bottom she saw a pile of cracked clay ebó plates. When the serpent told her she had to wash them, she woke up shaken. Her dad had been a Candomblé priest – a Father of the Saints – and among her first memories were the week-long live-in cures that he performed for the community. Life takes strange turns, though, and in Brazil, where everyone from the president’s father on down runs off to start new families, the strange turn is very often a broken home. Aneri’s dad left home with a young woman who had been training as his acolyte, and suddenly Aneri’s life, which had been one of a 12-year-old girl who was terrorized at school for her shabby clothes and who spent her time at home slipping from the clutches of a boarder who’d killed his wife, turned truly nightmarish: the mother went after their vagabond dad, and they all ended up coming to the big city to squat in the same house with his girlfriend and mom. Aneri’s mother grew steadily more violent with her children, sending the girls off to keep house in unsafe homes and trying to abandon Aneri to her own devices. The only reason Aneri didn’t end up doing away with herself in the midst of it all was because on she looked up and saw a strange word – Bahá’í – written on a building by a well she was about to throw herself down, and she went inside. Aneri became a leader, founding daycares for single working mothers in the slums, receiving awards from the city, and helping communities the length and breadth of the dry Brazilian northwest on what strength of character I can barely begin to fathom … and her dad, who she says was a smart man, who had a backlander’s benighted moral sense but encouraged her to read (just as she says she never stopped loving her mother, who’s come to suffer great remorse for the way she treated her kids in those dark days), drifted away from his calling as a Father of the Saints, and died some years ago without having prepared his passing over. When the serpent told Aneri to wash the plates on the river bottom, she understood it wanted her to perform the rites her father had left undone, and so put his soul at ease. She hasn’t had much time, what with running herself ragged for the Bahá’í Faith, but at the back of her head it preoccupies her. The few times she’s brought the subject up with Fathers or Mothers of the Saints, they’ve either told her a family member would die every year until the rituals were performed, or backed away from the awesome energy they sensed inside her.

3. The omnipresent Atlantic Ocean disconnects you from yourself. On your first day plunging back into the high waves – which are home to surfer boys in Salvador and further north, and whose first downswell you wait for expectantly, to be pushed and lifted and drawn under in slaphappy union with the water – the sea gives you a blistering sun burn and a gift. In 2003 it was the sight of flying fish jumping across the face of a rolling wall of water; now in 2005 it was local kids clasping ink-black sea turtle hatchlings in their hands. On cloudy days, the ripples are an opaque slate grey, but when the sun slips out, the chin-level water all around you comes to blinding life, each oncoming wave is suddenly translucent through to the blue sky beyond, and bright white blazes dance across its surface. If you look down into that living sunlit water, your body is in a different world from your head, bathed in swirls of bubbles and with schools of fish glinting between your feet.

On my first trip to Brazil in 2001, I came nursing a hope that the country would promptly descend into civil unrest, so I could launch a ripping career as a war correspondent. It took me one night of terror, when I mistook saint’s-day firecrackers for approaching machine-gun fire, for me to repent of ever wishing civil unrest on anyone at all. Civil unrest is _awful_. It was high time that overeager university graduate learned his lesson, and I was happy to put the past behind me. In a funny way, though, I repeated the same pattern this time around, on a more intimate scale. In 2003, when Aneri divorced her husband of 24 years, she gave up their house and moved to a new neighbourhood she hadn’t help build from the ground up, since the days of young families throwing up the first cardboard shacks. Soon after the separation, she invited me to stay at her house for a month because I was in Brazil and doing very, very poorly, and in that condition it was godsend for me to discover I could offer that giant of a woman some small support in return – I was a Bahá’í just fringe enough, and just intelligent enough, for her to feel she could be herself around. I was immediately welcome back at her home this time, but I found out she was successfully building a new support network – and I secretly wished it would fall apart, just a bit, so I could continue to feel useful, instead of just a kind indulgence. I childishly wished an unhappy turn on someone I care for, out of my own selfish needs, and this time the events gave me what I asked for. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, I find myself with a role to play in her life today. Now – I get to see how Herculean is this vain heart of mine.

Aneri is brilliant, which means she uses deep thought to make sense of this mixed-up, inverted world. She is a committed Bahá’í, meaning she uses prayer and meditation to the same end. Finally, she is entirely self-taught in the city of Salvador – which means she uses auras, chakras, and bead readings to further strengthen her actions. Ever since Haiti, I’ve worked hard at developing a personality that functions in both exalted academia and the surging, numinous sea that lies just outside its doors. I have faith I can live in both places through writing – it is _my_ order-out-of-chaos. When the world becomes a blur to me, my eyes go distant over half-eaten food, and I bite my tongue … and the words come. This much has become this clear to me, and now it’s yours.

As if my chest had been a cannon, I burst my hot heart’s shell upon you,


P.S. A fourth step toward not being yourself, for advanced students: you’re not a writer. Get off it already. There was a big spread in the paper about the region’s next great literary hope, a writer from the interior who’s winning awards left and right, but is apparently still selling flour cookies in buses to fund his work. I started reading the interview with interest, to see what a real, genuine Brazilian might have to say about all this – and it was all, “I’m exploring the unplumbed plasticity of the language” and crap like that. It sounded like his freeform pieces were next to incomprehensible, and I lost the paper somewhere, so I can’t even give you the guy’s name. What the heck kind of company is that, I ask you. I’d rather turn to sexy Sufi wisdom to understand this place, like in the Seven Valleys, where it says, "At every moment he findeth a weighty
matter, in every hour he becometh aware of a mystery". Next time: Aneri and I solve everyone’s problems on the cobblestone ramp with all the addicts and prostitutes. Seriously.


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