The Silence of Mothers
Amid my manuscripts, I notice the approach of a new millennium.
The previous time a thousand years slipped by, Greenland's Lief Ericcson went to Denmark for an education, and returned home converted to Christianity. He successfully converted his mother with the result that a. she built a church, and b. never spoke to him again.
This thousand years later, sitting at my desk in midwinter Ottawa, I remember my own mother, an American. After the shock of her childhood poverty she was a fairly wealthy American, which confused my love for her. My choice of career and natural inclinations left me penniless as soon as I turned the corner to adulthood, so she was in several ways important to me. When she stopped speaking to me it wasn't because I introduced her to Christianity, but simply tried to instill in her a love for the poor, among which I was a serious contender. She was a challenge to please, though easier than my father whose worldly success puzzled me. My father worked for the very wealthy, the famous, the powerful, all who paid him highly to deal with the home space they lived in, and it's hard for me to say anything just about my father's work. As soon as college was over I entered the world on my own.
My parents believed that people in authority were always correct, so during my vulnerable years, they kept voting to send anyone my age off to fight in Vietnam. I escaped through some cleverness and an early devotion to pacifism.
I became intrigued by politics. After thirty-odd years of suffering most of the short ends of sticks invented by the wealthy to control the underclasses, with wife and children I escaped to Canada. Which is how I finds myself in a new country, contemplating a new millennium.
The challenge of a new millennium is like the challenge of migration from one place to another, except through time. What does one do with all the problems of "back there"? How could so much that happened in the past thousand years suddenly be brought to justice? How could all the outdated thoughts and contraptions, the unworkable theories, the over-reaching hopes and unutterable cruelties all slip mindlessly into oblivion simply to accommodate Christian civilization's odd notion that time is divisible into measurable units? Some say civilization as we know it and all the amenities it provides a portion of humanity, might abruptly cease when the digits must mark the new year with a full two thousand. The possibility of a pure moment of chaos when all the mechanisms of electronic controls and the services these support, cease, calms me. A pure moment of anything is hard to find.
Chaos is an old acquaintance, a nod away, the daily challenge of a blank piece of paper awaiting words, or the suffering which precedes any realization, when nothing seems right, when my usual approaches to understanding are insufficient, when tradition and my own experience threaten to bind me in a satchel for storage, when to free myself into insight I slip gradually into questioning everything I ever took for granted point by point until I realize I know nothing, and about to lose myself in a sea of what others do and say and think and feel, I make a desperate lunge to construct something essential from self yet of value to others, until a story like this slowly forms with its own laws and integrities unlike anything else. The sea itself, the sea of humanity, its randomness, its hugeness, its un-encompassability is chaos, and a friend.
My peer, the great Canadian novelist, Franz Boergy(8) who is a professor of Linguistics, is one of the few people I have occasion to speak with in this new land, because I'm continually looking for teaching work. Boergy finds my syntax too American. Boergy conceives of language as innate to humans, a genetically imbedded computer chip, with American grammatical differentiations an expensive impediment to the development of a universal grammar.
He refuses to offer me a job, sensing a degree of rebelliousness which historically one might expect from an American. "You see," Boergy says after I present my perspective on chaos as a friendly force, "you confuse the human nature of others with your own. Without controls what is to protect us from the lawless? From anarchy? Rebellion? From mob rule and soldiers entering our houses ?" I shift uncomfortably in my chair.
"Anarchy," Boergy continues, "is like a playing field with no rules except for those made by any well knit team with an objective. In chaos, the natural balance of society apparently doesn't function, due to individual self-concern, so the majority falls prey to the interests of a few."
"But," I say, "it's because the majority is often wrong, that a lack of controls offers anything to fear. What you fear in anarchy is simply justice, and its periods of inconvenience."
Boergy laughs happily. "Justice is the business of courts, law and the police. Those are relatively evolved institutions, while as people, we are as often as not, primitives."
My secret fear at the arrival of the new millennium is that with any food shortages or possibility of "civil unrest" all the emergency powers acts in North America will be applied and the rights of humankind will go down the rabbit hole. Emergency Powers acts inevitably allow the detention of anyone who might not agree with current authorities, and manage to round up mild-mannered intellectuals and free-thinkers if only to break our glasses. Since for thirty years I've lived on the wrong side of the political coin in my birth country, subjected to those hassles which attend the dispossessed, I am never entirely free from a fear of sudden arbitrary arrest for no reason other than my concern for fellow human beings.
While others prepare for the year 2000 by stocking emergency food supplies, water filters, an extra stick of wood or two for the fireplace or stove, I realize the irony of preparing my family to survive an emergency which might have other plans for me. I have anxiety dreams of an army of the poets who have won no prizes, teaching assistants who have taught the truth, minor officials who have spoken too frankly, innocent husbands with attractive wives, all in greatcoats, feet bound with rags, crouched around fires by tents in the local stadium while department heads and bureau chiefs, the masters of a tradition of literature that asks no questions, all deal with chaos in the most civilized manner by dropping by the homes of the less fortunate to see that their wives are managing.
"Well," I say, "I can't see the chance of anarchy if we all stick together."
"Mmmm," Boergy says. "Have you thought of applying to teach in Japan ? - No, no, just kidding."
Humourless, I am remembering Lief's Mother, her thousand years of silence, as if all she left unsaid, could not say to her son, is what's troubling my own awareness a millennium later. A huge wheel of years carrying a grain of her sand had made its evolution to mesh the gears of a giant watchmaker god, with his "now." What had she been forced to sacrifice? Or was it that in accepting Christianity, she lost everything she ever held sacred or had hoped her son would bear into the future ? Was her silence saying that suddenly without the history which mothers bear, she had nothing to say to him, no sustenance to give him from the traditions of her family, the life she once knew which brought generation after generation of sons into the world. In replacing the old traditions did christianity mean her death?
Or did she cease to speak, knowing she couldn't reason with this new religion that claimed to love but found god in a male, and ruthlessly erased all traces of religions it supplanted, re-forming all knowledge so that time itself began with the birth of Christ ? And as a reward for this betrayal of the past, were her people then allowed knowledge of the New World, so that the grey mountains and uncharted shores in the mist Lief found as he neared Greenland on the voyage home, might offer them all the lumber they didn't have? So at that millennium, for her people, all the bounty that the next one thousand years would bring, the riches of the new world beyond their own harvesting, seemed bought at the high expense of their gods, their ancestors, their heritage, their totems, their household gods, the magic inherent in their knowledge of nature, the seas, of magic itself ?
What I am thinking is that Lief's mom was like my own. It was a long way from poverty to affluence, from fear to not worrying, and how could I guess as a child the cost of her compromise, the loneliness of the rich which she entered defenceless, the degree of pain she felt in saying no to people, the uselessness to her of expensive things she gathered to her as blankets against the cold, so that one day I might not feel the cold so deeply ?
If it is in the silence of mothers that answers are found, now as the year 2000 approaches, I look for the silences and what they hide. I don't want to betray all that brought me into the world, in hopes of a new salvation buying my soul with promises of a new world order.
If technology takes power from the people and places it in the hands of an increasingly small elite, what defence does humanity have ? By breathing into computers an innate confusion about time at the arrival of the millennium,
the earliest computer programmers must have been trying to breathe compassion into the machinery we rely on, to return each of us to ourselves, presenting all societies with the possibility of failure in geometric progression of inter-reliant systems.
I keep asking the mother of all silences -"Will we continue as we have before?" But her silence says, "You'll find the answer in your own heart."
The moment of midnight, the first instant of the year two thousand, will find me listening for the small voice in this north american wilderness of ourselves.
table of contents
gerald and maas night's lantern
arguments with the thought police
copyright © 2002 john bart gerald
drawings copyright © 2002 julie maas