Glorious strangeness

The line that caught me was, “street kids with shirts the color of car pollution.”

I was listening to the NPR program, Travel with Rick Steves, and he was interviewing NPR commentator Steve Inskeep about his new book, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi. G and I were headed for Chipotle; it was one of those blessed captive audience moments. While the pairing of “blessed” and “captive” might initially seem a contradiction of terms, it describes the sense of momentary relief I feel when everyone is strapped down in the car; all there is to do is get where we’re going. I am driving, and driving has always been a happy place for me. I take my turns fast; I get in a zone.

It was Sunday, and the day was disordered and beyond our control from the get-go. Didn’t make it to church. Tried. Failed. Breakfast was late, and emotional states ranged from depressed, crabby, and melancholy to sleepy, edgy, and manic. No matter what we did, things felt disconnected and fragmented. G and I had been sent off to Chipotle because John and Jonah had gotten knee-deep in pirate making, after spending the afternoon sorting through boxes in the garage in order to make room for a table we needed to store there. The making is what seemed to pull us all out of the water and get us moving in the same general direction. I was thinking about the act of making and the posture of letting go it requires when I heard Steve Inskeep describe the practice of releasing birds, common in third world countries.

They’re selling birds. They’ve got little nets with little birds in them…and they’re selling them to drivers. And it’s a kind of religious tradition—although I heard a variety of meanings and opinions ascribed to it—but essentially, if a person is driving through traffic and is having a miserable day, or is having a miserable life, and wants perhaps to ease their mind or gain the favor of God, they’ll roll down the window…and buy a bird. The boy with the pollution colored clothes will sell you the bird, take it out of its cage, put it in your hands, and you release it. You set it free. So you almost pay a ransom to free this bird, and by that good deed, somehow, improve your own life…

I myself, decided one day to do this. And I stopped by the side of the road and talked with a young man, and he sold me four birds for a hundred Pakistani rupees, which is a little more than a dollar…and he placed them in my hand one by one. And I let them go. I don’t think he was impressed with my style. He’d just put them in my hand and they’d bounce off my hand like they were bouncing off a diving board and they’d fly away…The last of those four birds settled down on my palm as if it did not know that it was free. And I waited a moment, and finally I just moved my hand a little, and the bird flapped its wings and flew off into a darkening sky. Moments like that brought home the quirkiness, the faithfulness, the creativity, the culture, the perseverance, and just the glorious strangeness of another place where some of my fellow human beings live.

Imagining that act and all of its implications gathered the day around me, fragmentary as it was. So often around here, we live in the presence of that “glorious strangeness” he describes—“of another place where some of my fellow human beings live.” He was talking literally, physically. And I guess I am too, but I’m also thinking about habitats of the mind—how they work, where they dwell. Yes, I’m talking about Jonah. His literalness borders on the unearthly, if that make any sense. I’m heading toward a place where I don’t want so much to figure him out as I just want to (and need to—for his sake and for my own) enjoy his particular strain of glorious strangeness. John may have constructed aforementioned pirate out of curtain rods, martin house parts, and a seldom used oil funnel, but Jonah was the one who saw in that collection a pirate in the making.


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