I was looking at the years from 1934, when I was born, to 1986, when it felt, in a more literal than New Age way, like rebirth. As I write now, twenty-two years later, 1986 is still going, and so too is 1934, and, as also with what would come, all time periods take place in the same time.
In 1986 I had not yet heard the version of Exodus by the creative Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, and I was listing myself as an atheist/agnostic whenever I had to commit. Brueggemann spoke of this story of the ancient Israelites’ challenge to slavery as the implementation of an alternative version of reality – alternative to the Pharaoh’s triumphant version which said it was quite right that the Pharaoh be on top, and quite right that the Israelites and most other peoples of the ancient world be slaves.
When I was a draftee in the army in the late fifties I was supposed to wear dog tags, those slabs of metal with your name and number on them that you wear on a neck chain so that when you are dead someone can put one of the slabs between your teeth and violently force your jaws together, the tags tearing into teeth, gums, bones and flesh, to remain there as identity on your body. Mine had the words "no preference," since the army did not allow the words "atheist" and "agnostic" in the place on the tags where you were supposed to have your religion (presumably so the proper holy man could bless the body). I did not wear my dog tags, for my peacetime army experience was such that I could leave them in a dresser drawer in a properly Beat-era basement place where I lived, not on an army post but in the center of Atlanta. This was the peacetime army, and dog tags on dead men seemed less real to me than something I would see in a movie – but then it seemed just as unreal to me a few year later in a bar in wartime Saigon where I was trying to get the attention of the girls but somehow got stuck in conversation with a sad, cramped American army guy who actually had that job of inserting the dog tabs and crushing the jaws together.
Even if I had never done a compulsory class called Sacred Studies in my old fashioned boarding school I would know the Exodus story. Like everyone in the West, I came across it in many places – from modern novels to my time on the ground in Moss Point, Mississippi in 1964 – this story of a people fighting their way to freedom – the central myth in the Western world, though back then you might have thought otherwise from the works of many academics and some very correct poets who favored Greek mythology – or later from seekers who moved to Hindu myths.
Breuggerman’s interpretation – I first heard it in 1993 when things were so changed that I was a student of theology in Boston – this story of how in ancient Egypt the enslaved Israelites hit upon this alternative version of reality that exposed the Pharaoh’s triumphal slave-state version, exposed it as nothing more than clever theater. Any alternative version of reality, really any true-self version of reality, runs against some triumphal version, and so an alternative version is automatically subversive and countercultural. Like what I knew in Moss Point. Soon most Egyptians wanted the Israelites out of there, and the Pharaoh wanted to kill them.
I could not have literally known that this interpretation of Exodus would be at the heart of why I would return to writing. But in 1986, when I had fled a kind of writing that had become so predictable I did not miss it, I was in an exhilarating search for a true version of the reality into which I as born – especially reality in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where there was a triumphal version that I was finding was so important to its propagators that, like the Pharaoh, they would kill to preserve it.
And so all time right now in 1986 is coming to seem like the same time – the violence in this present that seems so rooted in what was in family law the most perfect of all dispensations. Cousin Margaret has just died after an apparent cure, her head swelled up like an oozing, about-to-burst, blue balloon, just after she had said she wanted to die because of what they had done to her. She is the first to fall in this brief time in 1986 that the chickens are coming home to roost.
And as I am apparently drifting in the New England summer I am really putting together an alternative version of reality, and I realize that this is the longest I have ever been free of depression.