A Harvard Divinity School homework assignment for a class taught by Terry Tempest Williams: “Visit the Museum of Natural History. Find an object. Tell a story about beauty and brokenness.”

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The Kronosaurus | Harvard Museum of Natural History

I had a heaven hangover as I wandered these halls last Thursday. A kind of bliss exhaustion from being intellectually overfed all the sweets my mind tooth craves. I arrived at the museum right after a rousing philosophy lecture preached by Brother Cornel West together with his teacher Roberto Unger. Their animated discourse danced around this question: How should I live my life? We were explicitly told that the posited answers would not be positive feel-good stories, that the hopscotch from the IS to the OUGHT is a fallacious game. Professor Unger pointed instead to three basic human “flaws”: first, that we will die; second, that we are groundless and unable to agree upon any established framework of our existence; and finally, that we are insatiable, with an endless appetite for the infinite. Flaws?, I thought, Or fantastic faculties of the looped human song?

Professors Roberto Unger & Cornel West, teaching The Conduct of Life in Western and Eastern Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School.

Master West lassoed around the “stubborn fact” of mortality. Any death-ducking, he said, is a symptom of spiritual immaturity. We are taught that the lesson of Socrates–really, of all Philosophy–is that we must learn how to die in order to learn how to live. Professor West says, “To be obsessed with Veritas is to be obsessed with death.” It requires courage of the greatest order, polyphonic persuasion and dialogue, the jazz of conversation. My class notes: How do we educate our desires? How do we empower our voices to empower others? Hope is as much a verb as it is a virtue. Cultivate yourself, then say, Take this! Be like a James Brown concert… dance till you can’t walk. Give EVERYTHING! The lecture ended with this gem: “There are moments when self-mastery is not a virtue. Self-mastery is not a virtue when falling in love. You have to be OVERWHELMED!

Somehow, my deafening heartthrobs escorted me outside the Langdell lecture hall. Never have I felt so wiped out by gratitude, as if that holy word wasn’t big enough to float me on the sea that just knocked me to my knees. And so I wandered, insatiable for the infinite. I sought refuge here in the museum. I had just been told that our aim in life is to be seen, not viewed, for that indicates the coffin. And then here I was, across the street, deep in a mausoleum. My pretentious New York City self was not expecting much from these halls. I’m working a New Year’s resolution to be less arrogant about my home city and to better embrace the fact that I live here now. I need to practice loving where I live. Still, I am childishly precious about the American Museum of Natural History in Gotham City. How silly, because what happens in any room with bones and creatures and cooled comets cannot be ranked. It is always going to be a startling testament.

Naturally, I was here on assignment, hunting for brokenness and beauty. I ran into a similar overload from the lecture: too much inspiration! Here’s a quick catalogue of my charted course across these halls… The first hit happened around the plastered fetus buried in guts, protected in its claustrophobic vulnerability, a vaginal chokehold just before being flushed into the open, dressed in mother’s germs. It was a diorama on the maternal microbes essential to our survival, delivered to us by our first slippery passage into life. What lingered for me is the way our mothers must necessarily infect us–not just contain us, but contagion us, colonizing our microbiome with bacteria, a perennial infection of motherly love. That primary woman, our chronic cough, her eternal life-giving irritation.

My next stop had me breathing against glass trying to hallucinate a scorpion. I panted against the tiny clear cage, straining my eyes to see if in fact a real-life scorpion was lurking underneath a piece of tree. I know the desert folks are used to checking their shoes for these flamboyant bugs, but to a city kid, a scorpion is an iconic mini monster, probably fictional, a childhood creepy crawler of fearsome stuff. I pushed my vision hard into the dark hoping to see a monster. Nothing stirred. I desperately craved motion–the wishful thinking that persists in spooky halls like these, populated with stuffed stillness. You forget that the animals are reupholstered flesh–not just fabricated replica, but a still life carcass of carnality. Oh, how I wished to see real life, real fear!

Then I happened upon the epic skeleton of the Kronosaurus. It sounds like the fictional name of a time-traveling dinosaur. If I read right, its bones are 135 million years old (that kind of time feels like fiction). I think it was too big for me to choose, but this bit of its description continues to haunt me: “Portions of the skull, backbone and paddles had weathered away before its discovery, but enough remained so that the missing pieces could be restored.” Enough remained so that the missing pieces could be restored. Back to Veritas: the fear of being weathered away before discovery, and the virtuous hope that enough will remain for us to be restored.

The ceiling of whale skeletons was another kind of mind fuck, that great hall smelling like a grandmother’s house, dead glassy eyes staring at me from all sides. But my vision rests here, on these horns. I forgot to pay attention to what animal this is. All I can see is the tall double curve, ascending eye spirals arching to heaven and back, peaks of sharp vision and violence ready to pierce the predator. I showed a photo to my roommate, who said, “Did you know that horns are actually bone cancer?” This is the most beautiful cancer I have ever seen. Curved into a weapon of grace. Disease rendered instrument. Horns to impale, horns to play. The jazz of death. Fantastic faculties of the looped human song.

Lindsay Sanwald (aka Idgy Dean) is a musical artist and creative producer from Brooklyn, New York. She devoted a decade of her life to writing, recording, and touring her mystical/queer/feminist one-woman psychedelic rock shows across the USA and abroad. Ms. Sanwald earned a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2007, where she concentrated in comparative literature. In 2008, she received a Fulbright grant to teach English at Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto in Argentina, while researching biblical themes in the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Lindsay is a 500-hour trained Tantrika yogini in the ISHTA lineage. She teaches Kriya meditation, Kirtan, coordinates spiritual retreats, and pastors part-time as a sober bartender. At Harvard Divinity School, she is studying ancient Vedic literature, early Christian thought, ministry, philosophy, mysticism, music ritual, and writing.

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