(This is the introduction to a book I have been trying to finish for years.
It is about what I experienced while living and working in Ethiopia
during the fifteen months leading up to the revolution.)
One of the aspects of the rich Ethiopian Tradition that has always been most interesting to me is that linguistic oddity of the Amharic language that has been described as wax and gold. It is an allusion to the lost-wax system of creating jewelry, wherein the brooch or ring or earring is first carved in wax, then surrounded by a plaster mold. Molten gold is then forced into the mold by a process involving centrifugal force. The gold melts the wax, which it displaces as the wax melts and then evaporates or flows out.
When a person versed in the Amharic language—a person such as a lay singer or a lawyer who depends upon the use of words as a profession—or a teacher or scholar or anyone who just loves words—when such a person speaks, it is often a statement of levels. The primary level is the utilitarian one, where he says what he means. He is hungry. He is given food. But for one in love, that simple statement “I am hungry” can have an additional meaning. On a symbolic level, it can mean that he wishes for the company of the one he loves, or for a kiss or for some other act that will slake this deeper hunger.
In these two examples, we have two of the levels of words. But there is yet a deeper level. This is the level at which words acquire the richness of gold. It is a subtler layer that dips into philosophy, allusion, an almost archetypal world where those meet who are cognizant of a world of deeper meaning that can be expressed by words. On this level, there is a more complicated comprehension of not only words, but also actions. How the action of one person may affect the whole. How words may express things beyond the justice of set laws. It is the place where minds play, but also, often, where they weep.
In the years that I’ve been writing many shorter pieces about Ethiopia and considering turning them into a book, I have considered many titles, but it is this title, Wax and Gold, that I keep coming back to. It most clearly represents the story of how the most precious events and memories of a lifetime may come from a time of extreme pressure or danger or threat. It is in times like these that we sometimes empty ourselves out and redefine ourselves and are jettisoned into a life much richer in significance than we ever might have imagined.
Of further significance is the suggestion of a hidden meaning beneath what seems to be, and certainly, when I journeyed to Ethiopia in my twenties, I was totally oblivious to what lay below the surface. In the forty -eight years since I left Ethiopia, I have told a few stories about my life there. How I came to be there. How I came to stay for a year and a half when I’d meant to be there for a few weeks at most. How it came to be a period that has influenced the rest of my life.
Many have asked why I have written six other books and thousands of poems, stories and essays when this is the story that I should be telling. I always tell them that it is because I still haven’t made sense of the story. Still have not, perhaps, seen the truth of it. Perhaps it is also true that I’ve been running from the story and from what may have been my part in bringing about the death of at least one whom I have held dearest in my life.
Only recently, when four separate people have asked me, explicitly, to please finish my story, have I begun to see its telling in another light. I have often said I don’t know what I think or believe until I write or say it. Perhaps this is also true of what happened during those years of my life when I ran away from home to try to find a world where I felt comfortable, or if not comfortable, at least acceptable. I wanted to use those parts of myself that no one in my experience had ever seemed to either understand or find valuable. Perhaps I was looking for my own tribe, but to me it seemed as though I was looking for adventure and experiences and a strangeness I had sought during my entire life of living in places where strangeness seemed neither to reside nor to be tolerated. In retrospect, I realize that I was wax , waiting to be transformed into gold.
For RDP: Waxy
Image thanks to Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash.
I’ve excerpted a number of other chapters from the book on this blog. If you want to read it and can’t find them, I’ll establish links here. Just ask.