Building Pyramids

A couple of weeks ago, my eight-year-old and I visited family in Portland, Oregon. One of my few specific hopes for the weekend was that we’d make it to Powell’s bookstore. This we did–and then some!

In addition to visiting the main “city of books,” I was able to make a side trip. Early on, Rache (the sister I was visiting) and I separated from my brother, my brother-in-law, and the kiddos to put ourselves in queue for Slappy Cakes.* We were told to expect a table in 75 to 90 minutes. To me, that seemed an absurdly long time to wait, but (1) it was Rache’s birthday and (2) she needed her some Slappy Cakes!

Thank goodness for her insistence, and the length of our wait!

We ended up passing time by strolling through an Oregon drizzle. Our stroll took us by Powell’s on Hawthorne, which looked small from the outside but seemed to stretch a mile back.

We went to the Spanish section, where I found Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind in Spanish. I exclaimed that I’d fallen asleep listening to Harari on Russell Brand’s podcast.** I’d been so enchanted, I’d told myself I needed to check out Sapiens pronto.

My Spanish is nowhere near good enough (yet) to get me through Sapiens any adult book not written by Hemingway. I thus sought and bought Sapiens in English.

This morning, nestled with my eight-year-old on our SoCal sofa, I pulled out Sapiens. I read a couple of pages so gratifying, I kinda wanted to run down my street shouting, “I have more of the words I need, y’all!”

I decided not to run down the street, but to share here instead. This involves more than saying: “These words explained a lot to me” and dumping them here. Those words, for me, are woven into a story that includes a recent Powell’s trip in the rain, a previous Portland trip in which my sister and brother’s gentle challenge to explore my politics began a process of unraveling everything I thought I’d known, and the foundations on which these experiences were able to occur.

Of the aforementioned trip o’ unraveling, I wrote:

About a year ago, [Rache] gave me many good reasons to consider casting a vote for Bernie Sanders. Once I started listening to him, I found myself really disturbed by how many assumptions I’d accepted as fact because … everyone said I should? I wanted to believe? 

This leads perfectly into the Sapiens passage that had me cheering this morning.

Writes Harari, 

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.

How else?

You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything.

But: Surely we moderns, so greatly “progressed” from our forebears, have it all figured it out? Surely we’re free of such stories?

Not so (fast):

Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.

For about two years, I have been on a journey to see through the stories my society misunderstands as truths.

Face to face, it can be hard to find people who understand that, yes, even we tell stories that we don’t understand as stories. It’s thus in books that I find the sustenance of connecting with those who understand our experiences are indeed embedded in stories … whether or not we acknowledge that those stories exist.

I’m so grateful for all the paths that led me to Sapiens, and to know that this international bestseller is reaching people all around the globe, connecting us whether or not we ever see each other face to face. Helping us better question our stories, and find the words to do so with those whom we do see face to face.

* YUM.

** I recently wrote here about Brand’s Recovery. The book led me to his podcast, which led me to Harari, which is–yes!–another set of paths I’m glad led me to this exact morning, exactly as I’m experiencing it. 


Author: Deborah the Closet Monster

Grew up dirt poor, found myself a comfy bubble, and forgot poverty. Now trying to forget bubbles and end poverty.

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