dylan tweney

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I have heard the toadfish singing.

Midway between humble and fabulous. Photo from Elkhorn Slough

The toadfish sits on the bottom of the sea, singing a song of love.

It is a creature midway between humble and fabulous. It is small enough to fit into a person’s hand, and has a bulbous, grey-green, wet look. It is quite ugly, except for the luminescent dots (photophores) running along the length of its body, which give it a spiffed-up, dance party look, like the buttons of an ensign’s jacket, thus giving the toadfish its other name: the plainfin midshipman.

I have never seen a toadfish, but I have heard them singing.

Ordinarily the toadfish lives in the deep, dark sea. But when it is time to seek a mate, the toadfish swims up to the shallow, intertidal waters of a bay or slough. The male burrows into the mud at the bottom, and begins to sing, hoping by his song to attract a female to his burrow. Vibrating his swim bladder, the toadfish emits a clear, resonant tone — a steady drone, a hum. Other toadfish nearby tune in, and they synchronize their pitch with one another, so the water column fills with a continuous humming note. It can be quite loud, penetrating the hulls of boats and ships, keeping their occupants awake at night. It may even be loud enough to awaken those on land. It is often mistaken for a sound of mechanical origin: A distant ship motor, a generator, or some other machinery operating on the shore. But no: It is a sound the toadfish have been singing for probably millions of years, since long before humans existed.

On a recent swim along Muni Pier, aka Aquatic Park Pier, I heard the toadfish singing, each to each. I did not think they sang for me. But their song sounded, to me and my swim friend Zina, like a chant, really, a steady, clear, “OM” sound, somewhere around low A, and it was a song I felt I could join. The deeper I put my head into the water column, the clearer and stronger the sound became. If I could swim deep enough, I thought, I could enter into the sound completely, but I might never return. So instead, from the surface, I tried matching the note with a sound of my own, floating there with my face in the water, chanting my own OM into the water, bubbles blowing out of my mouth as I chanted along with the toadfish.

When I found the right pitch, my whole torso resonated with the sound. I had joined the chant, the chorus of the toadfish. It felt like the all-encompassing, penetrating tone of pure love. It was the sound of the universe singing to itself.

I believe that in most circumstances, doing race work in an integrated setting is harmful. This is not a popular belief, especially among white people. I have been challenged on this time and again, and I keep showing up for these conversations in mixed-race settings and breaking down from the pain of it all. I open myself up to stories about racist family members, or admissions from former white supremacists. Why do I need to hear this? The fact that racism exists is not a surprise to me. That it infiltrates my very own community is obvious. I do not need to hear more stories about it. Are these admonitions made in hopes of atonement? It is not mine to give.

The only thing I want to hear from white people about race is, I’m sorry. I didn’t see. I didn’t listen. I’m working to see and listen now.

In the meantime, I leave anyone who has the bad luck to be in public life at this moment with a final thought from Władysław Bartoszewski, who was a member of the wartime Polish underground, a prisoner of both the Nazis and the Stalinists, and then, finally, the foreign minister in two Polish democratic governments. Late in his life—he lived to be 93—he summed up the philosophy that had guided him through all of these tumultuous political changes. It was not idealism that drove him, or big ideas, he said. It was this: Warto być przyzwoitym—“Just try to be decent.” Whether you were decent—that’s what will be remembered.

Living a life devoid of ceremony leaves us without allies. Shut out of our reality, they abandon us to a world without intelligence – the very image of modernist ideology. The mechanistic worldview becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy, and we are indeed left with nothing but force by which to affect the world.

In a ceremony, one attends fully to the task at hand, performing each action just as it should be. A ceremony is therefore a practice for all of life, a practice in doing everything just as it should be done. An earnest ceremonial practice is like a magnet that aligns more and more of life to its field; it is a prayer that asks, “May everything I do be a ceremony. May I do everything with full attention, full care, and full respect for what it serves.”

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