Sunday, January 8, 2017

unclean lips


Who am I to buy the communion wine?

-- Annie Dillard*


The most annoying thing about God, if scripture can even metaphorically be trusted, is that God forgives sins.

Forgiveness is unfair. You mean the idiot who cut me off at the exit, the broker who lied about the interest rate, the friend who won't talk to me for no good reason, the boss who won't stop interfering, these people don't owe me something, don't have to pay for their transgressions? When killers pose behind badges, when pastors counsel violence, when the mogul steals the widow's mite, are there no marks in the Book of Life? As a Universalist I'm supposed to imagine a banquet at the end of time to which all souls have been invited, but I balk at the scene where Slobodan Milosevic asks me to please pass the potatoes. I'm far from perfect, but I know I didn't orchestrate a six-figure ethnic murder. What's that guy doing here? I ask the host. What happens to justice when sins are forgiven?

But it's even more inconvenient when my own sins are forgiven. It blows my comfy perfectionism out of the water. Here am I, cultivating my woeful inadequacy, itemizing the reasons why I don't deserve to be good, secure in the knowledge that I am not fit to make the world better, listening to the long and weary list of sordid investments from which is born my presence on the earth, checking my privilege, owning my social location, confessing my embeddedness in structures of injustice, testing myself in a never-ending list of "isms" by which my perspective can be found wanting because we cannot see from all perspectives at the same time -- and now something bigger than me, with an arm of wind, sweeps my iPad and my notebook and my ID badge off the table and out of the room, saying it matters not, will you go? I wasn't planning for this -- this was a scene that wasn't supposed to happen for a good long time, in some future when I am finally ready and there's nothing wrong with me.

I've been having this bromance with Isaiah.**

The greatest torah (instruction) I take from my work is that, whether I like it or not, I am accepted. I've passed through hundreds of thresholds, doors of a hospital room or an apartment, to sites of holy terror, places where there's someone who unlike me is really suffering, truly behind the eight-ball, and where others are suffering for them. Their eyes turn to me -- me, you understand -- and they want my help, as if I had some help in my briefcase. If they only knew what an imposter I am.

"Woe is me!" said Isaiah, "for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips." What are you picking on me for? Don't you see how corrupt I am, how compromised my talents and how hopeless my situation? What do you want from me, who have to work with people like this? Find somebody better, wiser, more eloquent and well-connected, for god's sake! Find somebody . . . else.

And the seraph sweeps his inadequacy off the table, taking a live coal from the altar with a pair of tongs and touching the resistant mouth: "Your guilt is departed and your sin is blotted out." The voice from behind the seraph asks "Whom shall I send?" And the new prophet, doing the right thing after exhausting other possibilities, speaks the one remaining answer: "Send me." And this unclean man, from that moment, is "anointed." Not made perfect but authorized, dispatched, commanded -- to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort those who mourn.

An intern sat with a sleeping patient who slowly came awake. "I thought you were an angel," said the patient. "Made your day, didn't it?" I said to the intern later. But the threshold is lower than we think: an angel (malak, angelos) is just a messenger. The patient looked at her and got a message.

We Unitarians have no choice but to own the third president who declared himself one of us and wrote into history the principle that all persons are created equal, each with unalienable rights. That Unitarian was, now notoriously, a sinner. But there's not a one of us who can say they wish those words had not been written; or that they had not been written by an American; or that they had not been written by a Unitarian. The world's a stage, and the theatre teaches that each of us has a curtain and behind the curtain is a mess, but we have to get on with it and there's no time to clean house.

There's a Christian doctrine called Incarnation. It means that Yeshua -- Jesus as many call him -- wasn't pure. He was made of blood and guts, born (as an ancient father*** said) inter faeces et urinam to a penniless family of a despised people in an awkward corner of empire. And that is the glory of it. No matter what your view of the Jewish prophet crucified in Jerusalem, life's greatest astonishment is that humanity is no excuse.

It's not that I'm good enough. It's that I'm not good enough and sometimes it matters not.


*Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 63.

**quotations from Isaiah, chapters 6 and 61 (NRSV)

***Bernard de Clairvaux

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

turn turn

. . . time for every purpose . . . 

-- Ecclesiastes, 3:1 (KJV)

'Tis the old wind in the old anger.

-- A. E. Housman, "On Wenlock Edge"


Racism has a new face. Or rather, turned its old one up again.

If you tell a racist he's a racist, he'll say damn right and hit you on the head with a two by four.

If you tell a liberal he's a racist, he'll say, "Gosh I guess you're right, let's spend a truly miserable weekend thinking about it."

A decade ago, quarreling with my liberation theology professor, I wrote that racism had been driven underground, and the driving of it had been a great achievement. Racism is a sin, no more to be erased from the world than lust or greed or gluttony; but if we could construct a world in which our hateful and violent impulses, rather than parading down the middle of the street in gaudy underwear, could only flit in shadows of the alley, we would have done something for the future and for our children who must live in it.

This is what we liberal religious believed, plausible at the time. We had loved the Huxtables, and in a year or two would send an elegant, unflappable, articulate and professorial black man to the White House. We turned therefore from confrontation with persons to confrontation with systems, and with ourselves.

We took stock of the categories and their demographics, and looked for ways to make the groupings look like America. Many advantaged groups have fewer persons of color than America as a whole (or none at all). Many disadvantaged groups have far more persons of color than America as a whole. It was clear that we should iron out the differences, particularly when those differences instantiate the divide of rich and poor, powerful and wretched. We didn't talk much, in these discussions, about the National Basketball Association or the African Methodist Episcopal Church, because they pose a question inconvenient for the leveling impulse: is it not possible that certain concentrations of race and culture instantiate the pride and nurturance of those with whom we would ally?

But we also took inventory of our selves. It's as if we thought that, if we stood for justice and yet perfect justice had not come, the reason for that imperfection must be imperfection in our souls. Fitting and proper that we should search ourselves for ignorances, assumptions of our limited experience, judgments written in pre-conscious experience; but if we wait for justice-work until there's nothing wrong with us we'll wait forever while the world burns. Taken too far, our soul-work is a narcissism. The zits of my spirit are just not that all-fired important.

We are, as my professor said, socially located. We are, as Mark Belletini said, embedded in radicalized structures. We are, as Christians say, all sinners. And we cannot wait.

No immaculate conception for us, and no transfiguration, no seminar that makes us whole. Messy as we are, we talk and act, and take correction, and repent, and talk and act again. We'll blunder, and we'll misconstrue, and we'll forget and we'll ignore and we'll be our partial selves, confess and be forgiven, and orient again toward the greater purpose. That is the sacred life.

When I was a teacher in the theatre I used to say, don't think about what's wrong with you. Your inadequacy will always be with you: Just think of it and there it is, staring you down, blocking your view. Look through it, to what you must see.

Racism and other abominations came out of the shadows last month. It isn't hiding any more, but marching down Main Street. It sings from the seat of power, and authorizes ministers to wreck the infrastructure of hope and opportunity. The malign sirens seduce one group of dispossessed to strike against the others, assuring the forever reign of those who have much, and plan soon to have more. Naked personal hatred is in the streets again, with flags and banners.

It's the old wind that knocks us sideways, in the old anger. The year turns tonight. Let's turn into the wind.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

jahr zeit

. . . ora pro nobis peccatoribus . . . 

Chanticleer empowered Christmas again this year by singing at a great New York City Church, and of course they performed the Franz Biebl Ave Maria, a piece I never knew until I heard them sing it twenty years ago but is now compulsory for them and obligatory for me. I am not a Marian theologian, but when those twelve guys sing of the mother who will stand by us now and at the last hour, my bones melt. 

December is illud tempus. All the times and all years recur. Deploying the same lights and pendants, the same museum store stars and snowflakes and angels (plus one new of each) on a new tree, I suspend the course of life on those branches, and see what I have lost and gained, given and received. A ledger of credits and debits, from times long ago and recent.

A day boy could leave my prep school early if he didn't have a sixth period class. On those days I might walk home. Or I might call J from the phone booth and, with her permission, walk to her front door.

J and her husband had been youth counselors in my dad's church. When they gave up the work, some of their friendships lasted. Now and then four of us day boys would gather in their parlor. But I also had an arrangement of my own.

When J saw me at her front door she would put me to work. Her two daughters, of middle school and elementary age, would be home in a while, and later their dad, and then there would be a family dinner. But in the interval, maybe an hour, I worked in her kitchen, and I had her attention.

Over cutting boards and paring knives, baking sheets and measuring cups, there was no anguish or existential tremor. I spoke of teachers, assignments, intramural sports, the latest tiff with my father, and she heard me as if I were not the strangest and most unlikely boy, as if I might grow into something. She spoke of daughters and husband, the preschool where she worked in the mornings, and herself. We would pass the time, and as time passed she was showing me how to be in the room with her, and I was learning how to be a person in the world. I could not have said even to myself that I adored her. Once or twice she asked me to stay for dinner, but mostly when the daughters and their dad got home, it meant our time was over, and I walked home happy.

In those days a girl of my age could crush me quick and hard without noticing, but this woman saw me, heard me, and didn't reach for the fly-swatter. She seemed to think I deserved my place and my time. It wasn't anything she said. She was herself the glad tidings. Later I would forget her teaching and regress, but the marker was there to be found again.

A shrink asked me, what was in it for her? And I wonder. Perhaps among the aromas of her kitchen she whiffed my safely repressed testosterone. Perhaps beneath my chirp she heard the pedal-point of adoration. Perhaps a boy's obliviousness to shades of feeling brought moments of quiet to a mother of girls. Perhaps she was curious what it would be like to raise a boy.

Or perhaps . . .

In my work I now and then meet a client who makes me think this one is mine. It's as if I have been sent by greater intelligence, because I'm the one who can help. I see where the wound is, and I know how to get to the sweet spot. No one else can do what I can do.

I met E in the hospital, raging that she had ever been brought there. Brilliant, peremptory, not to be trifled with. A white northeastern Episcopalian intellectual. A woman psychiatrist in a time when you couldn't be nice, you had to break the ceilings with your own head. I saw all this, and I knew where the sweet spot was.

E died for five years, holding court from her couch, bored and scared, vaping a cloud and soaking herself in Bushmill's Irish, fussing with her home attendant, wishing she could believe in afterlife, wondering what dying would feel like. She had given up her profession, and as macular degeneration slowly took her sight away she could not work and she could not read. She grieved for and could not recreate the life of her mind.

Most every week I would come to E's parlor on Central Park West. Five times I saw the cycle of seasons conceal and reveal the Sea of Onassis. She bore a grudge against certain trees whose summer foliage concealed the lake, and would have cut them down by her own hand if she could.

She wanted from me things that almost no one wants, things I put on the shelf when I go to work. My genteelly poor prep school culture, my easy reference to the Great Books and the lexicon of Classical Music. ("More Chopin than Schubert" was a phrase she would understand.) And she mined my seminary education. She wanted to know what "Incarnation" meant. And what a "Messiah" was. And what sort of place the "Kingdom of God" could be. And she didn't want church answers; she wanted to know what the original words were, and who had first written them, and what they thought they were talking about. I shared what little I knew. I revealed my growing conviction that Yeshua was, prior to Christian fantasies, a Jewish prophet preaching from the history of people who, unlike most historians, had lost everything, been reprieved, and wanted to do more good from their Second Temple than they had done from the First.

She always said, "There was something I meant to ask you, but I forgot what it is." Which was funny. So I brought her music, and poems, and passages of philosophy. When we needed to know more, we would look stuff up on the internet. Sometimes I left her laughing. Sometimes I left her (a chaplain's tribute) peacefully asleep.

It was a long rough ride, but I was glad tidings for her. And she was glad tidings to me, because she wanted from me the thing that is hardest to bear: intellect. She wanted me to help her figure out the answers. I couldn't bring the answers, but I could bring her the life of the mind.

A colleague asked me, what was in this for you? And noting that E had two daughters but no son, he suggested that she was a kind of mother to me, who could follow the racing of a smart son's brain and desired it for herself. I had known when I met her that the sweet spot was a place I could fill, and I had said, this one is mine.

And perhaps, so long ago, J scanned for my sweet spot and said, this one is mine. This is all my fancy. I could not ask the question I would ask now of a friend: how am I doing? what are you getting from this?

I think of J and E, two mothers of daughters borrowed for an hour at a time, one from my youth and one from my ancientness but about the same age. Their gifts to me are perennial, and I cannot repay such debts unless I pay them toward the future. Though I am timeless, the world grows younger every day.

About this time last year, my borrowed moms both died. I hope they know how much I love them.


And love I wish for you;
May you give it frequently.

Charles Stephen, Jr. "Some Wishes for You"*

I don't like wishing generic holidays. Christmas is what I know and what I have to give. So I wish you Merry Christmas whether you like it or not.



*The Gift of the Ordinary: a Meditation Book, (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985), p. 10.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

go boom

Get up, child.
Pull your bones upright.

-- Audette Fulbright Fulson, "Prayer for the Morning"*


Not in the morning. In the late afternoon. Walking in the neighborhood. On an errand.

Carol taught me. When the baby falls down and looks to you, you must show that you saw it happen. Oops, you say. The baby is picking herself up, looking at the elbow, the knee, touching the place, trying to characterize the catastrophe. Fall down go boom, you say. Want me to kiss it?

Maybe it's enough that you witnessed and proclaimed the hurt: oops, and then the child forgets and moves on, but maybe she needs the more specific intervention, comes to you, and you kiss the spot. OK? the baby runs back to her play, sooner or later to fall again. She learns the routine. One day she falls, says oops; looks at you and says (you repeat after her), fall down go boom. She laughs, and runs on.

Sometimes, of course, there are material injuries. More is required than words: a cleaning of the wound and a band-aid. Or -- god forbid -- the rare but constantly feared trip to the emergency room. And yet most of the time it's  a matter of management: own the hurt, assess the damage, repair if necessary, move on.

I went boom yesterday. Just walking in the neighborhood in the late afternoon. Crossing a quiet street. Coming up to the curb, where it dips to nothing for passage of wheelchairs and shopping carts. How did this happen?

My shoe must have caught on the curb, right where there was no curb. A collision path with concrete. Coming at me, too quick to stop. Almost at the same time, hands, forehead, chin, glasses on the sidewalk. Oops. Ow.

Damage reports. I'm still conscious. Glasses OK. Good. I put them back on my nose. I stand up. I put my hand to my forehead, then look at my fingers. A little blood.

A man comes up to me. You OK? Fall down go boom. I think so, am I bleeding (meaning am I bleeding a lot)? One spot on your chin, he says. I feel for the spot. Again a drop of blood. You want me to call an ambulance for you? No, I think. No, I say, I'll just go home (can't just pick up the cleaning now, can I?) Where do you live? Just the next street (not able to explain this as simply as I wanted to). Thank you, I say.

I'm steady on my feet (but now I wonder if I'm steady as I think). I'm wondering if my shirt will be all covered with blood by the time I get home, but it doesn't come in torrents, I'm just going to bruise and have ugly scrapes. I clean the wound with alcohol -- ow -- and look at the meaty mess of my face in the mirror. You should have seen the other, guy, I'll say.

I've had a fall incident. I fell and hurt myself for no good reason. I'm getting old. Am I a fall risk? If you're labelled a fall risk, you can't go anywhere by yourself: that's the rule with our clients.

I take my history. Every few years I have a fall, sometimes visually spectacular. I once tripped and rolled over the landscaping border of a building before limping in to see a client who lived there. In San Francisco a dozen years ago I took a movie-worthy summersault from the curb and stood up on the median with only a tiny scrape on the back of my hand. In a play reading in Chicago I sat in a chair too close to the platform edge, fell three feet and backrolled to my knees, picked up and continued. I take little injury from these incidents, and I attribute it to my theatre training -- I have the practiced, subconscious skill of rolling and distributing weight.

But this time was different. The concrete was too fast for me. Ow. No rolling, just the whip of my body, head at the end. Smack. I'm not as smart as I think I am, but that's hardly news. Just a reminder.

In the last year I've had a remission of arthritis, and rediscovered the workings of the knee joint. I've had good control of my sickness. I've felt like a youngster of fifty-five. But there's a limit to this blessing. Some day I'll be a danger to myself when I go walking, though I don't think this was that day. But I'll have a good long chance to think about it, as people react to my trivial wound, impossible to conceal. A certified wounded healer I am now.

In my life, my city, my work, I can count on a lot of concern and compassion (maybe more than I want). But lots of us are injured and can't count on compassion.

There's an injury many of us have received, a moral and spiritual injury -- an injury that we must heal and yet strategically conceal. We know we must own the hurt. We have fallen and gone boom. Some time is due. We can't move on without knowing what we move on from. We show our hurt to each other. Want me to bless it? Show it to the Spirit, to God the great and compassionate observer. If cleaning, stitching, bandages, emergency surgery are due, do what is needed. This is our homework. Do it at home.

But when we go into the world, let's not front our wounds. The forces let loose are not threatened by wounds, have only hatred for bandages and expressions of pain. "Empathy" is an obscene word for them. They throw parties because we are hurting. Micah tells us the Lord demands only that we make justice and do kindness, and walk humbly with the Spirit of Peace.

So go back into the playground, and threaten them with your justice. Speak the truth. Tell the stories. Claim your rights, and the rights of the bullied. Call out the bullies. Undermine their ideology of the fist. Hear the pain of those who chose this dream -- fall down go boom -- and ask them how they chose it, for they are victims. I call myself out here, for I don't know whether I am brave enough. I guess I'll be finding out.

*available at uua.org

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

banana states



The people will waken, and listen . . .

- "Paul Revere's Ride"



I want to talk about other things, but I have to say this first.

I'm walking on the grounds of a retreat center in Ohio. I'm one of the first to get here. I have the garden to myself. The trees are gone brown, and most of the leaves have fallen. The garden has a brick wall but I do not feel enclosed, for the garden is on a slope, and I feel uplifted toward the hills around us. It is so, so quiet. How we can be so tucked away from flight paths and interstates I do not know, but of course I still have airplane ears -- the ringing silence that comes from decompression and partial recovery. Perhaps there is background noise that, in my stunned condition, I do not hear.

Ah yes, there is a nearby railroad. The sound of the train is very clear. It comes and then it goes.

We are gathering -- clergy of my disorganized faith -- as we do each November to draw each other out of ministry's prosaic miseries. We distract ourselves from the miseries by studying some question, chosen at the previous year's retreat. A year ago we chose Dystopia. We had no idea what our subject would mean when its day came around. One of us noted that now the day's newspaper would serve as dystopian literature.

The Heffalump will take power. His closest advisor is a white nationalist. He has promised to jail the opposition, to punish journalists who don't sing his song, to send occupying armies into communities of color, to send brownshirts after those who speak freely, to wall the nation off from the world, to impose religious tests on citizenship, to wage trade war against the markets into which we sell, to abandon European alliances while bombing the excrement out of any region of the world from which danger may come. These are the Heffalump's promises, recorded for history. I take him at his word. If he doesn't do these things, the Heffalistas will have his Heffahead.

From each of us our parish, our flock, our clients and colleagues demand comfort. But we have none to give. We are punched in the gut, gasping for breath and uncertain how long the oxygen will last. Grief work takes a while. And it begins with telling the truth. There is no emergence from grief without knowing that you will never be the same.

There can be no more dystopian novels. I and my country are living a dystopia. The country I have loved as a child, or rather a super-empowered minority of my country, have chosen to reverse the moral progress of the last half century, and they vow to uproot my country's foundational values.

I'm the kind of kid who knew how you are supposed to fold the flag when you put it away. I'm the kid who memorized the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution. I could sing all four verses of "The Star Spangled Banner." I knew the story of the virtuous war: I could tell you all the battles, the years and the places. I can still perform "Paul Revere's Ride" from memory, and when I come to a particular line at the end, my throat catches.

But the people are not woke. They think they have wakened, but there are dreams within dreams, and they have emerged only into another delusion -- that by killing the messengers they can prevent the danger. If the Heffalump keeps his promises, it will not turn out well for them. As a child I pledged allegiance to the United States, not the banana states, of America.

I've said it. I'm not important, and my statement has no historical value. I say these things not to change the world, but to clear my throat. Now I can move on.

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

rough beast

 Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

-- Naomi Shihab Nye, "Kindness"


"Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump! Hoff, hoff, a Hellable Horralump! Holl, holl, a Hoffable Hellerump!"

-- A. A. Milne, "In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump"


. . . what rough beast . . . ?

-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"


Let's just call him The Heffalump. He has no kindness. He knows no sorrow. He throws it back on others, and makes them suffer for their pain.

Almost eight years ago ("falsetto prophecy," January 19, 2009), I wrote about the advent of a black president, who would the next day walk Pennsylvania Avenue. I had just been to Disney World and walked Main Street, and I thought Pennsylvania Avenue might at least that day be America's Main Street. "Isn't that what we've hoped for," I asked, "that we could all walk down Main Street together?" That was Disney's dream, and it's not all bad.

Two evenings from now I will learn who is going to make the next such walk. Like many Americans, I am not at ease about what may happen.

Perhaps one day we will walk Main Street together. Perhaps every now and then, in a Divine Domain, we already do. Perhaps on that one day we did so, and we must remember it. What we failed to predict was the reaction. We failed to understand how many of my countrymen would rather plough the street than walk with a black man; how many think a House no longer White if a father, mother and their ilk of color eat off the china; how many bilious hearts erupt because a man of negritude is their commander.


Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.

An Emperor in a novel, who pined for the Republic and failed to restore it,* thought that poison would evoke its antidote, but of course it only poisoned everything. In our day also poisons have come out. We forgot how toxic was the hallowed ground we lived on, from which old ghosts would rise. We failed to see that a media company and a political party would burn the house down just to get the black man out of it, or just to get the eyes and votes of those who want the black folks out. The party and the network failed their first objective, but they sowed corrupting seeds. How current to parade fantasy as fact, threaten free speech, demean rules of evidence, reduce discourse to a jailhouse brawl! How respectable to impeach a president with a racist lie, and call it journalism! It doesn't take long to smash the standards. How many generations would it take to replace them?

I, my friends and my associates, my teachers and my students -- well, this wasn't our idea, but ours is a share of blame. We have reveled in false equivalencies, as if the fox and hens were equal opponents in the henhouse. We have been too tolerant of intolerance, too patient with aggression, too polite with brutality, too reasonable with unreason, too respectful of malice. We're wiseing up, but we're late to the contest. For these sins The Heffalump is our penance. Seekers of truth are sinners like everyone else, and truth is never known by human hearts but through a dark and partial glass; but those who live by killing truth don't belong at table with those who do their best to honor her. What possible conversation could there be? Jayson Blair is not a journalist, and neither was Andrew Breitbart.

The school in which I first was was educated had a Political Debating Club. This club trained us to argue an issue using evidence and inference, by rules of civility and logic. A debater was supposed to be able to argue both sides of a proposition. There was no shouting down the other team, or threatening the judges, or pounding the Bible, or making up falsehoods on the fly; these incivilities never happened, and would have been grounds for disqualification. Though the contest was an artifice, it taught that free speech has its rules.

Liberation is passionate, but cannot be undisciplined. "The expectation of rationality," wrote Michael Gerson recently, "is not elitism. Coherence is not elitism. Knowledge is not elitism. Honoring character is not elitism. And those who claim this are debasing themselves."** Liberation without Enlightenment is just another crank of the Vengeance Wheel -- at best. The assault on reason, even when well meant and carried out by radical professors, yields results we should get wise to. We've already had a president we could have a beer with. Now we might have a president who, while speaking for aggrieved people, would beat us up and throw us out of the bar, before turning his rage on the oppressed. Are we having fun yet?

Lucy (or is it Lucius?) you got a lot of 'splainin' to do. My seminary taught me that a white straight Anglo-Saxon overeducated old man is in an odd position in relation to prophecy. I'm not supposed to man'splain, or straight'splain, or white'splain, or educated'splain, or knowledge'splain, or old'splain. But pretty soon somebody's got to do some 'splainin.' The fox is in the henhouse, and The Heffalump is in his limo, planning his slouch down Pennsylvania Ave. Two days from now we'll know if he gets his wish.


*The Robert Graves version of Emperor Claudius, in Claudius the God.

**"Out of his Depth, Donald Trump Clings to Deception," The Washington Post (September 27, 2016), www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/.

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Monday, October 31, 2016

authentic words

I often think of . . . liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.

-- Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm*

words, words, words

-- Hamlet, II. ii.


I'm figuring out how to write. Been figuring it out most of my life. Most of the time I was wrong.

Why do I care?

It seems like a fight with myself. Or maybe a fight for myself. Maybe a quest. To find. Discover. Become. What? the thing I'm going to be when I actually exist. When I grow up. Yes, that's the ticket, when I grow up then I'll be a real boy, and then I can drive the car and operate machinery and order a martini, and when I speak people will listen, o yes then I won't be just a kid, I'll be the real thing, a genuine article.

Genuine. True. Authentic. Yes, that's the word. Authentic. At least, it's the word I've been using the last couple of years. The word that, when someone I trust applies it to me, turns on my water-works. The word by which I can be manipulated. "You're strange, but you're authentic." The key to my heart.

I've pursued this thing in three ways. I tried to live in the theatre some way for a quarter century. More recently I've spent a decade being formed as a counselor. But all my life I've been trying to write, even when I couldn't.

People ask me how I came from the theatre to counseling, as if it were a contradiction, and I say that they're two different searches for authenticity.

In a theatre you pretend that you're worth looking at, and if you pretend truly they look at you. The main thing is honesty, fake that and you've got it made said many a sage. The semiologists teach us that every sign of truth can verify a lie. If you lift your eyebrow when you lie, stop lifting your eyebrow.

The best approach to truth in the looking-glass of illusion is the via negativa. Learn what's false and put it away. Repeat. Keep learning many falsehoods and putting them away. What's left is more likely to be true. And what is this falsehood, this truth, false or true to? To the thing, the place, the plot, the illusion at hand in the play, the Spiel, the commedia, the bit, the act. Take away what distracts from that, and we might have something.

I was trained to find the falsehoods in myself, the things I brought with me that were not the play, the Spiel, the commedia -- my assumptions, attitudes, neuroses parasitically feeding off the terror of the stage, obscuring the authentic illusion. Learn what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

In counseling, we track our attachments and antipathies: is the client before me just like my sweet old auntie? the mother I wish I had? the cheater who betrayed me? We also track the attachments and antipathies of the client toward ourselves: am I in their eyes a son? a lost husband? a huckster who sold nostrums? We learn, with the help of our teachers, to notice and disarm, contain, bracket these transferences and counter-transferences. We note our assumptions: we're too fast or slow, too loud or soft, too white or nouveau ethnique -- we name these patterns to get a handle on them, lift them out of the way so that the client's truth will shine. Learn what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

And words demand their own authenticity. I was brought up among books, not just picture books but big thick books jammed with print, books in many languages, books that I knew were for the grownups and not for me yet and therefore sooner or later but not much later I would grow into. I was also brought up among poems and songs, rhymes and rhythms of speech -- olympic vocabulary contests, spoonerisms and puns.

Language seemed like a road from childhood to adulthood. The shy boy might come out into the world on a thruway of words. Writing seemed a way of being somebody. But who was the shy boy to be?

At first you try on many voices, like old clothes in a thrift store. Scripture, Milton, Orwell, Kerouac, Frost, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, the bard . . . And then you discover how your sentence lights up on the fuel of anger. You turn all your school papers to rage so that your prose can burn with a hard light. You're a sullen, secretly angry person. Angry is happy. Angry is real. You're trying to grow up, but you're stuck in adolescence, because if you can't be shouting at the elders, the system, the cosmic conspiracy to irritate you, then you can't find the words.

Then you grow up into the academy, where you're supposed to write, but in a particular way. A man who had never published taught me how to write for academic publication. When I had absorbed his teaching, I was silent for a decade, for he took my voice away. If the words had to follow those rules, they would not come to mind. I could not find the words. No words about the shifts and shadows, wisps and breaths, of theatrical illusion -- which in those days was what I had to write about. If I was to write at all.

Then came the deconstructionists -- the imitators of a French philosopher whose greatest horror was ism of any kind -- and every article in every humanistic field must be written in a tangle of neologisms: clunking cinderblock terms that, if dumped into one's writing, were proofs of currency and profundity. The new vocabulary was the certified antidote for logocentrism, phallocentrism, colonialism, imperialism, and hegemonic aggression. So powerful were these words that I adopted them myself. I rewrote my drafts in fast imitation of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco, and became a published scholar. I had learned the power of those words.

I'm not a scholar. I started this project eight years ago, and I don't have to please anyone but myself. I just have to keep it honest. I'm doing better than I've done before, the proof being that I can look at some of those entries from eight years ago without feeling ill. I'm pursuing authenticity, hunting down extraneous words and syllables and letters, striking out the things I don't really have to say, eschewing explanation that obscures the thought. It's via negativa. Find what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

I dropped out for a year, but it wasn't a good year. It was a year when I got tired and sick, and let the job overpower the work. I had to give myself a shake, and get back to the task. The last few months are a new thing, closer to the bone, with firmer adherence to life and to death. Behold! I'm doing a new thing, don't you see it? said the Lord in Isaiah's prophecy. But it's the same thing, always new. Find what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

*(New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), p. 59.

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