Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Hollis is at the Next Circle

As some of you may know, Hollis Huston has been living with cancer for a few years. He has found that despite all attempts to manage it, it has found a way to stay one step ahead. As Hollis said, "I am up against a clever and evolutionarily advanced adversary."

It is now time to turn to hospice care. His family has set up an online space to keep family and friends, colleagues, students, and readers of this blog updated in one place:

https://www.caringbridge.org/public/hollis-at-the-next-circle

We also want to use that site to collect your recollections and thoughts of Hollis. He and his family would love to hear from you.

Thank you for visiting, and thinking about Hollis.

--Hollis' Family

Saturday, December 30, 2017

white whale

 . . . a voice from the sky, Lady, . . .
. . . Telling us of God being born
In the world of men.

-- Clive Sansom, "The Shepherd's Carol"

 . . . If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel, . . ."
 . . . I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

-- Thomas Hardy, "The Oxen"

I no longer have a problem of belief. I believe. In my way. My way may not satisfy everyone.

I believe these tropes in the way I believe King LearPride and Prejudice, "All the Things You Are," War and Peace, "Paul Revere's Ride," Beethoven's Ninth, "An die Freude," Guernica, Moby Dick, Fences, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," Beloved, and . . . so on; which is to say I believe them to the bottom of my being. You cannot tell me these tropes are false, for I have gone on road trips with Lear riding shotgun, have traversed meat-markets by the guidance of Elizabeth, have sailed with hunters of White Whales, have applauded the courage of those who lead their beloveds out of slavery but then assault them. .  . . All this in a modest and obscure life. You wouldn't know it to look at me.

That's what the tropes are for, to raise grandeur from the ordinary. Thank the lord I am ordinary, until something comes out that was not in me. In the face of a universe whose enormity only mathematicians can symbolize and none of us can comprehend, there rises through art and faith an opening to act as if my life mattered, and yours. We can speak of inspiration, of synergy, of peak experience, but some poets call it Incarnation, when word is made flesh.

So likewise, don't tell me the tropes of Incarnation are false. I know otherwise. In my time peace has been made where there was no hope of peace. I have shared truth when there was nothing true about me. I have seen lights that can only shine in a darkness that I have walked, knowing that if the darkness had been less the light would not have shined. And I regularly enjoy a blessing that I did not earn.

I work in the face of mortality, pain and grief, and I bring no antidote. I cannot fix these things. And it's worse than that. My complexion is that of the doctors who infected black men with syphilis in Tuskegee. My gender is that of people who have demeaned, abused and assaulted women. A walking cipher of reasons for human suffering, born by cosmic lottery ("thrown"* as Heidegger said) into white and male advantage, I learn how corrupted is my judgment, how twisted are my intentions; and my faith group urges me to apply to myself words once reserved for the Klan, or for predators now exploding and cast into darkness.

Problem is, I have work to do. There is the work of living -- acts of value, relationships of love and justice, protection of the innocent who suffer, and support for virtues that preserve the world from savagery. I cannot do it with a hood on. I must come to you, sibling of color or sister, hoping there is something decent in me. I must assume a competence of compassion, pretending that with attention I can feel something like your feeling, comprehend your need, respect your dignity.

There is also the formal work for which I am paid a salary -- my ministry. I am ordinary, and there is nothing immaculate about me. I am born of and imbedded in structures of cruelty and injustice. I do not with any strictness deserve to do the work many clients would call God's work. My physical form connotes the pain and oppression of many. And yet I am called, and in the time when I respond to that call my faults like Isaiah's** will be swept inconveniently off the table, putting an end to procrastination. I need to do the work, and they need for me to do it, and we play together an old vaudeville, a trope that we might as well call forgiveness. What a mess.

It's the mess of being alive as a human being, not on a seminar table but progressing in bad shoes over ragged terrain as a pilgrim. Though not sufficient, my good intention is necessary. Even if I don't deserve to be good, I must act out my goodness. In showbiz they say fake it till you make it. They say it elsewhere too. And do it.

The poems say that in this season we get a gift from the uncanny. This year people came back to me from more than a life ago, who have done well and present me with their stories, in which I have a cameo. Their gifts were unexpected, but I also receive on a daily schedule.


   I report Good News in a sacred season, meaning not an otherworldly season, but a this-worldly season where, as certain poets say, God has come to us. I believe this as I believe, well, you know . . . I swear it on the mangled carcass of the White Whale.



*"geworfen"

**"Your guilt shall depart/And your sin be purged away" (Is 6:7 [Tanakh])

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

superlative obscurity

. . . And I thought, I've got nothing . . . which meant, I had nothing to lose.

-- Bruce Springsteen*

You can mould clay into a vessel;
yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.

-- Tao Te Ching, 11 

I was brought up to get it right, no matter what the cost. If the assignment, the action, the long division problem, the situation, whatever, wasn't right -- well, then it was my fault: I had obviously not worked hard enough. I must go back to work right now, and must not stop until all was correct; and whoever stood in my way because they didn't understand, or thought I was wrong or untimely or misdirected, had to be set right. By me.

Great accomplishments were expected, to be attained only through unremitting effort. I was not to set the matter aside, or read a book, or watch tv, or work on a more gratifying project, or go to bed in hope of morning insight. That's what lazy people do, said the voice, and if you act like them you'll waste your talents. Anything you don't get right is worthless. And here would follow a list of people known to me who had come to nothing because they had been lazy and wasted their talents.

If you screw up enough things you might make something work in the end, and I am a man of superlative obscurity in a fourth career, disappointing the voice of endless demand, never attaining more than a middling income and often struggling for that. I've been hired and fired, but never had the power to hire or fire anyone. In these times perhaps that is a blessing.

To be a first-born son, informed at the age of eight that I had an intellect, is as much curse as blessing. My responsibility to the gift, always defined by someone else, often overwhelmed me. Perhaps in my eighth decade, right now, on this page, for your eyes only, I apply it to something of my own.

Perfectionists have their uses. They get a lot of things right. That's how they're driven. And they're alone on their faultless shore.

But some things can never be right, not the way a page of long division is supposed to be right.

And the cost of rightness, that rightness of a sum, saps not only the visceral power but the mental ones as well. Not even mathematics is tidy right. The structure of the universe depends on an irrational number. No matter how many digits you write, you can never get pi just right.

Chanticleer sang again the other night at the Church of Ignatius Loyola (so yes, now Christmas can come). They were singing the lullaby Suo Gan, and my favorite singer had a solo, and I turned to my daughter saying "That's my boy!", but before I turned back the song was done, and their so soft cadence had pounced on me, beyond right, uncanny and there was water in my eyes. I wasn't ready. That's the point.

The right of music, and the right of a poem, and the right of love, these are not to be carried and remaindered. You know when it's there, but there's no map to take you all the way. Every musician knows how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice practice practice), but no one tells you when or where to leap off the building, though you must fly part of that way or they won't let you in.

The things I've done best I had no idea how to do, and I was sore afraid, wishing I knew how to get it right. The only thing I had was a need to jump off the building. These few works, of theatre or teaching or ministry or caritas, were uncharted. Step by step and breath by breath, feeling wind on my face and shift of ground beneath my feet, I would pray for a provisional truth to reveal itself for one more day. I didn't know. I wasn't full of knowledge. I was empty. I had nothing.

The risks are real. Human beings can get it wrong, Terribly wrong, pitiably wrong, or damnably wrong. You can harm yourself and you can harm others. That's the basis of the fear, the holy terror that accompanies every truly important act. But the surest road to hell is the highway of utter safety.

And that's the beauty of this last career of mine, its anti-perfectionism. I've been forced off the island of perfection. I'm really not supposed to know, as I pass over a threshold of pain and fear, what the good news is. I'm supposed to discover it there, in that room, and name it and bless it. My usefulness is to be empty.

*The New Yorker Radio Hour, November 25, 2017.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

windy will

Perhaps a squirrel will remain -
My sentiments to share -
Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind -
Thy windy will to bear!

-- Emily Dickinson, "Besides the Autumn Poets Sing"

My northeast New Jerusalem is becoming tropical, and we've waited far too long this year for the change. A week ago I was sweating in short sleeves, but now at last comes the weather that brings me life. No snow yet, but I've had to climb into my long coat, rediscover its obscure fastenings, find my gloves.

My friend thinks I am morbid. Snap out of it! he says.

But I'm not sad. Winds are in my face, and that makes me strong. The fertile half of the year is before me.

Son of a preacher and spouse of another, an academic for the larger part of my adulthood, I was formed not on the calendar year but on church and school year. In those measures Autumn is the time of when things begin, the big bang of inspiration. The cold wind, and the now rare but longed for blast of snow in my face, wake me to productivity and efficiency. The loss of light does not oppress but thrills me. My seasonal affective disorder comes not now but sometimes in the spring with too much light, and with the end of things I had begun.

So this is my November song, drawing perhaps, as good songs do, tears out of joy, or joy out of tears. Isn't that the darnedest thing? that our happy songs can make us cry, and our saddest songs can make us happy? Singing is our rescue from mortality, a rescue of self but also of the moment. The song is the thing that we make of it, the thing that stands outside, might live longer than the moment on which it was drawn. I lash these words together in order not to be morbid.

So I am one of those weird brothers who thrives in winter, traveling in fantasy not to sun-drenched beaches but to sea-thrashed cloudy islands where, above a cliff in bulky sweater and a hut of stone, I sip my smoky single-malt and battle rapturously with words, words words of others and my own in descant. Some may ask why I am so sour, but I am not sour -- this is the location of my peaty sweetness.

It's not the first time I have been misread. I see now for instance, with almost two decades of remove, that the years I worked in theatre were years of misplacement. I was with the wrong people, and they frequently misread my silences as discontent. Sometimes they were right, but often not.

Now, as my friend points out, I have a lot on my plate; or rather, something on my plate that was not there earlier; or rather, someone who looks over my shoulder in the mirror. For two years -- this is how I like to say it -- I have known the name of my angel, and in the last year I've spoken about it to others, and I've also spoken about how things look in the presence of the visitor. One personality scale designates me an Intuitive Introvert, intense on both dimensions. I process inwardly, and I don't know what to say until I'm done; but when I'm done I speak. And these last two years are the best, so far, of my life.

So I may seem to brood, and perhaps this behavior is what the word means, though I am surprised to live under it. High on my windy cliff I'm having a good time getting ready, Mr. DeMille, for my aria. And different observers may have different impressions of the figure I cut as I wait. So you don't have to worry. Well, worry a little, but not too much, and enjoy the whiskey.

There is for instance Altagracia, whom we are in danger of misreading. She overwhelmed me, when I went to see her, with her lamentation. She's lost a toe already, and large parts of her feet may have to be removed in order to "save" her, a recommendation that she loudly refuses, as she charges about her apartment and the neighborhood. She'd rather die, she says, refusing to live "that way," on such humiliating terms, and she indicts God: "Why should I suffer so? what did I ever do?" She tells us the stories of five attempts to end her life, and the stories with retelling become less tragic, more darkly comical, and she laughs with me. I've done this work a while, but her lamentation at first overwhelmed me; I provided audience, but couldn't see the strategy, until I took her "case" to a group of my peers.

They said, don't get trapped in the clinical psychology, the "issues" of denial, shame and control. Listen to the song of her spirit. She is still alive, and on her terms. She challenges us, and refuses to be dead. Learn from her courage and from the strength of her will, and from her powerful projection of lament. She will die some day, but has not yet been reduced. There is trouble ahead, but also beauty here.

Altagracia and I are very different people, and her situation is different. She has much less time before her than I. But in my present mode I am a fellow traveler with all my clients. They narrate a thousand nights: there is always another tale to tell the angel, and I can mistake the tone and the substance as well as anyone.

Don't worry too much, and enjoy the whiskey.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

self discovery


If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.

-- Ayn Rand

No man is an island.

-- John Donne


You have to know yourself, and that's hard, and it takes time. A lifetime, and still not done. So it is likened to a journey that will take what you have, and must then be left to others.

In the present critical and theoretical climate, it's hard to imagine a voyage of discovery as virtuous. So let's not call it virtuous, let's call it necessary. Because when we're born we don't know who we are. In fact, we don't even know that we are. I learn that the sound filling the room and bringing comfort is my own act: I am the one who cries. I have to be taught that the stinky mass appearing several times a day between my legs is something made by me, and I must control and learn to dispose of it myself. I am told that the odd creature pointing at me in the mirror has a name, and that the name of it is my name.

Then it gets really complicated. I learn that I like ice cream and hate spinach, because they feel good or awful in the mouth, because I crave them or cringe at their approach, because I have fantasies of one and nightmares of the other. I learn that throwing and catching a ball feels good to me, or not. I learn that making a series of tones out of my whining seems a thing essentially worthy, or not. I learn that books comfort me, or not.

I come to know, often painfully, the wandering of my eros: what signals of gender, culture, passion and disgust, make my body feel like it belongs with another body. Or not. I learn, if I am fortunate and acquire the skills of such learning, what kind of person could be my friend. And what kinds could not. It might begin to dawn on me what the work of my life is.

Through intuition but also through blunder and error, you learn which activities are yours to do, making the existential pain go away not just for a moment but from hours to days, days to weeks, weeks to years to the rest of life. And you learn which activities should be done by someone else. And which should be done by no one.

"There's no great trick," says a character in Citizen Kane, "to making a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money." Making a lot of money was clearly not my life's work. But that's just one example, and not one that I have broken my heart over. More painful as a child to learn that athletic competence is not my life's work. Very painful as a youth to learn that concert pianism is not my life's work. Long and painful to learn after youth that my burdensome intellect does not belong in the schools.

So here I run in my groove, not always comfortable, not always right, and yet the groove seems to fit. People look at me, hear me, and say I have the look and the voice of a chaplain. There was a time when I would have taken offense at this. Nowadays I am glad to let go of imposture, the strain of portraying what I am not. Though even this rut might finally prove false, I have seen many things I am not, and I'm not going back.

But this is just my trek, and yours is for you to tell. So far I have described the interior voyage, the delving into unknown parts of the heart to discover what we must become. Discovery means to remove the cover. Revelation is to re-veal, taking down the veil of the temple. You find only what was always there.

And now you must return. This is the exterior voyage, the resumption of life that awaits when you return from the deep to the surface, with precious cargo. If you can't disembark with it, your Precious will rot in your hold. It must be for someone, or you'll never have enough of it. You'll only have enough if you give it away.


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Sunday, October 29, 2017

thirteen years

photo by Baldassarre
Fall is when the only things you know
because I've named them
begin to end.

-- Maggie Smith, "First Fall"*

Death, of course, is not a failure.

-- Atul Gawande, Being Mortal**

Thirteen years ago this month I made my first visits in the role of a chaplain.

My teacher, boss, trainer gave me eight patients in home care. Because I didn't know better, I visited all eight of them every week. After a few weeks of holy terror my ministry became a routine, predictable service from month to month. I went to their homes, heard their stories, checked in with the daughter or son or spouse or whoever was watching the journey. Each client took their place in the picaresque course of my life, each forming a chapter, a diversion, postponement and prolongation of my own strand of mortality. My road was wider because of them. With growing confidence I settled into the driver's seat. But something was missing.

Remarkable that it took six months for one of them to die. Two of them in fact, on the same day -- April 5, shortly before my birthday.

I had a case study due that afternoon, and in the morning I sat down for the first time to write of death. I had learned and owned the template, and I knew how to identify the issues and knock out the document in an hour or two. I wrote for twenty minutes, and then stopped; and to my great surprise, I wept. I'm not a weepy guy, and I hadn't seen it coming, but there it was. I don't say that I cried, or blubbered. I say that, in a formal and retro way, I wept. My eyes filled, my breathing became heavy, and wet blobs rolled down my face. I couldn't say why. I couldn't think.

So I pulled myself together, wiped my face, focussed on the screen, and spilled my thoughts once again into the template. And I stopped again, and wept.

And so it went. Write and weep, weep and write.

I was not collapsing: hadn't really thought I would, but you can't know until it happens, can you? Instead there was this strangely formal leakage.

Manuel had come as a young man from Cuba, and lived on people skills that did not require an education; had driven a taxi, had been a doorman. My teacher said Manuel was "seductive," and now he was reckoning with the fruits of his charm. He had womanized, and his wife had left him. Now his daughter was his caregiver, and before daughter and God he felt the guilt. He learned to talk to his daughter, but not to God. "I don't know how to pray," he said, with terror in his eyes. So I modeled simplicity with him -- you don't have to be fancy, I said, or use big words; just say what is on your heart. As I was leaving for what I did not know was the last time, he said "God bless you." And then he said "I love you." He was, after all, seductive.

Millicent was gentle and appreciative. She was fading out, more transparent every time I saw her. Her skin looked like tracing paper. I arranged for the priest to see her, and she couldn't remember he had come. The last time I saw her, she looked at her hand and said "There's nothing left." And I said, "But your heart is beating." She looked at me and said "Do you want to feel my heart beating?" Of course I said yes. She took my hand and placed it under her own, on the bones of her rib cage, and I could in fact still feel the beating of her heart.

Manuel and Millicent had opened doors and let me into their stories. Now those doors were shut, and the stories were perfect. They had reached full cadence and there was no part left for me, not a note. My teacher said they had canonized me. I was weeping, and the grief was sweet to me.

*Good Bones (North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2017), p. 4.

**Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), p. 7.


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Saturday, September 30, 2017

like bread

Creo que el mundo es bello,
que la poesia es como el pan, de todos.

I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

-- Roque Dalton, "Como tú," trans. Jack Hirschman*

Human beings are not to live on bread alone.

-- Matthew 4:4 (ASV)

Poetry feeds us. Poetry fills the void. Poetry keeps us alive. Poetry makes it possible to get out of bed in the morning.

In the beginning was the sound, but when sound became word there was song. A long time ago there was no boundary between singers and poets, and still today there are times and places where the word is a sound and not just a mark on papyrus. When song comes into being, the problem of meaning cannot appear, because in song there is always something to do and an urgent need to do it. The song makes us move. It makes us move here, not just anywhere. It makes us sound this note, not any other. It makes us move now, not in the future or the past. The right note at the wrong time is obscene -- you're standing on the dock with your expensive ring, and your lover's ship has sailed. So when there is song, there is simply no time for despair. Even if the song is about despair, you cannot despair while singing it.

If you despair, you've stopped singing. If you can't sing, you're in despair. People die in despair, and of despair. Those old guys whose wives of sixty years have died, who tell me, "I don't know how to live without her," should be taken at their word. Their lives are in danger, because she was their song and they don't have another one.

And when we stop singing, there is much to despair about. We are here only briefly, and though some will remember us, they themselves will be forgotten. History is mostly an entrainment of one damn thing after another, of cruelties followed by betrayals, greeds by lusts, addictions by aggressions and pomps by poxes.

Our intricate bodies seem designed as a practical joke. We can choke to death because our breathing and swallowing conflict at the larynx. We vibrate between disgust and desire because God has tangled our organs of excretion and orgasm, so not only were we born inter faeces et urinam, but we return to die of love there, midst joy and stink, over and over. There, I've done it. I've mentioned God, who if involved in anything would seem implicated in these wrappers, these structured sacks of blood and bone in which we lurch, churning the substance of our souls. I'm convinced that, if something corresponding to the word God exists, it laughs, but in this respect the great designer seems to snicker behind its almighty hand.

At work I hear the songs of my people. Sometimes I sing them back. The Lord arrives just in time, they say. He won't burden you with more than you can bear. But I know of many people who were broken before their carriage arrived. And who am I to say that those crushed by the world should be able to bear it?

Now here I touch the boundary of faith. How is it, knowing how soon I'll be obliterated, that I get up this morning to fill this page with words? And you, to write on the page that is this day of yours? This question obsesses me. A colleague said that he gets out of bed for his first cup of coffee, but I think he only postpones the question. I also need my hit of caffeine, but for what? the drug is just a tool, and if it didn't take me beyond itself I would lose the habit.

Pretty soon after waking we start singing, or else we stay in bed. This is where faith engages us. Faith is the song that makes it possible to endure our utter insignificance in the factual scale of things. Light from the second nearest star takes four and half years to reach us, and that distance is less than paltry in the enormity of galaxy, and our galaxy is swallowed by its local cluster, and so on . . .  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! wrote Shelley, postponing his own despair for the time of writing, and ours for the time of reading, or of speaking again for the thousandth time as I just did.

Faith is beneath reason. And theology, because it tries to give rational account of faith, is as dangerous as high explosive. Its statements are constantly concretizing, turning into stones for us to hurl at each other. Thus our Unitarian disdain for creeds, which we share with some other denominations of Protestant heritage. But even we who shrink from creeds can catch the plague of ideology, theology that does not know itself, ready to inspire crimes because finally, finally we subscribers have shed the Illusions and know The Truth, and knowing Truth we are authorized to dictate words and thoughts, and hurl the proper stones at those who speak differently.

Theology gives faith a bad name. The great slaughters inflamed by concretized theology are the stuff of history and the cable news.

What does not make the papers is the work of faith in all lives and on all days, calling us to better selves, dragging us out of muck and into worlds of spirit, making beauty and love by singing it, summoning patience to bear what must be born, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to discern the difference. When my people say The Lord always arrives just in time, they are not writing a tome of history. They are not asserting that bad stuff does not happen. They are not asserting. Period. They are singing.

This is what militant atheism misses. You can of course look throughout the universe and time, and not find a fact that is God. To notice this is to play at high stakes with doubt, a kind of provisional atheism where I sometimes live. Duh. So what? God is not a fact. God is a song. Fundamentalist and atheist alike overlook the category where life occurs. If what enables life is real, then the song is real.

A little child shall lead us, and poetry shall feed us like loaves of bread.

*Poetry Like Bread, ed. Martín Espada (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), pp. 128-9.

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