Monday, November 24, 2014

ham sandwich

A grand jury could indict a ham sandwich.

-- Sol Wachtler

You can indict a ham sandwich. I know this to be true. I've seen it happen. I colluded with the process.

Seven years ago I served on a federal grand jury. It lasted a month. We heard forty or so charges. We approved them all. Not once did we fail to indict.

Before the grand jury there was no defense. The prosecutor presented the evidence for "Probable Cause." You couldn't challenge their statement. You couldn't raise alternative interpretations. You couldn't speak up for the circumstances of the defendant; you couldn't hear from the defendant; after all, as the prosecutors said, the person wasn't yet actually a defendant. To indict is not to convict, they said. This person will have their day in court, they said, and then at trial they can raise all the concerns that you good people are raising now. Don't worry about the effect of your actions. It will all come out well in the end.

Yeah right. Few of them will ever get a trial. They can't afford it. Not many of them will be picked up pro bono by a competent lawyer. They'll cop a plea, confess to something they did or didn't do, without a briefing on the indelible consequences of that plea, because they have no other choice; so they'll do anything to avoid the trial. They'll testify against someone else, the bigger fish, and be left on the trash heap.

Forty or so charges came before us, and we indicted every person charged. You could tell that a few of those people were felons, and one was running an industrial scale marijuana farm. Many of them had committed the deadly crime of returning to the United States after being deported. Seven or eight had, at the instigation of pals or a pimp or a boyfriend, moved a package from one place to another, a package containing just ever so slightly too much weed. We indicted them all, in twenty minutes or at most an hour.

Now I would view that work in a very different way.

So now I know for sure that you can indict a ham sandwich. Unless the ham sandwich is a white police officer.

And now I'm marveling at the special grand jury, with its very special process, called into being around that police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That grand jury has made a decision, and their decision will be announced in a few minutes. I will finish writing this before their decision is announced.

But now, before we hear what they have done under direction of a reluctant prosecutor, I remember that I know what a grand jury is, and this was very different.

The person who would be charged, (that person who is "not yet a defendant" and may never be one), got to speak his piece to the grand jury. The prosecutor has not even recommended a charge. All interpretations of the evidence have been presented -- all the ways in which the person suspected might not actually have done the things of which he might be charged. In other words, it's a trial, though we have not been told so -- a trial with no prosecutor. The implication would be that the jurors are pressed to look for the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a standard vastly higher than the routine standard of probable cause to bring a charge. That's why it's taken so long. The people I indicted seven years ago got twenty minutes. Darren Wilson got three months to make it go away.

Maybe there's a better way to indict people than grand juries. If so, tell me what it is. But this was called a grand jury, and given that I know what a grand jury is, I cannot fail to see that some people get very special ones. I hope that what it looks like is not what it is. I won't know until the decision is announced, and it hasn't been announced yet.

This is what it looks like. It looks like the killer of an unarmed jaywalker has special protections, provided he has a badge and a European heritage. If that isn't true, if that isn't what the prosecutor meant to say, he should have done things differently. Now we'll see. I'm waiting.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

tumblin' down

. . And the walls come a-tumblin’ down . .

-- African-American spiritual

We’re on our way to Canaan, to the New Jerusalem.

-- European-American spiritual

When justice rolls down like waters, I ask myself, when tyrants and bullies are overthrown and the good guys win, what will the world look like? We think we know, but we don't. We don't know because we think we know. We work with tropes, linguistic models of transformation, but we need to interrogate those models. My love is like a red red rose, but she will not appreciate it if I spray her with pesticide or prune her in the winter. Lions might some day lie down with lambs, but will the lambs then sleep well, or should they? We must search our poems of liberation for their actual consequences. There is a boundary beyond which we cannot press our metaphors. As we stand at that boundary, our imperfection of purpose is exposed.

This kind of thinking is not fun. It’s about metrics rather than proclamation, statistics not rhetoric, prose not verse. Or rather, it’s like telling your dream to the analyst, both of you knowing that the dream is already in its Secondary Revision, and now you’re aware that the walls of the room didn’t meet in the corners, and you can’t actually fly. So now in our mortality, our limitation of strength and stamina, and in the face of history’s unfathomable creativity for violence, by what standard shall we measure our hoped-for resolution of American original sin?

The book of Exodus became a world-wide trope of liberation. Enslaved people, the story says, must walk out of the enslaver's authority. Moses, supported by accelerating divine violence, convinces the Pharoah of Egypt to "let my people go." The enslaved Hebrews cross the sea, vacating the place where their labor had been stolen. Then Moses learns what his real problem is: his own people would rather eat from the stewpots of Egypt than face the wilderness. So begins the forty years of wandering, in which the covenant between God and the chosen people is redefined. The generation of escape, including Moses, will die before the Israelites come into their Promise. What precisely is that Promise?

I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation. But we have got to remember now that Joshua still had a job to do.

-- Barack Obama at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007

Dr. King said the night before he died that he had gone to the mountain-top and “seen the Promised Land,” but by casting himself as Moses he assigned the realization of promise to another generation, a “Joshua generation.” Barack Obama, in his progress toward presidency, flirted with the role of Joshua.

But the Joshua-trope has not taken hold, and not merely because black liberation is incomplete. It fails because it is unsuitable. Joshua's "job" is not to liberate but to exterminate. He leads us not into right relation with the oppressor but into violence toward the innocent. Instead of establishing justice in the land of their oppression, the Israelites inflict new injustice on people in another land who had done them no harm. The lightning war of Joshua has served as a manual for the advance of Europeans into the American West (“empty” except for Indians), for the trek of the Boer Piet Retief into the interior of South Africa (“empty” except for Zulu and Xhosa), and models the expansion of Germany into Lebensraum (“empty” except for racially inferior Slavs). "You must doom them to destruction," says Yahweh to his shock troops, "Grant them no terms, and give them no quarter" (Deut. 7:1-2, Tanakh).* No people standing in the way of the formerly oppressed wants to be designated as Canaanites. The often-sung Battle of Jericho, whose walls came a-tumblin' down, is no more a freedom-fight than was Wounded Knee. The Osage Indian theologian Robert Allen Warrior warns us that "Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror."**

"Thank God it never happened," said my Old Testament professor, and many a rabbi joins in the sentiment with a sigh of relief. Neither archaeology nor the deuteronomic history as a whole support the violent boast of Joshua's book. Those pesky Kenites and Kenizzites and Kadmonites and Hittites and Jebusites, not to mention the Philistines, were not exterminated. They survived to trouble the kingdom for the rest of its existence.

And even if the story were true, it would still be unsuitable. Our formerly enslaved brothers and sisters did not walk out and go elsewhere, as many a white supremacist hoped they would, but stayed here to claim their freedom among us. And that's why their liberation still lingers. There was no getting rid of our scarlet letters. The Pharoah and those he enslaved must figure out how to live together.

Every American should thank God that Joshua was not our general, and the Civil Rights Campaign was in no way like the book that bears his name. White Pharoahs didn't get to export their sins and inflict the consequences elsewhere. We stole the land of Indians and the labor of Africans, and now we must live with those we stole from, and they must live with us. It has taken, and will continue to take, some reckoning and repentance, some forgiveness and restitution. The true Land of Promise, the land where we hope to live in peace, is the very land where this story started. The New Jerusalem is Egypt transformed, with hearts broken and born again under divine sovereignty.

*Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to The Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 285.

**"Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians," Christianity in Crisis, 49 (September 11, 1989): 261-265

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

strange martyr

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.

-- Archibald MacLeish

Colleagues of mine who come from the St. Louis area think that tomorrow will see an announcement concerning the possible indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown to death on August 9.  Some sources are saying that he will be cleared of any charges.


For Michael Brown, Strange Martyr

We don’t know what you died for.
We don’t know what you lived for.
We don’t know what you were doing.
You weren’t carrying a placard.
You weren’t carrying a weapon.
You weren’t trying to become a public figure.

Now in death you are a public figure,
Your death is a placard, but blank.
We only know what you were not doing:
You weren’t committing a capital crime.

What you were doing is yet to appear.
In fullness of time something will happen,
And what happens will fill the placard.
The sentence hung on you from birth,
Strange fruit of the guilty tree, spelled out,
Falls ripe on the hot center stripe.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

negative work

Murder your darlings.

-- Arthur Quiller-Couch, "On Style," Cambridge lectures 1914

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

-- attr. Michelangelo

When I worked in an art called theatre, I would pray please god don't send me on stage with any nice guys. Let me go into action with the shameless: you can count on them to do what's necessary at the moment it must be done.

Artists may be kind, but Art is cruel. Writing is cruel, if you're doing it for the writing. Writing is rewriting, they all say. The ancient advice from writers to those who would be is to kill babies. Put your beauty on the page and rip its heart out.

It's negative work, like sculpture. There's a pile of words and concealed in it is something worth reading. So hack off the blubber.  Excise everything you can and what's left, if it still breathes, is what you just realized you meant to say.

It's like music - if you're going to get there you have to get there now. Don't justify yourself - it makes you late. The right note at the wrong time is a wreck, and the right word at the wrong time is a disgrace: there you are with your dozen roses and she's run off with the other guy. So don't waste time.

No mercy. No reverence for good intentions, for what's expected, or what you think may be expected, or what you thought you meant to do. No compassion for stragglers; explanation only makes your journey more obscure. You might get lost. You might get hurt. You might die. But if you miss the tide, your voyage sticks in shallows and in miseries.

I do this for the writing.

That sounds pompous.

The actor Peter Siragusa, with whom I once worked, protested the thought that his career was an obscure one. "Obscure! I'll have to climb several rungs up the ladder before I'll deserve to be called 'obscure'!"

So I, who toil in what hardly measures up to "obscurity," say merely as a fact that I do this for the writing. That is the hygiene here practiced. I don't do this to save the world, to satisfy an entrance requirement, to win the approval of a committee or to complete a curriculum.

I hack away at my pile of words until it looks like something has been found in it alive and then, if god gives me good sense on that day, I quit. It's bloody work, a butchery to which I am addicted. I throw away mounds of flesh. I love throwing things away: it feels like victory.

There are other things to write for than writing, but if you're writing for the writing, you do things that you might not otherwise do.

First rule: brevity is, as a tedious fool once said, the soul of wit. So if you can take out a sentence, a phrase, a word, a letter without the house of cards collapsing - you should take it out. All that other stuff, all that explanation and explication and illustration and deprecation, was just getting in the way.

Second rule: the thing has more power than the idea. A proverb says the "pen is mightier than the sword," and that's better writing than "ideas can bring down governments."

Third rule: action takes precedence over abstraction.  "We shook hands" is better than "we made peace."

If you follow these rules religiously, you risk a certain divergence from the truth. Depending on the situation, that divergence may be more important or less so, it's for you to judge. But you must also decide what you mean by truth. If you write for the sake of writing, then it's the truth of writing that is of greatest price. Writing's truth is not what it says but what it does. There never was a Pequod or an Ishmael, but the tale he told to Melville has not finished its run.

I've dramatized myself again, so let me make it clear that I'm a purveyor of small fry and shall not hoist any white whales from my abbatoir. This is just a game I play and need to play, and every now and then I'm informed there are a few others willing to follow along.

Some friends suggest an alternative to the questions I posed last week, and I am flattered by their attention. I proposed that the one and only religious question is: "what is worth dying for?" They would prefer "what is worth living for?" It's hard to argue against them.

I had posed myself, for the sake of writing, a cruel assignment - naming a single question. It's like an assignment I used to give to theatre students: in one sentence (not a compound sentence) what happens in this play? this scene? All sorts of things could be said to happen in for instance Hamlet, but what are you going to make happen? Choose and you have a chance to be remembered - or you can be kind to everybody and wallow in oatmeal.

Both of the questions I posed imply other questions, and those questions could have been the basis of a conversation.

I said that the one and only scientific question is: "how do things generally work?" But the best answers to that question lead us to another question often asked of scientists - "how did it all begin?" It's not possible these days to speak deeply of how things generally work without telling the origin story called Big Bang, and that is what Tyson does. Science of the present day speaks about the general laws only with reference to a singular event, a miracle if you will -- though Dr. Broun apparently can't see the miracle in it. The greatest mystery of all, before which Tyson avowedly flummoxes, is "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

And it's hard to answer the religious question of "what is worth dying for?" without entering the companion question of what one lives for. They're not quite the same question but can often stand in for each other. If you were to get up from your chair this moment and keel over dead, without knowing what hit you, you would have died for exactly what you lived for. For some this may be an appalling thought, and we all know some people for whom the thought is not as appalling as it should be. Though for others of us this would be a fortunate outcome, most would serve themselves well by considering the sum total of their lives at regular intervals: if I died right now, what would I have died for? Making death present to ourselves, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, is a strong way to concentrate the mental and moral faculties. It is possible, by thought and criticism and courage, to die for something other than what one lived for, or to change the composition of one's living.

As a rhetorician I preferred the more shocking question. Asking people to think about their dying concentrates the mind. Perhaps that is why our late most famous minister Forrest Church used to say that "religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." Perhaps that very concentration of the heart and mind, that particular way each of us tightens the breath and the sphincter, is our faith.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

two questions

I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts.

-- William Wordsworth, 1798

What I’ve come to learn is that [the Bible is] the manufacturer’s handbook.

-- Rep. Paul Broun, September 27, 2012*

There is only one scientific question: how do things generally work? If you are addressing this question you are doing science. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing science. This goes for you and me, for fundamentalist ministers, for popes and presidents, and it also goes for scientists.

There is only one religious question: what is worth dying for? If you are addressing this question you are doing religion. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing religion. This goes for you and me, for scientists and philosophers, and it also goes for popes and prophets and fundamentalist preachers.

No one works on either of these questions all the time, because there are plenty of other good questions to be asked and answered, but everyone works on each question some of the time. But you can't do both at once because they are different questions, different as oil and water that cannot mix. If Neil deGrasse Tyson rhapsodizes on the awesome magnitude of space/time, revealing what makes him tick and displaying his intuition of the sacred, he has for that moment stopped being a scientist. If Dr. Broun insists that all the major scientific theories are "lies from the pit of hell," and treats the scripture as a textbook of cosmology, he has for that moment stopped being a man of faith.

Science is not about awe, and religion is not about the facts. Science is about generalities, but religion is about singularities. The product of science is expressed in laws, but the product of faith is expressed in miracles. They have nothing to say to each other.

The laws of science, i. e., Newton's Laws of Motion, or Einstein's Laws of General and Special Relativity, or the octaves and chords of the Periodic Table, are not human laws. Copernicus did not compel the earth to travel around the sun, Newton did not order every action to produce an equal and opposite reaction, and Freud did not command the Unconscious to direct our conscious decisions. So-called laws of nature express regularities. They tell us how the world generally works. It is not scientists who speak such laws but Cosmos itself, answering to those questions that scientists call experiments.

Now as every stockbroker tells us, we cannot prove, by proclamation or deduction, that the cosmos will do tomorrow what it has done till now. We can be pretty darn sure that the sun will come up again tomorrow, but we acquire that assurance by affirming the regularity of the world, that if we do this kind of thing, then a certain kind of that will follow. A scientist may be wonder-struck at what he learns, but his job is to demystify the world, and he had better get on with it. He picks out the pattern in what we thought was chaotic. He makes the unconscious conscious, the unpredictable predictable, the random lawful. Otherwise he is a failure.

Miracles, i. e., the Resurrection of an executed prophet, or the peaceful collapse of a violent empire, or the recovery of an addict, or the making of a way where there is no way, or the reconciliation of lifelong enemies, are not lawful; they are exceptions to laws. They are the things that no one can see coming. No one thought that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would make peace; no one thought that gay people would win the right to marry each other; no one thought a president of color could be elected; almost no one thought that people would walk on the moon -- not until these things happened.  They are things to be marveled at -- miracula.

After miracles happen, science may try to rationalize the singularity, by making new and larger laws that include it. Sometimes science succeeds. Sometimes not. With success comes demystification: a former miracle becomes the newest predictable event. With failure comes skepticism: we don't expect the thing to happen again -- or perhaps we don't expect that it happened even the first time.

If tomorrow morning the science page of the New York Times reports that a prophet, using only his words, turned certain containers of water into containers of wine, the event so described would be a miracle. But it would not end science. Nor would it prove that God exists. It would prove only what we already know: stuff happens that we have no way of expecting. But science is not about that stuff. Science is about all that other stuff that we can learn to predict. And its task is to show us how to predict things we formerly had no way of predicting.

If the New York Times reported transformation of water into wine by fiat, then on the very next morning a new research project would begin, whose goal would be to determine how, by a hitherto unknown process, water can be so altered. When we have our science hats on we expect that, sooner or later, if enough resources are provided, the project will succeed, and new larger laws of nature will be discovered. Perhaps we can industrialize the process, making vineyards unnecessary -- though there will always be those old farts who still savor miracles, clinging to the notion that there is no substitutute for terroir. And perhaps there is no substitute. It's been said that most people blindfolded can't distinguish red from white; but even if that's true do we really want to get all our wine from test tubes, forgetting what earth is for, to whom we shall return whether we are familiar with our mother or not?

I have a recurring dream that looks a bit like Tyson's voyage amidst iridescent vortices of space and time.** Like him I look through the portal of a space-ship, and I marvel at the awful beauty of what I am privileged to behold. Then I think of how far I have come from the earth, a very particular place, a New England village with trees that arch over the street, Victorian homes and a meeting-house on the square with white pillars and green shutters, a high spire and clear windows through which truth can shine. How long ago and far away. How many doors I have shut behind me, when the music grew sour, to enter different rooms with a different face and a bigger ensemble and a greater hope, one door after another. I realize that they were one-way doors; the portal of this cockpit behind me is sealed. There is no going back, only forward amidst strange splendor, and I long instead to put another log on the fire, don my slippers and sip my single-malt in an ancient parlor now forbidden by a flaming sword.

The sadness of fundamentalists, or of politicians who troll for votes by pretending to be fundamentalists, is that neither the scientific question nor the religious one is adequate in itself for life. Though I am reasonably healthy for a man of my age, I have on three occasions rejected, with the help of medical science, nature's plan for my death. And my friend has come through a greater trial than any of mine, with a vision of recovery before him confirmed by the fallible predictability of "best practice." If Dr. Broun's spouse or child gets cancer or a rotten appendix, I will not condemn him for praying; but I know damn well that before he prays he will recommend his loved one to medical science, though the scripture of science proceeds, he says, from hell-mouth. But he does not really believe that science emerges from hell-mouth: when life is on the line he will entreat the scorned goddess to work a miracle for him.

So there are two possibilities about the congressman's character. He is perhaps an outright liar, swindling those who hate the mind. Or with slender knowledge of himself he may really think he believes what he said, ignorant of his own ultimate concern. When he takes his scripture for a science text, he mixes what God has set apart, offending both science and his faith. Let us pray for his soul.

I have plenty to confess myself, but I'm pretty damn sure I know the difference between my sixteen-year Bushmill's Irish, aged as they assure me in three woods, and my Laphroig triple wood Scotch. Pretty sure. Really. I'd know it blind-folded.

*Liberty Baptist Church, Hartwell, Georgia

**Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, Fox Television Network

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

real life

We just borrowed . . . during a desperate time.  We had no way of knowing that all the times would be desperate.

-- "The Jump," The Middle, November 13, 2013

There is one thing that should not be scarce, that should in fact increase, and that is good and pleasurable and decent work.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling*

I once heard the chairman of one of those academic theatre departments where I spent much of my life say to his students and the professors, that he had been here more than twenty years and he was still waiting for a regular year. By which he meant a year that was not deformed by some unexpected emergency, so that everybody forgot what the purpose, the real life, of the department was. He was waiting for real life to begin.

It's a different tree in my parlor every December, but the same objects adorn it.  The same lights, the same museum-store stars and snowflakes, the same lustrous paper globes made in China and acquired I know not how or when. Some people make the Christmas tree anew each year, but that is not our way. The tree is supposed to take us back in time. To what?

Whenever I die, I would have lived ten years longer if I hadn't been a homeowner. It's been hard to stay in the middle class.

Ehrenreich pegged us: we belong to the managerial middle-class. Those misérables of vast accountability and scant power, those villeins who hold the title of "manager," are our brothers and sisters.

But I'm not a manager, I say. I'm a do-gooder. I'm not charged with quotas for the production of widgets. I don't feed my children by inducing others to do things, always faster, that they nor I would otherwise do.

No no. We are creatures of a different sort, and our own masters. We make the world better. We serve our hearts' intuition of paradise; and we plan to come home in the evening proud, nourished by our good deeds. We are teachers, academics, pastors, social workers, artists, journalists, tellers of truth, doctors to the poor, comforters of the afflicted. We are professionals. For the greater good of course. Ad maiorem dei gloriam.

The right to choose our rewards, to prosper either financially or morally, is our middle-class pretension. Some endure their work for the sake of its compensation, but we are the ones who endure their compensation for the sake of the work. We feel entitled to a secure if modest place in the middle class. We don't expect to be rich, but at least god help us we shall not be poor. We have our degrees and our diplomas and our certificates, those prizes that can never be taken away, and we expect by diligence, education and purity, to succeed as breadwinners.

But staying in the middle class has been a brutal ordeal. Nobody told us how hard this would be.

I've owned four houses, and sold each of them for more than we paid. But the surplus from each house went to pay the debts we had contracted to live there. We never got ahead. This is how it works.

You had to buy a house because if you didn't you weren't middle-class. And because you would be passing up a tax deduction. And because your kids had to go to good schools. So you had two options: you could pay private school tuition, or you could buy the cheapest house in the expensive neighborhood where the schools were good. To buy that cheapest house you forked over every penny you had, would have or could imagine ever having; then you paid forty-percent of your monthly paycheck to live in it. You were amazed the bank would let you do this, but the bank didn't care, they would sell your mortgage six months later to a hedge fund in Hong Kong. You had nothing left over to start a college fund, or (lol) to save for retirement, or to buy a summer home, or to take vacations on the Riviera or at Disney World, or to set aside a fund for future home repairs and maintenance. You didn't own a boat. Your cars (and no, you couldn't survive with less than two) were so old and disgusting that the private police would throw you out of neighborhoods you were invited to visit.  You were not having fun. Your credit cards ballooned. Sometimes the kids got winter coats and you did not.

Then came the day when the boiler died, or the roof leaked, or the plumbing went rotten; you learned why that cheapest house had come to you so cheap. Since you had no slush fund to meet such expense, you took out another loan, because the community would punish you if you didn't take care of your house, would expose you as a deadbeat who didn't deserve to live in a middle-class neighborhood: the next time your infrastructure failed, you wouldn't be able to get that loan.

Meanwhile you and your children were running with people and their children who lived in a different world, people who took ski vacations in Colorado or Switzerland, people whose take-home pay leaped upward when their "year-to-date" exceeded the maximum payments to Social Security and Medicare. I have never in my life experienced that upward leap.

And you had to keep up. If you looked poor they would kick you out of the caravan and leave you by the roadside. I once received a letter from my agent, saying that there was nothing wrong with my talent but that my wardrobe was unbelievably shabby, and that I needed immediately to acquire several thousand dollars worth of new clothes: this many suits of such colors and fabrics, sweaters and dress shirts and ties, shoes and socks of such colors and qualities, where to buy them and in what combinations. As I read that letter the plastic in my wallet began to hiss and pop.

I felt one step ahead of the bailiff, five minutes from the jailhouse. What is this jail you're afraid of? asked a therapist.  Debtors' prison, I said, don't let anybody tell you it doesn't exist any more. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford, I was another year older and deeper in debt. And having no fun. Every year, like James Stewart in Vertigo, we hung from the gutter by our fingertips, waiting for the whole assembly to detach and fling us into some shameful void. And o come o come Emmanuel we longed for a regular year.  We wondered if real life would ever begin for us, the life our neighbors seemed to be living, the life where you paid your mortgage and fed and clothed yourself and set aside some other money for a rainy day and prepared for the future that you and your kids might inhabit as a citizen rather than a sojourner. And it wouldn't have to be a miracle.

Each December we looked at the tree and, with the help of a few beers, gave cautious thanks that we weren't in jail yet. It was, despite incremental changes in the cast of ornaments, the same tree; it carried us back to those past years which, though they had teemed with their own horrors, seemed safe in memory because we had survived them.

The past, in one sense, is always disappointing; but in another sense it is always safe, which is why we feel such liberty to condemn it. However horrible the annus horribilis, we knew that we had survived. I had not gone to jail that year, which meant it had been a mild year after all, unlike the beastly year that hissed and roared before me, the year to come in which for sure . . . .

Well, never mind.

So now I do not own a home. I do not own a car. I pay my rent and take a subway to work. I'm still paying off the debts I took out to get the kids through college, but no more of those unpayable bills are coming in.  I live in the New Jerusalem, a city of God with twelve gates where the nations come to visit, or to make a new life. The savings I did not know how to tap and deplete on houses, my 401K and my SSI and my pensions, are now available; it's my money now, and if the balance of the month is a bit in the red I can go find a bit of that cash. I look at the same old red and white lights, the same snowflakes and stars and angels, the same lustrous Chinese paper globes, and am reasonably sure that I will not be in jail next year. If by some chance I die this year, I won't die in jail.

Maybe this was a regular year.

Maybe my real life has begun.

There are others who are still waiting.

*Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p, 260

Sunday, October 13, 2013

sistine chapel

If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all.

-- Mk 9:35 (REB)

I’m looking at an artifact of my father’s, hanging on the wall, a triptych of scenes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the center panel, God reaches out toward the inert hand of Adam, about to transfer the spark of life. On the right and left, God has his closeups, his one-shots: creating the sun and moon on the left, separating heavens from earth on the right. For some reason, the face of God creating the lights of heaven, the one on the left, seems angry.

He rendered those scenes in black and white, no grays, printed from linoleum blocks whose surface he cut away with special tools to reveal the figures. So the lines and shapes have no modulation; the terminator between dark and light is absolute, like shadows on the moon.

These majestic shapes of God, rendered by my father, are inseparable for me from my father himself. He still floats in featureless space with no visible support, ordering the firmament with his gestures and moods.

He was more than this forbidding majesty. My children never knew that he had once been a goofy man, clowning and punning, pranking and cracking wise -- a six-foot-four elf, gangly and awkward, who made my mother and me laugh till we could not breathe. Addicted to language, he initiated me into word games that left the rest of the family behind, sometimes in tears.

In his study I saw my first brick-and-plank bookcases; in no other home did I see so many books, too many for a polite single cabinet. They towered over me in various languages ancient and modern; but because they belonged to him they were my friends. I could not meet them all on their own terms, but was sure that when I got older they would speak to me.

He wrote his sermons the night before, until two or three in the morning, and while he wrote he would play Beethoven or Wagner, Bach or Brahms, Marian Anderson or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, at penetrating volume. And when the music woke me I would turn and go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that the shepherd was awake and vigilant below, a man of God in the midst of God’s work. Schafe können sicher weiden, wo ein guter Hirte wacht.

But the faces of God in his triptych, suspended in darkness, are forbidding. Under each panel an inscription in Greek. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh. He made his home among us.

These were his Christmas cards to his congregation. Stern faces of God floating in darkness. Texts in an ancient language. He might as well have gone on to say, The world did not recognize him. It’s the perfect summation of his love and disdain, wisdom and folly, vision and blindness.

I imagine myself receiving this opus from my minister. What a downer. What are these letters at the bottom? What’s he trying to say? Who does he think he is? Does he even care whether we understand him? Some of those who admired him would say to me, he’s so much more than a parish minister. Now I think he was so much other.

I once asked him why he sent the verses in Greek. How would the congregants understand them? “Maybe it’ll make them curious,” he said. “Maybe they’ll read the Bible for once.” Every pastor suffers in the ministry, and he suffered exquisitely.

I could never get rid of this triptych, and now it hangs in my parlor. So well done, so severe, so sophisticated, so learned, so good for my wall, so bad for the purpose intended. I could never get rid of this triptych, so eloquent of him and speechless to the souls in his charge, because it speaks to me, and of me. I too love my books, and grieve for the loss of them. I too feel their call when I am too long away from them. I’ve been too long away from them.

No one compelled him, in his generation of ministerial formation, to take on the work that I have taken on. Nowadays there are requirements -- but then I suppose it was understood that if you knew the Bible, you knew how to give counsel. The thing we begin to learn on the first day, and continue to learn on the second, the third, the hundredth, the thousandth and again tomorrow morning, is that I am not in the center of it all. My knowledge is not the good news that might come today. My stuff is not the thing that is to do. I’m supposed to do my homework, then put it away and go to work.