Wednesday, December 31, 2008

seeing ghosts

O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

-- Dylan Thomas, “Poem in October”

My friend once said that his epitaph should be “I Still Don’t Get It!” Mine should be “Wait a Minute! I Was Just Getting the Hang of This!”

The poet committing his thirtieth birthday to verse while drinking himself to death would get his wish. Nine more times. But his greater wish was also granted. His heart’s truth is still sung, fifty-five years now since it stopped beating. His singing outlives him. But that’s what singing is for. We sing to outlive ourselves, it’s as simple as that. We’re only here. We’re only now. We’re only this. We’re every bit of here, and now, and this. There’s no way out of facticity; eternity is deeper in.

Yeshua supposedly did this for us – he went deeper. If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing, goes the carol, a star in the sky or a bird on the wing, he surely could have had it. But he emptied himself, in what the theologians call a kenosis. That’s the story -- the All became a This. This is All.

I’ve already exceeded the poet’s span by twenty-two years, but I too could use another turning. I’m not finished. I’m barely begun. I’m just getting the hang of it. This project hasn’t turned a year since it began. The world however is turning over its year, and this is the first of its turnings in my present era, my Year One. There isn’t any way out of this passage, these words I excrete in the last few hours of the year, throwing away as many as still remain, filling a form that has no authority but my brief tradition, inflating my balloon with buoyant gas, racing to the established number of words before the deadline. I’m here now doing this.

I work with a nurse who once said he’d been doing this work so long he was starting to see ghosts. You might think this sounds like a bad thing. People say, how can you stand to do “this work”? How can you bear the grief? To lose all these people!

I quote him all the time, because I also see ghosts. He meant that we have known people who are still singing. The city where I work or amuse myself is not a faceless place. In that building lives Mario, who canonized me. Just down that block lives Vivienne, who found me funky enough. Across the street from St. John the Divine is the nursing home where Joseph pushed my buttons. From the front door of my seminary I see the apartment where Margaret showed me that her heart was still beating. We don’t lose these people. We find them. We take them with us as the year turns.

My powers – remember – are “to Hear, to Travel, to Name and to Bless” (July 28). I do not rescue these people. I do not save them. I can’t fix their predicament or repeal mortality. I do not create, but when I’m on my game I might reveal something – remembering that what is revealed was already there. I might make it possible for their song to emerge, their strange song in a strange land – the land between birth and death that we both are crossing. It’s only in strange lands that the Lord’s song can be sung.

We are no better than we should be, either of us. On a given day, the client is in a mess and I am a mess. But it’s not about me. It’s what they are, here and now, that counts. No way out of their facticity, only deeper in. It’s their story, they write the script. Where they go, we follow. Where they get stuck, we stay with them. This is what we call Traveling.

Sometimes I think I’m cheating. There is loss in our work; those who knew a client before I knew him -- they lose him. But I never knew him before, and I do not lose. I gain. Those for whom their loved ones grieve travel with me; as the poet says, their heart’s truth still sings as the year turns. It All comes down to This.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

another world

We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world . . .

-- Wendell Berry, “Remembering that it happened once”

I know some nurses who do this fifty times a day. Me, half a dozen or so.

The founder of our work, Anton Boisen, spoke of our patients as “living human documents.” The words imply a task – we are to read these documents. They are scripture – the place we start from. We do not come to the door – we ought not – to reveal the truth but to be present at it. When we go through the door we enter another world.

Reading scripture is difficult. Both words are difficult: reading and scripture.

Scripture is difficult because, though we must start there, it is never the beginning. It is uncanny, but its uncanniness is always already smudged. The papyrus has rotted, the letters have faded, the scribe was inattentive, the copyist mistook marginal notes for text, the translator lacks the voice of dead language, the church father smears timeless surface with wash of his time, the pastor intones the Word with concupiscence of institution. When I was a child it was impious to abandon the sonorous erroneous Shakespearian language of the King James Bible; now fundamentalists arm themselves with snappy modern versions. The essence of idolatry is to mistake the smudge for what was smudged; to declare sacred what separates us from the sacred. Like a devotee of vinyl who can’t hear truth unless its contrasts are compressed and overlaid with a needle’s hiss, we worship the Veil.

Our living documents are no more perfect than ourselves. Their living both reveals and smudges the spark of creation. We come into their presence with sandals removed. Shema! is the ancient command, not just to listen but to “hearken” – to listen and obey. But what is our obedience? Not just to accept, but to argue. Jonah argued; Job argued; Moses argued. You argue not because you know the truth but because you do not, because truth is never delivered, like the head of a prophet, on a platter. So as the document unwinds, you hear the voice with suspicion. Inwardly agnostic to the claim of devotion, you postpone the awe. This other world, as the poet says, is our world. You owe it at least as much care as you give to this one. You probe. You explore. You experiment. You hypothesize. Have I got it right? If you fear to be wrong, you will never see the right. Is it this? Is it that? What if . . . ? “No” begins the world. Criticism’s disarmament offends God.

It all comes down to reading. This too is a difficult word. Reading is never of marks in themselves but of marks reaching out toward what they signify. Reading peels back the surface of delivered text, which is always a secondary revision, to what lies behind it but which in turn is always to be read. There’s no end to this reading. That’s how you know it’s holy.

The poet proposes a vision of Holy Family. In a world where it happened once, he says, we can’t be sure, going through any familiar door, it won’t happen again. We don’t know that it hasn’t happened, or that we didn’t fail to see it. The other world is this one, prosaic and unique. Our place is “Holy, though we knew it not” – because at any given moment it could be holy.

True children of Enlightenment, people of my faith hate hierarchies, queasy at the thought that anyone should have a special place in creation. We democratize the birth. “So the children come,/ And so they have been coming./ . . . . Each night a child is born is a holy night,” wrote Sophia Lyons Fahs, and her words are spoken in many of our churches on Christmas Eve. The sacredness of birth is universal, and this one birth no more no less. But no one birth in the endless procession is mere statistic. Each transforms the world. Each is Good News to all people of good will. Each is the unique child of God. Looking into new eyes, we see the sky crack open, and we are sore afraid.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

divine work

Those who wish to join us in this divine work must be willing to lose their white identity -- indeed, destroy it.

-- James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

This I cannot do. I cannot destroy my identity. I cannot even lose it.

My circle of prep school boys loved an older girl who told us of adventures in the city. She had met James Brown in a club – and he talked with her. “This,” he said, touching the flesh of his arm with the other hand, “this doesn’t rub off.” This was of course his color. If James Brown said such a thing – even if Patricia only imagined that he did – the trope shows contrast of colored and colorless. Peoples of color learn that their existence is an issue. One can imagine the erasure of even an indelible pigment, and therefore colored and colorless may say, expressing different wishes, If only . . . But erasing whiteness, rubbing off what has no color, is more than impractical – it’s inconceivable. No one asked Patricia to “rub off” her whiteness. Except perhaps Patricia herself.

New York City was for Patricia where real life happened. Her family in the suburbs of Hartford were a kind of death for her. White. A blank page. No story. And Patricia was a story-teller. So whenever she could, she went to the city to smudge her whiteness, to mark the page that otherwise had nothing to say. When she told me of her tête-à-tête with the King of Soul, I had no idea who James Brown was. Or what Soul was, for that matter. But I heard the tremor when she spoke his name, her thrill at the Monarch’s condescension, confiding to her his grief. Now I think it was not grief.

This doesn’t rub off. If he didn’t say it, he might have said it. It doesn’t rub off because it isn’t paint. It goes through and through. There’s no way to remove it and leave me here. This doesn’t rub off. It’s not a lament when I say it. It’s a celebration. I don’t work around my color. I don’t overcome my color. I sing my color, and I Feel Good when I sing it. My integrity is to sing what I am and what you – incidentally – are not. Your city makeup, the solidarity written on your blank face, comes off with a little soap when you go home. I’ll still be here, Black and Proud.

“Theology is always identified with a particular community.” And mine is the community that enslaved one people of color for profit and power, while cleansing another from the land in the name of New Jerusalem. We did it because we could, and then we convinced ourselves that it was good to do it. We rationalized our work and pronounced on it the blessing of God. These are the original sins of my country.

Our parents ate sour grapes, and now my teeth are on edge. I look at my hand and my arm, turning slowly in the light, and I say, this doesn’t rub off. I can paint over it, but after a shower the blankness returns. How shall I recover my soul? I can’t take it from a black man, for it lives only in his body. I can’t sing his song without changing it. “No matter how hard whitey tries there can be no real duplication of black soul.”

I can never cease to be the son of my mother and my father, trained in a school for leading citizens that, even if I hadn’t done well on my entrance exams, would have had a place for me. Not viewed as a shoplifter every time I enter a store. Not encouraged by well-meaning teachers to become a janitor. If I give all my earthly goods to the poor, I shall still be white. After my death I will still be white. Even more so.

“Interrogate your social location.” These words are not carved in stone over the gate of my seminary, and yet I read them there. I have interrogated: I am who I am. I take inventory of the sins that have always already tilted the ground. And I take inventory of the assets that, even if corruptly awarded, I cannot alienate. If power is mine, I hold it in trust. It comes down to this: love kindness and act justly, and walk humbly with the God who took sides before I was born.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

fool's gold

Business! . . . Mankind was my business.

-- A Christmas Carol

A good man I know, who sold his business and retired to family life, argued once with his wife about how much he paid his workers. She thought he paid them too much, or himself too little. “Yes,” he said, “I let some of those guys earn more than I did. And that is why we’re rich today.” Teddy didn’t think the people who worked for him were liabilities. Though he did not own them, they were his wealth. He shared the rewards of work, and lo! there was plenty to go around.

Now it seems that workers are reduced to cost. Cheap as dirt, washed down the drain whenever capital markets need a gesture of due diligence. Every new management begins by firing people to show they are “serious.” (The old management were not serious, because they left people unfired.) A penny paid in compensation for the skill and care of others is a penny stolen from the profits. And the more people you fire, the higher soar the shares: your options turn to gold. It’s a model of scarcity, a less-than-zero sum game. If you find cheaper people, or make one do the work of two, you pocket more than what you paid the departed ones. The wheels are coming off the carriage, but you’ll be safe and gone before the passengers tumble in the ditch. It’s you or them. The less goes round, the more there is for you.

Every Scrooge gets to define his Cratchit as a criminal. Poor Bob picks his boss’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December. A day’s pay with nothing done. Where, shouts Moneybags, is his work ethic? How dare he consume my substance? For that matter, how dare he burn another of my lumps of coal?

Yet not even Moneybags can repress the memory of another business model. “Yo ho, my boys! No more work tonight,” shouts Fezziwig, curtailing labor to waste his capital on feast and drink, music and dance, laughter and family affection. Though Moneybags has the power to condemn his dependents, Fezziwig has the power to bless them, “to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil.” The difference is “a few pounds of your mortal money.” The model of abundance. The more goes round, the more there is. Moneybags is envious. But he has had his revenge.

Scrooge is right. There is always a dark satanic mill and a frigid counting-house ready to put Fezziwig out of business. It isn’t good enough to do well; one must extract every last dime right now. So capital markets punish the generous impulse, the vision of future, the aspiration to quality, prudence itself. Not even the bottom line matters in the end – it’s all tomorrow’s stock price. Capital flows like water, enabling us to kill on Monday, sell on Tuesday and on Wednesday, when the bodies are found, lounge on a tropic beach.

Our current Scrooges know nothing of gruel and bare chambers. They can’t remember how many rooms they have prepared, or in how many mansions. They tilt the scales. They cannot lose.

“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,” cried the prophet Amos, “but are not grieved over the ruin.” Our lascivious Scrooges have sold fool’s gold to each other, and now there is no trust. Now we learn, in its disappearance, that solidarity has value. Now we learn that, where everyone has three jobs, a firm loses its reputation. Now we learn that a clerk with warm hands writes good accounts. Now we learn that a worker who can pay his mortgage is productive, a manager who can see her future makes good decisions. Nothing costs money like misery and terror. Bad faith makes us poor. We are learning.

The Fezziwigs of the world conduct the business of mankind and they are holy fools. The Scrooges are very wise but their wisdom killeth. Fezziwig’s apprentices don’t ask for much. In the world of solidarity, a few pounds’ expenditure, a few loaves and fishes can satisfy thousands. We hope our children learn the world’s wisdom; but sooner or later they must also learn the foolishness of God. As Scrooge learns, the wage of such folly is life itself.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

shriveled wick

As a low lantern’s flame flicks in its final blaze
then leaps above its shriveled wick and mounts aloft,
. . . so did his fierce soul leap before it vanished in air.

-- Nikos Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (trans. Kimon Friar)

My hostess at Thanksgiving dinner, knowing my profession, turned toward philosophy. “What do you think?” (Who, me?) “What really happens after we die?” Here she mentioned a recently reported instance of the near-death experience: the tunnel, the light, the reunion with loved ones, the voice that says to go back because it’s not your time, the lasting belief that death is not to fear. There are many such accounts. (There are also many accounts of alien abductions.) These visions might point to something transcendental; or they might be instances of a common dream the mind calls up as it sinks into itself and out of the world. In either case the vision is a calming one. How, o philosopher, would you explain the difference between objective immortality and a phantom of immortality that is never corrected?

“But what do you think?” (Who, me?) “You’ve known dying people.” I’ve not seen anyone “come back” speaking of the tunnel. But some clients have told me they see people the rest of us cannot see. A deceased mother, father, brother or sister, or spouse; or a being not to be named, an angel of death. We call these visions hallucinations because we cannot detect them. But the work is about the client’s experience. Not about our classification of that experience. So we do not challenge the angel. We try to interpret her.

What do I think? I lack standing to decide whether I will outlast myself. It doesn’t matter much what I think of immortality. What matters is, I can’t understand it. What would it mean to say that I will live on after death? What is the “I” in question? In our Department of Reality we see the body lose its integrity. Visions of Resurrection repeal destruction and restore a still living body, systems intact despite stigmata. But Resurrection of the body, in the dead condition that we observe, is the stuff of horror movies. Jesus is not a zombie. That’s not the meaning of the Promise.

Bodies are destroyed. My “living on” would have to be done by something else. Descartes said my soul is an “incorporeal substance” joined to my corporeal self. But what can this mean? This thing that survives, but no longer seeks the touch of skin or the body of beer, how could this be called “me”? Some have loved my mind, or felt the stirrings of my heart, but they have known them only as presented on this specific stage of flesh. If I succeed in speaking to my children after I am gone, they will know it is me when they hear what Roland Barthes called the “grain” of my voice.

I can assign no meaning to the notion of an incorporeal substance. It is an empty class. “I” am not a substance. Of any kind. I am something that a substance does. Only this particular messy substance could do it. And its ability to do it will be consumed.

We can talk about the soul, but not as substance. The soul is like a flame that leaps from a wick, flickers and stands up again. It might be blown out. Or not. Eventually the shriveled wick will lose capacity to perform the vaudeville trick that is me. Other flames may be lit from me. They resemble me more or less, as the substance that performs them, and the circumstances of performance, are like or unlike mine. Does this mean I live on? Is memory – not my own – enough?

After my final blaze, the substantial ruin remains. It is more immortal than I. My matter disperses and participates in the universe. But the universe is not me. I will have been this very particular prophet, this Word in the Hand. The Word, like this sentence, comes to an end.

Even Time itself is told between Alpha and Omega, and my life burns from a to zed. I am grateful for the letters in between. Only knowing that zed is on the way can I summon the sacred dimension of a dinner table. I don’t know how else.

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