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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