Saturday, February 28, 2009

two tormentors

Aren’t they waitin’ for the eternal part in them to come out – clear?


-- Thornton Wilder, Our Town


Look you: the stars shine still.


-- John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi


“Tormentor” is a theatrical term. On the pictorial stage a tormentor is a “substantial wing,” curtain or panel, whose purpose is “to mask [another theatrical term] the off stage edges of the setting.” It hides things that are not to be seen – things obscene – so that the important thing can be seen for what it is, or rather, for what it seems to be when the obscene is concealed. To the players however, the obscene is revealed. That is the difference between players and audience. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, said the wizard; Dorothy and her party were caught in an untenable position.


Two tormentors, Bosola the stage manager and a nameless Stage Manager, hide and reveal the obscene on platforms separated by three centuries and a rupture of stagecraft. In the graveyard of Grover’s Corners, the dead wait under the stars for “something important and great.” The Stage Manager hides then reveals the obscene indifference of Emily’s recent life, the earth-part that “burns away, burns out” on the hill. Webster’s tormented duchess longs for her grave, accounts this world a tedious theatre and plays a part in’t against her will. Bosola, staging obscene shows of deceit to break her soul, offers in consolation the painted truth above their heads. She curses the stars, though her true and ironic curse has “a great way to go” to hit the mark.


The stars are distant; in the medieval world they will not change, and in the modern world we cannot change them. Webster’s stars were what they were; constant as the painted heavens of his stage, they judged the histrionic duplicities below. Though Wilder’s stars are on voyage to their death, the archaic light that tells their epic takes eons to arrive. Lives explode and burn out while starlight falls at timeless leisure.


The brute sacrality of ordinary life is obscene to us. We cannot bear it. Its light alone would break us. Too much glory in “coffee and new-ironed dresses,” so we throw over them a veil of ignorance. That’s the scandal of Our Town – Incarnation denied by simple people, by those who stay where “things don’t change much.” The Town – Disney’s as well as Wilder’s town – is the American symbol of what stays put when we abandon our mothers and fathers. Unwilling to have our business known by those who would keep us in our place, we leave for the City, where we put on new costumes and audition for new characters. All the while we trust the people we rejected to preserve the shrine of our true and original selves, marking our progress and its direction, measuring our skill in new impersonations. But when, like Emily, we return to relive our truth, we find that they – and we when we were one of them – have betrayed that trust. All is shrunken, extinguished. What did you expect? Who do you think you are?


The City – that’s where Webster lived. A Renaissance city, place of no origins, where the very idea of essence is plucked from the firmament. That’s the scandal of Malfi – Incarnation contradicted by complicated people, by those who change on a breeze and forget their last pose. The City is the symbol of reinvention, and of possibilities not imagined yesterday. From his place a little lower than the angels, the city man sees alternatives. Enlightenment is born here, and its matching melancholia. We learn that power lacks divine right: “Search the heads of the greatest rivers in the world, you shall find them but bubbles of water.” One stream is as good as another. Bosola sees through masks but cannot find his face in the mirror. Who does he think he is? He comes to himself only after, in one of his roles, he has killed what he most admired.


Ordinary and extraordinary: both conceal the Incarnation. Stability and flux. Sincerity and Performance. As Is and As If. Each by turns is obscene. The Image of God will not rest on either side of these great divisions. O no, it’s not so simple, so boring as that. We must be good, and we must be true. Goodness can hold me together, and truth, though it makes me free, can break me. Sub specie aeternitatis there are no guarantees. The stars “shine still,” doing “their old, old criss-cross.”

Monday, February 23, 2009

some good

To the ability to read these human documents in the light of the best understanding there is no royal road.


-- Anton T. Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World


I met a woman who said she wanted to get God in her life. She didn’t know how. She was in the third of thirty days of rehab. She’s been in rehab before. She’s addicted to two drugs. She has lost custody of three children. The oldest, a fifteen-year-old daughter, is in a “group home.” The younger two are with her sister. She doesn’t know where to turn. “I’ve lost my life. It’s gone.” How does that oldest child, almost a woman, feel about her? “She wants me to come through for her. She wants me to be her mother.”


She can’t talk to her father. And he’s a preacher. She’s never been inside his church. I’m a preacher’s kid too. I had the feeling that her problem with God and her problem with her father were mixed up together. How can you talk to the Father if you can’t talk to your father? How can you pray on your own if your model of prayer is a professional one? How does your father feel about you? “He loves me. He’ll never stop loving me.”


If you could speak to your father, what would you say? “That I love him. That I want him to be proud of me.” What would you say to God? “I don’t know. I don’t know how to talk to Him.” What’s in your heart to say? “That I need help. I want to do better.” That’s all you need to say.


(And why, my high critical self asks, given all her disasters, is praying so important to her? Talking to God seems a secondary consideration. The hungry, the sick, the naked and enchained – don’t they first need to be fed, healed, clothed and set free? “Man ist was er isst,” said Feuerbach. God’s in the flesh, so love the flesh and then find God. But that’s not where this document begins. God is the first chapter. In her story God will take care of the flesh but we have to find Him first. Perhaps, I think in my own dialect, she seeks the quiet space beyond shouting, where she can hear the still, small voice. Perhaps in her god’s eyes she will see the courage to change.)


I had done reasonably well at drawing out the story. I saw an opportunity. Would you like us to pray together? Would it be helpful if I began, so then you can say what’s in your heart?


She said yes. So I called on the Spirit, and spoke the facts. I said I was with a child of God who had lost her life and wanted to find it again. I spoke of the one lost sheep, and of how the shepherd rejoices more at the finding of her than in the security of the ninety-nine. I announced her by name – and she said her few words – and I signed off.


Then I praised and encouraged her. It doesn’t have to be grand, I said. It doesn’t have to be a sermon. To speak to the Father, you don’t have to speak with the power, the volume, the duration, the grandeur of your father. We don’t have to impress God. God loves us as we are, and wants to hear our voices, even if we’re confused and can’t think of what to say . . .


I heard myself talking. I had been doing most of the talking.


“Thank you,” she said. We were done. Now I could hear the silence I should have respected. The ego creeps in, under cover of best intentions. It was too noisy a place, a lunchroom with snacks and children; and I had too many people to see that afternoon. I didn’t clear the space, physical or mental, for her void.


We don’t get do-overs, but she accepted a follow-up visit. I’ll start from a different place.


No royal road. Importing my wisdom to a place of suffering is one kind of narcissism; and assuming the guilt for that suffering is another kind. What exactly did I expect? I wasn’t going to bring her life back; after all, I didn’t lose it.


Emerson said that a sermon foolishly spoken may be wisely heard. Miracles show scant respect for our methods, our codes of criticism, our disciplines and standards. The Apostle said that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. Maybe – goddammit – she meant it when she said thank you. Maybe I did some good.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

not magellan

Absent thee from felicity a while,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,

To tell my story.


-- Hamlet


In the old days, soldiers rushed to die in battle on the promise that a bard would sing a song about their deeds. Denmark’s prince, presiding over innocent and guilty corpses as he dies in the arms of his friend, begs that his story be told. Norwegian Fortinbras, assuming the vacant throne on a battlefield of botched revenge, might misjudge him. Since Hamlet never was “put on” the royal stage, Horatio has no gesta to chronicle but “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, . . . accidental judgments, casual slaughters, . . . and purposes mistook.” If that is the song his friend must sing about him, imagine what the prince’s enemies will say. But he’d rather live in infamy and scandal than be forgotten. Not many of us choose to be forgotten. Even suicide is a story.


I am a ghostwriter, coaxing out life stories. Some clients make it easier than others. Some days I dig and scrabble, and all I get is shards. Some days the story pours like water from a spigot, and all I have to do is hold the bucket. I name it. This is your story. This is where you were, and where you are. And now, where are you going?


I’ve made important decisions for myself by asking, Is this a story I can tell? How would I explain it to my mother? Can I tell this story to the ones I love? My friends? Associates? Colleagues? Children?


When we make a hash of things we wonder, what can I say about this? What story can I tell? There is the tale of denial: it didn’t happen. The tale of mitigation: it’s not so bad. The tale of blame: it’s his fault not mine. The tale of defiance: I did it and so what? The tale of responsibility: I did it and I’ll suffer the consequences. The tale of repentance: I did it and I’m really sorry. The tale of promise: I won’t do it again. The tale of apprenticeship: I’ll do better next time. The worst is if we have nothing to say. Nothing to say assures the maximum sentence. Solitary confinement. People will do almost anything to be included in a story.


Concessions are made. I want to play the lead, but if my claim is not respected, that’s all right: the character-lead, goofy side-kick or soubrette, gets more laughs anyway. Or if those parts have been pre-cast, I might bring my craft and my experience to a supporting role. Or if I’m out of work, a cameo. Oh hell: if the alternative is silence, I’ll carry a spear, or swell a scene or two like Prufrock the attendant lord. “Dispatches, my liege.” It’s better than nothing. A lot better. I’ll march in someone else’s procession, sing in someone else’s chorus. “Remember when So-and-so did Something-or-other? Well, I was there!” Better a recorded foot-soldier than a silent stay-at-home. “I brought sandwiches to Eisenhower.” Or Pol Pot.


I want my avatar to be the good guy (for secretly I know that’s what I am). But if I cannot make my story heard, if it’s drowned by dominating noise; if all the good guy roles are taken, and all the good supporters, henchmen and assistants already cast; if all my entrances are hooted down, my character assailed for trying, then I’ll be bad. Really bad. I’ll transvalue your dominating values. I won’t go to school. I won’t dress up. I won’t show up for work. I’ll trick you and make fun of you behind your back. I’ll live by petty crime. I’ll steal from the rich and give to the poor. I’ll be a monster that you can’t ignore. I’ll be really good at it. And sell my songs about it to your children, who’d rather be bad than obscure.


I read other people’s stories for a living. So what’s my own? Extroverts and soldiers and politicians like to have their deeds extolled. Introverts and poets and philosophers sing of their thoughts. My adventures are a snooze but my opinions might strike home. I cannot sing of arms but of this man. I am not Magellan: my rutter describes an interior passage. Pursuing the daemon to the maze’s center, I unwind this yarn behind me. Yank on the twine, and I’ll know you’re coming along behind. If you retrace my steps, you might see beauties and terrors of a private tardis. Come in: it’s larger on the inside than without. I won’t then be the only one.


One thing is sure: if I don’t sing, the expedition dies with me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

tough book

Sweetheart, I dun need your permission.


-- Robin Romm, The Mercy Papers


One of the scripts that grievers write is Liberation. One of the hero roles in which they cast themselves is that of Liberator. We mean so well – kin and caregivers alike – and want to say something, do something, fix something. So when we cannot save the life, cannot salve the pain, cannot compensate for loss, we try to own it all. We take responsibility for what we did not bring about and cannot stop, and have no claim to own.


The grieving child was told that she must give her mom “permission.” She couldn’t cure her mom of cancer, and found that she was pretty useless at relief of suffering. “You need,” said the hospice nurse, “to tell her that she can die, that you’ll be OK.”


There are a number of usurpations here.


Death is given; we do not choose it as we choose the most convenient train to Westchester. A client who considers the alternatives may wish to die but lack the power. We cannot liberate in that sense; Kevorkian was in another state, and went to jail. Or she may wish to live but lack the option. Cure is not on the menu; that’s why she’s here with us. It’s not for us to bind or loose her obligations, as if she could decide to go, like walking through a door.


At the bedside, we’re all suspended. Though Hitchcock taught us that suspense is not in what surprises us but what we know must come and has not come, it’s not like in the movies, timed to the minute. Doctors do not know – science does not tell them – how long we have. It’s always a surprise to them. How troubling it must be to know so much and so little. “This suspense is terrible,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “I hope it will last.” It’s limbo here, life already lost, death yet to come.


We want to help our people live until they die, and sometimes we succeed. Or rather, they succeed and we are present with them. But the life they find is New Life, the Old already lost. How does a person live, how do those who love a person live, without the things that had defined that person? Each of us has different powers to lose. What would your life be like, our work interrogates us, without strength, without beauty, without senses or expression, without physical skill or emotional reserve; or without – and here is my own great terror – mind? “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,” says Jaques in his vaudeville. And how will the daughter live without her mother, the parent without child, the lover without beloved? For lack of positive identification, we may call what rises from the wreck a soul. Sometimes we are midwives as a client is born again, and again. Sometimes not.


None of us can tell the other when to go. And which of us can tell the one we love we’ll be okay? Romm told us in her tough book that she could not do it. “I will not be okay,” she said. “When my mom dies it will be crushing pain, a silence that will fill me and break me over and over again.” That is what she told her mom, that she could not give permission. Her mother did not need permission. Her mother did not need the thing she could not offer, and knowing this was dispensation. “This is what I wanted to hear; it’s my release.”


Something takes its course, the genie is already out of the bottle, and we have nothing to do with it. We want to say, to do, to fix something. We want to be Liberators. But how would we let our people go when we cannot even keep them? We are all in suspense, and our release is in the hand of a greater writer. The thing we can do – and it is not nothing – might be to hang there with them, as they turn ever so slowly in the wind. The urge to let them off the hook should be examined – is it their distress or ours that moves us? The thing about suspense is, it makes what follows it important; and if we puncture it, the anti-climax shows that we were premature. Timing is everything; as Hamlet said, readiness is all.