Tuesday, March 31, 2009

dame natasha

Not to get all Beckett on you, but life itself is a cursed thing, fated to end before all promise is fulfilled.

-- Charles Isherwood, “Alone on This Stage: Redgraves,” New York Times (March 22, 2009), “Week in Review”

I can die now.

-- Edson Arantes de Nascimento


In 1977 I heard him say it. Pelé had won everything there was to win in the beautiful game; had come out of retirement to play for three years in New York City; had won the North American championship; and now, as he retired for good, America was giving him back to Brazil, as his old team and his new one played a “friendly” match. He played the first half for Cosmos of New York. At the half he changed jerseys and blessed the crowd, surrounded by eighty thousand people who loved him. He would finish the game for Santos of São Paulo, and teammates would carry him around the stadium as he waved flags of both countries.

“I can die now.” It means I have everything I want, there’s nothing unresolved, this is my happy ending, if God would only take me now I’d have no quarrel. The trouble is, you don’t die now. You’re blessed if you ever get to say it, but saying it blows ripples on the perfect surface: life starts up again and you must die some other time, minutes or decades later, your happy end receding into memory. Timing is everything, and the flowers came too early.

It makes no sense how Natasha Richardson died. We don’t know how much she had of what she wanted, but when we think about her end, we know we wanted more: she was only forty-five years old, descended from the Redgraves, an honored English family of actors, in a country that knows how to honor actors. Her mother is Vanessa, and her grandfather was Michael, whom as a youth I saw tear up a West End stage with Ralph Richardson (not, alas, a relation of Natasha’s) in The Rivals.

It makes no sense, could not be anticipated. A fall that no one thought was serious. From that point on it sounds like my father’s death: terrible headache, collapse, coma, brain-death. But my father was eighty years old. It’s not supposed to happen now. We’re supposed to know it’s coming: if not from age, then course of sickness, or some occasion when she chooses mortal risk, on the face of a mountain perhaps, or on a barricade, or giving birth. Not flopping on a beginner’s ski-slope. It’s bad story-telling.

A. E. Housman wrote of an athlete who died young: “Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honors out.” But there are alternatives. Though younger rivals who compared themselves to Pelé are already their own desecration, Pelé himself lives as an honored old man, ambassador of futbol, thirty-two years after saying that God could take him. So it’s possible, though difficult, to live and wear your honors well. And for some the honors are still to come: early death is for them the ultimate indignity. They will never be ready. Michael Redgrave’s grandchild won’t wear her honors out; but some of her honors, it seems, were yet to come. She never put them on. We grieve at the wreck of our hopes for her, and yet we do not know her hopes. She did not have what we wanted her to have – a glorious middle age and dowagerhood, under our eyes. She was never Dame Natasha. But did she have what she wanted? Had she said she could die now?

In hospice we learn that no one knows the time. It’s not like in the movies; not even doctors know. “Within twenty-four hours,” said a doctor last week. We called the priest. The family gathered. The granddaughter held her expiring grandma in her arms. The sacraments were read. Oil was placed on her forehead and palms. The priest and I prayed. A perfect scene. Then my shift was over. Two days later, she still lingered. All these years now, and I still have never seen a person die. They elude us, the rascals.

Goethe thought that if we picked the time we would lose our souls. The moment when Faust will say Stay, fleeting moment, you are enough, is the moment when Mephistopheles will seize him. That was the deal.

Not to worry though. It’s not so easy. Try it. Try to pick your moment. It flies before your index finger.

Now. . . . No, now. . . . No . . . then.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

bushel basket

I have that within which passeth show.

-- Hamlet

When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.

-- Philippe Petit, Man on Wire


I am not gay. But I have empathy with those who are.

Actors have a common nightmare that is sometimes realized. I and my pals would sometimes act it out, in a casting director’s anteroom or in a pub, laughing till the tears came.

“I love your work,” the director says, “so all I want is for you to be yourself.”

So you begin.

“Oh no, not that.”

You take a different tack.

“That’s not it either.”

You try a third thing,

“This just isn’t working.”

So tell me, you ask, what was it you had in mind?

“Something different.”

You’re a pro. You dream up some different attitudes and lay them down. Are we getting closer?

“Not exactly.”

Higher? Lower? Faster? Slower? More authority? More friendliness? More casual? More polished?

By now you’re a long way from “yourself,” and your best stuff is in the circular file. There’s only one way to go from here. The client, lacking faith in your sincerity, will get your phoniness. (If you were Kelsey Grammer or Liam Neeson, they might get your good stuff. When they pay that kind of money they trust you: everything you crap is gold. But you’re just the local bozo working for scale, subject to the meddling of tremulous mediocrities. They feel free to mess with you, and they do.)

So why do we laugh until the tears come? It’s the terror of an intimate deceit. They ask me for myself, and then reject my self. It’s personal.

I have something within me that “passeth show.” It will be there no matter what “trappings and suits” I wear. And it will out. In terms of parable, it is the light I was given to shine on the world. I am commanded not to hide my light under a bushel basket. “I would be true, for there are those who trust me,” says the hymn. Trust demands our best and raises us to it. I cannot be best, I cannot be true, by hiding my light.

Philippe Petit saw a drawing of two buildings not yet built, and knew that he would walk between them. It wasn’t a convenient dream. There was danger, and not just to himself. He didn’t ask permission. As he stepped off the wire, red-faced officers of the law handcuffed him, hurled him down stairs. How had he offended them? by shining an unauthorized light. How dare he do what I dare not do? Where is my light, and why have I not let it shine? How dare he succeed? How dare he accuse me?

Why did those who loved him let him do it? Perhaps they should have committed him to a mental institution. An assertive psychotherapist might have confined and drugged him, shamed his dream, cast out his daemon, saved us all this trouble. Doubtful. The dream would have survived but in a crippled, twisted form. The only way to kill it would have been to kill Philippe.

Freud aside, we’re not all sex. Sex is one of the things that rides on libido, and not even the first thing: we must eat and drink, and defecate, before we copulate. But there’s no libidinal surgery that can separate our sex from other élan vital: it’s inoperable.

“Be yourself, but o god not that. Be true, but hide your light. Live, but die.” That’s what the world says to gay people. That within them that passeth show is to be stuffed in a closet, and even the closet is to be burned down. We straight people are fortunate that, as our sexual nature comes to light, the world sings its praises. If we use it for harm there are sanctions, but the urge itself is worshipped.

Artists and pastors, by definition, struggle with their daemon. The song, the call. It passeth show. It is not convenient. It will out, or kill you. Whatever it is, some will hate you for it. Even if you’re not gay, it’s as if you were gay. Perhaps that’s why so many gay people are in the arts, and in the pastorate.

Power always demands, “Sing my song!” Power never understands that I have no such option.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

alle menschen

Alle Menschen werden Brüder.

-- Friedrich Schiller, An die Freude

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, when the Berlin Wall came down, they celebrated the reunion with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s German music after all, and the oppression overthrown in those days was of Germans and by Germans. But why, when apartheid died without mass bloodshed, and the Union of South Africa became the Republic, did that new nation stage its own performance of the Mighty Ninth – music from the European culture that under banners of two empires had parted people from their land?

A reasonable person would conclude there was no other way to do what was to do.

“All people become brothers.” (The meaning hovers between “will be” and “are becoming.”) All people, including master and slave. The first version of Schiller’s famous line was “Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder” (“Beggars become princes’ brothers). All people: that’s what the joy is about. Many songs have said this, but no song enacts it. For incarnation, a symphony is required.

A song is cyclic, arriving in thirty-two bars where it began: a theme, a repetition, a bridge that hints at difference, then return. Except as a joke or by means of a dance break and a key change, you cannot sing a song for more than three minutes. But a symphony goes on a journey: that’s why it takes so long. It starts with an internal conflict that cannot be resolved in place and travels into foreign lands, arriving at a different place though looking back to where it started. Wherever you go, there you are – but traveling has changed you.

The form called “symphony” was fashioned in a time and place – the Age that’s called Enlightenment. How in a paragraph to say what they were up to then? intoxication of the universal law, both natural and moral. There are no special cases, shouted Hume and Voltaire, no miracles and no divine right of kings. No one, said Kant, is to be treated as means to someone else’s ends. Wherever you go, there you are: the same laws rule. The journey is symphonic: from ignorance to knowledge, from bondage to freedom, from suffering to joy. Schiller, though a scion of Romanticism, studied Kant and chanted his imperative: the beggar shall become the prince’s brother.

I had a theology professor who used to say the word “Enlightenment” with a flick of head and voice, eliciting a murmur in the room, and I would feel a shadow passing over. I knew that the murmurers knew that I could not murmur with them. I should not get too uppity, I thought, there might be consequences. Turn and turn about: a draft of justice, the professor’s way of making sure it’s “not too easy” for me.

But why is this Enlightenment in such bad odor? Because, as in the case of most religions, its prophets have betrayed it. Jefferson, a Unitarian president, proclaimed the inalienable right of all human beings to pursue happiness, and yet he owned human beings and lived in statutory rape with one of them. Enlightened liberals, comfortably located in their societies, have rolled over for tyrants, too long tolerated the intolerable, accommodated slavery and segregation. In all fairness it must be said that we’ve also had our times of glory; some of us have done great things that only could be done from our location. But dreams of virtue do not make the dreamer virtuous. Nor do diplomas make us wise.

The past of people once enslaved is joy and torment. My past, though in a different mode, is also joy and torment. I have no right to own the joy without the torment. I have no right to bask in torment and refuse the joy. The liberation is in the joy – die Freude. The joy is what I have to give.

If the dream has been betrayed, the cure is teshuvah – return. For betrayals I must make amends, but for dreams of brotherhood I offer no apology or reparation. Without Enlightenment, there’d be no liberation, no prospect of peace, only turn and turn about – wars, enslavements, genocides and trails of tears – followed by more wars. God favors the oppressed, but not because the oppressed are without sin. Oppression violates the law, the universal law that no mullah or mogul, no prince or prelate, can contain; and that’s why every valley must be exalted, the hills made plain.

I did not create Enlightenment. To claim its glory or its sin is grandiose of me. Yet I am labeled as its heir (as if all Brüder were not heirs). Okay, unworthy as I am, if you must hand me the portfolio of Hume and Kant, of Mozart and Voltaire – I’ll take it up (for lack of other candidates), and I must make a declaration.

I do not ask for gratitude. But from liberals and liberationists, respect is welcome.

Monday, March 9, 2009

nyew testament

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.


-- Matthew 5:5 (KJV, RSV)


Dey bless fa true, dem wa ain tink dey mo den wa dey da, cause all de whole wol gwine blongst ta um.

-- Gullah Nyew Testament


I stood by my car on the campus of a black college in Mississippi, outside the building where three and a half decades earlier I had first taught Speech and Drama. A middle-aged gentleman wearing a beret and a red convertible parked next to me. In southern fashion, we chewed the fat. He asked if I had come for the Gullah language conference. I said no, but I had read about the project to preserve Gullah: I understood that a Gullah New Testament was in the making. He said, “It’s done. Would you like to see one?”


So I held in my hands a red leather book. The Word of God in the language of people whose ancestors were enslaved. "Fa de fus time, God taak to me de way I taak." Sea Island Creole, like all regional languages, is under siege. The loss of any language is the loss of a world; but can the children make a living in it?


Ancient Latin, Greek and Hebrew still live through the learned professions because so much was written in them. Thucydides still speaks to the occupiers of Iraq. But the language of a people to whom literacy was denied will go up in smoke if its classics are never written down. I held in my hand a torah.


The words are like marbles and pebbles in my mouth. My tongue must move them and move around them. “We Fada wa dey een heaben, leh ebrybody hona ya name.” The words change my cadence, alter my intonation, punctuate my breath. “We pray dat soon ya gwine rule oba de wol.” I cannot speak them in my customary voice. “Wasoneba ting ya wahn, leh um be so een dis wol same like dey een heaben.” Saying these words, I become someone else.


Listen to me: I’m talking about race. The Attorney General said, on February 18, that we’re “a nation of cowards” because we don’t talk about race. Here I am.

These divine tablets are radioactive. They attest a truth that, when I came to teach here, I was not supposed to speak. Liberal doctrine was, there were no black ways of speaking. Any such suggestion would prove that I was “prejudiced.” “Negroes” were “just like us,” and teaching them would be like having Sidney Poitier in for dinner, with his well-cut suit and Ivy League articulation. No wonder that I failed here as a teacher: I was young, and I was immature, and my cultural instruction had been bogus.


“How dare you depict our people as incapable of proper English? Apologize immediately for your stereotypical and condescending parody!” But this is not a parody. I didn’t make this up. These words come from the mouths of African-Americans; these words are sacred to them; these words enact the lives of ancestors. Black scholars are rushing to retrieve these words before they vanish from the earth. “But you, who oppressed us, have no authority to speak these words. They’re ours not yours. Only we can read them, write them, study them, interpret them.” So let me get this straight: you say I don’t have a moral obligation to study your works, to learn how you survived in the oppression to which we imported you? “There, you see! You’re always looking for an excuse, to ignore our culture, and belittle the black experience!” The nuclear word, armed in various silos, hums whichever way I turn. I’m not the only one. Even if you’re black, you’re not safe handling these tablets.


Listening with love, I hear that my African-American brothers and sisters, on trek toward liberation, have brought with them a past that is both joy and torment. There’s no disgrace in this ambivalence – it comes with the territory; but it should be owned, by black and white alike. I, a white man, can’t resolve the conflicts of my siblings. Who died and made me the referee?


How to view the artifacts of an enslaved and terrorized past – that’s the issue. Are they badges of shame or trophies of achievement? Is “dialect” or “pidgin,” the creole of a people we suspended between worlds, a problem or a solution? Is the spiritual a whine of submission or an anthem of subversion? Is Br’er Rabbit a dirty family secret or a culture hero? Bert Williams, who performed vaudeville in blackface; Hattie McDaniel, who played the mammy in a racist film; Stepin Fetchit, who clowned in the black and the white movie industries – were they race-traitors or crossover artists? Not for me to say.


Oppressed people on the road to liberation ask: are we the same as, or are we different from, the rest? God speaks from both sides of her mouth: there is no answer. There is only, in God’s time, sublimation of the warring terms – an Aufhebung as Hegel would have it – for which there is no logic but only grace. Are Jews the same, or are they different? Yes. Are women the same, or different? Yes. Are gays the same, or different? Yes. Are African-Americans the same, or different? Yes. They are all the same. They are all different.


How I have run on! far beyond the usual limit of this enterprise. But there’s no truthful short description of these matters. If you want me to talk about race, Mr. Attorney General, you’re going to have to listen for a while. Hard to keep opposing terms of truth in one’s head at the same time. Easy to get it wrong when there is no right. I cannot resolve the issues. I cannot stop caring. The best part of me lacks authority, but will not be silent. Hier steh’ ich, in my social location; ich kann nicht anders.


If you can’t hear the spiritual’s defiance (“Gonna walk all over God’s Heav’n”), concealed in a double entendre of compliance; if you can’t cheer the sass of Will Marion Cook’s Broadway songs (“When they hear them ragtime tunes/ White folks try to pass for coons”), decades before Porgy and Bess; if you can’t read victory in a language made from memory and reality (“de whole wol gwine blongst ta um”), reminding its speakers who they were; if you don’t know that when the master has his boot on your neck, survival is resistance; then it doesn’t matter what your race is, if you can’t read these chapters of our nation’s racial history, I can’t be on your side.


On the other hand – if you think Bill Cosby, because he portrayed a paterfamilias who practiced a profession and sent his kids to college, is not black enough; if you think Barack Obama, because he talks with the articulation of the Harvard man he is, is not black enough; if you think Colin Powell, because he speaks of responsibility, is not black enough; if you define the word “black” as “poor, ignorant, shiftless and unemployable,” except in sports or hip-hop; if you deny that our brothers and sisters, who lived with ingenuity behind The Veil, can learn to be bilingual and then prosper by it – then it doesn’t matter what your race is, or what your nationality, your language, your class and culture are; if you think that way, I can’t be on your side.


My “side” must be both sides. If I relinquish either, I am worthy of that devastating word. The world is now so tilted that simplicity is banished. And yet, brothers and sisters of color, it is so simple: I want you to prosper in a land you have good reason to hate, but which you also love.


Am I brave enough, Mr. Attorney General?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

stumbling stone

The truth of what one says lies in what one does.


-- Bernhard Schlink, The Reader (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)


By their fruits ye shall know them.


-- Matthew 7:20 (KJV)


A colleague of mine, a friend, had trouble with his certifying agency. They told him, with unanimity he says, they can’t see how he’ll get from his theology to valid practice. I must tread carefully in describing a meeting where I was not present, and which I know only by a single account. But I am within the facts if I say that, while his theology is conservative, theirs is apparently, and on a particular point demonstrably, liberal.


Ours is a liberal profession. Though we hope to enact good news, we do not proclaim it: we hope rather that it will be proclaimed to us. We revere the autonomy of a client, reading him as sacred document, as scripture that has been renewed. God, we would say, whatever that means, is to be found there. For a chaplain, revelation was never sealed.


We remove our sandals, and suspend our claims to knowledge, for this is holy ground. We do not pronounce to a burning bush. The truth is somewhere in the flame, and if we have not seen it yet we must keep looking. If the burning truth is inconvenient, if it contradicts the truth we thought we knew, we must embrace the dialectic.


The opposite of such reverence would be to import Good News from another time and place, knowing the prescription before examination and dumping it on the loading dock. Good for what ails you. Take two and call me in the morning -- if you’re all better. And give the extras to your friends, it’s good for them too.


The professional virtues of a chaplain are curiosity, suspicion, empathy and agnosticism. Job is our model: if you’re not prepared to argue with the god who has appeared to you so far, expect the judgment that befalls the confident. But who am I to say that persons of conservative theology can’t find their way to virtues? Who are we liberals to say that liberals have a lock on them? Job, after all, was no atheist; he was renowned for piety. That’s why he got picked out for trouble. (There, you see – scandal starts within the scripture, and dares us to read!)


So what’s the skandalon, the stumbling-stone on which my friend has tripped? He believes that homosexuality is sin.


My take on this question is what’s called liberal. To me my friend’s belief looks like a flat misreading of the Word, as well as of human nature and the root of ethics, for neither Yeshua nor Ten Commandments have anything to say about it. But I sit regularly at table with many who profess otherwise. Any Roman Catholic chaplain, priest or Eucharistic minister, for instance, represents this belief by proclamation of high authority – and I have no authority to challenge their professional status on that account.


I seek no such authority. I am a liberal. I don’t disqualify people by their theology. The qualification of a chaplain has to do with the way she approaches a client. Does she remove her sandals?


If my friend has been subjected to a litmus test, then that was neither liberal nor professional behavior. Are we planning to enforce liberal theology on our liberal profession? No one explained that to me when I joined up. I have more faith than that. I trust that truth will make us free; and therefore I must speak the truth as it encounters me – and so must you.


How, he was asked, can a chaplain minister compassionately to a gay man, if he believes that homosexuality is sin? They said they could not see it. They assumed that such a person can’t remove his sandals. Well, I don’t see the logic of it either, but I have seen it happen. I know an open gay man who is loved and affirmed by his Catholic congregation. He has run for, and been elected to, congregational office. He would not choose to go anywhere else. I didn’t lead that ministry; if I can’t follow it, I should get out of the way. I must swallow hard and accept it. I must accept it as a miracle if necessary. My inability to understand is not a virtue.