Sunday, May 31, 2009

white blossom

What a wonderful orchard! Masses of white blossom, the blue sky . . .

-- Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, trans. Elisaveta Fen

Her childhood home would at last be sold, her beloved cherry trees chopped down. . . . Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping?

-- Wallace Shawn, The Fever


In my prep school they taught us every week to read and write. They taught us literature and history, math and science, languages contemporary and classical. They taught us Ethics and Comparative Religion. They taught us, in a course named “Humanities,” philosophy and classical music. They thought they were forming our characters, for our own good and for the good of others. They turned me – a day-boy of genteel poverty, shoe-horned into a boarding school for the elite – into a “cultured” person. I was eager to be so turned.

From schools like mine came leaders of business, scions of the professions, people notable for accomplishment or for being just plain rich. A fifth of us went to Harvard or Yale, with hefty percentages for the other Ivies. President Kennedy came from a school like ours; we played their teams in all the sports. (Even the Irish could now be civilized, when exposed by descendents of the Mayflower to the values of Anglo-Saxon culture.)

I presume that in four decades there have been changes in the content. By now, I hope, “History” includes some mention of Asia, Africa and South America. Toni Morrison and W. E. B. du Bois and Garcia Marquez will have displaced somebody or other in the canon; and as long as the casualties do not include Shakespeare, Milton or the King James Bible, that’s all right with me. But these issues are mere quibbles compared to the larger question: what do I think now of the project called “culture”?

Our costly masters provided us a “liberal education” by the age of eighteen. They weren’t teaching us how to do things but rather how to decide what must be done. They molded us into people of broad mind. We would not make our living by moving heavy objects from place to place. We would be the ones who after due deliberation – paid on a higher scale and enjoying better perks – told other people which heavy objects to move, when and where. They trained us to defer gratification, to lift ourselves above the circumstance of the moment, to imagine ourselves elsewhere, in other times, places and circumstances. Though a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man does not, of course, weep, it was understood that one should feel compassion at the portrayal of Ranyevskaia, bidding adieu to her cherry orchard -- and when we grew up, our wives would do the weeping for us.

Did Chekhov weep with his aristocrats, or laugh at them, or indict them? There was a place and a time when you lived or died by your answer to that question. Chekhov and his authorized director Stanislavsky survived (while so many artists did not) in the Soviet charnel-house, saved not for their pity but for their social criticism. The Ranyevskeys are broken guitars. They can neither play in tune nor feed themselves. Just down the road and round a bend of history is the mob who would gladly kill them and cut their trees for an evening’s firewood. The apocalypse of Lopakhin the serf, who buys the estate to turn it into housing lots, is a gentler one that that. But either way, the orchard must go. It’s unsustainable. What is beauty’s place in the world, when people are homeless? The lady weeps for ornamental blossoms she can no longer support, and people of culture weep for a lady of long ago, far away, living only on a stage.

Why, Shawn asks, should we weep for Ranyevskaia? Because she has a tender heart, and gives away money she does not have, and mourns for an orchard? Because she is cultured, and doesn’t smell of patchouli? Liberals don’t do well when the revolution comes. While I learned to weep for Ranyevskaia, blood was spilled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and children died in a Birmingham church. Robespierre, or Zhdanov, or Mao, or Pol Pot would absolutely have her head, and mine.

Yeshua told us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and free the unjustly imprisoned. Can I go to the museum when there is murder in Darfur? Can I listen to Bach while children in my city go without their dinner tonight? My seminary professors would ask themselves, can I live here in a medieval cloister, while Harlem suffers outside the walls? But I go to the museum, and I listen to Bach -- and my teachers continued to live within the walls.

The place of beauty in the world is a hard question. The problem of my education, I say to myself, is not that I was given a key to pleasure, but that so many have no access to it. Everybody wants their own vine and fig tree, not just so they can drink and eat but so they can afterward sit in the shade, smell the blossom and feel a breeze on the cheek. My grandpa, who thought that shows and plays weren't "worth a doodle," would sit on his porch of a summer evening and listen to the corn grow. But some esthetics require a concentration of wealth and power. A pyramid is not the sum of private crypts. A symphony is not a jam of soloists. An orchard is not a concentration of trees. When everybody comes to get their piece of cherry orchard, it’s not an orchard any more.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

prayer practice

The more I write, the more I shall have to write, and, consequently, the more your Worships read, the more your Worships shall have to read. Will this be good for your Worships’ eyes?

-- Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy


As I presented a case that had gotten too close for comfort, somebody asked if I have a prayer life. I first said no. I don’t regularly sit, or stand, or kneel someplace, eyes closed, hands folded, and petition the Lord. That’s what I imagined she meant, and my answer to that question could only be no.

My father, a liberal Protestant minister, did not model prayer. I never saw him on his knees, or with his hands folded. I never heard him give a hard problem to God. He fixed his eyes on a salvation that would come among us, in the world outside the parsonage. If we could save the world from its institutional sin, the personal sins would wash. That’s classic liberal soteriology.

I’m a Unitarian now, and Unitarians are a stiff-necked people. We’ve seen too much bowing to idols, most of whom have human faces and sing cantatas to their own good grace. Idols are worshipped at many altars, and it puts us off our prayer. Then we forget the reason why idolatry is foul; it’s foul because it’s an imposture, the unworthy taking place of what is worthy. We only learn what’s phony when the real breaks in against it; we cannot recognize idolatry until we know that something has been idolized. The something worthy of our lives, not to be commodified, is what our necks should bend to. We join hands and sing that we shall not be fooled, but there’s a folly in suspicion, a special danger in that stiffness of the neck: when the real shows up, you’re out of practice. Marian Anderson used to sing “Little children, get on board!” If you wait too long, the train will leave without you.

So no, I don’t have what some would call a prayer life, and my colleagues thought that I should get one. The case had come too close to me. I should have given it to God. And then I said, But wait! I write!

Some years before this project, my teachers taught me to reflect each week. Two pages tops. So I would write someone’s epigram at the top of the page like scripture (or a burning bush), and start to argue with it (as Moses did). The voices would come from somewhere, and I would write them down.

I didn’t know, when I opened the closet door, what would come out. Or what commotion it would make. Or what furniture it would knock over. Or how, in the end, it would adhere to the page. What I did know (after six decades of perfectionism) was that I must give it a long leash, because it was a holy terror, and if I tried to hold it close one of us would die.

No no, said my colleagues, a practice of writing is not a practice of prayer, that’s not what we’re talking about. Sitting at your keyboard and inputting words is not the act of reverence that you need. You need a discipline of surrender and submission.

I didn’t think that they were right. And I didn’t think that I was wrong. Now I know why they so mistook me, why they thought I was holding on exactly when I was letting go.

There are some experiences that can’t be explained to those who haven’t had them. I can’t explain to someone who is not a performer (and I can’t explain it even to some performers) that the act of standing on a stage is not about myself but about everything else. A writer can’t explain to those who are not writers that writing is leaping off a cliff.

Everyone in my social location knows how to write things, but writing feels differently according to whether it is its own purpose or a means to something else. If you use writing for some other purpose, then writing is a struggle to master language and make it mean something; but if your writing is its own purpose, then writing is submission to powers that, when they declare themselves, cannot be understood.

I found that when I opened the closet door, the beast would come out. Sometimes purring, sometimes ravening, for what, I could not tell – not until I had transcribed the notes. I knew the pitches and the phrasing, the tempo and dynamics, how many words there were before the comma, what consonants and vowel sounds were in the words, before the words appeared. And so, by the light of his eyes, the beast would teach me what I meant to say.

This paper – note the metaphor! though you see my words in a technological conceit that looks a bit like parchment – was trodden by my visitor and bears his prints. I’ve filled in the blanks, turned on a lamp or two, but not too much I hope, for Blake knew the Tyger burns brightest in the dark.

If you can still see the Tyger, I don’t care if some of the furniture got ruined. Writing ain’t for sissies.

The visitor helps me to stay sane. If that’s what I am. He’s still behind the door. I can hear him.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

good questions

The true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop . . .

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (trans. Michael Henry Heim)


“To question is the answer.” Unitarians used to say this, beaming like sophomores who’ve just proved that the chairs they sit in don’t exist. Questioning is not the answer. A question that satisfies itself is a false question, and the person who asks it is false to himself. Questioning is means not end; it’s the means to a better answer – better than the one we were given. As we ask a good question we are tapping our feet. We’re not going away until we get a response, no matter how long it takes.

Institutions don’t like good questions. They know or think they know what they have to do, and they intend to do it. Liberal institutions permit a wider display of discussion than conservatives ones; they engineer greater dispersal of powers into their constitutions and organization charts. But in all institutions, liberal as well as conservative, the moment of action is the moment when conversation ends. Shut up now and do what we tell you. “The Leader has spoken,” says one kind of body. “The process is complete,” says the other. Whoever gets to say “That was the last question” is the one in charge. Now it’s time to do as you’re told.

There are places where the first question is the last. A tyranny can be rough – speak and brownshirts beat you up. Or it can be smooth – speak but they corrupt your speech.

Orwell taught us that it’s easy to corrupt free speech. All you have to do is limit the vocabulary, answer all the questions with the same few words and phrases, holy terms reborn as subject, object, predicate of all sentences, till meaning disappears and incantation is what’s left. The subtext of incantation is: shut up now and do what we tell you. Class struggle, expropriation, alienation. Ego, id, superego. Presence, absence, differance. Justice, reason, tolerance. God, Jesus, Savior. Profit, property, enterprise. Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Growth, Wholeness, Transformation. I have no quarrel with the words, until you bake them in a brick and hurl them at my head.

“I learned that if you’re spiritual, you don’t think. If you think, you’re not spiritual.” That’s how Irshad Manji* described her expulsion from a madressa. Many of our best Unitarians come from churches where their questioning disqualified them. A teacher of mine says that he only argues with what he respects. The Words deserve at least as much of my respect as other texts. Disputation is our kind of love. Take our spirituality or leave it, but if you leave it, don’t tell lies about us.

The story** says that Elijah, after defeating the priests of Ba’al in a pyrotechnics competition, had the other team killed. Their offering, a bullock on an altar, was precisely like Elijah’s, and so the fatal difference, for which four hundred fifty died, was their pronunciation of God’s name – al instead of el. There are many today who say that God will destroy those who get her name wrong. We were put on this earth to interrogate such beliefs, and give them no rest.

A circle cannot be square, and God cannot be vain and cruel. (I don’t claim to know what God is, but I’ve learned some things that God is not.) An entity that gives us mind and demands that we disable it cannot be God. An entity that advertises by killing those who get its name wrong cannot be God. Attributing such narcissism and sociopathy to deity is impious. If such a force existed, it would deserve the name of devil.

Judaism, thank heaven, is not the religion of ancient Israel; it is not a religion of animal sacrifice on consecrated altars. It’s a life of law, and a law of life – the same Torah everywhere and anywhere, ceaselessly pronounced, ceaselessly interrogated and ceaselessly interpreted. Jews know what Christians forgot: they know how to argue with God. Instruction does indeed go forth from Zion. My rabbi friends say Next year in Jerusalem – but Jerusalem is anywhere, when the Lord’s song is sung there.

Job the arguer said, “God, if this is your work, and for the reasons that are written, then I want to talk to someone else. I know that my advocate lives and will stand on the earth.” The Judaism, the Christianity and the Unitarianism I know, have more to do with Job than with Elijah. I don’t want to be smug about this but, as those who read the book to its end have learned, God said Job was right.***

*The Trouble with Islam (Random House Canada, 2003)

**I Kings 18

***Job 42:8

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

lost weight

What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying. I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.

-- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (trans. Justin O’Brien)


“As He died to make men holy,” says a hymn whose drumbeat sent armies to battle in a righteous cause, “let us die to make men free.” I grew up with people who would sing “let us live to make men free.” Liberals don’t like to prescribe martyrdom; they want to stand for life rather than for death.

Yet the questions of what to live and what to die for can’t be pulled apart. If you’re lucky or obsessed enough to figure out before you die what it is that you can die for, it had better be what you lived for. If it’s not, you’ll want to make some changes, and if you don’t have time for change you’ll be in trouble, wandering like Marley’s Ghost amidst occasions of compassion to which you’ve lost the key. As an example: many say “I would, of course, die for my children,” which is a pretty good way of saying that you ought to live for them. Whether you have actually done so is a different question. What you actually die for will be the thing you actually lived for, unless you catch yourself in time. Yeshua said that the last laborer in the vineyard would be paid the same as the first; but I think it might be good if those for whom we claim to labor had some benefit from us during the day. If not, then in what sense were we “for” them? Perhaps God accepts deathbed confessions, but people not so much, and only at a discount.

I met a lady last week who said with a smile “I’m in the right place. I’m where I’m supposed to be.” Her “place” was flat in a hospital bed, attached to bags of medication that did not entirely relieve her pain. She knew that in a few days she would die. What could she mean by “in the right place”? She was praising our care: she didn’t want to be elsewhere, in the care of other people. She was also owning the moment, this time of her life and death. Her mind – or as people like me are supposed to say, her spirit – was not struggling to escape.

She was held in place. “Held” might mean “imprisoned,” by her sickness and her limit. But “held” might also mean “comforted,” by our attention and our touch. She was under pressure, even oppressed; but the holding that she named was the pressure of our ministry that stood in for God’s arms. She knew the weight of her predicament, and allowed it to settle among us. We held it with love and medicine, blankets and pillows, but if she had not settled she could not have felt the comfort of our care. It’s a matter of Newtonian physics: to every action an equal and opposite reaction. She had to press on us before we could press back. We could not take her weight unless she gave it to us. What doesn’t settle can’t be born.

Milan Kundera wrote a novel to say that being may be heavy or light, and its lightness is unbearable. When I first felt the lightness it was summer, and I was walking from my grandfather’s farmhouse on an errand to the country store down the road when something snapped, and I was watching myself. No preposition captures it: should I say I looked “down” from “above”, or “in” from “outside”? The self-evidence of I was dissolved. What I saw instead was like a cubist painting. For the first time in eleven years of life I knew that this overstuffed corporeal dissonance in coke-bottle glasses and Our Gang shorts, this agglomeration of elbows and earlobes, nose and knees, had no entitlement in a strange land. I had thought the “I” was obvious, but now I saw it was a preposterous theorem. Absurd, as Camus would say. This explained a lot. I didn’t like this moment; I had become too light. My being had slipped its moorings.

“Having a wonderful time,” goes the joke, “Wish I were here.” I wanted to settle back into the frame that had been prepared for me, so I could be “right where I should be,” but like the foam cutout for someone else’s tools the place never quite fit again. Or perhaps, because I had lost my weight, I no longer pressed the matter in the right way, and so it could not rise to meet me.

I’ve been looking for my lost weight. If I find it and can press myself beneath it, I’ll be in the right place, wherever that is. And I’ll know what I’m living or dying for, though I may not choose to tell you.