Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
This is what in the theatre we call subtext. Nothing going on, but colossal conflicts written on the stillness.
As you read subtext, you learn what it was like to be there. I’m here right now, doing nothing much, and yet my mere existence is an impossible precipitate of cosmic force, and I read that force in the turbulence of shadows. Some would say that I am watching as God sustains me, others that I am looking through cracks into the warfare of my soul. I am indifferent to the difference.
On the wall of our dining room hang two family portraits, painted photographs of a grandfather’s parents. Stiff in their chairs, they speak of tradition, and they compliment the colors of the room. We remember their names; our children perhaps shall not. We do not know the turbulence of their spirits, or the flavoring of their tea, or the sound of their voices on a winter morning, or their smell to a child sitting in their laps. We have nearly lost them. When the family forgets their names, they will have vanished, their flame snuffed. Then their immortality will have to be sustained elsewhere, in some other way.
It’s reasonable to hope, given the record of my forebears, that I’ll be here in a couple of decades, knowing who I am still. And yet I might, as my friend says, collide unfortunately with the bagel-truck this afternoon. I’ve reached the age when it’s folly not to be ready. The world is full of fools and I inherit folly, and no one of course is guaranteed another day. But now it comes across to me, there is no more time to mortgage. I cannot sign away this year, this month, this moment to The Idiot, in hope of future Authenticity. The Promise must be Now. Now must be the Promise.
Which is not to say There Shall (Or Not) Be Fun. There will be some fun, and some fear, some laughs and tears, but whatever is to come, it must be Real. No more flight from the moment toward a dicey future. No more career moves unless they pay off now. The present is what I know I have. It must make sense. I must make sense of it. Readiness is all.
Any fool who would undertake the task of my biography would die of boredom before he finished. I haven’t done much. It’s all in the subtext. The subject would require a different historiography.
My children will remember the sound of my voice, the shape of my shadow, the smell of me when they sat in my lap. In my vanity I’d also like to leave them something more articulate, and in truth my articulation is much of what I am. It’s my grain, my odor; it’s the size of me against the sun. This isn’t true of most people. It’s something really odd about me. Some don’t like it, and I can’t help that. But if you love me then you love this, whether you like it or not.
It’s a promise as old as literature. Ars longa vita brevis. I don’t ask as much as that. I don’t have to be on bookshelves two millennia from now. If these shadow-plays survive me, if some of my descendents, children of the genes or of the heart, can read my subtext, then they’ll know that there was someone here doing this. I hate being photographed, and yet I leave these polaroids behind. There he is. The crank. Old fart. Transparent. Inscrutable. Insatiable. Teachable. Lover. Critic. Disciple. Witness. Acolyte. Partner. Father. Brother. Child. It will have been, as the Jews have said for centuries, enough.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
-- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Near the beginning of the story, this “small, yellow and leechlike” creature is implanted in Arthur Dent’s ear, allowing him to communicate with alien creatures of all time and space, and to engage with the novel’s farcical conquests, tantrums, neuroses and mass exterminations. Honorifically named because it erases human penalty for arrogance, the creature’s talent is a cure worse than the disease. Perhaps it’s for the best that, after Babel’s fall, we were sent to our corners, bounded by language. Peace has as much to do with what we don’t know about each other as it does with what we do know. We’ll know that peace has broken out when we’re all sitting under our own fig trees without fear; but if I knew what you really think of me, it could make me afraid, very afraid. No telling then what I might do to you. Or you – see how empathic I am! how symmetrical my moral reasoning! – to me. There’s a long-developed art of peace called diplomacy. Knowing when to shut up. Knowing when not to break down barriers to comprehension. If you can’t say anything nice, then . . .
There’s a motto of my church’s religious education, a “chalice-lighting” that hangs on the wall to be spoken near the beginning of worship. “Let us light a candle of understanding in our hearts, so that we may understand how other people think and feel.” It’s a good lesson for children, who begin (if they are lucky) as idolized masters of all they survey, and two mere decades later must find their way alone across the world’s savage trading floor, seeking direction amidst a multitude of other atoms who shriek their claims of value. If children don’t learn that there are other people, and that those other people think and feel, there’s not much safety to be had in this world. If they don’t learn to hear some of those thoughts and feelings as comparable to their own, there’s not much happiness. But what should we grownups do if we come to understand that what my neighbor thinks and feels is a transcendental desire to kill us, and our children?
We learned a lot on the eleventh of September eight years ago about what some other people think and feel, and I doubt that we are better for the knowledge. We may think that some proper, timely intervention, by force or by more perfect love, might have forestalled this moral disaster; but the disaster was not forestalled and we got the message right between the eyes, that some people would give their lives to end the lives we cherish. The choices before us now are perilous, pricey and ugly.
It makes me nostalgic for an older form of life, when isolation had a logic. Some places that were hell on earth could be ignored, because they had no power to bring their hell to us. Leave them alone, you can’t fix it, they can’t touch us here. But now a fanatic on dialysis, fugitive in mountains at the end of the earth, can make me gasp every time I – or a child of mine – goes down the subway steps. I wish he and I had never met.
I heard a student minister say he had taken a vow of transparency, never to tell any lies. He didn’t learn how I thought and felt about his vow, because I didn‘t tell him. My God, I thought, the parish will eat you alive; and as for your private life, Lord ‘a' mercy, who will live with your barrage of Too Much Information? These things he’ll have to learn on his own.
I’ve lived with the same person for forty-two years, and I don’t know everything she thinks and feels, nor she of me. Emerson said the Eye – Shakespeare’s I -- is the First Circle. Each of us stands in the center of the horizon that our eye marks out, and if you stand within my circle (and I yours), we might eye each other. We are not identical. Our circles would intersect but, drawn from different centers, they are not the same. I do not comprehend all of you, nor you of me (unless one of us were master, one the slave.) There are reaches of you that, because of my love, I shall never see. You shall not be dissolved in me. Keep something to yourself, for the love of God. Love has its expression, but intimacy has its timely reticence. As for agape, its limits give it life.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
They also serve who only stand and wait.
-- Milton, “On His Blindness”
Ramon once told me his life story in the way he could, digging out a hill of photographs and documents from his bedroom drawer: work papers, family photographs, post cards from his long missing son. He lies in bed now when I come to see him, arms and legs shaking even at rest. He can’t speak or write intelligibly. He doesn’t have enough motor control to use a computer keyboard. He can’t manipulate a boom box without breaking it.
This last fact is important because he is a musician. Ramon used to play in an island band, in a folk genre that announces to the diaspora of his native Caribbean island their longing for home. His instrument sounds a bit like a mandolin. It rests cracked and unstrung against the wall of his bedroom, long unused.
I never knew Ramon when he could still play his music. In my first visits he would come from the bedroom to meet me, supporting himself on his walker. Sometimes I could understand his speech and gesture; sometimes even his wife and long-time attendant could not understand them. When he could not get through to me, he would take up a pad and write; sometimes I could not read his writing. Now it’s much worse. And worse again, because he has much to say: his mind is unaffected.
I consulted with an expert who knows the culture of Ramon’s island. She taught me about the artists, the content of songs, the idiom of his instrument and its function in the band. With this knowledge I could talk with him about the music. He gave me homework, lending me discs of defining artists in this music of his country’s interior mountains. Sometimes we sat and listened to his favorite songs. He would noodle with the fingers of his right hand on his left forearm, as if he were picking out the notes. There! That’s my part, do you hear it?
Now I visit in collaboration with the Music Therapist. She brings a bag of hand-held percussion. One of these instruments is black, the size and shape of an egg, and when you shake it the seeds inside strike the shell and slide around; it’s like a maraca. We play the music on the boom box, and put the little eggs in his hand: he finds the complicated counter-rhythms of each song.
As I write this, it looks to me as if we’re doing rather well, but this is for me the hardest kind of case to sit with. There’s so much I cannot do. I heard his story long ago. I can less and less understand what he tries to say. I feel like a fool.
There was a time when I tried to drop the case. I said to myself, you’ve done what you can; you’ve tried all your tricks, and he’s tried his repertoire with you. You can’t understand him any better than when you first came. Let someone else have a try. I referred him to a colleague, and explained to Ramon that I would not be coming to visit any more.
I left Ramon’s apartment feeling like a traitor. I took home with me the grief in his eyes. Through the following vacation I thought of him. When I came back I found that my colleague had not visited yet. I called him off, spoke to Ramon’s wife and said never mind, it was all a mistake, I’ll be visiting again this week.
So now the Music Therapist and I support each other, unsure how much more of this we could bear on our own. What makes this so hard is that he has so much he wants to do and so much he wants to say. I too have much to say. What if I could not say it? What if kind and intelligent people stood around me, waiting for the message I could not send them?
I doubt that Ramon knows Milton, but he must feel, like blind Milton, that his “one talent which is death to hide” is “lodged with me useless.” He cannot stand, so he must lie and wait. But I also am blind – and deaf. I can neither hear nor see his song, and so am useless too. I stand and wait. What are we waiting for? A way out of our dead end.
What do you do when your skill runs out? You stand naked in the wind, your mortality exposed. The client’s exposure, though different from yours, is also mortal.
When I threatened to leave, there was something he grieved for. Perhaps it is my exposure that comforts him.
There’s so little we can do for each other. But that little, if we can locate it, is not nothing. It is something. It is, perhaps, sometimes, almost enough.