Sunday, November 29, 2009

george spelvin

If I could just rehearse
one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday again!
But Friday’s already here,
With a script in hand I’ve never seen.

-- Wislawa Szymborska, “The Improvised Life”

There’s an old showbiz joke that always makes me laugh. I’m laughing as I write this down now. An actor – let’s call him George Spelvin – says that a certain producer doesn’t care for his work. “He wouldn’t cast me in The George Spelvin Show!”

And “George Spelvin” is another old showbiz joke. It’s the name that an actor puts in the playbill to conceal his identity. But of course each of us has been cast in The George Spelvin Show. We’re all, as Shakespeare said in the Scottish play, poor players strutting and fretting. And the script is late. Very late.

It’s one form of a common dream: they’re looking at you and you’re unprepared. Perhaps it’s an examination and you never studied. And you have no clothes on. You forgot to put them on. And you forgot to do the reading. And to go to class. Or you’re on a stage and you never rehearsed. When was that rehearsal exactly, the one you didn’t go to?

This isn’t a rehearsal. It’s the show. Whatever you do now, whatever you don’t do – it’s on the record. The house is full of people who paid the price of admission. They have high expectations. The reviewers are in their seats. They’re making notes and judgments. You’ll hear about it in the morning.

No do-overs. Not unless you incorporate the do-over in the plot. From now on you’ll be the person who spoke out of turn, or made the bad investment, or forgot his lines, or betrayed the one she loved. You’re blotted and there’s no eraser. You must either fake and hope to get away with it (soft-shoe, “Tea for Two, take a card any card, a funny thing happened on the way to my life), or confess and make up as best you can. If they give you a second chance, it will be on a bare stage, with merciless lighting. There’s hope, but it’s a hard hope.

If you make the trick of course, fill the moment, deliver the punchline, draw the tears, stop the show, get the laugh, earn the encore, then it’s done and can’t be taken from you. If you love kindness, and act justly, and comfort the afflicted, and take care of your loved ones, the Lord requires no more of you. You’re not just practicing to do stuff, the show’s been open for a while now and you’re actually doing stuff. Didn’t they tell you? It all counts. Is that all there is? Yes, this is what there is; you were expecting something better?

Perhaps you should have paid more attention. You’re already in the middle of things, and the finale is coming on. You missed the feather-dusting scene, where the maid tells all, what the issues are, while she whips the sitting room into shape. “Oh, oh, oh! Six o’ clock and the master’s not home yet!”* You missed that scene, so you’ll have to suss things out on the run.

Finales matter, but we don’t like to think about endings – our own endings or, for that matter, anyone else’s, because those other endings remind us of our own. So we don’t give enough attention as the thing winds up. We don’t get ready.

I pay attention to endings. I’m not a perfect audience, and sometimes my attention wanders. Sometimes the protagonist no longer holds the stage, and I watch the supporting players, who have more need of my attention. But by giving the best attention I can, I bring these events to light, these events in which I have no part, events that I do not script or manage. Let there be light, says the stage manager, let the curtain rise; and life, including its beginning and its end, becomes what it is under the eyes of others. That’s why, as Donne said, the passing-bell always tolls for thee – it means that your audience is diminished, and your stage has shrunk.

But the script just arrived. You can see it in the hands of the stage manager; it was just put into her hands. She’s showing the script to you from the wings, but what’s that to you? Too late now, you’ll have to find your light and make it up as you go.

I saw a man die who was far from perfect. He struggled with addiction all his life, and went to prison for possession of cocaine. But he had come back again and again, had taken care of his sick mother for decades, and loved his sons. Two of them were at the bedside when the breathing tube was removed. His brain was dead and he didn’t breathe on his own, but the heart struggled on for ten minutes without oxygen, as the sons stroked his head and whispered tender words into his ears. The best of him was there with me.

In Shakespeare’s time they didn’t write plays in “acts;” but publishers later arranged them in five acts to honor the ancients. Fourth acts have a stillness in them. I’m doing my fourth act now. The plot’s in a lull, but the catastrophe is winding up. Hamlet says the readiness is all; if it be not now, ‘twill be to come. The audience is waiting, a little impatient. They’re talking amongst themselves while I say wise things. They’re hoping the finale will be worth the fuss. If it’s worth the fuss, it will expiate, explain, excuse a lot. Finales matter.

*The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

is is

It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

-- President William Jefferson Clinton

My morning apple is green, but Clark Kent is Superman, Barack Obama is the President, Marlon Brando is Stanley Kowalski and God is Love. And this morning it is time to get up and it is raining or rather, there is rain here. Some people say that one politician is just like another or rather, there is no difference between them. Under the table these two letters, is, are operated by many different actors doing different kinds of things. And so, while the president drew scorn for his motives, he was voicing one of the most intractable and complicated controversies in the history of civilization. Much depends on the meaning of the word “is.”

Philosophers throw chairs at each other over the dilemmas of Essence and Existence, Being and Becoming. Plato the Essentialist tells me that my chair is only a chair because it participates in the eternal and invariable idea of chairness, and that all the details we most care about, the size and shape, grain of the wood, pattern of upholstery, comfort of its padding to the small of the back, are so much insignificant detail. David Hume the Empiricist tells me that my chair is only a chair by supporting my butt, reflecting light in a certain way, squeaking when I sit down it, feeling soft or hard, warm or cool to the hand, and any thought about its essence or the nature of its chairness is an idea that I make up by fusing those primary realities. Jean-Paul Sartre the Existentialist would go further, and say that talk of essence is dishonest metaphysical claptrap – bad faith – and the chair is nothing but how it exists, maybe not even that.

There’s no pure language for the asking of such questions, no way to ask that does not presuppose one of the answers. But we can’t avoid the questions. I am what I am and I am becoming what I am becoming, but which aspect is “real?” Do you know me when I do exactly what you thought I would do? Or do you come to know me when I do the miraculous thing you never expected? It matters whether you say, “You’re not the person I took you for” or “You’ve become a different person.” Both statements claim new knowledge, but one of them privileges essence and being, while the other privileges existence and becoming. Orthodox theology says God is what He is, “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Process theology says God is becoming what She is becoming, is “emotionally affected” and “suffers with the world.”* The priest wants us to be something, but the prophet wants us to become something. Perhaps salvation is our becoming what we are.

There is a chair and there is a Hollis sitting in it; there is also a Harvard and, depending on what language game I play as I say it, there might be a God. But there is no Harvard in the sense that there is a chair: Harvard is not a collection of objects. And there is no God in the sense that there is a Harvard: God is not a closed relationship of persons. But all these kinds of things exist – they exist when we talk about them in the proper way.

And if we speak improperly about them, they don’t exist. If I cannot name the chair, and take it for a hairbrush, then it’s just an object. If the people of Harvard forget to address each other by their callings, if they take themselves for a political party or a sociology experiment, then it’s just another aimless club. And if I forget how to use the word God, naming an object or a datum or a person instead, then God will be proven not to exist.

When Kitty taught me how to pray,** the Holy Spirit came a-visiting, and it surprised me. There wasn’t another person in the room. The thermostat was not affected. There was no extra rush of oxygen. These are the facts. There was just me and Kitty, holding each other’s hands, and saying certain words. There are no facts about God. But I knew the visitor had come because I felt it leave when we were done. Kitty said the Lord was with us, and I won’t argue with her.

*David Ray Griffin, “Process Theology,” A New Handbook of Christian Theology, eds. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), pp. 386-7.

**”First Client,” November 17, 2008

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

past regime

My self is an anthology of stories.

-- Don Cupitt, Life, Life

I have learned to make important decisions by asking, “Can I tell this story about myself?” I was raised to enumerate the reasons for everything. I made lists of reasons, for and against, on opposite sides of a ledger. I said, looking at the balance of the page, “All right then, that’s what I’ll do! -- or not do!” And then the truth would intervene.

I once thought I was an atheist because I couldn’t prove God by syllogism. I thought I should deduce my politics from undeniable axioms. But the world isn’t a political debating club or a dogmatic treatise, and it doesn’t matter whether I win the argument. What matters is that I live sustainably, and that’s the end for which reason serves as means. When reason turns impractical, it turns irrational.

Will this story bear its weight? Can I tell it so you’ll hear it? To tell the story I must see you face to face. It matters not so much what you say as what I see in your eyes. If I can’t tell it to you, then it doesn’t have enough truth to live with.

In a regime that now thank god recedes into the past, my supervisor shut me down as I talked about a client. “Stop right there: that’s story-telling!”

She wanted to cut the gab and get the data. The legal definition of a hospice patient is medical, and a nurse’s proper report is an inventory of medical data, readings on the dashboard. We need to know pulse and pressure, loss or gain of weight, ease or difficulty of breathing, degree of alertness or disorientation, details of consumption and excretion, the staging of pressure ulcers, the site and severity and quality of pain. The medical meaning is in the pattern of these present data: once we know the facts and vectors we’ll know what there is medically to do.

We spiritual counselors also find data. Chaplains too seek meaning. But we can’t take readings from a dashboard.

I had a colleague who wrote in his notes about “increase” or “decrease” in the client’s “spiritual well-being.” Someone taught him to do this so he could sound like a doctor. But the soul has no crankcase and there’s no dipstick to read it with. To speak of an “increase in spiritual well-being” is nothing more than to say “I think he’s doing better,” but say it pompously.

There’s no instrument to measure the state of a soul, but what if there were? I who enter the room in good health and an hour later will go home, I am no one to judge the client’s state of being, to call it well or ill. The soul’s exit from the world is not supposed to be pretty, any more than its entrance is. This one’s terror, that one’s bitterness, the other one’s anger – these may be proper answers to a rotten hand of cards that God has dealt. I’m not God’s bodyguard. Let Her defend Herself.

Meaning is not a pattern of data on the dashboard, or a quart of well-being dumped down a funnel. Life’s Meaning is not the answer to an examination. To talk about it is bad poetry. The very form of the question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” is invalid. It’s like asking, when it rains, where the “It” is that’s raining.

We only talk about meaning when we have lost it, because when life is meaningful we’re too busy to talk. Life seems meaningful ceases to be meaningless – when there’s something still to do. If you can tell a story that’s not yet finished and you’re included in it, you are not lost. To complete some work, or mend a quarrel, or see a grandchild married, or leave a testament, or even just to sing a song, this song of grief. I cannot choose the task or write the plot, but sometimes by listening I draw it out. Sometimes I get to name or bless it.

And so I say in hindsight to a past regime, who shut me down for story-telling, “Damn right it’s story-telling. That’s my job.

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