Friday, December 31, 2010

affective disorder

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

-- Isaiah 9:2 (NRSV)

April is the cruelest month.

-- T. S. Eliot

I used to go crazy in May. It was a kind of seasonal affective disorder. The opposite of the kind so well-known. Too much light.

For the greater part of my life I lived on the academic calendar. The year began in September and ended in May. The Autumn, when nature dies and falls, was my time of new beginnings, virtuous intentions and clean slates. The Winter, when the poets say nature sleeps under a white blanket, was my time to work, accomplish much, and put my ledgers in the black. Summer, when nature outrages with productivity, was my time to moan and suffer. But Spring, when nature wakes and stretches its limbs, was death for me.

Too much light. In May everything is finished, and the weather is mild, there’s perfume in the air, and it was all far too easy. Everything is done now, the people you did it with are dispersing, and you can’t remember why it seemed worth your effort to do it. You’re losing your grip, but also losing the things you had gripped so fiercely. It’s all coming apart, integrity dissolving, and the members of this body may never be regathered. You’re dying.

In Spring, they say, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, but there’s nothing light about that turning. One may go mad with love. Or with its lack. The Spring of the Year, according to The Historian, is when kings go out to battle,* but David stayed behind and played those games with Bathsheba that so cursed his family.

Too much light. When I was so young that my parents read bedtime stories to me, the change to daylight savings time was fearful. Shocking that they would put me to bed while the sun hung over the horizon, casting brilliant shadows into my bedroom. How could I sleep amidst such clarity? In a child’s book meant to tell me what kind of thing God was, the illustration was of children running over a hill, under a yellow disc of sun. Framed in my window was that disc. Was that disc God? Was God looking at me in my bed? It seemed a bit much, asking me to sleep under such circumstances.

My bodily economy was set to Winter. Cold and darkness slapped my face in a way that I knew how to refute. So the sun’s retreat was always a joy to me, for I knew that the sun extinguishes all candles. The first Autumn evening when the sun set before I got home from school was a promise – that a time was coming when lights could shine because the Light had disappeared. Those dark evenings were my home.

Now my body chemistry is changing. Experience may override a youthful reflex with history: I know I have survived more than sixty Springs, though some of them I thought I would not. The balance of hormones, nature’s fancy chemicals, changes with age. And I suspect that one of my now daily medications has altered my emotional topography.

I no longer fend off madness as midsummer approaches. But in November, as I see the dark advancing on the day’s routine – the time of leaving the house, the time of boarding the train, the time of shutting down my work, the time of return – I may notice as I climb the steps that I have carried doom as my companion through the day, and the dark outside that window seems a wall. Then I ask myself, what doom is this, and what am I confined to? And there is no answer, because there is no actual message in these images, just a mood induced by chemicals.

In this I have become like many others, who find the time of Advent difficult to bear. I have learned what it is to walk the narrow passage of a Neolithic tomb, into a chamber where the sun will find us only on the day it stops its flight and promises to come back, the day called solstice. In that chamber we learn in a tangible way what the prophet imagined – that the light doesn’t shine everywhere. It shines on “those who lived in a land of deep darkness.” If you don’t find your place of darkness, the light won’t find you.

They won’t hear the good news in the palace. They haven’t got a clue in the palace. In the well-lit apartments of the court, they’re all in a tizzy. They have to ask itinerant wise guys what the buzz is. And the wise guys, once they’ve escaped this pollution of illumination to the place where a new star’s light can be seen – they go home by another way.

If this seems confusing, it’s supposed to be. Get used to it. Go home by another way.

*2 Samuel 11:1

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

balloon deathmarch

Knock – it’ll be opened for you.

-- Matthew 7:7 (ASV)

I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member.

-- Groucho Marx

“Keep it light.”

“Keep moving.”

“Have a good time, folks.”

“Happy Holidays.”

So say the cops as we trudge, in the track prepared for us, around the Museum of Natural History. Not that I’m gong anywhere. On my left is the museum’s fence, and on the right are the barricades that keep us from the street. I can’t take an honest step. It will take about an hour to make our way around the museum and back to the subway. But neither can I stand still: I am carried along in a human ooze. Here in the open air, my claustrophobia is activated.

Tomorrow is the big parade. That’s why we’re here.

At the museum’s backside, where it interrupts W. 79th St., the cops direct us across Columbus Ave., then across 79th St. and back across to the museum side of Columbus Ave., just below the point where we left it. Here in this tango of maximum mutual interference, interrupting traffic and interrupted by it, the police exhort us to keep it light, and to have a good time.

On my right, over the heads of the masses, I see twisted limbs of gargantuan balloons, bound against their growing buoyancy. They are the purpose of this pilgrimage. On the backs and shoulders, and in the arms of marchers, are the children for whose joy the pilgrimage was undertaken. Some of the children are crying, some asleep. Some are asking when we can go home. That is what I am asking. Not for a while yet – there’s no easy escape.

Once upon a time this must have been a good idea. The first ones who long ago wandered backstage before the show, watching the gassy figures glacially quicken and rise, ready to take to the air for the morrow’s procession – they got a look at the parade without the travel and the jostling for position and the fatigue, and without the long, taxing escape. Why go to all that trouble, when you can get there first, see the stars of the procession before the vulgar masses do, at your own pace and in an order of your own choosing? It was an insider’s way to the festival. Then the word got out. Then all these other people showed up. I’m one of those other people. It’s not what it used to be.

Television. That’s the ticket. It’ll be on two networks tomorrow morning. Why didn’t I think of that? I can see all the balloons, if I want to, from the couch in my den. I can see them very much as I would from the barricade; but I won’t have to camp out overnight to claim my view.

There are a lot of balloon deathmarches in the world. Things that must have once been a good idea, but now everybody does it and it’s not what it used to be at all. But nobody lets the air out of the balloon. Nobody exposes the fraud. Or if they do, no one believes them. People still pile on, because as far as they know it’s still The Thing. They want it still to be The Thing.

If you’re now hearing about a miraculous opportunity, it’s gone already. People buy the stock after its price goes up. Or take out mortgages on overpriced houses they can’t pay for. Or choose a college based on its reputation of two decades ago.

We bought big into automobiles because of a dream of mobility. We all wanted freedom, which to us meant going exactly where we wanted to go, exactly when we wanted to go there. It’s now obvious, and yet we haven’t learned it, that when everybody tries to go where they want when they want, nobody gets to go where and when they want. We get instead to breathe each other’s exhaust fumes, idling in a parking lot like the California 405.

The Great Lakes are lined with the shacks of people who dreamed of a country house on the lake.

Everybody in the social set I grew up in wanted their kids to go to Harvard. But if everybody went to Harvard, it wouldn’t be any more what makes people want to go to Harvard. That’s why we have land grant universities. That’s why, here in New York, we have City College.

But how can I say a thing like that? I’m a liberal. I’m supposed to say everybody can have the dream.

Well, everybody can dream. That’s their right. That’s the American Way. Everybody gets to wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, and so we owe to everybody the infrastructure of dreaming. But everybody can’t realize the same dream. When they try, it becomes a very bad dream indeed.

There’s no short cut. You can’t just pile on to someone else’s dream, no matter how well promoted. You have to discover a particular dream, the one that awaits you. It doesn’t have to be an original dream, or a fancy one. It might speak from a very humble thing, like a bush in the desert, burning and not consumed by fire. But if it’s your dream, it won’t leave you alone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

funny dad

Congratulations to those who mourn, for they can be comforted.

-- Matthew 5:4

I have laughed in the face of death. Not my own. But perhaps when my time comes, if I learn by example . . .

It seemed like the thing to do. They had gathered round their father who was dying. And they laughed.

All his children were there: three daughters and a son. When the son said he was an atheist, I said that’s all right, I’m a Unitarian and most people think I’m an atheist too. It went over real big. They guffawed. They thought I was a real wit.

He was only distantly Catholic, and the children were mixed – another distant Catholic, an Episcopalian, a spiritual eclectic – and the atheist son. But they thought their dad should have the last rites of a Catholic.

I explained the options. Because my priestly colleague wasn’t working that day, I could refer to the priest of the hospital for sacraments, but I don’t control his schedule and couldn’t predict when he would come. Or I could do my own ritual of Anointing, from the prayer-book of the Protestant church I was raised in – a measure that even some Catholic families find to be of comfort. One of them thought she recalled that, while dad was in the hospital but had not yet come to the hospice ward, the priest of the hospital came by to give him sacraments. Others of them thought she was confused about this.

They were sharp and educated people, together for a common reason – they loved their father. They argued with vigor but without anger, and reached a conclusion: I would refer to the priest of the hospital, and then as we waited for him to come I would provide my rituals as well.

When I came back, that’s when the real fun began. They told stories. This sharing of memory is what we call in the trade “Life Review,” but I didn’t have to lead it. Their dad had been a funny man. They told jokes that he had told, and then they told jokes about him. Every now and then they would touch his arm. “Did you hear that, Dad?” They showed me pictures of him, at different places and times with differing combinations of them, and in the pictures people weren’t just doing a say cheese smile – they were laughing. So I said You guys laugh a lot, I want to join your family. And they said Come on in, there’s room. And we laughed some more.

And just at this moment in the doorway appeared Father Francis of the hospital. He is young and handsome and, like his namesake, can charm birds out of trees. He was in the mood to do so. We were all glad to see him. And we all said so at once. And we all laughed some more.

And Fr. Francis could see that this particular angel of death had turned out to be a comedian. So he made his way by stages to the bedside, sensing the mood of each grieving child, respecting the reserve of the atheist son, listening intently to their stories and wisecracks, laughing with them and making a few jokes of his own. And very lightly, without making a big deal of it, without quashing the celebration of a good life well lived, asking the assistance of the children when he could, he performed the Sacrament of Anointing for a dying father.

If you don’t do this work you don’t know how many emotions there are at a deathbed, and that only some of them are sad. There are cries and noise, but only some of it is weeping. A deathbed can be a merry place. A deathbed can be a school of gratitude for life.

A miracle does not contradict nature; it is, in the oldest sense, a thing to be marveled at. Faith is a way of facing the future, knowing that though my way of being in the world keeps changing, something marvelous can still happen. I left that room exalted. If my deathbed can be like this one, I shall not be afraid.

Congratulations to those who mourn, indeed. They have comforted me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

moral art

O gods . . .
Come down and redeem us from virtue.
--Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Dolores”

I have my grandpa’s knees. When I stand up, I channel him.

He hiked around his farm pointing to every shed and fence-post. His afternoon’s joy was to walk into banks, warehouses and stores where he was known as a customer or a creditor. “How you doin,’ Mr. C?” they would say.

But he flinched when he stood up from a chair. Bent at knees and waist, he could only shuffle his first dozen paces. Knee reconstruction might have extended his life. They can do these things much better nowadays, and someday I may schedule such repairs for myself.

If you do business in Manhattan and you are not wealthy, you walk. That’s why fewer Manhattans than Iowans are obese: you can’t drive from door to door. On every workday I walk a couple of miles. I go up and down hills. I climb two dozen or so staircases. This is not easy for the man with his grandpa’s knees.

But I will not be downhearted from a bit of ache. There are blue gelcaps available at the pharmacy. And there is of course my skill and discipline of movement.

I took my physical education not as a kid on playing fields, but as an adult in the performance studio, desperate to appear in public without humiliation. I wanted virtuoso skills, but the skills that made most difference were humble ones – speaking with words rather than against them, falling down and getting up, sitting and standing, walking and waiting. Knowing when to do a thing and when not yet. Doing one thing at a time, and completely. Learning that the strongest way is also easiest.

Transferring from the L to the Lex at Union Square, I must climb three flights of stairs before descending one. I’ve lost a few pounds a year for several years now. I think I left them at Union Square.

I look up that flight of stairs, and I know that when the moment comes I must not hold back. I imagine myself already at the summit. I must sweep to the top not in so many steps but in a single impulse. I put my knees and ankles and hips and feet in the same plane, I lean into the task, and launch. This is the way to get it done, rising above obstacles of age, decay and god-given awkwardness. How wise I am, how brave.

But now some idiot has stopped on the fifth step. In a red rage I halt. Nobody gave the order to halt, you bozo!

Sometimes the malefactor is an able young person, dawdling in a daydream, reading her blackberry, lounging up the stairs in what she imagines is a style. But sometimes it’s someone older and more overweight than I. Sometimes the malingerer has a cane and a limp.

Get over it! I’m no spring chicken either. I’m tired and I have places yet to go. I’ve got my grandpa’s knees to deal with, and I was doing a really good job until you dropped the ball. Do you see me halting and huffing and puffing, making a display of my difficulty? But you – you’ve made this worse for both of us. You’ve made my graceful ascent into ten laborious steps. By what right do you sabotage my art?

Such, in the flash of an instant, before civilization comes to my rescue, is my inner text. I learn two lessons in the face of my own savagery. First, that my immortal soul is most at risk as I am trotting out my virtues. Second, that there is a line of difference, below which suffering has no reward, and heroism no traction. If you live above the line, you’re tempted to cut no slack for those who live below it. Why can’t they just suck it up and work harder?

The great hymns to Hard Work are sung by people who have no experience of it. They ride on horseback through deathly fields of labor, work that wrecks the body and breaks the soul, while cheating the worker of his sacrifice’s value. Too big to fail, the riders smirk at those who provide their luxury, imagining that the difference between I and hey you there is one of character. They dream in the saddle that they are self-made.

I am both right and wrong in my moral art of stair-climbing. Right because I ought to transcend my pain rather than fetishizing it. Wrong because others lack the luxury of my choices. For some, there is no return to the right way of using their limbs, no reward for the discipline of climbing stairs, no virtuous cycle of weight loss and vascular gain but only a deathly spiral of unrefreshed fatigue and tissue damage. I ought to carry myself erect, but some cannot. “Another day older and deeper in debt,” goes the song.

I am one of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “managerial middle class.” We are bought off in genteel poverty with a fantasy of mobility, convinced that we have survived so far, and will some day rise above our mortal danger, by talent and effort. That’s the way someone wants it. We’re exploitable. We fear that with a single slip we’ll fall below the line, our floor that is a ceiling for others, below which virtue meets no reward. There are many slaves who work for wages. Imagining that we are in control, we can be cruel to those denied the fantasy.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Shall the truth make us free?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

lousy knees

You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

-- Leviticus 19:34

I get worried. I get nervous.

-- Juan Williams, Oct. 21, 2010

For nine years I have trusted my cars to a Muslim. I don’t know what country he comes from, and I’ve never asked: he is an honest man. He distinguishes the essential work from the desirable. He does the work I tell him to do, and for a fair price. I have come to trust his judgment. He figures out ways for me to keep my ancient automobiles alive without spending more than they are worth. On the one occasion when his work went wrong, he did the right thing, and with alacrity -- he had the work done again at his own expense, and he stayed on the case until he got it right. His conduct in this one area of my life has been so exemplary that, if it were necessary, I would trust him in other respects as well. I have recommended him to others. There are politicians, pundits and bankers in America who would be improved by taking moral instruction from him. He has succeeded by his honesty, and now he owns several stations.

The only people who can claim to be original in America are the ones who no longer possess it. The rest of us are either immigrants, or descendants of willing or unwilling immigrants. We are refugees all from our particular Egypts. Trouble is, each new wave of immigrants thinks itself the normative one, the standard by which all who follow are guaranteed to fail. And when some of those who stayed behind in Egypt become our enemies, their refugees come under suspicion. The Japanese-Americans did not do well in America during an earlier war. And now there are those who want to drive out the Muslim-Americans.

The Park51 Cultural Center is not a mosque, is not located on Ground Zero, and will not be visible there. There is nothing to discuss here: those who rage about a “Ground Zero Mosque” are liars.

I, on the other hand, report to an office that is actually near Ground Zero. From my seat in a 1 train, as I go to or return from errands of mercy, I see through gaps in the tunnel wall some daylight of the still empty space. The tunnels themselves, where I spend much of my working day, are the next terrorist target. If once again war comes to my city, as it did to London and Madrid, I will be on the front lines. Though I never had basic training, I am a soldier. An unarmed soldier with lousy knees.

A few days ago I stood in a crowded subway at rush hour. A woman sat down on the bench below me, clothed in what I later learned is a niqab -- a robe of black, covering the entire body and face, with only the eyes exposed. I shuddered. And then I was angry.

This goes beyond the identification of one’s faith -- the yarmulkeh, or the turban and tiny sword of the Sikh, or the brightly colored scarf worn by many Muslim women, or the little crucifix hanging on the chests of many Christians, or the pendant of a flaming chalice worn by some ministers of my faith. This was a statement of the radical form of her faith, by a person concealing her identity.

The freedoms and opportunities of America, which for centuries have drawn the most energetic of the world’s oppressed, do not come for free. Their price is accountability. I can’t reward my mechanic for his good work if I do not know who he is. And because I know who he is, I could raise hell with him if he treated me badly. He can’t succeed without accountability.

Here was a person demanding my respect for her faith, without letting me know who it was I should respect. Honor without accountability. Concealing herself like the outlaw in a bank-robbing movie, clothed in a garment loose enough to conceal a deathly cargo, she placed herself in the very spot from which the next battle may begin. As Juan Williams said, I got concerned, I got nervous. I’ve seen the movie from Madrid. Honestly now, process observer, can you blame me? She gave me the creeps.

The train arrived at my station, and I got off. Nothing happened. As Juan Williams said a few seconds after the remarks for which he was fired by a radio network he was not working for at the time, we are not at war with Islam. But there is a radical form of Islam -- a perversion, some would say -- that is at war with us. It doesn’t take two to make a war.

We must not make enemies of those who would be our friends. That would be the stupidest, and most certainly disastrous, kind of self-defense. That’s the way empires destroy themselves. Muslims, like Slavs and Mediterraneans and Central Americans and Celts and even Anglo-Saxons before them, have come here because their home worlds were disastrous and they saw here a chance for themselves and their progeny. Surely we who arrived in America before they did can understand their purpose.

But it is not easy to love the Alien among us when some who speak in the Alien’s name have killed us. To pretend that we do not feel some turbulent emotions about this contradiction would be dishonest and irresponsible. We must get control of these emotions, but we cannot control them if we do not name them. That’s what Juan Williams was doing. And it’s what I’m doing right now. We’re naming these emotions.

We liberals sometimes forget our own psycho-babble. All together now, boys and girls, remember -- emotions are neither right or wrong, it’s what we do when in the grip of our emotions that is right or wrong. Emotions are crucial data of the moral situation, and we ignore them at our peril. Ignorance leads to error, and moral error is sin.

I am no progressive. I am a liberal: born a liberal, educated a liberal, lived and will die a liberal. And I grieve when the institutions of liberal value betray that value. Though NPR’s firing of Juan Williams does not rise to the full squalor of Shirley Sherrod’s firing by the Agriculture Department, it is another instance of the rot within liberal culture, its substitutions of correctness for honesty, of verbal formalities for moral responsibility. If we don’t do better than this, we don’t deserve our place in history.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

helluva time

In my mind, I’m 5 foot 3, but deep down I know I’m only 5 foot 2.

-- Menachem Pressler*

What goes for a tiny pianist would go for a writer, an actor, a preacher, or a prophet. Skill is not enough. Mastery is not enough. Talent is not enough. You have to know you’re better than you are. Humility is a fine thing until the lights come up. Then there’s no democracy, only emergency.

If I’m doing one thing (A), what happens when they tell me to do another thing (B) instead? I figure out a third thing (C) to do, and they think I have obeyed when I have not. Deep down I’m a contrary sumbitch, always seeking a way to do it my way.

But if the audience is pleased, what’s the harm? Have I not performed well? Is this not honesty?

When the lights come up, it’s emergency. Surveys can’t lead you out of this mess, and if the crowd knew how to save themselves they’d have done it by now. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know what they need. You have to lead them. You have to show them what they want, and what they need, and let them name it as they will. Afterward they might say, “Thank you, that’s what we wanted,” but they didn’t want it in time and couldn’t have described it. They hadn’t a clue. That’s what it’s come down to, when the lights come up.

I don’t want to be onstage with nice guys. When the lights come up, my comrades should be ruthless, and do what’s necessary when it’s necessary. Not what everybody thinks they want. And not at some prudent time when the council has met, pondered, revised, temporized, compromised, incorporated alternatives, and ensured that no constituency is left out of the process. By then you’re watching the boat drop over the horizon. Permanent regret.

Many a man wishes he’d known, at the age of eighteen, that there comes a moment when you have to kiss the girl, and nothing else is to the point or even acceptable.

Authority adheres to you not because you’re always right, but because when the lights come up you dare what others dare not. That’s charisma. The boy Yeshua, left behind in the temple by mistake, debated the scriptures with those older and wiser. He did not ask permission, he did not defer – he spoke as one with authority. He was having a helluva time it seems, until his mom and dad came back, turned off the lights and took him home, where he had no honor. The boy knew his stuff, it seems.

You’ve got to know your stuff, and you’ve got to play the notes, but the people can’t tell you which notes to play or how to phrase them. Smile and say that’s an interesting suggestion, you’ll give it careful consideration; then do exactly as you please. They’ll probably imagine you took their advice.

We don’t have an organ in our church, but we have a grand piano, and a grand pianist who plays it grandly. A survey produced an anonymous plea: “Could he please not play so loud?” Hmm, let me see. Such an interesting suggestion. We’ll give it the most careful consideration. The name of the instrument is piano-forte. That is, soft-loud. It’s meant to play softly and loudly in alternation. The music written for it is sometimes soft, sometimes loud. That’s how classical music works. It spins its long tales by contrast of many variables, and among those variables are softness and loudness. European classical music is perhaps the world’s only music in which softness and loudness have MEANING. Shall we excise the loudness that is written in the name of the instrument, the notes of the music? Shall we ask the artist to play in only one key, or facing away from the keyboard, or with one hand tied behind his back? We shall in fact direct him to do exactly as he pleases. That’s the kindest response.

You must know your stuff, and know the public more intimately than they know themselves. Note their anxiety, but disregard their account of it. When the great gong-show starts, give them what they could not know they yearned for, and might resent you for exposing. This humility before The Spirit is not a moderate thing but a scandal, an outrage, a peak of arrogance. How dare you do what needs to be done? How dare you do what, if you do it without delay or compromise, they might some day thank you for?

You’re the one who takes the risk. That’s your side of the covenant. They’re the ones who might throw tomatoes. You could be horribly wrong. But if you ask them what to do, they will certainly, sooner or later, throw their tomatoes. They don’t really want to be consulted.

An artist’s love, like that of a poet, a preacher or prophet, is tough love. Listen to the spirit. Do as it directs. Don’t apologize. Have a helluva time. Act as one with authority. This is not moderate behavior.

At the crucial moment you must be more than you are. If you’re five foot two you must grow to five foot three. This is not the time to take suggestions. Be a nice guy later, but right now you must know, and nurture, your inner sumbitch.

“A Pianistic Quarterback Passes to a Younger Generation,” New York Times (November 30, 2003)

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

real boy

Your eyes paint the picture they see. They cook and feast at once.

-- Don Cupitt, Life, Life

Seventy-six Fahrenheit, and the weighted air does not move. I can’t breathe. I stand quite still and sweat, as they say, like a pig, though I think pigs must sweat with more elegance than I. Sus domestica is an intelligent and dignified animal, and might resent the comparison.

Some of my people say that I’m a man of God, that I carry the Spirit with me. But the spirit grunts and moans in this slow-cooked flesh, longing for a cold shower and a change of clothes.

These bottom-of-a-fishbowl days, trials of endurance that cannot be blamed on a thermometer, are among the city’s climatic pranks, its special contributions to meteorology. We carry on our affairs in a tidal estuary – nothing is ever washed out to sea; everything churns and sours. What goes around comes around. Karma. Until the autumn breezes come to save us, we live in our own effluence.

My colleague thinks I have a fashion sense. She flatters my “muted greys and browns” with an esthetic interpretation.

I never thought of myself as relevant to fashion. I place myself in the category of things strange-looking but presentable with some effort. Who was it said, please God, make me normal? Perhaps I am learning, at long last, to look normal. That’s what I hope for as I choose the day’s clothes, or as I buy those modest vestments from catalogues and discount stores. My younger presentations were often misguided, peculiar. Passing for ordinary, if that’s what I’m doing, would be progress. Has Pinocchio finally become a real boy?

I’ve learned that I must respect the physicalities. In a day’s campaign I might walk a few miles, climb twenty or so flights of steps, adjust to the climatic terrors of a half dozen subway cars, and stand on as many steamy platforms waiting for those cars to open. I’m a walrus and, if I begin the day in a suit and tie, then by noon I’ll look like what the cat dragged in. And smell that way.

So I’m a bit informal. I’m big on linens and breathable fabrics, stuff that won’t be ruined by a little moisture. As the Fall comes on, some may think I’m dressed too cold but, like Dave Letterman in his frigid studio, I’d rather not be dripping on the script.

In recent years I’ve discovered an intuition for colors. So on a given day, among the prosaic alternatives of trousers (pleated or tropical), turtlenecks, polos, blazers, tropical shirts (monochrome or fine-print), I choose an ensemble. I learn from the day’s predicted high temperature which wardrobe I should deploy – winter, summer or transitional. And then the work of decision begins, among the exchangeable alternatives of a template.

There are two ways to organize by color. The first is by gradation, and the second is by contrast. When I wear my lime green tropical shirt, should I show above the top button my tee-shirt of paler green (or hunter)? Or should I show the goldenrod, or light brown? Under my black shirt, a tee of black, or grey, or cardinal red? I ponder on these matters. It isn’t just any old shirt, any old tee, and any old pair of pants. There has to be a plan, a concept, if you will.

When my colleague thought I had achieved a semblance of fashion, I thought I might have finally passed for prep. Which I never quite achieved when I was a prep.

These colors matter. I’ve known people – they seem always to be vegetarians – who wear nothing but brown. Vegetables are more colorful than the people who eat them. I’ve also known people who wear nothing but black. Some others are addicted to pink. Enough said.

Colors matter. But they do not exist. They are among the qualities that Descartes called “secondary.” Monet has proven how such things change in the light. Though L. L. Bean assures me that this shirt hanging in my closet is of cardinal red, Nature did not sign it so. It’s just a fabric, treated so that light of certain frequencies does not reflect from it. I find it quite exciting, but my kitty, brilliant as he is, doesn’t know the difference.

And rainbows don’t exist. Our crippled eyes filter out all else, and what’s left of the sun’s refracted radiation appears to us in an arc of all possible colors – by which we mean the colors it is possible for us to see. In God’s eye there a million more colors, and she casts them in vain – unless there shall be wiser, more perceptive creatures than ourselves to follow us, and receive the blessing that has been so long on offer.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

pastel bedclothes

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it.
-- Genesis 3:17 (NRSV)

Somebody did something terrible. I can’t tell what it was exactly, and I can’t name the one who did it. But the evidence is all around. The reek. The smoke. The suspicion.

Once upon a time, the world awaited. Light came in my window, inviting me to put my feet on the floor. Meaning no harm, I could do none, to others or to myself.

At least, it must have been that way once. The picture is not, as Descartes demanded, clear and distinct. There are fragments. A white frame house with green shutters all round. Trees reaching out for each other over a quiet street. A window’s outline projected on the floor of a church basement. A guy with lady’s hair, dressed in pastel bedclothes, walks on a hill with sheep. Jesus loves me, this I know.

It’s not clear and distinct, but it never entirely fades. Not entirely.

The more honor you give to The Suspicions, the more they multiply. They always have Prudence on their side. If you’ve already feared This, you should really fear That. Be very afraid. Don’t just do what seems right, are you looking for trouble? Bah, humbug.

The people who fund my ministry don’t trust me. Nothing personal, they don’t know me and the feeling is mutual, it’s just business. We clinicians are all in a ministry – nurses, social workers, doctors and me. We’re here to wipe away the tears. But the agencies that pay for the services think we’re trying to rip them off. Because somewhere, sometime, somebody once ripped them off. It wasn’t me, but I must play in the wreckage of the primal trust.

Trying to do good, we must pay for the sins of others. So we fill out forms about each client, about what we did and what we plan to do and why and what got done and not, and about what we say to each other we should do, and about meetings where we can’t say old information, can’t say new information, but must without saying any information make a plan of care in which we all “collaborate.” This is what, from the high regulatory desks of Planet PencilPush, seems good use of our time. It costs time which is money, limiting the number of tears we can wipe away. Think of it as a lesson in Original Sin. We don’t have to commit that Sin right now: it Originates before we get there. The level ground on which we walk is already tilted, the compass points are all wrong and the right angles are something less than ninety degrees. It’s a fallen world in which we must take our straightest shot. Two and two are five. So forgive me if I have walked past a door of grief, knowing I haven’t time both to wipe away the tear and to document it.

Forgiveness, as Tony Kushner said, is hard, it's where love and justice meet.* My colleague thinks I don’t understand what it’s like to be black and female. And of course I don’t, never will. Nor does she understand what it’s like to be a white male trying to understand a black female. Never will. All we can do is listen, looking toward the place on the horizon where parallel lines meet. Take it in, play it back. Compare our incomparable experiences. “That part of your story – which I have not experienced – is it at all like this part of my story – that I have experienced?” Midterm without end. Describe several similarities and differences between two stories. Be specific in your answer. A very imperfect procedure; but what else can we do? We come from different locations. The world is fallen. It’s this or scorn.

Forgive my ignorance and procrastination, I find that I am writing this on the day after Yom Kippur. We all need a day of atonement, a day to get it done and move on. Forgive ourselves and others for all the things done and undone by which we fall short of what we know should be. Not because forgiveness makes sense – we have, after all, only five loaves and two fishes – but because it clears the way to life.

Forgiveness is not a process or a syllogism. Though you look for it in the lesson plan, it’s not there. It’s a thing you just do. Or not. Don’t get ready for it. Just do it.

Last time I went back to that street, the house with green shutters was still there, and the trees still reached for each other over the street. The guy in pastel bedclothes, some say, is still walking those hills. Or might sit next to you, next time you fly home to Emmaus.


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Sunday, August 29, 2010

urgent silence

All of us . . . believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth.

-- Sam Tanenhouse, “Peace and War,” New York Times Book Review (August 29, 2010)

Though you cannot hear the underlying agreement in our inflamed discourse about poverty and violence, we all agree – liberal and conservative, black and white, separatist and integrationist – that there are a lot of young urban men who would be better off if they felt that reading, studying and getting good grades were a path to success. That’s because reading, studying and getting good grades really are a path to success. The bitch goddess basketball, on the other hand, disappoints most of her devotees and corrupts the rest.

We argue with malice and fury about who’s to blame and what the fix is. But everybody knows that learning to read is more liberating than basketball. Basketball has its place and can, like music or poetry or worship, save lives. But reading saves more lives, and our access to literacy is a crucial part of what we white folks mean when we talk about our white liberal privilege. Literacy is better than illiteracy; and those who would be free must become literate. Everybody knows this. Or rather, those who do not know it will never be free.

The liberation theologians say that we white liberals are privileged people – that we have, without entirely earning it, what oppressed people want. Now listen. Don’t just react defensively. Listen to their critique. We have what those less fortunate want. That is to say, the oppressed want what we have. They want, in some respects, to become like us. Why then do we despise ourselves? Why are we so desperate to go slumming, as if we could transform ourselves into people who themselves want to change their identity? What sort of solidarity is it that causes us to hate in ourselves that to which the oppressed aspire? Could it be that our feigned love for the culture of oppression is a way of fixing the oppressed in their place, in hope that they won’t enter our neighborhoods, compete for our jobs, or infiltrate our voluntary associations? The Delta troubadour who sings with a clanging guitar of whiskey, wandering and women, is not about to buy a Volvo and apply for that new position in the English Department. Or run for president. There are good reasons to listen to a Leadbelly record, but let’s not fool ourselves that we’re doing anything radical as we listen. Leadbelly is, for us, safe.

You see, there’s no innocent way forward, no systematically pure creed or discourse. No language policeman or process observer can do anything but seek the last word in an argument that never ends. But we have to step out of the circle. We have to go forward. We have to leave the argument behind.

I and Thou, my brother, my sister. Ich und du. That’s what it comes down to. There’s mystery in it. Frankly, I don’t understand how we get along at all. But we have to keep doing it. We have to keep getting along, and more than that, we have to proceed toward justice. And since the terrain of history obscures the way and we lack the requisite Mecca-finder, we adopt together and for now some provisional marker of justice, good enough orientation perhaps until we can get there and revise our purposes. And we must remember, when we get there, that the marker is not, never was, God Herself.

We do this, as we do every other important thing, with insufficient knowledge. My dearest friends, my children and my spouse are a mystery to me; so how could I ever claim, my brother, my sister, that I understand you? Or demand that you understand me? Across the gap a spark of agape must fly. This flame is not ours to command, and yet we must be ready for it. Ideologies of blame and rejected responsibility violate the requisite stillness. W. H. Auden said that “the essential aspect of prayer is not what we say but what we hear.”* Faith is the urgent silence in which we wait for love’s prompting.

Urgent silence is the skill of a chaplain. We do not hurl good news onto the porch like a paperboy, but wait for good news to be born in a parlor of grief. Our comfort for those who mourn is a comfort of their own, revealed and blessed. Standing in for the Shepherd, we walk with them through a dark valley toward the sunlit turning.

Those who feel they have a license to fix, to save and rescue, should not apply for this job. To give the mourners their freedom, we must honor their pain and protect it from meddlers. We give the mourners their freedom not because we lack a theology but because our theology demands their freedom. Chaplaincy is a theology of immanence. Blessed are those who mourn. They have the blessing. We can be midwives at its birth, but not its parents.

Liberal faith says truth has more than one voice. No scripture or bishop is beyond question. Not that there is nothing sacred, but that the sacred recedes as we institutionalize it. Christianity’s worst day, said my liberationist professor, was the day on which the Roman Empire adopted it. If God became flesh in Yeshua, then truth is in the body, its weakness and passion, sufferings and accidents.

And liberalism is not value-free. Wake up, comrades, the coffee’s getting stale. Some “modes of existence” are better than others, and some are downright wicked. Literacy is more liberating than basketball. We believe it, and it’s true. It’s a fact.

*quoted in Context (Vol. 42, No. 9, Part B)

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

snake oil

. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

-- Isaiah 53:3 (KJV)

I have my share of joys and contentments, augmented by mirth and when necessary by the healing power of sarcasm. But I have become acquainted with grief. Not my own: I have my griefs, but am not acquainted with them. I walk among the sorrows of others. It’s my job. I am a servant of those who suffer, and I am most helpful when I dare to walk a few steps in their path of suffering.

Some pains can be relieved by pills and patches, therapies and disciplines. Sometimes the price of that relief is too great to bear. Some pains simply cannot be relieved. And some should not be.

Grief is prefigured in every love. Great grief, like great love, changes us forever – there is no going back from it. Grief persists because we fear that if we lose it we will lose the love. Grief’s resolution is not termination but transformation.

“A long time I have lived with you,” wrote Nancy Woods, “And now we must be going separately to be together.” As grief resolves, the relationship changes. I remember that my life lies before me each morning and there is something yet to do, a chance that would not be mine if I had not loved and lost. In the joy of creation we sing the sad song of what is still with us if we keep singing. That’s why we love sad songs, and sing them with such happy tears.

This is what my people mean when in grief, or in the presence of grief, they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” They say it because they cannot see the reason, and are angry with God. Why? Why did You do this, why did You let this happen to him, to me? It doesn’t make sense.

It never will “make sense.” The question why will never get its answer. But when we come back to life, singing the sad song of love and loss, we’ll stop asking. When we feel the love and pain as a condition of life, we’ll lose our anger. The “reason” for which it “happened” is nothing more than this – that we are here today doing this, laughing and weeping as we go.

It’s a hell of a way to learn. But it’s the only way we learn the important things.

When I came to this city nine years ago, Grand Central Station was full of billboards. “Have you seen my husband? my son? my sister? my brother? my girlfriend?” Photos, names and phone numbers to call if you sighted them. There was hope that those still “missing” would return. In almost three thousand cases, they did not.

How easily the grief of mass murder turns political! Now some of our finest politicians (may my sarcasm heal them) have decided to mine it for votes. The falsely labeled “Ground Zero Mosque” will be invisible from Ground Zero, but shameless and power-seeking celebrities claim that it will dominate the landscape, apparently terrorizing the 1776-foot Freedom Tower soon to be built there. Such claims are, purely and simply, lies. Officials of any agency or party who fail to denounce them, and to denounce the liars, are complicit in xenophobia. No deals or compromises should be made with those who depend on lies, and who exploit the grief of wounded Americans, to gain wealth and power. No respect should be paid. Harry Reid, you disappoint me.

To my grieving fellow citizens I say, beware! What begins in a lie ends in death. If you could expel all Muslims from Lower Manhattan, from Manhattan itself, from New York City, from the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, from the United States of America – if you did all this, your loved ones would still be dead. That’s the awful truth. Life can only begin in truth.

I take deep concern for the security of my city and my country. My daughter and I go into the subways of New York thirty times a week. The office I report to is almost as close to Ground Zero on the south as Park 51 is on the north. If acts of war are committed again, I am on the front lines. But this I know – the surest way to turn mosques into terror factories is to begin expelling the Muslims.

Life is a dangerous place. Though I seem to be in good health, this could be my last post. No cult of vengeance can spare us, or those we love, from mortality. That’s why living requires courage. We get up each morning to this day’s work, knowing that there are no guarantees of success or survival, no assurance even that we have chosen the right direction, no certainty that we will not mourn tomorrow for the deeds we did today.

Congratulations, said Yeshua, to those who mourn, for they are to be comforted. But this is hard work. Comfort only comes as love and loss are incorporated into new life. Anger is natural, but it is not the cure. It is not comfort. Leaders who divert grieving people from this work with a snake-oil called rage are – well, the Reverend Daffy Duck would say, “You’re dethpicable.”

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Monday, August 2, 2010

de trop

What about the all-consuming pleasure of reading something, really reading something, with no distractions? And the creative complexity of writing, making language flow from sentence to sentence, listening only to your inner voice?

-- Perri Klass, “Texting, Surfing, Studying”*

What about it?

I was taught writing by people who thought that writing was important. Some of them were writers themselves. They read and corrected my weekly theme on the assumption that how I said it mattered, almost more important than what I meant to say, because if I wrote with integrity, with reverence for language, I could not write lies.

One may write, and write, and be a scoundrel; and the world is full of scoundrels who think they write well. But their villainy is oft revealed in their crimes against language.

It took me twenty years to hear the famous music of the mother tongue. I pushed packages of meaning on a puzzle-board, assembled denotations in a plausible order, resolved equations by the prudent rules of syntax, hoping, hoping to project on the screen between writer and reader a style. It was like playing the piano with a wooden hand.

The ones who create language do not pursue syntax. Their observance is instrumental, and their transgressions birth the rules. The bard is the hardest of the Elizabethans to read because he doesn’t give a damn about diagrammable sentences. You have to hear him, because only in utterance do his leaps come down where they should.

When the ears of my ears were opened, I was reading middle-English alliterative poetry. A duckling bonds with the first creature he sees out of the shell, and I shall always think of the Pearl-Poet as my mother. I read ”Many birds bitterly on the bare twigs/Piteously piping for pain of the cold,” and for the first time I didn’t have to figure out the figures of speech. I was there. I heard the birds. I saw the twigs. I felt the cold. I was with Gawain, behind his eyes.

Hearing for the first time the percussion, feeling the sternum vibrate in sympathy, I could now distinguish other sections of the orchestra. Looking over the bard’s shoulder, I saw the staff and read the notes. I knew what he was up to. The earth moved with the beat of his lines, the alternation of stress and release that marks out our mighty mother tongue.

I now had privileges in the operating theatre where sentences are saved or lost. These scalpel verses, conjured in a scheme of consonant noises, exposed the sinews and the viscera of language. I could see the heart beat, the fibres twitch. Now I know the cadence of a sentence before its content. It doesn’t make me happy. It makes me fussy.

Look at my headline quotation. It’s good. But it’s not as good as it could be. There’s something de trop about it. Adjectives. Two of them. A curse on adjectives.

Do we have to tell you that reading is “all-consuming”? Or that writing is “creative”? If we do, you‘re not the kind of person for whom these lines are written. Banish those migrants, and read again. Is it not clearer? “But it doesn’t say what I mean,” the author might protest. No, I reply, it says something better. It says what you ought to have meant, what you would discover you meant if you pushed yourself harder.

This is my kind of ├ętude. Such are my scales and arpeggios. These are some of the rules.

If you get the sound right, it might make sense.

If you can omit a word without making nonsense, do so.

If you can omit a syllable without making nonsense, do so.

Sometimes nonsense in the short run makes best sense in the long run.

Too much explanation makes confusion.

Don’t ask permission, the reader always says no, better to apologize later, but you won’t have to.

When you wonder if you ought to say something, say it.

These are not always good rules of conduct. But they are good rules of writing. They’re good if you’re writing rather than texting. If you’re not playing the piano with a wooden hand.

*New York Times (October 13, 2009)

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

care less

I could care less about Shirley Sherrod.

-- Andrew Breitbart, blogger*

I should have taken time to listen and to learn.

-- Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

We’re forced in this business to make quick judgments.

-- Benjamin Jealous, President, NAACP*

No Mr. Jealous, no Mr. Vilsack, you were not forced to throw a good woman under the bus. You were not forced to do the bidding of a self-confessed liar. You were not forced to ignore decency and fairness. You were not forced to betray the code of liberal (okay, call them “progressive” if you want) values. You were not forced to endorse the power of falsifiers and fabricators. These were your own decisions. These were your choices. We hold you responsible. We’re allowed to do that. That’s why they pay you the big bucks.

I’m glad you apologized and are trying to clean up the mess you made. But what will you do next time?

Both of you presumably went to college. You got what we used to call a “liberal education.” My liberal religion is not value-free; it proclaims as a principle the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Scholarship – the pursuit of knowledge – came of age in the Enlightenment, and free speech is its modus vivendi because, as Jefferson said (with a little help from the committee), “all men are created equal.” That is to say, you don’t get to win the argument because you’re a king. You don’t get to win the argument because you’re a bishop. You don’t get to win the argument because you thump the Bible. You don’t get to win the argument because you’re holding a gun. You don’t get to win the argument because you shout the loudest. You don’t get to win the argument because you use the most insulting language. You don’t get to ignore the facts, or lie about them, without public judgment and private penalty.

The table of discourse has standards. It denies a chair to those who will not live by facts, logic and evidence. Its clear space is a temple passionately committed to reason – that is to say, sacred to the whole power of human perception, and dedicated to the proposition that together we can rise above our lusts, greeds and fears to share the world.

So the rules of discourse are not the rules of a party game, like conventions of bidding in bridge. They are not the ceremonial of a narrow class, like rituals of a debutante cotillion. The rules of discourse are moral laws, rules of what some have called the Divine Domain. They are an instantiation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. They are a necessary means of the Golden Rule. They are the nearest thing human beings have created to justice. Without rules of discourse, revolutions are just chapters in the endless cycle of revenge.

When prominent officials who know better, prompted by a suspect source, rush to judgment and fall over each other to do the bidding of the wicked, it is a Day of Discouragement and also of Revelation, exposing the cowardice of liberal culture, its forgetfulness of principle, laziness before the work of decency, shamefastness for virtues rather than for sins. Justice begins in meticulous search for truth. That’s why tyrants and ruffians fear and persecute the honest, and that’s why liberal officials of public or private agencies are supposed to defend the innocent from those assaults.

“Integrity” is an old-fashioned word meaning wholeness. Those who have it know that compartmentalization ultimately fails, whether at the pearly gates or at the door of conscience. There is, or used to be, a price to be paid for bad character. Mr. Breitbart has told us that he is a person of bad character, a person without regard for truth, a person willing to destroy the innocent in pursuit of his plans – the kind of person from whom you would shield your family if he lived next door. No statement from such a source should prompt any action of government, or appear in any venue of journalism.

The Attorney General wants us to talk about race, and Ms. Sherrod’s story is of a kind that, if it were more widely known, could help to heal our racial wounds. She has overcome profound grief and injury, and taught herself to address the suffering of those made to suffer unfairly, no matter what their social location. She is the living refutation of Breitbart’s lie. When our leaders threw her to the wolves, they were engaging in a kind of behavior that enables witch-hunts, red scares, blacklists and pogroms.

Kipling the colonialist said that “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, . . . You’ll be a man, my son!” We’ve learned during the death of empires that both women and men participate in Menschheit, so I could say to my daughters that I hope you’ll be a Mensch, my child. And in times of moral peril when the mediocre lose their courage, we need Menschen to lead us, people who will stand for truth in a storm of entitled idiocy, naming the lie and the liar for what they are and denying them influence. It’s what we expect of our leaders.

Mr. Jealous, Mr. Vilsack, I hope that in your future careers you’ll redeem yourselves from this week’s betrayal of America’s values. But as for now, if you were in my employ, I would fire you both.

*Both quotes from “On the Media,” National Public Radio, July 25, 2010

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