Sunday, February 28, 2010

lethal consequence

Though the fact of death destroys us, the idea of death can save us.

-- Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner

Long ago when I was a professor of theatre, she came to me with a problem. Her project was to direct Antigone, and she didn’t know what to “do with” the chorus. How to deal with their strange lyric interruptions to the action, those choral odes so clumsy in speech, so difficult in tune. This is the most essential question in Greek drama: what do we have to substitute for a convention of song and dance that is utterly lost? Nobody asks what to “do with” a number like “Hernando’s Hideaway” or “O-o-o-klahoma, where the wind comes whistlin’ down the plain;” you sing and dance them in the best Broadway style, silly. But what are the steps and vocal styling for “Zeus hates with a vengeance all bravado”?* You’ll have to make it up as you go, and it had better be good. Few professors have the chops for it. (They think the play will “speak for itself.”)

But this problem was only the container of a deeper one. She couldn’t see what to “do with” the chorus because she couldn’t feel what to do with the play.

Her leading character baffled her. “Why does she do it?” Why would Antigone (a woman about the same age as she) choose to die? Why perform a gesture of respect for one of her dead brothers, no better than the other one, knowing the lethal consequence?

That, I told her, is yours to answer. The answer to that question is your interpretation of the play. If you can’t answer that question, you won’t know what to do.

“I can’t answer the question,” she said. She was young and immortal. And honest.

There’s nothing much good about death as far as I can tell, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen to you. It’s only what we all must do. There are worse things than dying, and discovering what those worse things are is the recovery of soul.

When you know what is worse than death, you know what is better than living forever. 

Which is a good thing to discover, since we shall not live forever.

If you can answer the question, you might understand why a person would choose to die now rather than later, knowing the better thing rather than the worse would happen because of their choice. You might know what it is to live for something, ready to die for something.

Thoreau went to a life in the woods so that, when it came time for him to die, he would not discover that he had not lived. People around us – firefighters for instance, or doctors who take their skill to chaotic countries – put their lives in danger to save lives. It’s not just the lives of others that they save. They save their own lives as well, ensuring that they have lived. Others may jump out of airplanes, or climb mountains. Their insurance brokers would rather they did not.

Speak truth to power. Declare your sexual orientation. Stand in front of a tank. Save your life.

It’s a lot to ask – that a young suburban woman, from a pampered country and class, never subject to violence and unacquainted with grief, should know what is worth dying for. I praise her honesty. She knew her deficiency. She could have pretended to knowledge, like many of her bright-eyed peers. She could have latched on to schools of criticism, ideological slogans of right or left, to cults or theologies eager to explain everything. But she knew her answer had to come from the gut rather than the liturgy.

The interpretation of a play, as of a life or a song, is not a matter for the seminar table. It doesn’t help to be clever. It’s not a matter of getting the right answer, but rather of getting an answer that serves. Can you feel what it’s trying to do? Does it move you? Does it wake you at three in the morning? Does it burn without consuming? Does it resound? If your project resounds, you know what to do.

For the moment, this honest youth wasn’t qualified for her project. She didn’t have the chops. Her play couldn’t be saved. Not till she would begin to recover her soul.

*trans. Robert Fables

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Friday, February 26, 2010

hospital bed

Expect the newly widowed, childless, friendless, or loverless to wail and cry, to fall down on the ground, to gnash their teeth, perhaps to vomit or eliminate.

-- Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

I am a teachable person. Some of my teachers have never met me.

It began softly. It might have been a patient calling her nurse in from the hallway. But she said it again and again. In a cubbyhole laughably called the chaplain’s office where five or six people plug in their laptops and store their junk, the social worker and I looked at each other. Louder, longer grew the cry with each repetition, and more guttural. We heard the word – “Mommy!”

Then we knew who it was. Her brothers had expressed their concern – that she would “go to pieces” when her mother died, that her heart, not metaphorically but literally sewn together just a year before, would break for the last time. That she would die at the breast of death.

“Mommy!” She had tended the dying mom round the clock, driving her siblings away and resenting their absence. She and the mom had been preternaturally bonded, thinking each other’s thoughts and feeling each other’s pains. Now she was bonded to a corpse. No answering beat from that other heart, no matching breath from the open mouth. “MOMMY!” The social worker and I left our cubbyhole.

Paula held onto the rail of the hospital bed, her face turned upward as the song came out of her gut. MOMMEEE! No stopping her. No telling her not to cry. No shame of the orphaned body. This was something that had to happen. I put my hand on her back. As if to say, but not saying, we feel your pain. We’re here. You can fall into us.

Her legs quivered and failed. She settled toward the floor, climbing down the side of the hospital bed as if it were a rock-face, grabbing each bar and lever like a piton. “MOMMEEE!” She shuddered, and I feared she would get caught in the apparatus, cut herself on an edge or bruise on a knob. I got on the floor. I wrapped around her from behind. Not to restrain but to join her. You are not alone. As she held you, you are held.

What should one say?

Not, “It’s all right,” because it’s not all right. And if it’s ever going to be all right, we’re not the ones to know when or how.

Not, “She’s in a better place,” because here she is in this place, dead. And if there is another place, I’m not the one to visualize it.

What did I say?

I think I said, maybe, something like, “You’ve done a good job. You loved her. She knew you loved her. You’re a good child. You did everything you could. Let us take care of you now.”

One might wish to say that she relaxed in my grasp, that her wailing subsided, that there was peace and reconciliation in the room. Cue the violins.

What actually happened is that she held on to the bed and kept wailing. We brought her water. We brought her Kleenex. We got her to sit in a chair. Her brother came to console her, and we took them to a private room. We let them console each other.

No, our response wasn’t perfect. What wasn’t awkward was utterly stereotypical. But grief is an imperfect thing. It reduces us to clichés of reflex and body fluid.

I have been taught by people whom I’ve never met. There’s a chaplain in Maine, widow of a cop, who became a minister to game wardens. She goes with them on searches for people who have disappeared. Sometimes the news for those who love the missing is good; but a lot of the time it’s bad. She has held people together as they break apart. She has been on the other side of the transaction. She has broken apart, as someone held her together.

As I walked down the hallway to the room where Paula’s mother died, my teacher walked with me. She said, it isn’t always a matter of esthetics. Or of your pastoral presence. Life, love and death sometimes exceed the textbook.

When they’re breaking apart, you hold them together. When they’re hitting the floor, you don’t stay on your feet. You join them where they are alone.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

darkest valley

Wo Es war, soll Ich werden.

-- Sigmund Freud, “Dissection of the Personality”

Freud’s aphorism is best left in German, where it is so brief, and means so many things. “Werden” is both an auxiliary and a verb in itself. To say “Ich wird gehen” is to say that I will go; but to say “Ich wird Mensch” is to say I am becoming a human being. So what do we mean if we say that something “soll werden”? That it “should become,” or rather, it should come into being. But what exactly should come into being? “I” should.

Freud capitalized the common pronouns es and ich, making them into proper names for parts of a personality, technical terms of psychoanalysis. In English we separate indifferent pronouns (I, it) from the psychiatric terms (Id, Ego) by medical Latin. But Freud’s theory in common language is poetry, unparaphrasable. “Where id was, there shall ego be.” But also “Where It used to be, I should come to be.” And “The ego shall dislodge the id.” And “There where it was, it is my duty to come to be.” What had seemed to be something else, I must see face to face, no longer darkly.

Or as Socrates said in his Apology, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The id must have what it wants right now, knowing no time or contradiction. The ego wants to choose a good outcome, aligning with reality and consequence. Id is the power and ego the wisdom. Id is the horse and ego the rider. Id is the impulse and ego the strategist.

This is no zero-sum game. I do not win by extinguishing the Other. If I kill the horse I die. If I contain the horse in a secret corral, it will leap the fence and trample my chessboard, leaving me to wonder what it was and whence it came. If I am to become whole, I must come into right relationship with it. I must accept and authorize its power.

I want to talk about the afterlife, she said. How many can get into heaven?

I’m not Catholic, I said; so perhaps you know your church’s teaching better than I do. 

There’s heaven and hell – and then there’s purgatory, so they tell me, where lots of people spend lots of time getting cleansed of their sins. Have I got it right?

That’s what the priests say. But what do you think?

You don’t trust your priests?

They’re not here. You are. What do you think?

I’m torn, I said. I have to think that God wants all of us with her, and my religion says she didn’t make us all in order to damn most of us.

But what?

I didn’t say “but.”

You might as well have.

All right then. But I also have to think there is judgment.

What does that mean?

If I arrive at the Great Banquet, should I pass the potatoes to Slobodan Milosevic?

She was full of questions. How long might it take to purge one’s sins? Were there sins that could not be purged? Can one do the work in advance? Is purgatory a place of suffering? Or of tedium? Might it be a sort of classroom, where one writes “I will not . . .” a billion times on the blackboard?

Good questions. This was all very intellectual. I was in over my head, and outside my expertise. She was agitated. We weren’t getting anywhere.

Marjorie, I said, are you feeling fear?

She stared at me. The knot in her forehead unraveled.

Are you afraid of dying?

She grinned more widely than I thought possible.

Yes, she said. That’s what I’m feeling. Fear. I’m afraid.

We sat for several moments in glory.

Thank you, said she.

You’re welcome, said I.

Pastoral counseling isn’t always this easy. She had done most of the work, painted herself into a corner from which only the power of a name could extricate her. She had to make the unconscious conscious.

Not for nothing did Yahweh bring the creatures of the garden before the universal father, so that he could name them. When he had thought of their names, Adam had dominion; he was now responsible for the garden and its inhabitants. They (except perhaps the serpent) had no corresponding name for him. They did not have dominion. They were not responsible for him. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. We’re supposed to take care of the least of these (and not they of us), but we cannot tend and keep even our interior garden without naming its members.

Marjorie was still afraid, but now had named it. She had a handle. She was riding the horse that might have trampled her. When she named the beast, she put the bit in its mouth. It might still get away from her. She might send it in the wrong direction. But now she could watch and keep herself.

I will die later than she: I cannot tell her, have no right to tell her, not to be afraid. To live with her fear until she dies, she must know she is afraid. Though I walk through the darkest valley, your rod and your staff they comfort me. I must hear her fear and help her name it. I must protect her from those who would shame her for it. I must bless her fear. I must travel with her, in the steps of her fear. Where It had been, there was now only Marjorie.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

stanislavski's cat

What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

-- Mark 8:36 (KJV)

Some say that life is an opportunity to grow a soul. If the soul is something we have to grow through a lifetime, then it follows that we start with only the dry seed and not the thing itself. Garrison Keillor, pastor to the largest congregation of liberals, says that if you’re planning to sell your soul, you should nurture it a while so it will go at a good price.

The organization that trains me, judges my work and declares me fit for my ministry has pledged itself to “Recovery of Soul.”* This pledge presumes that soul has been lost. Lear said that “the first time that we smell the air we waul and cry.” Something is always already missing – not on the world’s first day but on the first day of our sentience.

Our cry of birth, the sign of new life, cues our parents’ joy. They celebrate our loss, and we seek our restitution from them. When they disappoint us we go into the world, assuming that somewhere out there we’ll find the missing part of us. We try out our various toys, loves, works and deeds. Some of them are worth living, perhaps even dying for. But none of them is the thing missing. When we think that one of these obsessions is our soul, that’s what’s called idolatry.

Stanislavski loved to watch his cat relax, leaving a round full imprint on the pillow. He wished his theatre students could do the same, but of course they can’t. They’re human, and they’re in the theatre, and they leave a jagged imprint where they lie. We actors and human beings are split by definition, so our weight comes down to earth irregularly. It’s not our fault. It’s our paradoxical blessing, that we’re not cats but human beings. We’re not made for spherical oblivion on the counterpane. Our great opportunity begins with the bum’s rush, flaming sword behind us, nostalgic for what we can’t remember because it isn’t memorable, yearning to be again in the place where we didn’t know where we were, each of us free malgré lui.

Before we managed our appearance before God – before we donned our fig-leaves, corsets, cravats and tuxedos, rags and uniforms, spectacles and lab-coats, bikinis and little black dresses – we had no knowledge of ourselves. To know ourselves is to know that we are missing something. They’re watching us, and we forgot to get dressed. We wish we were better, or at least better-looking; but we’re not, and so the costume parade commences, the greatest show on earth.

We’re not born bad. The notion that we are infernally blotted because our first ancestor didn’t stay in the womb is one of those fantasies engendered by idle, idol theology – faith with too much time on its hands, envious of house-cats. We’re not created evil, but rather with something missing, all of us like Macduff untimely ripped, because there is no time for such a word.

I talked to a man of business who suffers unbearable pain. Every year or so he comes back to treat the pain again. What is the reason of this torment? Is God trying to tell him something?

For that matter, is suffering the slang of God? Is the slaughter of Haitian innocents a kind of singing telegram, a way of getting our attention?

My Baptist businessman and I agree that God doesn’t massacre babies or torture a man’s spinal cord to prick the conscience. Nature follows her courses, and from agony and outrage a conscience may arise, but that is our accomplishment not God’s. Rain falls and buildings collapse on the just and on the unjust alike. Pain recurs to this man in spite of his faith and prayers, in no discernable relation to his balance of good and bad deeds. If this is the divine message, then God is a poor communicator.

The world is what it is, not what it would be if . .

And so my Baptist becomes a Stoic. “The world is what it is,” he says, “but I have my grandmother in my pocket.”

His grandmother was wise. She had seen many idols exposed. She could bring him back to himself, from the worship of what his hands could make, and she gave him an icon, a little cross he carries on his keychain. When the world that is what it is goes into deathly spiral, he can put his hand on wisdom. Grandma reminds him to wait here incomplete, and to resist the lust for sirens of completion.

Seductive are these demons, born of our dearest hopes. The financial industry is our most recently burst pustule of idolatry, but liberals must remember that wealth is not the only corruption. If only I could publish this book, or get this body pregnant, or found this church, or cure this disease, or change this unjust law, or get this child of mine into the correct pre-school, or win this woman’s love . . . All these projects are born of the life instinct. All of them can, without appearing to change, turn deathly. We should ask of the priest, the politician, the doctor, the social worker, the protester, the parent, the lover, what we long to ask of the banker: is your dream the means to a greater end, or has it become the end itself? Are you its master, or has it eaten your soul?

When Moses saw God in a burning bush, the bush was not consumed, and the flame that was not a flame carried the voice of a God who was not there. When Isaiah saw God, the hem of God’s garment filled the temple, which was the prophet’s way of saying that, though he heard the voice there, God was not in the temple but somewhere else.

“It is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself,” wrote the stoic emperor Aurelius.** To recover the soul is to take Grandma out of the pocket. Which is to come back to ourselves. Which is to remember our mortal incompletion. To be full and round, leaving an even imprint on the pillow, is to be dead before we die.

The soul is recovered when we know its absence.

*Covenant of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy,

**Meditations IV.3 (trans. George Long)

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

irresponsible behavior

The gift of flight without the sister-art of landing, . . . that is always in doubt.

-- Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

This is not a blog. It does not do things that blogs do. It does what blogs do not.

I do not keep current. I don’t respond to headlines. I don’t say “what I’m doing right now.” I don’t stay on the subject. I don’t confine myself to proper length.

Though I can’t stay always off the track of public events, I can’t stay on that track for very long either. By the time I speak of a thing, it’s no longer current – if it ever was. I don’t give rise to argument because, by the time I’m done, you can’t figure out which side, or what issue, I’m on. I take issues where others see agreement, and I’m bored by what others think are the issues. I have a penchant for, a calling to, irrelevance.

If I think I know where I’m going, I’m usually wrong. I’ve been in the air a while now and I don’t know where the landing strip is. Before I finish I might be gliding. I might have to land in the water.

This is of course entirely irresponsible behavior on my part. And I’ve spent sixty-two years learning to do it.

There’s a thing they teach the kids now, so they can get into a good college. It’s called the “five-paragraph essay.” Say what you’re going to say; then say it in three ways, or in a logical sequence of three steps; then say what you’ve already said. No contractions. No first person pronouns. No second person pronouns. No personal anecdotes. No sentences starting in a conjunction. No questions. No quotations from the Bible or any other religion. No talking to the reader.*

No surprises. No revelations. No turns in the road. No essay.

Once upon a time, a professor taught me to write “for publication.” He was very proud of his course of instruction. I learned, among other things, never to start a sentence with a conjunction, never to use a first or second-person pronoun, and never to let a reader take a logical step without holding his hand. Lead him across the river. Explain every transition. “Consequently, we can see . . . “ “Nevertheless, it could be said . . . “ And “in conclusion, there can be no doubt . . . “ Gloss and attenuate every image. “The poet metaphorically likens the state to a sailing ship . . .” And so on.

The professor hadn’t published anything for years. And neither, after I internalized his teaching, did I – I couldn’t even write. It was ten years before I published again, and in a different voice, a voice that had never taken the professor’s course.

And now, dear reader, have you noticed how my experience mirrors that of younger people? I fear however that that the youth will try to obey, as I did. They have extravagant energy, and a desire to please. It will take them a while to feel the void.

There are things that, the more you try to explain them, the more obscure they become. Amongst these are life, love and death. Which is why the best explanations avoid the mark. “Life’s but a walking shadow;” and of course, a great deal more. “My love is like a red, red rose;” and of course, she is not. “Death kindly stopped for me;” and of course, unkindly.

Reader, I respect you. I leave gaps between the stones. I trust that you can leap them by yourself. No handrails. Only by leaping can you find out why you would go where I am going. Don’t ask me, I certainly don’t know.

I’m still in the air, still in suspense, higher than before and liking it. I wish I’d known when I was young that this is my home. It’s a gift I’ve only recently learned to appreciate. I don’t know how this will come out exactly. It depends on the updrafts, and they’re not in the flight plan. You can’t do this by the instruments. That’s why they call it an “essay.” You have to get the feel of it. That’s what I’m doing “right now.”

Look, Ma, no hands.

*John Richard Stevens, “5 Paragraph Essay Format,”

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