Monday, May 31, 2010

top floor

He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

-- Genesis 28:12 (NRSV)

. . . Someone to watch over me.

-- Ira Gershwin

The sixty-fourth floor of the Chrysler Building (the floor with the gargoyles) is an unexpectedly intimate place. As the elevator opened, a round receptionist with wings blessed me silently from behind his desk, smiling. There were others: a wounded angel on the floor of a corridor, trying every few minutes to get up; a pensive angel in the window-casing of the kitchenette, looking over the East River and the place from which my journey had started – the open ground in front of a derelict asylum on Roosevelt Island.

This was the last stage of a processional,* nine “scenes” of angelic presence – or absence – across midtown Manhattan. There was the back room of a peep-show with bins of books about angelic manifestations. There was the third floor of an office building, now the locker-room of angels. There was an apartment on Forty-First Street, their recently abandoned barracks. On the fifth floor of the arrow-shaped old New York Times Building, I walked on a landscape of sand from which lilies, great white feathers and Gabriel’s horn had sprouted. In a tiny top floor office, a teletype machine banged out repeated warnings of time’s end, curling its paper onto the floor like ribbon candy. In an abandoned theatre behind Applebee’s, I saw from the stage, by work light, that angels were ascending and descending between mezzanine and balcony, while Jacob dreamed from a chair in the bare orchestra.

And here in the Chrysler Building, a messenger stood by the window in a glass-walled office, in my world and not. I approached. He turned. Through the glass, he looked me in the face. I could not bear his gaze. He saw beyond me. I did not doubt his concern, but he knew much more than I.

Several years later, I met Alice. She had been a fashion designer, and beautiful. She left nothing to chance. She was very “private, had never married. Choosy about whom she loved, she loved those people well. Not a mother, but an unforgettable auntie.

She didn’t feel well, and went to the doctor, and learned that day she had inoperable cancer. The “progress of disease” – strange term we use – was swift. I met her a few weeks later, when she could no longer get out of her daybed in the capacious parlor. Her ceiling was so high that light from the big front window did not reach it.

For a private person, a person who draws a veil decisively on the holy of holies and presents herself as an artifact, the intimacies of care at the end of life are excruciating. All is now revealed. There’s no backstage any more. Every bodily process is someone else’s business. She could no longer self-produce; her appearance now depended on people who knew everything there was to know, who in every cover-up must be co-conspirators. Before she was sick, Alice never appeared anywhere without her wig. Her contest with terror: how to give away her secrets without losing herself. From the wreck of her show, could she recover soul? Could she let others love her in this way, and with grace?

She looked into the shadowed ceiling one evening, and a figure hovered there. The figure saw her. She let the figure see her. When she looked back, the figure was not there any more.

As people approach their end, it’s not uncommon for them to have experiences that we must call (because our experience does not confirm them) hallucinations. In dreams or in waking life they see persons who have died, or they may see messengers. Some are comforted, and some are terrified.

“How did you feel about it?” I asked.

“I felt all right about it.”

“It’s as if the angel were watching over you.

“It seems that way.”

I had gone to the sixty-fourth floor of the Chrysler Building less than two years after the twin towers became pillars of flame. The fire had gone out by then, and the smoke no longer blew over Brooklyn, but the city still felt apocalyptic. The messenger looked me in the face, and I looked away. I let him see me, and I let him see whatever it was that he saw through me. When I looked back, he was turning toward the window again, gazing at the city with compassion too great for intervention. Is there anything you can do? I thought. And then again, Never mind; just keep watching, I think I’ll be all right if I know you’re watching.

For Alice and me, it’s almost enough.

*The Angel Project, a site-specific installation directed and conceived by Deborah Warner, Lincoln Center Festival 2003.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

preposterous enterprise

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

-- Thoreau, Walden

Eyner iz keyner.

-- Yiddish proverb*

One is none, says the proverb. By yourself you’re nothing. Not the kind of folk wisdom that Americans like to hear. We think we did it all ourselves, by smarts and hard work. We created the new world, and birthed ourselves into it. We pioneers will do just fine, thank you, with the land we took from the people who were here before us, so leave us alone to work our slaves, or to buy the cheap product of their labor. We don’t want your meddling. Except for the fire department. And the police department. And my social security check. Oh, and roads. Oh, and the electric grid, and a cellphone. Oh, and lots of cheap petroleum bought and begged from Oriental despots and banana dictators. Oh, and lots of abominably expensive and marginally effective health care, paid for by somebody or other as long as it isn’t us.

Unitarians, American to the core, don’t like to hear that eyner iz keyner. We think that one person standing alone is everything. Emerson said “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” What would be the point, he asks, of communion with other souls? “Men descend to meet.” We don’t believe in congregating; which is why our congregations are weak, and then we blame that weakness on our ministers. Emerson soon left the ministry, beating his congregation to the punch, and made his name as a solo act. Clever he was.

Trouble is, we are not who we are on our own. Emerson, on his own, needed his audience. He descended to meet them, or at least to meet their money, as an athenaeum star. His audience paid for that haunted house in Concord. It was they who supported the transcendental circle of his less entrepreneurial clients.

And Thoreau was not on his own either. He built a hut by Walden Pond, where his mom would sometimes bring him lunch. And where, in a ten minutes’ walk, he could have the companionship of Lydian Emerson, his second mom. On the other side of the pond was the railroad to Boston, which fascinated him immensely. “I went to the woods to live deliberately.” Yes, and also to tell us about it. He had us in mind from the beginning. He kept account of his expenses because he had something to prove to us. It was important that we be amazed, and scandalized, by his pretty hut.

The one who hears a different drummer is not eyner, not alone. He is with that drummer, no matter how distant, whose authority he accepts, whom he follows and whose approval he seeks.

I am older every minute, more crotchety, more introverted, more jealous of my space and my time. Perhaps because I have not found them yet. When will it be, my time and place? How long, O Lord? Does it come this side of mortality? As the limit takes its contour, color and texture, like the distant mountain approaching over a once endless plain, I scan the horizon for a verdant glen that might belong to me, where I could, as they say, really stretch out. Perhaps it never appears. There are only these compromised places, these opportunities that are already polluted, and must be saved. How long must I wait? No waiting at all, this is the occasion right now, this ridiculous apartment where if I stretch my limbs I strike somebody’s face. My full extent, my personal space, are not to be found on this crowded island, but on the other side of the river. And I don’t mean Jersey.

The blessings are here in our jostled, preposterous enterprise: existence, as the philosophers say, rather than essence. I have been too long from this private dilemma of mine, this prayerful combat, this wrestling with words like Jacob with the messenger. But I am not solitary even here. The words come from somewhere: all night they ascend and descend, and when they touch bottom I must fight with them for blessing. No blessing without injury, no sacred time that is not out of joint. If you have a long reach, there are strangers, sojourners within its span. Their requirements are always a surprise.

On my own, I am not who I am. I am my daughters’ father, my wife’s husband, my dearest friend’s dear friend, my client’s counselor, any American’s fellow citizen. I am the one who loves as I can those who love me, and would love the rest if I knew how. I move among the poses and scripts of love; I learn more and better ones as I grow older. If I could not find these poses, remember the scripts, I would be lost. But in the leaps between them, I might recover my soul.

*Bennett Muraskin, Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore (Farmington Hills, MI: Milan Press, 2001), p. 190.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

terrible concern

First, be who you are.

-- Forrest Church, Love and Death

“Here there be monsters,” they said on the old maps, meaning to warn us away. But it also entices us.

Follow your bliss, says a mytho-psychologist who captured the popular ear. Wherever it leads you, venture the best you are, and be all you can be. Yeah right. The monsters can hurt you. And the people who love you get hurt with you. When your bliss has been maimed, what have you got left?

Authenticity has great press. Great liberal press. We’ve charged ourselves with the duty of being, each in our own way, real. Trouble is, we’re as secretly lustful for judgment and institution as the straw reactionaries we pummel in our proclamations. We are closet Calvinists, predestinarians in a changed shroud, but substituting diagnosis for anathema. We don’t say damn you to hell for your heresy; we say we’re terribly concerned about you. And thus I fashion your authenticity into a different thing – your “issue.” There’s no defense against that terrible concern.

A little learning, they say, is a dangerous thing. We’ve all inhaled a little psychology. How could we not? If we’ve survived to our present age, we’ve learned a thing or two about what people are really going to do – as opposed to what they say they’re going to do, perhaps even think they’re going to do, perhaps even think they’ve done. We may have had, delving into Freud or Jung or Horney, an Aha! moment, saying “I did that,” or “That’s how I spent my twenties!” Or even easier: “That’s my mother!” or “That’s my boss!” or “That’s you, you jerk!” It’s not rocket science. No higher math required. Any English major can shoplift the lingo, and recite the scripts over wine and cheese.

There is, of course, a healing art of counseling. Growing into it takes long practice, under close supervision, within strict boundaries. Within my own little front yard, I say that I have powers to Hear, to Name, to Bless and to Travel. Modest powers, far from the fantasies of heroism that might seduce one to ministry; and yet, when carefully deployed on the right ground, strong. I learn what I can do by learning again every day what I can’t do. Over and over again, the skin of my face hardens into a mask, to be shattered again only by reality. Mine is a Department of Reality, a Negative Way.

To learn the modest use of my powers, I must myself at some time have been heard, blessed, named and traveled with. Henry Nouwen says we are wounded healers, naming the wounds of others as we come to know our own. There’s no objective knowledge of another’s pain – they call it “com-passion,” a suffering with the Other. Beware the ones who have learned a little, and speak without supervision. Beware the ones who do not know their issues, but have pried open the cabinet of lingo. Beware the pourers of salt.

I came back from the den of lions with a limb missing, bliss mangled. Years later I returned to the place where monsters be, because I wanted, where faith had died, to grow new faith. I came back ready to defend myself from terrible concern. Ready to name the shoplift, claim my ground and hold it. Ironic that, prepared to protect myself, I did not have to. Or perhaps not ironic at all but rather instructive. Instructive about egos and about monsters.

The secret of healing is that there is no secret. It’s hidden in plain sight, too ordinary for words, always to be dis-covered, which is the precise meaning of re-velation or apo-calypse. “The people’s peace,” says one of our poets, is “not past our understanding,” but “falls like light upon the soft white tablecloth.”* It’s far too dumb for Unitarians; no diplomas required.

“April is the cruelest month.” (If Eliot had never written another line, this would make him a great poet.) As we become who we are, Reverend Church, how shall we protect ourselves? And what must we do to protect others? The faith that was lost is lost. New sprouting hurts. Every new life is also a grief.

*John Holmes, in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 164.

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