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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