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.

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.
*Perestroika