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?