Wednesday, December 28, 2011

ille locus

  . . . to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

-- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets


Though we've always called it our Tiffany chandelier, it isn't a chandelier but rather a pendant lamp.  We don't know whether it's Tiffany or just Tiffany-style, but it is more than a century old.  It shows its age: one of its ribs has come loose on the inside.  I've seen modern knockoffs of it: the cheap glass lacks  striation and texture, and the knockoffs are made of flat panels, whereas our chandelier has only rounded surfaces.


It doesn't come from England and has nothing to do with Charles Dickens.  It's just this: my mother-in-law's aunt-by-marriage was once in service at a house where Dickens had lived.  She did the same work in America, and the family for whom she worked gave her a wedding present.


Its pattern is called "Grape:" clusters of little red circles against green leaves, and the background is a variegated brown like peanut butter swirled in ice cream.  Its circle of light discovers the table and those gathered round it; the rest of the room rests in softer amber, a butterscotch light.  This lamp has now hung from six ceilings.  The last of these is the story I have to tell.


Illud tempus -- that's what Mercea Eliade called it.  That time, as opposed to this ordinary time.  The time in which cosmos was made out of chaos, when Marduk slew Tiamat and made heaven and earth from the split parts of her body, or the time as some say when heaven and earth came together again in the flesh of an infant -- such time is not like this regular time of ours that just goes on and on.  Not this time but that; not of this world but out of it; not secular but sacred.  Illud tempus is always the same time it ever was, the original time, the time in which the world was made and life becomes possible.  It isn't after or before anything.  Every Christmas is the same as the others, always starting over again but knowing how it's done.


That's why there is so much sentimentality, tradition, repetition.  I'm too old and by this time of year too tired to keep track of traditions any more; but we could count on the younger daughter to remember everything -- the height of the tree, the colors of the lights, which ornaments and how many, the size, shape and color of the candles born by the wire reindeer that draw a wire sleigh across the top of the piano -- because she knows that it isn't about now but about how it will always have been: it if doesn't take us out of clock-time and into the timeless presence of incarnation, then it isn't Christmas at all.


Philosophers have always been interested in meaning and in how things come to mean other things.  It happens all the time: these letters for instance, arranged in certain patterns, are worthless except for what they represent in your mind as you scan them; how can this happen, that things stand for other things that aren't even things, aren't even there?  Human life is inconceivable without it, but how can the mind conceive of the condition of its own existence?  It's called semiology.


The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce distinguished three kinds of signs: the icon, the index and the symbol.  Icons mean something that they resemble: the printer icon on this computer looks sort of like a printer, and Byzantine icons look sort of like the Virgin Mary or some other saint.  Indices point to what they mean, often by a causal connection: the lowering cumulus clouds predict rain, and the brevity of a bar on the thermometer recommends that I wear a coat outside.  But the mind's true subversion of reality occurs in the Sherwood Forest of symbols, where the rules are forgotten and anything can come to mean anything, so long as those using the sign agree.  The most outrageous of all symbols is perhaps the Cross, which is nothing originally but two pieces of wood nailed together; which came to mean by Roman custom the agonizing and shameful death of a traitor; but which in the stories of one prophet's execution came to stand for his restoration and eternal life.  The means of death now represents for millions their victory over death.  It goes to show you that the link between the thing that means something (called signifiant by Ferdinand de Saussure) and what it means (signifié) is a marriage of convenience and utterly arbitrary.


Anything can mean anything, to those who agree on the meaning.


My world has been disrupted since last Christmas.  I'm not in the same place.  I've lost thousands of generous and friendly books and a study the size of some people's parlors with floor to ceiling windows, eight acres of woods and streams and the kitty who used to roam them with me.  There are gains as well as losses.  I am proud to live on the crowded island where twelve gates welcome the world, in the city where (according to my radio station) eight million people live in (mostly) peace and enjoy the benefits of democracy, most of which are only a subway ride away.  Every day I greet a few more of my books who have survived.  My music traveled with me, stored in a tiny shiny box.  And the study I now share, where I write these words, is smaller but flooded with sunlight.


Our chandelier however lay for months here in the study, perched on boxes of unpacked books, waiting for the super to install it.  Just before the holidays it went up, replacing the harsh overhead fixture that had glared on the dining table.  And now our friends can see the red grapes and green leaves, and the soft amber light, that bless our home.  The table itself and the sideboard opposite it are restored from their place in Gramma's house to something like their original splendor of tiger-oak.  Right next to it an eight-foot tree with a selection of the familiar ornaments and hundreds of white and red LED's.


I was waiting for something.


I was waiting for this lamp that is not a chandelier, that has nothing to do with England or Charles Dickens, to bring the spirits of Christmas, the memories and artifacts of a family that is not mine but rather my wife's family, to this extraordinary occasion.  I know where I am now. This is illud tempus.  And it is also ille locus.  I've been traveling here always.  This is my place, and I had not known it.



Sunday, December 11, 2011

still hope



If God didn't exist, it would necessary to invent him.


-- Voltaire* 


My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.


-- Miguel de Unamuno**



I don't usually answer comments.  Each reader has a right to pleasure or to pique: their words deserve to stand.  I've had my chance, and second thoughts don't always improve on first ones.  But the reader asks a question.  "Do you think a minister can successfully do their job without personally believing in god?"


The question leads me in many directions, because the response must depend on many variables.  What in this situation is "success"?  What is the "job"?  What does one mean by "belief" or for that matter "God?" Anyone who thinks these meanings are obvious should study the history of contention and murder on these precise subjects.


Unamuno thought that one could minister without belief.  His San Manuel, martyr, spends himself in the comfort of his people, through words and rituals whose truth he no longer believes.  By the church's own doctrine, his state of belief or unbelief has no significance.


The word "belief" often stands in for the word "faith."  Believers and atheists alike speak too often as if faith were a kind of knowledge.  But faith is not knowledge: where there is knowledge, faith cannot arise.  I cannot have faith that there is a blue blazer in my closet, because I know the blazer is there.  I only act in faith when I must affirm what cannot be known.


When you pledge your life in marriage to a person who cannot possibly yet deserve such investment, you are acting in faith.  Or when you go into harm's way for a cause that is worth your life.  Or when Walt Disney bet all his profits from Snow White on an animated choreography called Fantasia.  Or when Steve Jobs decided I would want a tiny shiny box called IPod to store and retrieve two months of selected music.


Faith can be horribly wrong, but we can't do without it.  In faith we can do things that are impossible otherwise.  It's what Yeshua meant by "moving the mountain."  For each of us there is a mountain that, if we give more than we have, more than is prudent, more than our accountant would recommend, will move when we tell it to.  The search for that particular mountain, the one that has one's name on it, is the spiritual quest.


I don't believe a lot of the things that some of my clients believe.  Some of them believe that their prayers will heal their diseases, or save their mothers from death.  Some think they will survive their bodies.  Some think that their suffering or their grief is a message from God.  But I don't have to agree with them.  This isn't a theology class.


Though what I do is a ministry, I don't come to the client as a "minister." If the client wants to hear a specific theology, I'll help him locate a person who can provide it; but I am not that person. A clinical chaplain assesses a spiritual crisis, names the dangers and blesses the assets. The client, his passion lifted up to the regard of the greater audience, is empowered to his own liberation. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not so much.

I do not preach to clients. I study a "living human document:" that's what Anton Boisen called the person otherwise dismissed as a "patient." If I hear the document's message, I speak it aloud so the client can hear it. Yes, there is after all a theology of chaplaincy, an immanent theology. The Word has come to live among us, and we meet it at the bedside.

At our best we are poets, giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.  And for this purpose we do not bowdlerize: we give form to loss and terror as we do to courage, love and hope.  We are all dying, and we're all triumphing over death for another day, and how we do it is our story.  Telling the story, even a tragic one, confirms the client to himself. It says, you are not alone.  You are seen and heard.  If the one who sees and hears is only mortal me, that is not nothing; and in moments of faith it seems that I am standing in for one who sees us all.  If my client flatters me with that faith, that is his way to healing.  How else could it be? how else than through flawed and dying flesh could an incarnate word be spoken?


Sometimes only tragic art can save us.  How can there be a play like King Lear?  An actor who specializes in the bleak art of Samuel Beckett said that as long as someone writes as beautifully as Beckett there is still hope.  The tragic poet says to those who suffer -- and we all suffer -- yes, I have heard you, and you are worthy of being heard, and you are not mad, deranged or evil; but you have seen the truth.  Beauty perishes, virtue is punished and sense runs to nonsense, and yet there are still truth, beauty and virtue.  So hold to these things however lightly.  My search for truth, like Unamuno's, is a search for what gives us life in the time we are given; and the search for life is a search for truth.  Nothing else deserves the name.  As the Grecian urn said to Keats, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty.  That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."


To us this is a ministry, though some would not call it so.  Every day we learn again that we cannot rescue our people and we cannot save them, but there is sometimes revealed among us a healing power.  I put on my shoes each morning knowing this could really happen today.  That is my "success."




*Peter Gay, Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (New Haven: Yale University 1988) p. 265: "If the heavens, despoiled of his august stamp could ever cease to manifest him, if God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Let the wise proclaim him, and kings fear him."


**Miguel de Unamuno, "Mi religión." (1907) http://www.ensayistas.org/antologia/XXE/unamuno/

Saturday, November 26, 2011

pro nobis

What can I give him, poor as I am?

-- Christina Rosetti, "In the Bleak Midwinter"

Lord, we don't get it. Don't ask us to sign on to this. We hope something good comes of it, but we don't see it now. Not right now.

Sometimes when the young ones die, they are still gorgeous. Ravaged inside, they still have their muscle tone, their bone structure and complexions intact, and they lie in their beds like sleeping beauties.

I'm standing in a tiny room stuffed with people. We're gathered, mother and brother and sisters and children, nieces and nephew, children and grandchildren and best friend, and there aren't enough chairs for us. The chairs are stuffed, with padding and with the people who pile on them, some in the laps of others, arms around each other. The air is stuffed with shock, and with anger. They knew it was coming, but they still weren't ready.

It was too big a crowd, too much emotion for the room they had shared with another patient who still breathes, his own knot of loved ones around him. It's too much for this room too, too much for any room. We stand and we sit and we huddle together, and I'm in the middle of them with my hand on his friend's shoulder. It's all I can think of to do.

Lord, don't ask us to understand this.

I come from a church where people don't like to pray, don't like to admit there's anything to pray to. Their great American guru told them to rely on themselves, never to admit they need anything from anybody, never to think they lack what they need to take care of themselves. "Men descend to meet," Emerson said, and left the church. Sneak up on them, catch them on the right mood, caress their egos, and my people might admit that they "meditate" every now and then, about nothing in particular; but to beseech whom they know not for what they cannot name is, shall we say, foreign to their nature.

I don't meet many of our people in my work. I do meet many requests for prayer. Ora pro nobis, they say in their various ways.

Make him better, they sometimes mean, and we cannot do it. If we could cure their sickness, they would not be here.

Make it all right, they sometimes mean. Because they do not think it's right, but think they ought to say so.

This is the Department of Reality, and I will not say it's all right. I will not. I will say that they are loved and deserve to be loved. I will say, as my father's prayerbook does, that God walks in the valley of every shadow, that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, that nothing will be the same now but that a different life is to be found, that you may stumble over it when you least expect, but it will be the life of a person who loved and lost, for grief is the dark lining of joy. But I will not call this event a blessing.

I will not say that God wills young people to die. I will not say it. Those who are angry, let them shout. Those who are broken, let them wail. If they want to climb into the bed and take the corpse in their arms, well, let them, they're in a great tradition -- others have done it before. If God isn't big enough to bear the scandal, then God can go to hell with the other false spirits. But God is by definition -- the only God I'm willing to deal with -- big enough. Prayer brings faith into being, that there is something big enough to hear the truth. If there isn't, we're already dead.

Ora pro nobis. They want me to pray. This isn't about me, or about the fashionable skepticism of my people, or about Criticism so High and Mighty that its legs don't touch the ground. This is life and death. If I didn't plan to get in the trenches, I should long ago have taken off the uniform to nurse my doubts at home. This is for them.

What do I have to give them? the truth. Start with the facts. Give the death its proper name, enumerate the people who are here, give voice to their wound, rage, incomprehension. Call God to account. If there is faith, it means that we act as if there were someone to call out. I know my advocate lives, says Job, so come here, give answer. Not a solution but a response, show that you heard me.

When the Voice spoke from the Whirlwind, it didn't say that everything was all right. It said that Job had been heard. People can bear a lot, if they have been heard.

The good that is to come is not in the event itself. In seven years of this work, I've learned nothing good about death, but I've seen good things come from facing death, one's own or someone else's. "Life is real, Life is earnest," wrote a poet of my people. Death makes life real: otherwise it's just endless rehearsal.

So out of this whirlwind I hope the voice will speak to them. In time.

The sleeping beauty still lies in the other room, not to be revived. I've named the people, and lifted up their loss into the light. And what is the meaning of this? it is still to come, as they learn how to live not in spite of but with the loss. Be our good shepherd, says the prayerbook, walk with us in the valley of the shadow. Our part is to keep walking, and keep calling out.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

early holiday

Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude . . . to choose one's own way.

-- Viktor Frankl

There had been a change in her condition. In the vernacular, we say she had "taken a turn." That's what I learned in the overnight notes -- she had taken a turn, for the worse.

I called her apartment, where niece and caregiver were holding vigil. That's what I learned when I spoke to them -- they were waiting for Charlotte to die. That's what the change meant. She was, as we say in our lingo, "actively dying."

Niece and caregiver thought that Charlotte would like it if I came over. So I cancelled other appointments and went to visit Charlotte. I found her, as we say in our notes, "unresponsive." Her eyes were closed, and there were seven or eight seconds between her breaths. Otherwise she did not move. A peaceful scene.

I said a psalm or two, and spoke a wish to whomever listens in our extremity, that her last visions would be beautiful. It's said in our business, we say it to ourselves and to clients, that the last sense to go is the sense of hearing, and that therefore words of love, or perhaps just the sound of the voice, may be of comfort as the the last coma descends. I don't know what evidence there is for that advice, but we say it and we act as if it were true. It's of comfort at least to those who are left behind -- there's something they can do in the last moments. They don't just have to suffer. There is something they can do.

Then I talked in the living room with Karyn, the niece; about the help she can get from her brothers and sisters as Charlotte slipped away, about funeral plans, about financial arrangements. Rita the caregiver came from the bedroom, saying that Charlotte had changed again. I went to the bedside and at first it looked the same to me; but her breaths became less frequent. The intervals grew. Ten seconds. Fifteen. Thirty seconds. Then we waited as a minute elapsed. Another minute. I touched her hands, then her cheek. She was cold. It was a simple as that. No turmoil, no evident struggle, no death rattle. There were tears in the room, but also a sense of accomplishment: she had died at home as she wanted, and without suffering.

Karyn looked at me. "Thank you for coming. She was waiting for you."

I don't think she was waiting for me. I don't think my part in this story was as crucial as that. But I said -- and this is another piece of our lore -- that some people hang on until something important happens, till a family member arrives, a holiday passes, a child is married or a baby born. I don't think I was that important in this case. I don't think Charlotte was waiting for me. But it comforts her niece to tell the story this way, and it's not my job to kill her hope, or to trash the beauty of her fiction.

But here's another story. Roberto was twenty-two years old, and dying fast of lymphosarcoma. It was early October, and he saw that he wasn't going to live for the holidays. So he asked for -- no, he demanded, he made a fuss -- that the family should gather a month early, and have a Thanksgiving dinner. His mom thought this was a bit much, considering the complications. It was hard enough just to take care of him, without organizing an extra holiday. But he was tough. He insisted.

So they gathered; the family came from far and wide on that day. They had their turkey, and he got to see them all. He told them he loved them, and they gave thanks for his life, for their life together. And he died that evening, on his self-declared holiday, at 7:30.

Roberto couldn't survive his illness. He couldn't even survive to the holidays. But knowing what was impossible, he could embrace the just barely possible. He could declare his own holiday. He could call his people together. He called, and they responded. He was brave. He was clear in his head. He was a loving son to his mother, brother to his siblings, nephew to his uncles and aunts. He brought rejoicing to the day of his death. He declared his holiday, and held on for it.

The death of a young person is the hardest kind. So much is lost, the full life that older people sometimes in their last days say was theirs. But his courage and his honesty brought celebration to the day of his death. In obscenity he made beauty. He chose his attitude, and made his death into a song.

In neither of these cases did I do anything. I witnessed what someone else did. Karyn told a story of Charlotte's death. Roberto told the story of his own. They were no longer powerless. No longer victims, they became authors.

A pastor may come to speak the good news, but a chaplain comes to hear the good news. These were miracles, and I got to see them.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

never know

If you gotta ask, you'll never know.

-- Louis Armstrong

Last American Who Knew What the F__k He Was Doing Dies

-- The Onion

I'm a consumer, and I know Steve Jobs loved me. I'm a consumer, and I know Steve Jobs didn't give a f__k what I think I want.

I never thought much about him until he died. But now I feel his love as I type on this keyboard. I feel it as I pick up this sleek, discretely shiny, tightly made flat box. I feel it every time I drop the box into my briefcase. It feels good to the hand, this box. I trust it to do what I want without fussing.

I feel the love of Steve Jobs as I look across my desk at another, even smaller shiny box, a box that answers the call of my Manhattan-apartment space problem, a tiny box that now contains my whole music collection, some one hundred fourteen gigabytes, almost forty-three days of sound, and promises to reproduce it through any convenient sound system, but will travel in my shirt pocket and deliver those same riches into the private depths of my ear if I ask it to do so.

Yes, in some militant outpost on the plain of corporate medianism, undistracted by the din of a thousand identical mission statements, someone dared to think clearly, ruthlessly about my happiness. Which is not to say that he asked me what I wanted. Why would he? How would I know? I'm just a consumer.

Thirty years ago I asked my friend, an actor who paid his rent by desktop publishing, why I would want a computer in my house. Now there are four computers in my house, and each of them fits in a shoulder-bag. And the ones I want, the ones that aren't foisted on me by employers, are the shiny boxes conceived by Steve Jobs. Because they do the work and feel good and are easy on the eyes, and they don't make trouble. When I use his machines, I don't feel like I'm working at the sufferance of techies; it seems rather that the techies have been put in their place, told to make me happy and then disappear. Ross Douthat writes this morning that "Jobs revived the romance of modernity."* It's like the old space operas: climb into your seat, turn the damn thing on and fly to Mars.

So what have we learned? that the good is enemy to the great. Not only in gadgetry but in art, in teaching, in prophecy, in preaching. If what you want is to ameliorate, smooth off the rough edges, squeeze another percentage point or two, avoid complaints -- here's what you do. You ask around. You take polls. You form focus groups. You make sure that you understand everybody's point of view. Then you write up the best practices, and train everybody to follow them, so there'll be no surprises.

That's what you do if you want to ameliorate. If you want to change things, well, that's a completely different matter ---

You can't invent what people already want. Somebody else already has that sewn up. You can only invent what people have no idea they want yet. Thomas Friedman says today that Jobs "was someone who did not read the polls but changed the polls."** He could change the polls because he knew what every great poet, preacher, leader knows -- that the public doesn't know what it wants until you show it to them.

There's plenty of room for predictability in the world: in business, in love and in faith. But predictability only gets you so far, particularly if you're in a deathly landscape. Rubbing off sharp edges and polishing surfaces won't prove satisfactory if you're living a catastrophe. If the hideousness around you is too strong, you may not even know it's killing you. Someone has to tear you out of your location and place you in a new landscape -- and you probably didn't know you wanted this. You wouldn't ask for it.

In the novels of Isaac Asimov, one travels the vastness between stars not at cruising speed but by violent hyperspace leaps. It isn't fun for the ship or for the people it carries. It takes some getting used to, and some would rather stay home. But if you don't learn to leap, you'll never leave your back yard.

To supervise the people is one thing, but to lead them is another. The prophet, the poet, the singer, the preacher -- such a person loves the people, with a vision of their better life and of how at this moment it might come to pass. But the vision cannot be found in a survey, or at the end of a course of audience research, or through the ministrations of a focus group. You'll find it together, if you find it at all, on the other side of a hyperspace leap, and no audience or congregation will ask for that. It's the artist's job to choose the place, the time and the direction of the leap.

Your public can't make this choice for you. Bless their hearts, they just can't. The moment you let them into your head, the moment you let them influence your choice with what they imagine are their desires, that is the moment when your prophetic gift begins to die. You must choose, and your choice will alienate someone. But if, at the end of your leap, you come down right together on the other side, then a new life appears and you learn what the glory of the Lord looks like. People will come back for that; and they will tell their friends.

I belong to a tiny religion with an outsized influence on what it means to be American. My teacher Gary Dorrien wrote the 1500-page history of American liberal theology,*** and his first two chapters are about us. Five of us have served as presidents of the United States. But in recent decades our membership stagnated, with meager annual increases that failed to keep up with population growth. And now, as the president of our association tells us, the numbers are falling. So after long delay we now suffer from the decline and implosion of mainline American religion.

I used to say that we were the only thing left of center in American religion that wasn't in decline; and that the reason we weren't declining yet is that we said out loud what liberal Christians could not say boldly without risking schism in their churches. Our message was clear, while Orthodoxy Lite failed to be a compelling message for liberal Christianity. Now however we are in decline ourselves, and this decline has begun at a time when most of our programming is about diversity and inclusiveness: we want to see in our churches more people of color and more people from outside the middle class.

Much will depend on how we pursue these dreams. If our drive for diversity turns us into a church of surveys, if we reduce our prophecy to an assurance that we don't mean to alienate anyone, if we become a church of edge-smoothers and surface-polishers, we shall not reverse the trend of the numbers. No demographic can tell us how, when or in what direction we must take the hyperspace leap. That is for preachers to decide.

Liberalism always offended someone. It was always meant to offend someone. When we stand courageously for the universal rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, when we condemn the use of some human beings for the luxury and pleasure of others, we make enemies. But that is also when we find our friends. Once upon a time before I was born America had a president who would "welcome the hatred" of those who lived luxuriously off the wretchedness of others. That president was elected to the office four times.

We are ultimately known, of course, by the quality of our friends. But our true friends often come to know us by our choice of enemies. We cannot afford to hate ourselves because some people don't care for us, or to shame ourselves for having a distinctive religious culture. If Orthodoxy Lite is not a compelling message, self-loathing is not an attractive quality. It isn't who we can get along with that will save us; our hope lies rather in what we are willing to risk for kindness and justice. And if you gotta ask, you'll never know.

*"Up From Ugliness," New York Times (October 9, 2011)

**"Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMiggio?" New York Times (October 9, 2011)

***Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 3 vols.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

long run

In the long run we are all dead.

-- John Maynard Keynes

Never forgive. Never forget.

-- bumper sticker

Strange that I have not gone to Ground Zero. I work within a few blocks of the place. They say the new tower is half done, but I've never gone to see it. There's something that forbids me to approach. It doesn't belong to me.

First, it belonged to the residents. "This is our home. Tourists not welcome." The ones who lived there hung banners from their windows in those first weeks, as people came from all over, called to the altar of sacrifice with no good idea of what to do, but anxious to view the wreckage six stories high, the smoke that still floated over Brooklyn. At a later stage it belonged to the relatives of the dead. They came every year to read the names. But now it's been ten years. Ten readings of the names. It's time to turn the place over to the rest of us. Time to give us title to their dead. We lost them too.

They can read the names now any time they want. They've opened a memorial, and all the names are incised in concrete. The mourners don't have to wait for anniversaries.

A memorial is dedicated to memory. It tries to make sure we will never forget. But should we always remember?

Should we always remember the fireball? We've all seen that. Should we remember the people flying out of the buildings, smashing on the plaza? Very few if us saw that.

I saw the sacred ground the other day from across the street at fifty stories. One part like a model train layout, still too neat and needing to be distressed, with young trees set in rows in concrete, and two fountains marking the footprints of the vanished towers. Water pouring down the sides into a reflecting pool, and in the midst of the pool the water falls again into an inner depth. The rest of the ground looks like what it is. A construction site. It's a mess. It looked small from fifty stories. I suppose when I go there in person, on the floor of the plaza, it will seem very large.

From fifty stories I could look across the street into the new "No. 1," the replacement for what came down that day -- they used to call it "Freedom Tower." It looked as if I could reach across the space and touch it. I was dizzy. I felt as if I were flying among tall buildings and, yes, it was thrilling and it was appalling. I could see the ground as the flying people had seen it.

How long do those who grieve have to spend a part of each day curating the injury? Tearing off the dressing and picking at the scab? Some hold themselves to a standard: never forget and never forgive. It's as if forgiveness would betray the dead; by prolonging the pain they prolong the lives of the dead. And it works. As long as you hold the lost person before you, that person still hovers there -- not gone yet. We're willing to cherish the grief and the rage in order to postpone the loss. These dead are therefore still falling: they haven't hit ground yet. They are suspended in a gelatin of aggressive memory. The mourners still hope the film will reverse, the flying people soar upward into their towers, the flames go out, the airplanes reintegrate and fly backward to their airports.

For each mourner, the suspension will either last or it won't. For some, the gelatin will suddenly dissolve, and the dead person will strike the pavement of reality, and the long work of loss will begin. Others will succeed in sustaining the suspension for years, decades, their whole lives, keeping the dead before them until they themselves die. But they will have spent their days out of the world, in suspense.

I can't tell anyone to forgive. It's too hard, when no remorse has been expressed. There was, to say the least, no remorse about Ground Zero. And I'm no example: there are people I haven't forgiven. I'm more interested in forgetting.

I'm glad I have not needed to grieve for many people. But I've grieved for dreams, for opportunities, for images of myself. I have felt aggrieved, in ways that would hurt for months or years. But there would come a day when I noticed that, for some days now, a week, a month, I had not thought about that loss, or about the person I held responsible for it. I didn't have time for that hurt any more. I was interested in other things. I had forgotten. I was free of the injury. I didn't want what I had long ago lost.

It takes time to arrive at this forgetting. And it takes time to arrive at the next station. Once I have forgotten, once the injury doesn't hurt any more, I think about how I might have avoided it. If I had done this rather than that, zigged rather than zagged, then the adversary might not have done what she did. And then I begin to take responsibility. I start writing a new story of how I "played into" a situation of malice. If I had behaved with more savvy, I might have managed the situation differently, and the injury might not have happened. So I begin to think of the terrible event as something we worked on together, the enemy and me. Next time I'll know better. Perhaps this is a kind of forgiveness.

But there wasn't any better way at Ground Zero; the people in the towers didn't "play into" their destruction. They didn't know what was coming, or who. So how could I tell them to forgive? "Never forgive. Never forget." It's just that never is a long time, and life is not a long time.

A great economist spoke of the business cycle's supposedly creative destruction, and of the hymns of market fundamentalism, incantations that assure, no matter how severe the crash, that a rebound will follow. Yes, but when? Theoreticians can wait for the long-run fulfillment of perfect curves. But people, families, children and their hopes cannot wait for the long run. There isn't time in the human scale for the market to restore itself. Our youth, our innocence, our life is over before the loss can be made up. The market expresses no remorse to those whom its breathing destroys.

For the last ten years I lived among trees. I got to know individuals through my windows and on my daily strolls. I knew their leaves and branches, and I have seen many storms rip trees apart. When nature rips a limb off, the tree never recovers its loss, never resumes the profile that I knew. But new buds form, and new limbs sprout, and a new profile replaces the old. Never the same, but still alive and even larger.

So here I am, late as usual, three weeks after the tenth memorial of our great loss. I just can't stop chewing things over, so I have to keep processing long after everybody else has moved on to the next topic. Another reason why this is not a blog.

And these words are a dismemorial. For those who lost people ten years ago, I wish a forgetting. I hope they learn how to live a day without recalling the hurt. I hope their lives will outlast the injury. They'll never be the same, but they can still be alive and larger. I won't tell them that they ought to forget. But I can hope.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

sweet prince



Now cracks a noble heart.

-- Hamlet

Alabaster Huston, who rose from humble origins to become a mentor for his peers, an explorer of streams and forests, a protector of homes, a loving friend and a counselor to counselors, died peacefully on Friday, with family gathered round him at his home in New York City, after a long illness. Named "Alabaster" by his adoptive family because of his uniform white coat, he was orphaned and spent formative stages of childhood in a rescue shelter. He won the family's invitation with his fervently expressed wish to adopt them as companions, reaching his paw through the mesh of his cage.

As he grew to maturity, his character was unaffected by the trauma of early childhood. Neither shy nor excessively demonstrative, he was described by many who met him as having "a great attitude." His interests were catholic and inclusive, and he was never willingly left out of an activity, rushing to find vantage points from which to observe household or public events without once being killed by his curiosity. He displayed a remarkable comprehension of the mechanics of door-latches, and it is understood that if he had possessed opposable thumbs he would now rule the world, or at least have led a Fortune 500 company.

He was companionable with a characteristic reserve, declining to sit on the laps even of his intimates, but preferring instead to stretch on the couch beside a friend, exerting light pressure on the thigh with all four feet. He was perfectly capable however of soliciting affection at the appropriate time, reaching up to touch a face or a forearm with a gesture whose meaning was: "It's time for you to pet me now." Many who knew him wish they could be as clear in their communication, or as effective.

Though he never practiced ministry he consorted all his life with pastors, and they often thought that, had he chosen to pursue such a career, he would have done well in it. His ways were quiet and his voice was small, but he chose his utterances carefully and displayed excellent listening skills. Comfortable with silence and clear in his boundaries, he put all at their ease and comforted many during his career with a truly pastoral presence.

Though his heart was firmly anchored in the home, he always enjoyed the outdoors. As a child growing up in the suburbs he investigated the perspectives available from garage roofs and from the upper reaches of grape trellises, conducting research from those locations on avian behavior and the domestic habits of squirrels. He spent most of his adult life however in a home located amidst forests, ridges and miniature streams. This wild and constantly changing terrain called him irresistibly, and he would sometimes take a walk through the woods with a family member, lagging behind or running ahead as his curiosity might prompt him, checking in by voice with his companion just at the moment when he seemed to be lost.

His frequent solo expeditions in nature were sometimes rewarded with zoological discoveries. He would return with an enlistee for home athletic events, carefully preserved from harm and voicing its enthusiasm from the jaws of its recruiter -- a mouse or a mole or, on one memorable occasion, a baby bunny. That these guests were uniformly unharmed when members of his family returned them to the environment is a testament to his innately gentle disposition. Nature was not in his view, at least his part of it, red in tooth and claw.

His habit of peaceful play with the smaller creatures of his world sets one of his last actions in remarkable relief. About a week before he died, although much weakened by his disease, he caught, killed and ate a mouse who had invaded his city home. His younger feline apprentice stood by in amazement, to see his elder display such determination. It is hoped that this vivid example of domestic protectiveness will serve the youth as a model, in the course of an urban future.

Alabaster's remains will be cremated, and his family will devote his ashes at a suitable time to a location that suits his interests and affections. Good night, sweet prince.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

juggle this

There will be time. There will be time.

-- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Most preachers are musical, but many of them keep it under wraps. During a party at his house, I learned that one of my pastors was an excellent sight-reading piano player. He claimed no lofty view of his abilities, but I've auditioned, or sung for my supper, with many who weren't as good.

I've learned from a third person that another preacher I know is an excellent juggler. I won't ask him to demonstrate. It's his gift to reveal or conceal. The point is, pastors often have a physical art that underlies their words.

I'll never be a juggler. I know this to be true because I tried for years. But I learned by trying.

I had my first physical education at the age of twenty-five.

Oh yes, there was gym class. Lining up to shoot baskets, under the eye of a disappointed jock who asked God why his life had come to this, watching nerds fail at what he could do but could not, would not teach. There was one of him at every school. My presence insulted him; his despair marked me.

But that is not what I mean by physical education. It's far too rare; nerds like me may go through a lifetime without getting any. I was lucky enough, prescient enough, to find my way into a training course for the theatre, and to find a master who helped me learn to live in my body.

It was, of course, too late. It's like languages -- there's a time of life, very young, when you can pick things up, easy as breath, but if you miss that time it will never be simple. When my teacher came round to his brief juggling lesson, many of the eighteen-year-olds within minutes had their three-ball cascades in the air. It took me three months of obsessive practice to do the same thing. I was by far the last, and by the time of my breakthrough the class had long gone on to other matters. Most in my situation would have given up. Note to therapist: I did not.

These are now my limits (I know this because I spent years trying to exceed them). I can keep two balls in the air with one hand. Or three balls in the air with two hands. I can do a few simple variations of the pattern. I cannot keep five balls in the air. Or four. I cannot pass behind my back. I cannot pass under my leg. I cannot juggle clubs.

Why should clubs be an absolute barrier? Because they move in two dimensions at once. Not only do they follow the arc from one hand to the other, but they rotate head over base, and the neck of the club must come round to your palm just as the clubs falls to your hand. I could never get this co-ordination. This crippled body, ostracized in the time when it might have learned, this body that spent months learning to feel one of the motions accurately, was permanently baffled by the task of bringing two motions into phase.

And yet despite these limits, in the few motions that have been revealed to me there is spiritual truth. Without this corporeal knowledge I could never have sung for my supper, nor could I preach.

It's the essence of juggling that you're going to have more than one thing in the air all the time. Each of these objects, for most of the time, is out of your control. But you must not panic. You have to let go.

Take a ball in your hand. Throw it into the air before you, about as high as your chin. Try not to watch yourself catch it.

Take two balls in one hand, and throw one into the air, in an arc that rises up your center line and falls out to your side. As it reaches the high pont, throw the other on the same path. As the second one goes over the top, catch the first and throw it again. You're juggling. (Three balls are actually simpler, because you have two hands to manage them, taking turns.)

Now here's the problem. As soon as you've released the first ball, you have to refocus on releasing the second. And I didn't want to refocus. I'd been taught, I had absorbed, I could not let it go of, the Protestant ethic of ceaseless hard work. When I threw the first ball, I had to follow it with the eye and mind all the way through its arc and into my hand. Anything else was dereliction of duty. The theology of a nerdly body assured me that the moment I thought of something else would be the moment of my failure: Satan and my gym teacher would then rejoice in my well-deserved humiliation, a failure not only physical but moral as well.

But now, in my master's juggling lesson, I faced a fruitful contradiction. I had to release each ball not only with the hand but with the mind. If I did not let go, if I did not derelict my duty, I would fail. I had to learn how to do what my body protested was the wrong thing, letting the object flung from my hand proceed unsupervised on its way. How could I ever find it again?

What was required of me was faith. The hand, the eye and the mind have plenty of wisdom to find each other: two hands are sufficient to keep three, five, seven objects flying, if each hand does its work at the right time. But faith had long left my body, flying from the eyes of despairing gym teachers, and it took months for me to start recovering it.

I learned to see the ball's complete trajectory in the act of releasing it, and then to forget, so that I could then turn my attention to the next event, even while the consequences of my previous throw revealed themselves. I learned to trust that things would work out even though I didn't know how; because if I did not trust, things would not work out.

The terrible thing about getting your physical education too late is that there are so many things you will never learn to do. The miracle of it is that you know exactly what you have learned.

I learned that there was time enough. Time enough to rest, and take the next action. Time enough, if I would make the time. Time enough, if I turned with empty hand from the already past event, toward the future as it came to me. I learned to detach because if I did not detach I would fail. I failed a thousand times before I began to succeed. And then the mountain of my doubt began to move.

They say that if a thing is yours you should let it go and, if it belongs to you, it will come back. Juggling is like that. Also love. Love of children, or lovers or friends, poems or songs. The beauty shines back on us from things we give up.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

becoming powerful

If he were God, he would keep reversing the victories -- which, moreover, is what God does!

-- Roland Barthes*

What will you do
If you find yourself in Egypt
Where your labor is stolen
And fed as the greatest of delicacies
To those who beat you for sport
While maligning your character

If you cry out to the Lord
(or whatever there is to be cried to)
And the Lord hears your suffering
And raises a Moses among you
To take you away from all this

What will you do when the tables are turned
And believe me the tables will turn
Before you are ready

In some corner of the parade
Some eddy in the stream of power
Some place where no one can see you
No news cameras roll
And no anchormen wait to report your iniquity

What will you do when (surprise)
You are head of the committee
Or maybe just the subcommittee
Or chief of police
Or the bursar

As soon as you can get away with it
What will you do
For God has chosen sides
And you are on God's side
Congratulations to the poor but damn you rich
Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low
So now you're exalted
And what will you do
For God loves you

What will you do when the Promised Land calls
And you cross the great river to take the possession
Of what you were told you deserve

Will you tumble those Jericho walls
On people whose crimes are
first to live there before you were chosen
(chose) to live there yourselves and
second to name their God by a different name

Will you charge on a horse and with sabre
Tepees of women and children
To music of fife and drum
Singing your victory for history
Awarding medals in memory

Will you build a new temple
Of stolen labor
Is your freedom just a crank
Of the vengeance wheel
Up and then down
Going and coming round
And smacking from behind

This is the trap on the Wilderness Highway
This is the IED on the road to freedom
This is the sin in liberation's heart
Ready to break and to clot the body

All tyrants think themselves aggrieved
They say they just want Lebensraum
And not to be fenced in
They say this is their due
For what they (and you) have suffered

Read back a chapter or two
Our sufferings are notes of history's song
We all have cause for vengeance
If you read back a chapter or two
But the Kingdom is not a schedule for taking turns
And the Promise is not a balance sheet

Comfort the afflicted afflict the comfortable
Saith the Lord
But the tables can turn at a moment's notice
And we are quickly afflicted or comfy
We might already
Have received our reward

If God has taken sides
Then God can change sides
At a moment's notice

The up and the down is not justice
The turning must stop
And the Wheel must come to rest
And we must lay it on its side

There are no special cases
That's what the Creator says
Paupers and princes
Werden Brüder
All created equal
No special rights

Not my freedom right or wrong
But freedom under God

*Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), pp. 46-7