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 BrΓΌder
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