Sunday, December 30, 2012

poor creature

Unaccommodated man is nothing but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art!

-- King Lear, III. iv.

When they ask me what I do for living, when I am so foolish as to answer them, there is a silence that seems to last the space of half an hour.  Their jaws drop, their heads turn to the side and they get a watery look in their eyes.  Oh, what a special person you are!  How can you stand it?  So much grief!

The easy answer is that some are cut out for it and some not.  It's a little harder to say, "I don't experience it like that.  I don't lose people, I find them."  To enter so many stories, so many homes -- of rich people and poor, gay and straight, Anglophone and other-phone, is more real than a hundred novels.  I'm not a better person than you, but these people made me a better person than I was.

A sick man lay in bed with his wife.  None of us knew he would die the next morning.  She twined around him, played with his hair, ran her fingers down his arm.  We spoke softly of his symptoms, of relieving his pain, of reducing his fever.  It was a hard thing she was doing, but she would bless herself for doing it.

Not the first time I was admitted to such a scene.  A young man talked with me once about a vacation he would take with the woman he loved.  He said that she was above all things for him, and that if she was with him it was all he needed.  "You hearing this?" I said to her.  She came in from the kitchen and lay down with him.  They cradled each other, mindless of my presence -- no, mindful of my presence and admitting me.  "I'm hearing it," she said.

Walking in Alphabet City a year or two later, I heard the word "Chap!" (that's what she had called me, short for "chaplain").  Strong, lean, tall and black in her long coat, she called across the street to me the whitest of men, who had once been a witness of her courage.  "Chap!" she called.  Nothing more to be said.  She crossed the street and put her arms around me, and we held each other for half a minute.  Nothing more to be said.

Yes, the veil has parted for me, and I have walked on the other side.  I don't deserve it, but I don't have to deserve it.

A recovering perfectionist, born with addiction and raised in a way to nourish it, I know that if I don't do the thing exactly right it isn't the best, and if it isn't the best it's worthless.  There's a voice that says I have to deserve my blessings, and show exactly why I deserve them.  Perfectionists can get a lot of things right, but you can't spend time with them: they're always going somewhere else.  I keep moving on, and mostly can't bear the sight of anything I made more than three years ago.

But I think I shall retain these scenes of recent years.  I have no reason to reject them.  They have nothing to do with me.   They aren't exploits of mine.

To say I am recovering is to say that I name my addiction, and every day remind myself of its power to set the excellent against the good, inhibit growth, avert blessings, impoverish the banquet and make of the garden a desert.  For instance, I have a gift for languages which never produces mastery.  I have an actor's ear, and when I speak a foreign phrase people start chattering at me as if I could understand them.  I ought to be competent in Spanish, but something holds me back.  The insecure child in me, I suppose, can't stand mistakes.  He hears the voice pronounce its judgment -- not good enough -- and so I do not learn.

And yet when this lazy soul walks out the door in the morning he has a reasonable chance of seeing something beautiful before he comes home.  It's honest work.  It's real work.  It's not a test.  I don't measure up to the standard of my imagination, but that's my problem, and signifies nothing as I go to meet the people.  The trick is to lose yourself to find them, and in them find yourself again.

"Mercy imposes no conditions," said Dineson the storyteller.  "Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."  The truth is I am no better than I should be, but "Everything we have chosen is granted to us.  And everything we rejected has also been granted. .  . . for mercy and truth are met together."*

A lot of us suffer without deserving it, but all of us are blessed when we haven't earned it.  We are poor forked animals together, glorious sometimes in the eyes of compassion, transfigurable by mercy.

Sometimes I walk on the other side of the veil.  I haven't earned it.  But I don't have to.

*Isak Dineson, "Babette's Feast," as adapted by Gabriel Axel in his screenplay.  The passage is a riff on Psalm 85:10: "Mercy and truth have met together.  Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

build it

A poem should not mean
But be.

-- Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"

I meet people who are in a real jam, running toward or away from the simplest reality, that as Forrest Church said we are alive and must die, and we know it.  Tolkien said we were given the gift of mortality, meaning that we must make our immortality, fashioning it of shabby stuff and with broken tools.  This is a paradox and if you don't know what I mean I can't explain it to you.

But it has something to do with the loaves and the fishes, a parable not by Yeshua but about him.  The crowd was to be fed, and nobody had planned for it.  Be sensible, Teacher, they said -- we have only so much to give, only this many loaves and that many fishes.  He said, break the loaves and share the fishes.  And there was more than enough.

That's how they remembered their life with him.  It couldn't possibly work.  There was no business plan, no visible means of support.  He depended on the kindness of strangers.  How could he set out to feed the thousands?

He told his lieutenants to act as in a theatre, as if there was enough.  Build it, and they will come, says the mystical voice in a novel.  But this was a voice more radical: Proclaim it, and they will build.  We don't ask our leaders to do the work, but rather to create the world in which the work can be done.  Behave as if a dream is possible.  Our dreams may not come true exactly, but dreamers change things.  My father dreamed I would be a great scholar, and I am at least irremediably educated.

There are those who stand by the literal truth: they say that if we had been there with a videocam we would have seen the few loaves and fishes multiply, replenish as each fragment was broken off -- we would have marveled at a miracle.  And there are those other apologists for parable, the rationalist ones, who look for sensible explanations: they say that some of the crowd ran to the nearby village and brought out the foodstores.  But it's not important to explain the story.  Explanation is irrelevant, beside the point, de trop, impious even.

It's a parable.  It's meant to bend your mind, and if your mind isn't bent you're not reading it right.  It bends your mind toward something you know is true but fear to admit, that the boundary of the possible expands as hope presses against it.  Despair is a choice, and hope is a choice.  You don't know what imagination can do, and your confident pronouncement of what it cannot do is without foundation.  When we worship the impossible we surrender our birthright.

Which is not to say that everything is possible, or that there is always enough silver in the lining to pay for a grief.  The father of a dying child said to me today, "God doesn't send us more than we can bear." I'm not going to contradict him, but to you I say, I've seen lots of people who try to bear more than they should have to.  Some of them succeed, but if they fail I cannot blame them.

The soul, however, is who you are when you've lost the thing you thought you were.  And from the soul's point of view, adversity and grief are opportunities: like an understudy she goes on for the star who broke her leg.  The star turn we hoped for will not come to pass, but something else, a new star, is ready to be born.

I went to seminary with Christians, and when I said to them that the story is a trope, a rhetoric of hope, they would get a starved look in their eyes.  For them, it has to be more than rhetoric, more than trope.  For them it has to be true.  Now "truth" means different things to different Christians, but if I say the mysteries are metaphors they mostly get nervous.  How can you say that the articles of faith are mere metaphors? they say.  But I didn't say mere metaphors.  I said metaphors; the "mere" is something they supplied on their own: for them, it seems, there cannot be metaphor that is not mere.

When did rhetoric get such a bad name?  They accused Socrates of making the worse appear the better cause, but in the agora the better also had to appear, for what it was.  A bad person may sell a lie, but a good person must sell the truth if it is to prevail over the lie.  Milton told us to let truth and falsehood grapple, and rhetoric is that grappling.  Truth doesn't grapple on its own: like a muppet, it must be animated.  He who knows the truth and does not sell it, who fails to hawk it in the marketplace, might as well be lying.

But people of faith are in unspoken alliance with people who think they have no faith.  They think there is only one kind of truth, and truth is the same thing as fact.  Fundamentalist and atheist agree -- it must be a fact that the Red Sea parted, because if it isn't a fact the story is worthless, a mere lie, and its liberative power falsified.  Fundamentalists think the story is a fact, and atheists think it is a lie, agreeing on the standard of truth.  But for those who find a way where there is no way, the story is true in spite of fact -- the Red Sea parts for them.

Every now and then one of my clients says to me "Art is my religion," and I know what they mean.  I don't know where art ends and religion begins.  And it is sacrilege to speak of mere art, of mere rhetoric, of mere metaphor.  Theology also is metaphor; the godly murderers are the ones who forget that theology is metaphor.

Wittgenstein said that if a thing cannot be spoken we should pass over it in silence; but he also said that there were many ways to speak, many games that language can play, each with its own victory conditions.  It matters not so much what the words mean as what you are trying to do by saying them.  The faith should not mean but be.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

high c

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay.
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

-- Ira Gershwin

He never met me, but I feel the death of Leonard Bernstein as if I had known him.  I could never be cool like he was, but he helped to raise me.  He confided his passions to me in countless television appearances.  And here's something even stranger: the death of George Gershwin, gone in his youth ten years before I was born, pummels me every time I hear a song of his.  If Bernstein was an uncle, Gershwin is a lost elder brother, his framed portrait taunting me from the top of my bureau.

It's not their accomplishments, their welthistorische Kunstwerken, that so inspire and berate me.  It's not so much what they did as what they were.  In youth they captured something I still chase in my age.

In the theatre there's a long and unprofitable argument about the head and the heart, between supposedly authentic emotions and the skill required to infect others with those emotions.  We rarely admit the scandal: those emotions of which we make such a fetish are manufactured, and the person to whom they adhere doesn't exist.  Lear and Loman are, quite simply, not here.

And yet --

Something is supposed to happen.  Something so compelling that we pretend we don't know that Lear is absent, that Willy never existed, just so that we can experience that event.  This is what Coleridge meant by "suspension of disbelief."  In another context, he called it "temporary half-faith."

It's a tall order.  The "act" of an actor is emotional; he is moved by it, but the emotion is his own and ours, not the emotion we take it for.  The gasp, the sob, the guffaw and roar of the crowd, are not Lear's feeling but a tertiary effect of an imagined feeling, as signified, presented, by an impulse of the celebrant's body.

After quantum mechanics we know that vision is always revision, and seeing changes what it is.  There is truth, but it rises to meet our vision of it.  Every fool knows that truth appears, is born, as the curtain goes up.  It is called into being.  It is revelation.  "Words words words" says Hamlet, when asked what he was reading.  When words leap off the page and become an act, giving rise to what Herbert Blau called "blooded thought," in the theatre as in a church we might call this the incarnate word.  A tall order.  But not impossible.  From time to time, incarnation happens.  Which is why people keep coming back to theatres.  And to churches.

I know for a fact that people do not die speaking blank verse or bellowing a high C.  The fact of death isn't like that, but that's how art represents death, and art speaks truly because our seeing of death changes what it is.  If I come to a deathbed, I am there to translate, traduce brute fact into an act.  I am there to change it by seeing it, a healing by vision rather than medication.

I once read a post-apocalyptic story, in which the ruined world was saved by a pianist who played a sonata the way -- for once -- it should have been played. What is at stake in art is the redemption of real life.  Art is a sacred matter, and sacred matter must be artful.  God cannot, as a matter of fact, be here.  God's busy, and would burst our flimsy integuments by appearing among us.  It's no wonder then that those famous shepherds were "sore afraid," which is a polite and sonorous way of saying that their bowels were giving way.  We must remove our sandals, and perhaps visit the water closet, before we approach.

Incarnation, whenever and wherever and however, would therefore be the greatest of prestidigitations, a shabby timeless song and dance in the biggest house of all.  So my uncle and my older brother closed the gap of head and heart, high and low, master and servant, classical and popular, soul and body, discretion and passion, domination and subversion.  These two musicians model the life-long goal of an intuitive introvert.  Blessed or cursed from birth with an intellect and with the schemes of others for its fruition, I'm still getting a clue how to own that power and put it to the work of passion.  Poets keep hoping that their words words words will stay stay stay put, that their amor will survive their vitam brevem in an arte longa.  But perhaps this purpose is itself a distraction; if the word once becomes flesh, who cares if it lasts?  That would be for sure an eternal now.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

shorter words

Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.

-- 1984*

We are blessed in our English by a multitude of words.  We are a Germanic people who ate a Romance language for lunch, and have two vocabularies for everything; we juggle the words of Saxons with the words of Norman aristocrats who conquered them.  Hastings has been refought for a thousand years as these alternate vocabularies compete for influence, and perhaps that is why the English, accustomed to muddle from the beginning, have shamelessly borrowed words from all over the world, while other peoples (the French most notoriously) created academies to protect the purity of their argot.  At any given moment you and I may be speaking German, French, Urdu, Iroquois, Nederlands, Spanish, Welsh, Cantonese or Irish, all within the playing field of our own language.  How dare we?

Shakespeare could sing like a Norman when he wanted, saying what Macbeth's hand would do ("the multitudinous seas incarnadine"), and in the next line could turn Saxon on us ("making the green one red").**  This double-turn of English consciousness has to be one of history's richest folds of thought, encompassing the worlds of master and slave, and their respective powers of domination and subversion.  Four centuries after Harold's defeat, Chaucer brought English back to court, and our language has always been biased toward the underdog.

The Irish virtually lost their language under English domination, but their authors, rather than reviving it, followed perhaps the wiser course of capturing the master's tongue.  Even Padraig Pearse wrote his poems in English.  The children can make a living in English, and the masters now can't speak their own language without quoting Irishmen.

And America's involuntary immigrants from Africa, robbed of their languages, have so inflected English from below that, like it or not, black and white in America are one people.  In a tradition from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison, and from Bert Williams to Fats Waller to Lead Belly, the formerly enslaved have mastered the master's language, changing it so that it travels around the world in a liberative culture-wave.  It's not for nothing that tyrants fear American slang.

And that's why it breaks my heart when I see that some communities of the poor, people for whom the theologians have declared a preferential option, have despaired of language, their own and mine.  In a subway car I once heard the long rant of a beaten man: "Ain't no f*****g book can make a n****r go free!" he shouted.  What a failure of leadership, I thought! from all directions! Someone should have sung that man a better song, and with better lyrics.  Frederick Douglass was groaning from his grave.

Ayn Rand was right about one thing: if you can't say it you don't know it.  A person lives in the world that his vocabulary describes, and if you know only three adjectives, all of them excretory and thoroughly Anglo-Saxon, then you're fouling your world faster than help can arrive.

And yet, it isn't just a matter of knowing nicer words.  There's a self-improvement product sold on talk radio stations that promises to make you successful by enlarging your vocabulary.  Their slogan is "People judge you by the words you use."  There's no short course to eloquence I say, with a humanist sniff.

"Brevity is the soul of wit," said a famous bore who could not stop talking.  My teachers taught that if you could say it shorter, you should.  Not just shorter sentences but shorter words.  They taught me the Hemingwayan preferential option for Anglo-Saxon words (love over affection, height over altitude, shit over excrement).  Four times a week for four years, our English teachers made it clear that those who thought they could rise to the top by implementing schedules for the utilization of resources, driving their Cadillacs purchased by credit on streets that cash-bought beamers ruled, would be caught in the headlights and exposed as parvenus.

Yes, people do judge you by the words you use.  I was one of the judges.

Grandiose verbiage is a power play of the insecure.  Doctors say "ambulate" rather than "walk" because "ambulate" means more than "walk;" it means "the patient was walking and I'm a doctor."  So the other clinicians, nurses, social workers, technicians, also say "ambulate."  But not this clinician.  I also am a health care worker.  I also have a degree and a certificate.  And I shall never say the patient ambulated, I will say he could walk.  Nor shall I say he "verbalized," I will say rather that he "spoke."  It's my job to make sure that Reality appears at the worksite.  Death and Suffering fight dirty, and they laugh at big words.

I was born and shall die genteelly poor, an oarsman mortally vulnerable to the next big wave or eddy, and our high-priced politicians have made sure that, to all of us for whom money must be an object, the seas shall be stormy.  But the theologians remind me that I was born with privileges, advantages that others lack in the storm.  Among them is that for four years I was made to write something each week that would be judged as writing.  I have sometimes thought that to teach writing is the noblest profession of them all, and wished that the course of my life had placed me in that work.  But I know that I haven't the patience for it.  Now I realize the enormity of the gift my teachers gave me.  Every week they applied their sensitive eyes to handwritten sludge, fresh from the minds of privileged male adolescents.  They undertook this suffering for love of the mind, of our particular minds, and of me.  So now, too late, I thank them.  I cannot repay the debt I owe to Frank House, Maurice Brown, Spencer Grey and Alan Wise.  I am one of a precious few who were given such a gift.  And if more of my fellow-countrymen had received such a gift, my beloved nation might not now by sliding quite so fast down the slope of idiocy and instantaneous forgetfulness.

Learning to write and to speak is learning to think.  And if you can't say it, you don't know it.  No, there's no short course to eloquence.  It takes a lifetime of hearing and speaking, reading and writing.  Heavens shield us from those who have learned new big words and can't wait to show them off.

*George Orwell, ed. Sonia Brownell Orwell (Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1987), p. 125

**II. ii. 61-2.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

egg helmet

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth.

-- Elisabeth Rosenthal, "To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets"*

In the United States, it's a tenet of the national faith that there is a solution for every problem.  We have no tragic sense whatsoever.  What we have instead is The Church of American Exceptionalism.  No bad things should ever happen.  If something bad happens, it's because somebody didn't work hard enough, or did the wrong thing.  The person who didn't do (whatever) right must be identified and punished.  Or educated.  And if he was not taught what was right, we must blame his teachers, find the person who knows what's right and put them in charge.  And if no one knows what's right, we must have a crash research program to find out.  And when the answer is found we will apply a new technology that will fix things forever.  This American characteristic sometimes makes us very smart and brave, and inspires us to do things that no one else can do.  It also makes us very stupid, inspiring us to do things that no one else is dumb enough to do.

One of our National Idols is Perfect Safety.  Today as I read the Times I learn that, in order to prevent rare injuries to bicyclists, American cities require the use of helmets with their bike-sharing programs, thus dramatically increasing resistance to the use of bicycles, and preventing the many health effects of bike travel (for cyclists and their fellow citizens) from taking hold.  The world's most successful bike-sharing programs have no such mandate.  Bikes are safe, particularly when there are many cyclists in a dense and slow-traveling urban environment.  But somebody somewhere knew somebody who had a serious injury, and therefore technology is required, in the form of a helmet.  And so the easy and normal activity of biking takes on the appearance of an extreme sport, a contest with death for trained daredevils, not to be undertaken by regular people on their way to customary activities like work and shopping.  And people who might have used a bike stay in their cars, losing the exercise, getting fat and diabetic, and making life more dangerous for the few remaining cyclists.  Not a safe life style for anyone.

"If we wear helmets for cycling, perhaps we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath," says a professor of actuarial studies.**  Perhaps I shall live to see the perfection of the Walking Helmet; after all, I might encounter a crack in the sidewalk, or stumble down the subway steps.  Or the Sitting-at-My-Desk helmet: I might nod off and hit the keyboard with my head.  (I needed one of those in a meeting I recently attended.)  In recent days I've seen kids stuffed into helmets in order to ride little scooters that might take them to the mind-rending speed of eight miles an hour.  How many days must I wait for the unveiling of the American Child Helmet, that will encase the noggins of our progeny throughout all activities and inactivities from birth to majority?

This afternoon my TV is showing the national sport, a game much adapted in America from one of the world's simpler Ur-games.  We have improved rugby into what we call football (although it has almost nothing to do with the relationship of feet and balls).  Rugby is a rough game, with a lot of crashing and bashing, and a century's worth of American exceptionalistic thinking has been applied to make the crashing and bashing of American football safer.  There are, as far as I know, no specialized items of equipment for rugby players: they wear what soccer players wear.  But the unmediated risks of flesh-on-flesh collisions were not tolerable for Americans.  Over decades, specialized items of equipment were invented: pads for the shoulders and shins, the chest and the ribs; sophisticated helmets with face protection and shock absorption.  Today's football player looks pretty much like the robot in a mid-century sci-fi flick, or -- even better -- he looks like a Transformer in one of those movies named after a toy for boys with accelerated testosterone.

And how has that been working for us?  Well, football is in a crisis.  The injuries are as frequent, and more horrific, than ever.  It's suddenly common knowledge (how could we not have known?) that football players frequently get concussions, and that repeated concussions bring on early dementia and death.  The national game, whose very object is to knock people down and "hit them hard," is seriously embarrassed.  But how is this possible?  We're Americans, and we've spent research, ingenuity, and serious money to protect our assets.

If we had a national sense of tragedy, we'd bring to mind more easily the Law of Unintended Consequences.  We'd know that solutions can become new problems, and that measures intended to keep us safe can pose new dangers.  The helmet, so cushioned, so hard and unbreakable, becomes a weapon.  The sense of invulnerability spurs greater speed, recklessness and violence.  The sport seeks out the gaps in our planning, and penetrates the limits that new equipment cannot contain.  Like Pogo and Oedipus, we have met the enemy and he is us.

No, you can't be perfect; and you can't be perfectly safe, even if you're American.  All you can do is trade some risks for others, running from one danger into the grasp of another, the greatest of which is never to have chosen the risk on which you wager your life.  And thus does the Idol of Perfect Safety seduce us us to surrogate living.

"You're on earth.  There's no cure for that," says one of Beckett's characters.  If you're still alive, you're in danger.  I might have choked to death on my eggs this morning.

After all, it happened to somebody, somewhere, sometime; or to their neighbor; or to somebody their neighbor knew; or to somebody their neighbor's friend saw on television.  Somewhere.  Sometime.  Or other.

"Shall I dare to eat a peach?" asks Prufrock.  I like my eggs.  They help me to feel alive.  Shall I wear an Egg Helmet?

*New York Times (September 30, 2012)

**"There are lots more injuries during those activities:" Piet de Jong, Dept. of Applied Finance and Actuarial Studies, Macquairie University, Sydney, Australia (see Rosenthal above)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

best possible

I am the best possible Arnold Burns.

-- Herb Gardner, A Thousand Clowns

He didn't own a home.  He didn't support a family.  He couldn't hold down a job, didn't apparently even try.  He wandered the streets, and seduced others to do so as well.  His main guy said "We left everything to follow you."*  They say he was a carpenter's son, that is, he owned nothing but the strength of his body; but he had something the starving migrants lacked.  He had a voice.

Crowds came together, in the street or on a hillside.  People left their work, or their search for work, to hear him.  Perhaps he preached outside the vineyard gate -- and every time the owner came out during the day, there were more unemployed men there for him to hire, listening to the prophet.  "Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?" the owner said.  "Because no one hired us," they said.**

He told them there was another way to organize the world; and this new regime was at hand.  The new regime -- not Caesar's regime -- would require a metanoia, a changing of the mind, a teshuvah, a turning around, a repentance.  And wherever the new regime was revealed, at a supper party or in an empire, when the queue reversed itself, the first would be last and the last first.

He was utterly without power.  He didn't know where his next meal would come from, or under whose roof he would sleep.  Yet he so frightened the people who held the power that they felt compelled to kill him, and those who had left everything for him could not go home again, but were forced by the persistent memory of their time with him to carry on his work as best they could; and thereby hangs a tale.

And this is the person Christians tell themselves to imitate.

(Disclaimer: Am I a Christian?  That is a boring and futile question that I no longer answer.  What I am is, in the great tradition of Unitarianism, a reverent and heterodox interpreter of Yeshua's work, looking direct as I can on the source through a miasma of theology.)

You can't build a society on the assumption of universal heroism.  Not even a just society.  Particularly a just society.  A sustainable, just society must be built on the assumption of common decency.

Here's the problem with imitatio Christi.  Just imagine a world composed entirely of people living as Yeshua lived.  Kant would categorically reject it.  No one would hold a job.  No one would raise a family.  There would be no loaves and fishes for prophets to multiply.  No coats to give to our brothers who sue us for our shirts.  No authorities to protect the innocent, and prevent the lion from devouring the lamb.

Yeshua told a young man from the ruling class that to be a follower he must sell everything he owned and distribute the proceeds to the poor.  Let's think about that for a moment.

If I set out today to sell my meager goods and distribute the proceeds to the poor, the first to proclaim my sin against them would be my wife and my children.  Then the truly poor might have some choice words for this parvenu who has come to hang with them and compete for their crumbs of bread, their square inches of warm grating.  The charities and programs that provide relief, if they knew my history, would and should deny me service.  When you volunteer for suffering, it's not oppression, no matter how much you'd like it to be.

This is not my path.  Nor yours I wager.  Our fallen world, to be sure, needs a few heroes, but very few.  The rest of us must leave it to the ones who are called to it, the ones for whom no other way is possible.  Their sins are against the personal life, the life of common decency that justice would protect. And we who cannot leave the personal life behind, who must protect our sustenance and our progeny in order to be good, are not off the hook.  Though we must own our besetting sins, we must also harken to the call of our besetting virtues.

In the Unitarian salvation text of Dickens, the recovering Scrooge praises the moderately wealthy man in whose service he had once toiled. "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil" -- and Fezziwig uses that power to bring happiness.  He is not asked to liquidate his business and give the proceeds away, but to use his accumulation of devotion and fortune to bring hope where there would otherwise be despair.  That is the conversion in which Scrooge labors -- not to become another denizen of the poorhouse, but to use his power for relief of those who are or might be lost.

Justice demands power.  If you're reading this, you have power.  You and I are privileged people; all the most radical theologians say so.  We know what we will eat next, and where tonight's shelter will be.  The question is, what will we do with our power?  If we give our power away to someone else, then that is our mortal choice, for which we will be forever judged.

This is the lesson learned in Gardner's play by Murray Burns, the hilarious and unemployed guardian about to lose custody of his nephew.  It's charming to be the hero (and perhaps, as Murray does, you'll get the girl in the end; or as Yeshua did, have a new religion named in your honor).  But first you must learn a lesson from your dull and sober brother Arnold, who is always asked to pick up the pieces because he has the means to do so.  He is the best possible Arnold Burns.  And that, for Murray's purposes, turns out to be a very good thing indeed.

The Good Samaritan traveled with ready money and had excellent credit.***  Yeshua himself depended on the kindness of strangers.  We are called to be such strangers.



***Margaret Thatcher: "No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money too." (TV interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (January 6, 1980)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

good laugh

As I remember him, he was a loving man.
I knew it well, because
Where he was,
Life began.

-- Portia Nelson*

One more thing about Porgy.**  He's a cripple who stands up.  When a cripple stands up, he throws everything out of whack.  He spreads ripples in the pond, and everyone, everything will sooner or later move.

Love isn't just a private matter.  Love is political, imposing its duty, taking a toll from the loved one.  The duty to rise into freedom and be someone.  Love disturbs everything.

There's a lot of talk about unconditional love, which we hold to be noblest, but not because it is easiest to take.  Unconditional love is the most intrusive, aggressive kind.  Accepting it, you must rise to its level.  A conditional love leaves you alone in degradation, bribed and bribing -- you do for me, I for you, tit for tat, we're even, see you later, maybe, sucker.  But when love is unconditional, it requires a free gift in return.  When you lift yourself from the exchange of favors that defines our ordinary life and instead give your self to me, you're pulling out of me what I don't know I have to give you.  You're demanding of me my self, and I didn't know I had one.  If I give it to you in return, I rediscover what it is.

The Israelites came to think of themselves as chosen, that is to say, loved by God.  But they found that living up to God's love was not an unmixed pleasure.  God demanded through the first prophet that they leave their slavery behind, but when they found themselves in the wilderness without a food supply, they decided that the master's stewpots had been better.  Manna from the sky and water from a rock are not comfort foods.

Being as we say "in love" is not a quiet business.  We're between two lives, an old one that we'll never go back to, and a new one that may or may not come to be, and if it does it won't be what we expect.  There were birds in the sky, goes the song, but I never heard them singing, and if she doesn't love me what will I do with those damn birds?  Either way, you'll never be the same.  Once you've heard the bells ring, you can't block the sound again.

There are messengers of life and of death.  We all know people in whose presence nothing is possible.  There's at least one in your family.  Some of us have worked for such people.  Many nations are ruled by them.  They're invested in stillness.  We must all be quiet so they can keep hearing their own echoes.  They usually don't have to threaten us, because their presence alone leaves us gasping.  Not all bullying is physical.  They've taken all the air for themselves.  The stare alone is enough to make us forget our thoughts, forget that we had ever been thinking.  Our vision would disturb the regime.

But we also know people in whose presence beautiful things are possible.  When they enter, the colors of your vision come out again, and your thoughts stop stammering.  Such people recall you to life, to your self.  They recreate you in their attention, their presence.  Their love.  If we grow into enough wisdom, we choose to love those whose love will recreate us.  We should love those in whose presence we must be someone we want to be.  Need to be.  If you're not flourishing in it, it's not love.

Love is patient, love is kind, enduring all things; but above all, love makes us whole, demanding the whole thing we are.  It's no wonder that love is so often rejected.  Sometimes we're just not up to it.  To be created again.  The essence of creation isn't in all that showy stuff, the separation of heaven and earth, the confining of waters, the definitions of days and nights.  It's in what follows: six times the creator saw that it was tovah -- good, beautiful.  And then he had to go and make a big deal of it -- a holiday, a sabbath, a day of rest to celebrate the miracle.  And after that of course nothing was ever the same again.  The world was made by love.  That's the outrage, the aggression of it.  Nobody asked the world if it wanted to be loved.  Maybe it was content to be "without form, and void."  But no, somebody with big ideas, demands, requirements, plans, joy burst in and disturbed everything, moved all our stuff around and pronounced it good.  Sang a song, danced a hornpipe and had a good laugh.  "Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on thee," said the poet Frost, "and I'll forgive thy great big one on me."

I hope that some will remember me as one of those in whose presence life could begin again.

*"As I Remember Him," from This Life (DRG Records, 1996)

**"Marriage vow" (June 30, 2012)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

fiat lux

In the beginning there were no words.  In the beginning was the sound.

-- Toni Morrison, Beloved*

One of my daughters, before she acquired language, babbled articulately.  She understood what I said to her, and answered me with music rather than words.  She lived in a world of advanced degrees and literature, of long sentences that rose and fell, that wandered to conclusion through an epic of dependent and subordinate clauses; so when she answered, she did so with rise and fall, development and recapitulation.

One could have an adult conversation with this toddler.  One didn't have to baby-talk.  She had found the advanced music.  We could discuss the menu, or the day's schedule, or the state of the world.

Then she said her first words.  The music was gone.  And I learned to talk baby-talk with her.  She had grown up, and I was an infant again.

She didn't know that she deprived me of music.  She didn't know she had upset the balance, because it was my balance she disturbed, not her own.  She had moved on, into her future.  If she had not moved on, there would have been something wrong.  It wasn't her job to stay on a balance: it was her job to grow up.

A late book of scripture says that the world begins in words, and a much older story says that those words were fiat lux.  But life does not begin with words, nor does the story.  Even a fundamentalist has to admit that there was something before creation.  "The earth was formless and empty:" therefore there was an earth before creation.  "Darkness was over the surface of the deep:" therefore there was a "deep."  "The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters:"** therefore there were waters before creation.  The elements were there, but had not been named.  Naming things changes them.  When you get a new name, the name creates you and inaugurates you into new life.

My daughter's childhood shows that there is sound before there are words to name it.  She answered the sounds she heard, without words.  She spoke articulately, because the sounds to which she responded were articulated.

Confusing creation with naming is a visual prejudice.  A baby first encounters light at the moment of birth.  Therefore we think that light begins life.  But we all lived before birth and without light.  We lived then ante fiat, in a world of sound.

By sound I don't mean just the selections of Mozart or Sid Vicious that some parents blast at the womb.  Nor do I mean the incidental noise, the sound of subway trains or thunderstorms or lullabies.  These hardly count at all in comparison to the concert of body sounds, rhythm of breath and blood, melody of alimentation, the journey of substance through mother's body.

At the moment when we first received the light, we lost the mothering sound.  We were destined for a world made of words, and alienation of the music was its price.  We are suddenly blinking in the light but out of sound in a first silence, startling and wrong.  We fill the silence with our first cry, and the sound of that grief reassures our parents that we have arrived in their world.  Subjects and predicates and the links between them: that's adult life.  Rhythm, melody and harmony: that's what we give up to grow up.  And it hurts.

It hurts, and we cope with grief through faith, prayer and art.  The Creator told us to pursue happiness, but we're never happy unless the head and the heart know their way to each other.  We approach silence fearfully, because it arouses that first silence, so appallingly empty, so eloquent of what has suddenly withdrawn.  We might  stumble on it in a temple, on a stage, in a lover's arms or in the embrace of a sonnet.  We are tempted to defile the silence with our chatter, but if we choose instead to listen and to wait, we have a chance to hear the music that is no longer there, the music that precedes words, the articulate babble that preceded our baby-talk.  The singer, the poet, the prophet try to show the rest of us through their own articulate babble what that bursting silence was like.

What's the point of articulate babble?  Your shrink might say it models integration of your character.  It's a way of being in one moment both your grown-up self of subjects and predicates, and your unborn self of rises and falls, loudness and softness, rhythm and harmony.  Why would you want that?  If you don't know I can't tell you; but you'll grieve, and not know why.

*(New York: New American Library, 1987), p. 259.

**Genesis 1:2 (NIV)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

marriage vow

This year slaves; next year free people.
-- Hagaddah
Let my people go.
-- Spiritual
How did he do it?
OMG, how did he do it?
When an artist brings the revelation down, when the hem of the Lord's garment fills the temple, that's all I can think to say.  Sometimes not even that.
As when Lear, surfacing from delirium, admits to the daughter he has wronged, "I am not in my perfect mind."
As when the painter carves into his night sky the vortices we never saw but knew were there (and science now confirms).
As when I saw a man sing love to his woman, and win her.*  He deformed in body, she battered in body and soul.  Beggar and whore, rising out of bondage.
I've heard this song with full-out orchestra, the voices arrogant and operatic, no hint of doubt.  But this was so quiet, I didn't know it had started.  He was just talking.  Bess, he says, you is my woman.  You is.  You is.  And she at the other side of the stage looking away.  No words like these have been said to her.  You must sing and dance and laugh for two instead of one.  What you want from me?  Want no wrinkle on your brow.  What you saying? To me?
When she looks at him, it's in disbelief.  And yet.  I am your woman now.  What am I doing?  There's no wrinkle on my brow, nohow.  How can I say such things? To him?  I ain't going! You hear me saying, if you ain't going.  Now she steps toward him.  With you I'm staying.  They don't touch till the last notes.  We two are one now and forever.
Only then do I get what the lyric says, these words sung to me all my life.  We'll go swinging t'rough the years a singing.  These crushed people -- right now -- are marrying.  Morning time and evening time and summer time and winter time.  These words are wedding vows.  The capitalists of flesh had denied marriage to their fathers and mothers, splitting partners and disseminating their children.  So they learned to make their own Promises.  From this minute I'm telling you I keep this vow.  Two raising each other out of bondage into agency.  He must stand up, for his woman and community, against the brutality of Crown.  She must resist, for her man and community, the lure of happy dust and despair.  The history and destiny of America's involuntary immigration run through these words, this song, this vow.  True love makes its demands, and compels them to freedom.  There's more at stake here than sleeping arrangements.
And how did they do it? I ask.  How did the Gershwin brothers, two Jewish boys from Brooklyn, and DuBose Heyward, a Charleston poet who observed black laborers on the waterfront, penetrate the veil?
Well, maybe they didn't.  It's a debate that I must stand away from.  Every writer white or black who takes an inventory of the damage done to people of color by the forms of American contempt will be charged with "painting stereotypes" or "washing dirty laundry in public."
There aren't any Harvard graduates on Catfish Row: Harvard didn't allow that.  There are however honest fisherman and laborers, along with three three other kinds of man.  Crown the killer, Sportin' Life the drifter, and Porgy the beggar: three data from America's long assault on black manhood.  Porgy is not the only one disabled; but he is the one who, in submission to love, can become a good man.  Bess is what she must be, abused and brutalized, used and commodified; yet she hears the call of love and knows what it demands of her.  We do not know at the end whether her life instinct will win out.
I can't settle the ancient debate about about how to describe pains and prospects of a people on their way to freedom.  But I note that Porgy and Bess though degraded are not hopeless.  They are on their way to a heavenly land.  And that must be why so many of the best artists, for three quarters of a century, have taken these roles.  Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, John W. Bubbles, Etta Moten, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Donnie Ray Albert, Clamma Dale, Larry Marshall, Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, Bruce Hubbard, Robert McFerrin, Adele Addison, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Audra McDonald -- I cannot say to those artists, who have walked a road to freedom through these imaginations of white men, that they are race traitors.  I have no standing that empowers such a judgment.
So I am left where I began, in the presence of revelation.  The foundations are shaking.  How did they do it, these dead white men?  OMG.
*"The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess," Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City, June 14, 2012 (Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

por que

It is written.

-- Matthew 4:4

Human action can be narrated . . . because it is always already symbolically mediated.

-- Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative

There was a scream as I stepped out of the elevator.  Somebody died, I thought.  Wouldn't it be strange if it's Mr. Rodriguez?

I turned to the right, then to the left, had the ward in sight, and by now there were multiple shrieks, new entries of a fugal subject, piling on.  Mi padre, mi padre!  Por que?  Por que?

Yes, it was Mr. Rodriguez.  His three daughters, a sister, a granddaughter, nieces and nephews, in-laws, each in turn closing on the bed, touching the dead man's face, clutching his hands, turning away, extending their arms to the sky, then turning back toward the bed.  By the time I entered the room there were people jumping up and down and stamping the floor with both feet, like toddlers in a tantrum.  There were people going rigid and keeling over backward, requiring others to catch them before they hit the floor.  Some of them believed they had a deal with God -- that if they prayed and kept the faith he would rise from this bed and walk.  They felt personally betrayed.

Every word I just wrote is accurate, but in telling the story I show that I was a foreigner here.  I'm an Anglo-Saxon from New England, poor but genteelly so, with manners if not the appurtenances of old wealth.  The script of my people is the stiff upper lip.  We keep going, and our tears are for later, in a private place.  There would be decorous quiet, with Bach's cello suites in the background, and discrete expressions of sympathy in intimate tones.  I had stepped into a different script and I didn't like it.

"Por que, por que?"  Well, why not?  Did you hope that his ravaged organs would toss off their tumors?  Did you think he would live forever?  Did you want him to be immortal and watch all his children die?  Come now!  This is sad and sorrowful, but it's not a personal insult to you!

This was the voice of a counter-transference, an emotion from my own life taking root in a foreign place and time.  It's my business to spot such invasions, to name, disarm and chart them, so that I can walk around them.  This writing is part of my naming.  Not my will but thine.

A counter-transference may be the engine of compassion, or it may be a warning bell.  Perhaps I see a brother or sister, a parent or child, a friend or (in an alternate universe) lover.  Perhaps I see my old enemy, the bully on the playground, the girl who cut me, the friend who threw me to the wolves, the teacher who held me in scorn.  Good can't be done in the abstract, but the flesh is blemished, and we read emotional topography through instruments of our particular historia, informed and deformed.  I understand you only by metaphor, but I must contain the metaphor.  My love is, after all, not exactly like a red red rose.

As I offered to speak prayers of commendation in the wrong language, the priest arrived and I gladly gave stage to him, to his ecclesiastical authority and his sacraments.  They quieted for him -- calma te -- but as he left the fugue was starting up again.  And now Alice the social worker, as hopelessly Anglo-Saxon as I, appeared at the door.  We locked eyes across the room, dos gringos stranded in a ceremony of grief from a strange land, this cantata risen from the soil of a Dominican village.

So here, professionally speaking, was our problem.  In the old country this score could be played out with all its repeats, to the fullest length of hours and days, till grief's first shock was spent.  But this family, whether they liked it or not -- whether we liked it or not -- had to encounter the mores of the hospital, and the hospital's script of grief was more like mine than like that of the grieving family.  This was not a Dominican village, or the family's home, or even a private room.  Something had to be done for the other patient.  As each new cousin entered the fugue -- por que, por que? -- the other man's peace was violated.  He couldn't share this grief; he had his own problems.  And it wasn't just the roommate -- the whole unit was in turmoil.  The chorus of their hallelujahs resounded down the hallway.  A dozen families were at the nurse's desk, asking for respect, and quiet.

The floor staff rolled the roommate's bed into the corridor.  And this is what Alice and I did.  We spoke, inadequately, of our sorrow at their loss.  We confided in Luz, one of the daughters, who had leadership quality and a little more English than we had Spanish.  Luz alternated between her tears and her guidance of the family, and one by one and two by two, we escorted them to the lounge, where they could commiserate at greater distance from other families.  There they told us they were waiting for Mama, the wife now widow, who lived only a short distance away, was walking here and would say her good-byes in person before the body could be moved.  Who could say no?

Mama came to the bedside, and her grief was a great one, and they all came back in the room to comfort her, and the fugue started over -- por que, por que -- and then, one by one and two by two and three by three, Alice Luz and I brought them back again to the lounge.  And we sat with them.  I met the granddaughter appointed to be health care agent, but who had been overwhelmed by her elders and their powerful scripts of grief.  And I met the grandson, just arrived from Cambridge where he was studying law at Harvard.  And something began to turn.  Conversations in two languages began to flow.  Telephone calls were made to yet more family members, in other boroughs, other states, in the home island.  The funeral director was called.  The body would be moved, and the family would meet at home.  They were moving on.  Mama asked me to pray for her, and with Luz's help and with Mama's hand in mine I said words of blessing and hope, that even now something wonderful can happen.  As Samuel Beckett has written, something was taking its course.

I wasn't the ideal person for the situation.  My empathy was far from perfect.  This was difficult.