Saturday, July 23, 2016

william collette

Listen, my children, and you shall hear . . .
-- Paul Revere's Ride

"Mr. Collette is coming!"

Nine and ten year old boys are squirming at the rumor, and Miss Barlow, you can see, is losing track of her French lesson. She knows how this will go. The decks are being cleared for action. Textbooks are respectfully closed, fountain pens and inkwells capped, tablets placed in storage under desks, pencils dropped in the groove that keeps them from rolling onto the floor.

The headmistress steps through the door at the back. "Boys, we have a guest today." In our rising sigh of anticipation he steps to the front, and takes an easy perch on the edge of the desk. Miss Barlow has found a place on the side. We are assembled and composed: our little blue jackets with gold and grey trim, our grey shorts and stockings with the blue stripe at the top, our shirts and ties.*

"Now listen, boys, listen very carefully. Listen to the words. Listen to the sound of them."

And we do. He opens his book to the place marked.

"By the shores of Gitche-Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
There the wrinkled old Nokomis
Nursed the little Hiawatha,
Rocked him in his linden cradle,
Bedded soft . . . "

And I have gone soft. I am gone. But he has stopped now.

"Do you hear it, boys? Do you hear the beating of the lines? How many? How many beats to the line? Listen: by the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining . . . "

Someone shouts "Four!"

"Yes. Good. Four beats, every line. Listen some more. What is it like?" And we listened some more.

"Ishkoodah, with fiery tresses,
Showed the Death-Dance of the spirits,
Warriors, with their plumes and war-clubs,
Flaring far away to northward . . . "

"It's like a drum" says someone. "Good" says Mr. Collette.

That night I dream of falling stars and rising winds, spirits of forest and river, and of words that won't stay on the page but fly on my breath and on the four beats of my pulse.

He would come back to our school without warning; always the same commotion, the same attention, and a new song.

"Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink!" That night I carry the weight of the albatross, and cannot find rest until I remember to bless the slimy creatures of the sea.

And again. "The highwayman came riding -- riding -- riding -- " He waits while we dare not breathe. "The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door." And all night I strain, through the open windows of my bedroom, to hear those hooves coming up Banbury Road, North Oxford.

And hooves! yes, hooves!
"A hurry of hooves in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet."**
Oh yes, we could hear!

We could hear past the words, and past their sound to the thing, to the headlong gallop of the hero's mount that bore the fate of a nation. We could do this, because Mr. Collette had taught us to do it. Or I at least could do it, could not stop doing it, because Mr. Collette had taught me. (I don't really know about the others; I didn't really care.)

And every time Mr. Collette came to my school my dreams would change, and I would make my father buy me the book of a new poem so that I could memorize it, become the verse and then sing the song. And I'd tell my dad the things this piper had taught us.

Until my dad decided that this was a phenomenon. My parents invited William Collette to lunch one Saturday morning. He arrived on his bicycle and parked it by the front door, and there was a leisurely discussion. My father thanked Mr. Collette for being such a teacher, for catching the imagination of his burdensomely intelligent and rebellious boy. And Mr. Collette thanked him, and me, for my attention, and for giving him the sense that he was heard. And he had an idea: he asked my parents if I might be his guest on some Saturdays to see Oxford scenes that were part of his life.

For instance, on one of those spring Saturday mornings, blessed usually with English sunny intervals, this very young and my very old friend went punting on the river Cherwell. After suitable demonstration, I was permitted to take over, and caused only a few gentlemanly collisions in the midst of that tranquil stream.

William Collette was an Oxford schoolteacher, retired I suppose. There you have it. A little tall and slender, balding but not noticeably because the hair on his temples was cut short. Spectacles, of course, and patches at the elbows of his tweed jacket.

On the last expedition, William Collette revealed that he was a change-ringer in one of the spires of Oxford. He introduced me to his seven colleagues. Eight bell ropes came down through the ceiling. The task of these eight men was to ring the bells through a series of permutations lasting a quarter hour or more, never repeating themselves or leaving out a line, while not hanging themselves by their own bell-ropes.

My friend took me by spiral stairs to a room even higher than that one, where through a grate in the center of the floor I could watch the now quiet bells when they roused. A gallery ran around the tower, from which I could look down at Oxford in all directions. I marveled at the exactness of temperature, the greenness of greens, the seeming perfection, from this altitude, of ancient stone in haphazard order. Perhaps that is the moment in life when I have best understood English patriotism.

Then the bells started moving. I didn't hear bells, not like you hear them in a movie or a tourist video. It was neither tune nor permutation but a moaning, and the stone became liquid, the tower like the throat of a beast reacting to pain. I held on to the railing that now seemed flimsy, unsure that the writhing beast would not fling me into the town square. When the dust settled, and my friend brought me home to Banbury Road, I could not describe my experience. Now I describe it.

Once again the substance of a dream. Once again this mild and gentle man had shown me through a portal of uncanny. A strange friendship, and I the strange child who more than others could follow him to mysteries concealed by the tranquil life. Perhaps not so tranquil after all. In the quietest of country houses, there may be a wardrobe with no back, a conduit from tedium to immanence. That's what Lewis thought, and he left us Narnia.

*The uniform of North Oxford Preparatory School, where I did an equivalent of fourth grade while my father was a fellow at Queen's College, Oxford University (1955-56).

**See Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" and "Paul Revere's Ride," Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and Noyes's "The Highwayman."

Thursday, July 21, 2016

pour out

It is beginning to seem possible that birth -- as well as the subsequent life cycle that follows it -- may be a serious safety risk for all those involved.
-- the Onion*

He made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant.
-- Philippians 2:7 (NIV)

No doctor ever saved a life. So far, every doctor's every patient has died, or is expected to.

In the last century and a half, doctors gained powers to delay death. Sometimes they give us options about how, or when, or for what we die. I did not have to die of a ruptured appendix at the age of forty-four, but was given the option of living a second half of my life, doing the things I've done, learning the things I've learned, loving the ones I've loved -- for which I am grateful. These are the meanings of my life since then. Yes, I gladly took the option.

A doctor once said to me, "I have good news. You'll die of something else." I laughed and was glad, for it really was good news. I will die of something someday, but not now. That's what a cure is: you don't have to die right now of this, but can die some other time of that. And we are usually glad for the option.

And yet sometimes the cost of a cure is high, and various cures must be weighed against each other. Sometimes a cure is worse than the disease. And sometimes there is no cure to offer, for this is what one will die with. It has been thought that such a moment terminates medicine. But not so: this is not the end of medicine. In such a time the doctor's work resembles mine: the doctor is now exposed as a counselor. This is called palliative care.

One can endure great pain, incur great expense, wait out great passages of time, in the hope of a cure. But if there is no cure, one wants a different schedule of benefits. One might want, right now in this time of sickness, to be relieved of pain. One might hope to avoid annihilative expenses. One might want to spend the time not in a fruitless quest but on a fruitful presence to something, someone.

This kind of contract begins with a renunciation. I am not here, says the doctor, to do what doctors do. I am not here to cure your disease. If we are agreed on this, I can help you live with your disease, even if the disease is killing you. I have tools and technologies, compassion and skill. What is it you most want in this time of sickness?

A counselor's work also begins with a renunciation. I am not here, says the counselor, to fix you. Or cure the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." Or relieve you of the need to die. If we both agree that I am not here to fix you, then I might help you live with your brokenness, your shocks, your need to die. What is it you most want in this time of mortality?

The hardest part of it comes at the beginning, as we begin again and again. The hardest part is to keep it clear that I am not here to fix you. Because I want to fix you. It's hard to look into your brokenness, so I want to squirt in some medicine, sew you up, suture and bandage you -- there, no more of that. And this would make me feel powerful.

And you want me to fix you. You want me to make your death and grief go away.

We can't help it. We're only human.

But sometimes, having thrown every tool and device, slogan and ideology, into the struggle and lost them, we stop and there is silence because nothing is left to say. We are finished. Done. Kaput. Out of breath. We remember that humanness can't be fixed, and that's when it begins. Don't just do something! Sit there! The healing starts. Some would say, the Glory of the Lord, descending on cables like a set piece into your scene. Nothing to be said. Just a little music, please maestro, to cover the creaking of the pulleys.

Some of the followers of Yeshua said that he had poured himself out, emptied himself of power, in order to defeat the power of death. Regardless of those metaphysics, we know that Yeshua was a Jew, one of those whose national identity was a rescue of victory from utter defeat. Where there is no cure there may be a kenosis. You have to die before you can push the stone aside.

*"World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent," Vol. 31 Issue 2 (January 22, 1997)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

olden days

. . . his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank . . .
-- As You Like It, II. vii. 164-5
I've become in my certain age a conservative in dress. As a younger fool, lacking sense of the impression I made, I put on the thing I thought would make an impression of me. Bell-bottom trousers, a Nehru jacket, a large pendant of indeterminate holiness, a romeo shirt, a black beret -- oh, the humanity!
I haven't mentioned the colors. I once combined red-white-and-blue vertically striped slacks, and a polo shirt with red-white-and-blue horizontal stripes. I went out of the house this way after having looked in the mirror. I thought it was funny. I'll say in my defense that in those days I was qualified in one way to carry such a thing off. I was in good shape: I had a waistline, and my abdominals could be counted. But I was venturing into badlands far too rugged for my city feet, whose terrors I could only learn by trial and disaster. My department head was quite annoyed. I found his reaction funnier than my original idea had been. Now they tell me: when you're in a hole, stop digging.
I loved to go to a departmental party in a pair of bright blue trousers, a swirly shirt like an undiscovered draft by Pollock, and sometimes -- mea maxima culpa -- a neckerchief. I was of course trying on a role. I wanted to be Errol Flynn but lacked the skills of the role, which include fencing up and down castle stairs and using chandeliers as rapid transit. It was a false consciousness. Errol's way into the world could never be mine. When the servants put a chandelier in your hands, you're supposed to know what to do. "Your transportation, sir."
Errol's way could not be mine. I went into training to learn where my hands and feet were, but this knowledge, though it gets you in the movie, does not a Robin Hood make. This costly knowledge, this message of life, left me still unable to dash and feint, thrust and parry, vault onto my horse, somersault and split another's arrow with my own. A physical artist feels not only his hand on the hilt but the tip of his foil as well, and beyond. An athlete knows not only where his hands and feet are, but where other things in the world will be, when they will get there and how he will keep them from harming himself and others. 
My abs have now long since gone absent without discovering their mission, and there is no expedition to recover them. They came and went, alas, in the wrong period and perhaps to the wrong person.
In these later days I rarely try to make an entrance. Entrances are there already and it's my job to find them. If I enter the right scene, I'll emerge as a major player when my moment comes. There's usually no mileage in raising an issue; the real issues will find me.
So my clothes are of common types, acceptable at work and in real life, bought out of reliable catalogues, in combinations of color tried and tested by time, though sometimes a little more aggressive than expected of my profession. I have a winter wardrobe, a spring wardrobe, and a summer wardrobe. I don't want to strategize -- not about that. Turtlenecks, blazers, polo shirts, camp shirts, pleated trousers of various weight. Nothing essentially provocative.
Exception: I subscribe to a Sock Club.* Every month in the mail I get an envelope with a new pair of designed socks. No telling what: a purple field of silver and golden stars perhaps, or a sunrise over the mountain with a flock of birds. I do not bring these artifacts regularly to work, but will wear them at a party, or at a wedding, as my something shocking that might unexpectedly shine on the occasion. If I cross my legs and the cuff of my trouser creeps up, my private jubilation appears. Now God knows, anything goes.
These celebratory artifacts adorn a part of my body that has never been splendid but is still nothing to be ashamed of. In former days, old gentlemen used to pad their stockings to assure those who saw them of their strength and -- well, their prowess. But my shank is not shrunk. My legs get plenty of work. I still walk, climb steps, carry burdens. These hose are not my youthful ones but new, and not "a world too wide." There is still flesh on these bones, and not too much. As an eponymous young blonde woman once said, it's just right.
*Should you be interested in the service, this is the website:

Friday, July 1, 2016

hollis queens

. . .  He that filches from me my good name, 
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

-- Othello, III. iii. 159-161

"Hollis!" What have I done? Who found out? 

When I visit our church in Garden City, I take the Long Island Railroad. Subway downtown to Penn Station, where I watch the board until it posts the track assignment, then down the stairs, board the train to Long Beach, take a seat on the north side of the car, so I'll be in the shade from the morning sun. The train pulls out under the East River and surfaces on the other side: stop at Woodside, then Jamaica. Get out of the train, cross the platform, board the train for Hempstead, settle in as it pulls away . . .

"Hollis!" Where you gonna run to?

Very few things are named Hollis. There's me. And there was my dad (deceased). And there is the village of Hollis in Queens, which is the first stop out of Jamaica on the way to Garden City. So if I hear these two syllables I assume I am the target. I jump to attention. Who else could it be? Particularly if the word is spoken with a certain stress.

"The next station is . . . Hollis!"

There's a voice who does the automated announcements on the city subway and the Long Island Railroad. His name is Charlie Pellett. He sounds automated. He's crisp, resonant, a bit peremptory, very Anglo-Saxon in a mixed city. His most famous line is "Stand clear of the closing doors." The consonants click off his teeth and tongue. No "stan' clear," no "closin' doors."

The routine words -- "This is the train to . . .", "This station is . . ." , "The next station is . . .", -- are so familiar that I do not listen. But That Voice pushes the place names. Subject and predicate lose their connection. It's as if The Voice had been interrupted; it now sounds alarm against the intruder.

"This station is . . . HOLLIS!"

It's like a signal to the others, those who are not Hollis; in a moment they will converge and throw me off the train.

There it is -- a fleeting paranoid ideation, prompted by the rarity of my name, by its assignment to place, and by the dubious authority of a Voice that is clear rather than corporeal.

But there is another prompt, an infantile memory. I go back to a two-bedroom house in Durham, North Carolina; a house that I left when I was eighteen months old. My crib was in the front corner room, where they put me for my afternoon nap. Sometimes I had other ideas.

I stand up in the crib, and start to climb over the rail. Suspended between crib and floor, I see a flash of light and hear the voice. "Hollis!" Caught in flagrante, halfway over the rail, I look around the room and see no one who could be speaking. "Go back to sleep!" says the voice. Caught in bad faith, exposed to a presence I cannot name, I sink down onto the mattress. There is no hiding.

My father was a preacher, and his voice to me all-creative. No doubt the reflection of sun on a car's mirror struck my eye through the window. No doubt from the back bedroom where he had set up an office, my father heard the creak of the crib and knew my mischief. With a disembodied word he could prevent it. He did not need to materialize, for his spirit was everywhere.

It was a long time before I could distinguish between the man of God and the thing itself. "This is my Father's world," says the song, and I loved the song, hearing it in two ways mixed. I was comforted to learn that "rocks and trees, the skies and seas" had been wrought by his hand, the hand that I held when I crossed the street -- it seemed plausible to me.

I'm still reading the trace of that encounter today -- though I may not know it, someone is watching, is ready to call my name, not always approving. And I may wonder what I have done, who knows it and how they found out, and when they will throw me off the train.

But if I stumble into goodness, I pray someone will see it. I am rarely asked to account for the The Name; those who use the word either know what they mean or think they do. But if The Name is really at work in the world, I think one of its tasks is to be the best audience. He sees not just a result but the pain that went into it. He won't cut me off after sixteen bars, before I sing my high note.