Sunday, November 20, 2016

go boom

Get up, child.
Pull your bones upright.

-- Audette Fulbright Fulson, "Prayer for the Morning"*

Not in the morning. In the late afternoon. Walking in the neighborhood. On an errand.

Carol taught me. When the baby falls down and looks at you, you must show that you saw it happen. Oops, you say. The baby is picking herself up, looking at the elbow, the knee, touching the place, trying to characterize the catastrophe. Fall down go boom, you say. Want me to kiss it?

Maybe it's enough that you witnessed and proclaimed the hurt: oops, and then the child forgets and moves on, but maybe she needs the more specific intervention, comes to you, and you kiss the spot. OK? the baby runs back to her play, sooner or later to fall again. She learns the routine. One days she falls, says oops; looks at you and says (you repeat after her), fall down go boom. She laughs, and runs on.

Sometimes, of course, there are material injuries. More is required than words: a cleaning of the wound and a band-aid. Or -- god forbid -- the rare but constantly feared trip to the emergency room. And yet most of the time it's  a matter of management: own the hurt, assess the damage, repair if necessary, move on.

But there's a limit to this blessing. Some day I'll be a danger to myself when I go walking, though I don't think this was that day. But I'll have a good long chance to think about it, as people react to my trivial wound, impossible to conceal. A certified wounded healer I am now.

I went boom yesterday. Just walking in the late afternoon. Crossing a quiet street. Coming up to the curb, where it dips to nothing for passage of wheelchairs and shopping carts. Coming up to the curb, where it dips to nothing, right where there was no curb. A collision path with concrete. Coming at me, too quick to stop. Almost at the same time, hands, forehead, chin, glasses on the sidewalk. Oops. Ow.

Damage reports. I'm still conscious. Glasses OK. Good. I put them back on my nose, I stand up. I put my hand to my forehead, then look at my fingers. A little blood.

A man comes up to me. You OK? Fall down go boom. I think so, am I bleeding (meaning am I bleeding a lot?) One spot on your chin, he says. I feel for the spot. Again a drop of blood. You want me to call an ambulance for you? No, I think. No, I say. I'll just go home (can't just pick up the cleaning now, can I?) Where do you live? Just the next street (not able to explain this as simply as I wanted to). Thank you, I say.

I'm steady on my feet (but now I wonder if I'm steady as I think). I'm wondering if my shirt will be all covered with blood by the time I get home, but the blood doesn't come in torrents. I'm just going to bruise and have ugly scrapes. I clean the wound with alcohol -- ow -- and look at the meaty mess of my face in the mirror. You should have seen the other guy, I'll say.

I've had a fall incident. I fell and hurt myself for no good reason. I'm getting old. Am I a fall risk? If you're labelled a fall risk, you can't go anywhere by yourself: that's the rule with our clients.

I take my history. Every few years I have a fall, sometimes spectacular. I once tripped and rolled over the landscaping border of a building before limping in to see a client who lived there. In San Francisco a dozen years ago I took a movie-worthy somersault from the curb across a street and stood up on the median with only a tiny scrape on the back of my hand. In a play reading in Chicago I sat in a chair too close to the platform edge, fell three feet and backrolled to my knees, picked up and continued. I take little injury from these incidents, and I attribute that invulnerability to my theatre training -- I have the practiced, subconscious skill of rolling and distributing weight.

But this time was different. The concrete was too fast for me. Ow. No rolling, just whip of my body, head at the end. Smack. I'm not as smart as I think I am, but that's hardly news. Just a reminder.

In the last year I've had a remission of arthritis, and rediscovered the workings of the knee joint. I've had good control of my sickness. I've felt like a youngster of fifty-five.

In my life, my city, my work, I can count on a lot concern and compassion (maybe more than I want). But lots of us are injured and can't count on compassion.

There's an injury many of us have received, a moral and spiritual injury -- an injury that we must heal and yet strategically conceal. We know we must own the hurt. We have fallen and gone boom. Some time is due. We can't move on without knowing what we move on from. We show our hurt to each other. Want me to bless it? Show it to the Spirit, to God the great and compassionate observer. If cleaning, stitching, bandages, emergency surgery are due, do what is needed. This is our homework. Do it at home.

But when we go into the world, let's not front our wounds. The forces let loose are not threatened by wounds, have only hatred for bandages and expressions of pain. "Empathy" is an obscene word for them. They throw parties because we are hurting. Micah tells us the Lord demands only that we make justice and do kindness, and walk humbly with the Spirit of Peace.

So go back into the playground, and threaten them with your justice. Speak the truth. Tell the stories. Claim your rights, and the rights of the bullied. Call out the bullies. Undermine their ideology of the fist. Hear the pain of those who chose this dream -- fall down go boom -- and ask them how they chose it, for they are victims. I call myself out here, for I don't know whether I am brave enough. I guess I'll be finding out.

*available at

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

banana states

The people will waken, and listen . . .

- "Paul Revere's Ride"

I want to talk about other things, but I have to say this first.

I'm walking on the grounds of a retreat center in Ohio. I'm one of the first to get here. I have the garden to myself. The trees are gone brown, and most of the leaves have fallen. The garden has a brick wall but I do not feel enclosed, for the garden is on a slope, and I feel uplifted toward the hills around us. It is so, so quiet. How we can be so tucked away from flight paths and interstates I do not know, but of course I still have airplane ears -- the ringing silence that comes from decompression and partial recovery. Perhaps there is background noise that, in my stunned condition, I do not hear.

Ah yes, there is a nearby railroad. The sound of the train is very clear. It comes and then it goes.

We are gathering -- clergy of my disorganized faith -- as we do each November to draw each other out of ministry's prosaic miseries. We distract ourselves from the miseries by studying some question, chosen at the previous year's retreat. A year ago we chose Dystopia. We had no idea what our subject would mean when its day came around. One of us noted that now the day's newspaper would serve as dystopian literature.

The Heffalump will take power. His closest advisor is a white nationalist. He has promised to jail the opposition, to punish journalists who don't sing his song, to send occupying armies into communities of color, to send brownshirts after those who speak freely, to wall the nation off from the world, to impose religious tests on citizenship, to wage trade war against the markets into which we sell, to abandon European alliances while bombing the excrement out of any region of the world from which danger may come. These are the Heffalump's promises, recorded for history. I take him at his word. If he doesn't do these things, the Heffalistas will have his Heffahead.

From each of us our parish, our flock, our clients and colleagues demand comfort. But we have none to give. We are punched in the gut, gasping for breath and uncertain how long the oxygen will last. Grief work takes a while. And it begins with telling the truth. There is no emergence from grief without knowing that you will never be the same.

There can be no more dystopian novels. I and my country are living a dystopia. The country I have loved as a child, or rather a super-empowered minority of my country, have chosen to reverse the moral progress of the last half century, and they vow to uproot my country's foundational values.

I'm the kind of kid who knew how you are supposed to fold the flag when you put it away. I'm the kid who memorized the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution. I could sing all four verses of "The Star Spangled Banner." I knew the story of the virtuous war: I could tell you all the battles, the years and the places. I can still perform "Paul Revere's Ride" from memory, and when I come to a particular line at the end, my throat catches.

But the people are not woke. They think they have wakened, but there are dreams within dreams, and they have emerged only into another delusion -- that by killing the messengers they can prevent the danger. If the Heffalump keeps his promises, it will not turn out well for them. As a child I pledged allegiance to the United States, not the banana states, of America.

I've said it. I'm not important, and my statement has no historical value. I say these things not to change the world, but to clear my throat. Now I can move on.

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

rough beast

 Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

-- Naomi Shihab Nye, "Kindness"

"Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump! Hoff, hoff, a Hellable Horralump! Holl, holl, a Hoffable Hellerump!"

-- A. A. Milne, "In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump"

. . . what rough beast . . . ?

-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Let's just call him The Heffalump. He has no kindness. He knows no sorrow. He throws it back on others, and makes them suffer for their pain.

Almost eight years ago ("falsetto prophecy," January 19, 2009), I wrote about the advent of a black president, who would the next day walk Pennsylvania Avenue. I had just been to Disney World and walked Main Street, and I thought Pennsylvania Avenue might at least that day be America's Main Street. "Isn't that what we've hoped for," I asked, "that we could all walk down Main Street together?" That was Disney's dream, and it's not all bad.

Two evenings from now I will learn who is going to make the next such walk. Like many Americans, I am not at ease about what may happen.

Perhaps one day we will walk Main Street together. Perhaps every now and then, in a Divine Domain, we already do. Perhaps on that one day we did so, and we must remember it. What we failed to predict was the reaction. We failed to understand how many of my countrymen would rather plough the street than walk with a black man; how many think a House no longer White if a father, mother and their ilk of color eat off the china; how many bilious hearts erupt because a man of negritude is their commander.

Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.

An Emperor in a novel, who pined for the Republic and failed to restore it,* thought that poison would evoke its antidote, but of course it only poisoned everything. In our day also poisons have come out. We forgot how toxic was the hallowed ground we lived on, from which old ghosts would rise. We failed to see that a media company and a political party would burn the house down just to get the black man out of it, or just to get the eyes and votes of those who want the black folks out. The party and the network failed their first objective, but they sowed corrupting seeds. How current to parade fantasy as fact, threaten free speech, demean rules of evidence, reduce discourse to a jailhouse brawl! How respectable to impeach a president with a racist lie, and call it journalism! It doesn't take long to smash the standards. How many generations would it take to replace them?

I, my friends and my associates, my teachers and my students -- well, this wasn't our idea, but ours is a share of blame. We have reveled in false equivalencies, as if the fox and hens were equal opponents in the henhouse. We have been too tolerant of intolerance, too patient with aggression, too polite with brutality, too reasonable with unreason, too respectful of malice. We're wiseing up, but we're late to the contest. For these sins The Heffalump is our penance. Seekers of truth are sinners like everyone else, and truth is never known by human hearts but through a dark and partial glass; but those who live by killing truth don't belong at table with those who do their best to honor her. What possible conversation could there be? Jayson Blair is not a journalist, and neither was Andrew Breitbart.

The school in which I first was was educated had a Political Debating Club. This club trained us to argue an issue using evidence and inference, by rules of civility and logic. A debater was supposed to be able to argue both sides of a proposition. There was no shouting down the other team, or threatening the judges, or pounding the Bible, or making up falsehoods on the fly; these incivilities never happened, and would have been grounds for disqualification. Though the contest was an artifice, it taught that free speech has its rules.

Liberation is passionate, but cannot be undisciplined. "The expectation of rationality," wrote Michael Gerson recently, "is not elitism. Coherence is not elitism. Knowledge is not elitism. Honoring character is not elitism. And those who claim this are debasing themselves."** Liberation without Enlightenment is just another crank of the Vengeance Wheel -- at best. The assault on reason, even when well meant and carried out by radical professors, yields results we should get wise to. We've already had a president we could have a beer with. Now we might have a president who, while speaking for aggrieved people, would beat us up and throw us out of the bar, before turning his rage on the oppressed. Are we having fun yet?

Lucy (or is it Lucius?) you got a lot of 'splainin' to do. My seminary taught me that a white straight Anglo-Saxon overeducated old man is in an odd position in relation to prophecy. I'm not supposed to man'splain, or straight'splain, or white'splain, or educated'splain, or knowledge'splain, or old'splain. But pretty soon somebody's got to do some 'splainin.' The fox is in the henhouse, and The Heffalump is in his limo, planning his slouch down Pennsylvania Ave. Two days from now we'll know if he gets his wish.

*The Robert Graves version of Emperor Claudius, in Claudius the God.

**"Out of his Depth, Donald Trump Clings to Deception," The Washington Post (September 27, 2016),

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