I no longer have a problem of belief. I believe. In my way. My way may not satisfy everyone.
I believe these tropes in the way I believe King Lear, Pride and Prejudice, "All the Things You Are," War and Peace, "Paul Revere's Ride," Beethoven's Ninth, "An die Freude," Guernica,Moby Dick,Fences, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,"Beloved, and . . . so on; which is to say I believe them to the bottom of my being. You cannot tell me these tropes are false, for I have gone on road trips with Lear riding shotgun, have traversed meat-markets by the guidance of Elizabeth, have sailed with hunters of White Whales, have applauded the courage of those who lead their beloveds out of slavery but then assault them. . . . All this in a modest and obscure life. You wouldn't know it to look at me.
That's what the tropes are for, to raise grandeur from the ordinary. Thank the lord I am ordinary, until something comes out that was not in me. In the face of a universe whose enormity only mathematicians can symbolize and none of us can comprehend, there rises through art and faith an opening to act as if my life mattered, and yours. We can speak of inspiration, of synergy, of peak experience, but some poets call it Incarnation, when word is made flesh.
So likewise, don't tell me the tropes of Incarnation are false. I know otherwise. In my time peace has been made where there was no hope of peace. I have shared truth when there was nothing true about me. I have seen lights that can only shine in a darkness that I have walked, knowing that if the darkness had been less the light would not have shined. And I regularly enjoy a blessing that I did not earn.
I work in the face of mortality, pain and grief, and I bring no antidote. I cannot fix these things. And it's worse than that. My complexion is that of the doctors who infected black men with syphilis in Tuskegee. My gender is that of people who have demeaned, abused and assaulted women. A walking cipher of reasons for human suffering, born by cosmic lottery ("thrown"* as Heidegger said) into white and male advantage, I learn how corrupted is my judgment, how twisted are my intentions; and my faith group urges me to apply to myself words once reserved for the Klan, or for predators now exploding and cast into darkness.
Problem is, I have work to do. There is the work of living -- acts of value, relationships of love and justice, protection of the innocent who suffer, and support for virtues that preserve the world from savagery. I cannot do it with a hood on. I must come to you, sibling of color or sister, hoping there is something decent in me. I must assume a competence of compassion, pretending that with attention I can feel something like your feeling, comprehend your need, respect your dignity.
There is also the formal work for which I am paid a salary -- my ministry. I am ordinary, and there is nothing immaculate about me. I am born of and imbedded in structures of cruelty and injustice. I do not with any strictness deserve to do the work many clients would call God's work. My physical form connotes the pain and oppression of many. And yet I am called, and in the time when I respond to that call my faults like Isaiah's** will be swept inconveniently off the table, putting an end to procrastination. I need to do the work, and they need for me to do it, and we play together an old vaudeville, a trope that we might as well call forgiveness. What a mess.
It's the mess of being alive as a human being, not on a seminar table but progressing in bad shoes over ragged terrain as a pilgrim. Though not sufficient, my good intention is necessary. Even if I don't deserve to be good, I must act out my goodness. In showbiz they say fake it till you make it. They say it elsewhere too. And do it.
The poems say that in this season we get a gift from the uncanny. This year people came back to me from more than a life ago, who have done well and present me with their stories, in which I have a cameo. Their gifts were unexpected, but I also receive on a daily schedule.
I report Good News in a sacred season, meaning not an otherworldly season, but a this-worldly season where, as certain poets say, God has come to us. I believe this as I believe, well, you know . . . I swear it on the mangled carcass of the White Whale.
**"Your guilt shall depart/And your sin be purged away" (Is 6:7 [Tanakh])
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. . . And I thought, I've got nothing . . . which meant, I had nothing to lose.
-- Bruce Springsteen*
You can mould clay into a vessel;
yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
-- Tao Te Ching, 11
I was brought up to get it right, no matter what the cost. If the assignment, the action, the long division problem, the situation, whatever, wasn't right -- well, then it was my fault: I had obviously not worked hard enough. I must go back to work right now, and must not stop until all was correct; and whoever stood in my way because they didn't understand, or thought I was wrong or untimely or misdirected, had to be set right. By me. Great accomplishments were expected, to be attained only through unremitting effort. I was not to set the matter aside, or read a book, or watch tv, or work on a more gratifying project, or go to bed in hope of morning insight. That's what lazy people do, said the voice, and if you act like them you'll waste your talents. Anything you don't get right is worthless. And here would follow a list of people known to me who had come to nothing because they had been lazy and wasted their talents. If you screw up enough things you might make something work in the end, and I am a man of superlative obscurity in a fourth career, disappointing the voice of endless demand, never attaining more than a middling income and often struggling for that. I've been hired and fired, but never had the power to hire or fire anyone. In these times perhaps that is a blessing. To be a first-born son, informed at the age of eight that I had an intellect, is as much curse as blessing. My responsibility to the gift, always defined by someone else, often overwhelmed me. Perhaps in my eighth decade, right now, on this page, for your eyes only, I apply it to something of my own. Perfectionists have their uses. They get a lot of things right. That's how they're driven. And they're alone on their faultless shore. But some things can never be right, not the way a page of long division is supposed to be right. And the cost of rightness, that rightness of a sum, saps not only the visceral power but the mental ones as well. Not even mathematics is tidy right. The structure of the universe depends on an irrational number. No matter how many digits you write, you can never get pi just right. Chanticleer sang again the other night at the Church of Ignatius Loyola (so yes, now Christmas can come). They were singing the lullaby Suo Gan, and my favorite singer had a solo, and I turned to my daughter saying "That's my boy!", but before I turned back the song was done, and their so soft cadence had pounced on me, beyond right, uncanny and there was water in my eyes. I wasn't ready. That's the point. The right of music, and the right of a poem, and the right of love, these are not to be carried and remaindered. You know when it's there, but there's no map to take you all the way. Every musician knows how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice practice practice), but no one tells you when or where to leap off the building, though you must fly part of that way or they won't let you in. The things I've done best I had no idea how to do, and I was sore afraid, wishing I knew how to get it right. The only thing I had was a need to jump off the building. These few works, of theatre or teaching or ministry or caritas, were uncharted. Step by step and breath by breath, feeling wind on my face and shift of ground beneath my feet, I would pray for a provisional truth to reveal itself for one more day. I didn't know. I wasn't full of knowledge. I was empty. I had nothing. The risks are real. Human beings can get it wrong, Terribly wrong, pitiably wrong, or damnably wrong. You can harm yourself and you can harm others. That's the basis of the fear, the holy terror that accompanies every truly important act. But the surest road to hell is the highway of utter safety. And that's the beauty of this last career of mine, its anti-perfectionism. I've been forced off the island of perfection. I'm really not supposed to know, as I pass over a threshold of pain and fear, what the good news is. I'm supposed to discover it there, in that room, and name it and bless it. My usefulness is to be empty. *The New Yorker Radio Hour, November 25, 2017.
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-- Emily Dickinson, "Besides the Autumn Poets Sing"
My northeast New Jerusalem is becoming tropical, and we've waited far too long this year for the change. A week ago I was sweating in short sleeves, but now at last comes the weather that brings me life. No snow yet, but I've had to climb into my long coat, rediscover its obscure fastenings, find my gloves. My friend thinks I am morbid. Snap out of it! he says. But I'm not sad. Winds are in my face, and that makes me strong. The fertile half of the year is before me. Son of a preacher and spouse of another, an academic for the larger part of my adulthood, I was formed not on the calendar year but on church and school year. In those measures Autumn is the time of when things begin, the big bang of inspiration. The cold wind, and the now rare but longed for blast of snow in my face, wake me to productivity and efficiency. The loss of light does not oppress but thrills me. My seasonal affective disorder comes not now but sometimes in the spring with too much light, and with the end of things I had begun. So this is my November song, drawing perhaps, as good songs do, tears out of joy, or joy out of tears. Isn't that the darnedest thing? that our happy songs can make us cry, and our saddest songs can make us happy? Singing is our rescue from mortality, a rescue of self but also of the moment. The song is the thing that we make of it, the thing that stands outside, might live longer than the moment on which it was drawn. I lash these words together in order not to be morbid. So I am one of those weird brothers who thrives in winter, traveling in fantasy not to sun-drenched beaches but to sea-thrashed cloudy islands where, above a cliff in bulky sweater and a hut of stone, I sip my smoky single-malt and battle rapturously with words, words words of others and my own in descant. Some may ask why I am so sour, but I am not sour -- this is the location of my peaty sweetness. It's not the first time I have been misread. I see now for instance, with almost two decades of remove, that the years I worked in theatre were years of misplacement. I was with the wrong people, and they frequently misread my silences as discontent. Sometimes they were right, but often not. Now, as my friend points out, I have a lot on my plate; or rather, something on my plate that was not there earlier; or rather, someone who looks over my shoulder in the mirror. For two years -- this is how I like to say it -- I have known the name of my angel, and in the last year I've spoken about it to others, and I've also spoken about how things look in the presence of the visitor. One personality scale designates me an Intuitive Introvert, intense on both dimensions. I process inwardly, and I don't know what to say until I'm done; but when I'm done I speak. And these last two years are the best, so far, of my life. So I may seem to brood, and perhaps this behavior is what the word means, though I am surprised to live under it. High on my windy cliff I'm having a good time getting ready, Mr. DeMille, for my aria. And different observers may have different impressions of the figure I cut as I wait. So you don't have to worry. Well, worry a little, but not too much, and enjoy the whiskey. There is for instance Altagracia, whom we are in danger of misreading. She overwhelmed me, when I went to see her, with her lamentation. She's lost a toe already, and large parts of her feet may have to be removed in order to "save" her, a recommendation that she loudly refuses, as she charges about her apartment and the neighborhood. She'd rather die, she says, refusing to live "that way," on such humiliating terms, and she indicts God: "Why should I suffer so? what did I ever do?" She tells us the stories of five attempts to end her life, and the stories with retelling become less tragic, more darkly comical, and she laughs with me. I've done this work a while, but her lamentation at first overwhelmed me; I provided audience, but couldn't see the strategy, until I took her "case" to a group of my peers. They said, don't get trapped in the clinical psychology, the "issues" of denial, shame and control. Listen to the song of her spirit. She is still alive, and on her terms. She challenges us, and refuses to be dead. Learn from her courage and from the strength of her will, and from her powerful projection of lament. She will die some day, but has not yet been reduced. There is trouble ahead, but also beauty here. Altagracia and I are very different people, and her situation is different. She has much less time before her than I. But in my present mode I am a fellow traveler with all my clients. They narrate a thousand nights: there is always another tale to tell the angel, and I can mistake the tone and the substance as well as anyone. Don't worry too much, and enjoy the whiskey.
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If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject. -- Ayn Rand No man is an island. -- John Donne
You have to know yourself, and that's hard, and it takes time. A lifetime, and still not done. So it is likened to a journey that will take what you have, and must then be left to others.
In the present critical and theoretical climate, it's hard to imagine a voyage of discovery as virtuous. So let's not call it virtuous, let's call it necessary. Because when we're born we don't know who we are. In fact, we don't even know that we are. I learn that the sound filling the room and bringing comfort is my own act: I am the one who cries. I have to be taught that the stinky mass appearing several times a day between my legs is something made by me, and I must control and learn to dispose of it myself. I am told that the odd creature pointing at me in the mirror has a name, and that the name of it is my name.
Then it gets really complicated. I learn that I like ice cream and hate spinach, because they feel good or awful in the mouth, because I crave them or cringe at their approach, because I have fantasies of one and nightmares of the other. I learn that throwing and catching a ball feels good to me, or not. I learn that making a series of tones out of my whining seems a thing essentially worthy, or not. I learn that books comfort me, or not.
I come to know, often painfully, the wandering of my eros: what signals of gender, culture, passion and disgust, make my body feel like it belongs with another body. Or not. I learn, if I am fortunate and acquire the skills of such learning, what kind of person could be my friend. And what kinds could not. It might begin to dawn on me what the work of my life is.
Through intuition but also through blunder and error, you learn which activities are yours to do, making the existential pain go away not just for a moment but from hours to days, days to weeks, weeks to years to the rest of life. And you learn which activities should be done by someone else. And which should be done by no one.
"There's no great trick," says a character in Citizen Kane, "to making a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money." Making a lot of money was clearly not my life's work. But that's just one example, and not one that I have broken my heart over. More painful as a child to learn that athletic competence is not my life's work. Very painful as a youth to learn that concert pianism is not my life's work. Long and painful to learn after youth that my burdensome intellect does not belong in the schools.
So here I run in my groove, not always comfortable, not always right, and yet the groove seems to fit. People look at me, hear me, and say I have the look and the voice of a chaplain. There was a time when I would have taken offense at this. Nowadays I am glad to let go of imposture, the strain of portraying what I am not. Though even this rut might finally prove false, I have seen many things I am not, and I'm not going back.
But this is just my trek, and yours is for you to tell. So far I have described the interior voyage, the delving into unknown parts of the heart to discover what we must become. Discovery means to remove the cover. Revelation is to re-veal, taking down the veil of the temple. You find only what was always there.
And now you must return. This is the exterior voyage, the resumption of life that awaits when you return from the deep to the surface, with precious cargo. If you can't disembark with it, your Precious will rot in your hold. It must be for someone, or you'll never have enough of it. You'll only have enough if you give it away.
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-- Maggie Smith, "First Fall"* Death, of course, is not a failure. -- Atul Gawande, Being Mortal**
Thirteen years ago this month I made my first visits in the role of a chaplain. My teacher, boss, trainer gave me eight patients in home care. Because I didn't know better, I visited all eight of them every week. After a few weeks of holy terror my ministry became a routine, predictable service from month to month. I went to their homes, heard their stories, checked in with the daughter or son or spouse or whoever was watching the journey. Each client took their place in the picaresque course of my life, each forming a chapter, a diversion, postponement and prolongation of my own strand of mortality. My road was wider because of them. With growing confidence I settled into the driver's seat. But something was missing. Remarkable that it took six months for one of them to die. Two of them in fact, on the same day -- April 5, shortly before my birthday. I had a case study due that afternoon, and in the morning I sat down for the first time to write of death. I had learned and owned the template, and I knew how to identify the issues and knock out the document in an hour or two. I wrote for twenty minutes, and then stopped; and to my great surprise, I wept. I'm not a weepy guy, and I hadn't seen it coming, but there it was. I don't say that I cried, or blubbered. I say that, in a formal and retro way, I wept. My eyes filled, my breathing became heavy, and wet blobs rolled down my face. I couldn't say why. I couldn't think. So I pulled myself together, wiped my face, focussed on the screen, and spilled my thoughts once again into the template. And I stopped again, and wept. And so it went. Write and weep, weep and write. I was not collapsing: hadn't really thought I would, but you can't know until it happens, can you? Instead there was this strangely formal leakage. Manuel had come as a young man from Cuba, and lived on people skills that did not require an education; had driven a taxi, had been a doorman. My teacher said Manuel was "seductive," and now he was reckoning with the fruits of his charm. He had womanized, and his wife had left him. Now his daughter was his caregiver, and before daughter and God he felt the guilt. He learned to talk to his daughter, but not to God. "I don't know how to pray," he said, with terror in his eyes. So I modeled simplicity with him -- you don't have to be fancy, I said, or use big words; just say what is on your heart. As I was leaving for what I did not know was the last time, he said "God bless you." And then he said "I love you." He was, after all, seductive. Millicent was gentle and appreciative. She was fading out, more transparent every time I saw her. Her skin looked like tracing paper. I arranged for the priest to see her, and she couldn't remember he had come. The last time I saw her, she looked at her hand and said "There's nothing left." And I said, "But your heart is beating." She looked at me and said "Do you want to feel my heart beating?" Of course I said yes. She took my hand and placed it under her own, on the bones of her rib cage, and I could in fact still feel the beating of her heart. Manuel and Millicent had opened doors and let me into their stories. Now those doors were shut, and the stories were perfect. They had reached full cadence and there was no part left for me, not a note. My teacher said they had canonized me. I was weeping, and the grief was sweet to me. *Good Bones (North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2017), p. 4. **Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), p. 7.
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-- Roque Dalton, "Como tú," trans. Jack Hirschman*
Human beings are not to live on bread alone.
-- Matthew 4:4 (ASV)
Poetry feeds us. Poetry fills the void. Poetry keeps us alive. Poetry makes it possible to get out of bed in the morning. In the beginning was the sound, but when sound became word there was song. A long time ago there was no boundary between singers and poets, and still today there are times and places where the word is a sound and not just a mark on papyrus. When song comes into being, the problem of meaning cannot appear, because in song there is always something to do and an urgent need to do it. The song makes us move. It makes us move here, not just anywhere. It makes us sound this note, not any other. It makes us move now, not in the future or the past. The right note at the wrong time is obscene -- you're standing on the dock with your expensive ring, and your lover's ship has sailed. So when there is song, there is simply no time for despair. Even if the song is about despair, you cannot despair while singing it. If you despair, you've stopped singing. If you can't sing, you're in despair. People die in despair, and of despair. Those old guys whose wives of sixty years have died, who tell me, "I don't know how to live without her," should be taken at their word. Their lives are in danger, because she was their song and they don't have another one. And when we stop singing, there is much to despair about. We are here only briefly, and though some will remember us, they themselves will be forgotten. History is mostly an entrainment of one damn thing after another, of cruelties followed by betrayals, greeds by lusts, addictions by aggressions and pomps by poxes. Our intricate bodies seem designed as a practical joke. We can choke to death because our breathing and swallowing conflict at the larynx. We vibrate between disgust and desire because God has tangled our organs of excretion and orgasm, so not only were we born inter faeces et urinam, but we return to die of love there, midst joy and stink, over and over. There, I've done it. I've mentioned God, who if involved in anything would seem implicated in these wrappers, these structured sacks of blood and bone in which we lurch, churning the substance of our souls. I'm convinced that, if something corresponding to the word God exists, it laughs, but in this respect the great designer seems to snicker behind its almighty hand. At work I hear the songs of my people. Sometimes I sing them back. The Lord arrives just in time, they say. He won't burden you with more than you can bear. But I know of many people who were broken before their carriage arrived. And who am I to say that those crushed by the world should be able to bear it? Now here I touch the boundary of faith. How is it, knowing how soon I'll be obliterated, that I get up this morning to fill this page with words? And you, to write on the page that is this day of yours? This question obsesses me. A colleague said that he gets out of bed for his first cup of coffee, but I think he only postpones the question. I also need my hit of caffeine, but for what? the drug is just a tool, and if it didn't take me beyond itself I would lose the habit. Pretty soon after waking we start singing, or else we stay in bed. This is where faith engages us. Faith is the song that makes it possible to endure our utter insignificance in the factual scale of things. Light from the second nearest star takes four and half years to reach us, and that distance is less than paltry in the enormity of galaxy, and our galaxy is swallowed by its local cluster, and so on . . . Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! wrote Shelley, postponing his own despair for the time of writing, and ours for the time of reading, or of speaking again for the thousandth time as I just did. Faith is beneath reason. And theology, because it tries to give rational account of faith, is as dangerous as high explosive. Its statements are constantly concretizing, turning into stones for us to hurl at each other. Thus our Unitarian disdain for creeds, which we share with some other denominations of Protestant heritage. But even we who shrink from creeds can catch the plague of ideology, theology that does not know itself, ready to inspire crimes because finally, finally we subscribers have shed the Illusions and know The Truth, and knowing Truth we are authorized to dictate words and thoughts, and hurl the proper stones at those who speak differently. Theology gives faith a bad name. The great slaughters inflamed by concretized theology are the stuff of history and the cable news. What does not make the papers is the work of faith in all lives and on all days, calling us to better selves, dragging us out of muck and into worlds of spirit, making beauty and love by singing it, summoning patience to bear what must be born, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to discern the difference. When my people say The Lord always arrives just in time, they are not writing a tome of history. They are not asserting that bad stuff does not happen. They are not asserting. Period. They are singing. This is what militant atheism misses. You can of course look throughout the universe and time, and not find a fact that is God. To notice this is to play at high stakes with doubt, a kind of provisional atheism where I sometimes live. Duh. So what? God is not a fact. God is a song. Fundamentalist and atheist alike overlook the category where life occurs. If what enables life is real, then the song is real. A little child shall lead us, and poetry shall feed us like loaves of bread. *Poetry Like Bread, ed. Martín Espada (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), pp. 128-9.
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-- Mark Lilla, on The New Yorker Radio Hour (August 26, 2017)
I don't feel no ways tired, I've come too far from where I started from. -- spiritual There are only three important words: justice, truth and love. -- Rev. C. T. Vivian
This photograph changed the nation.
Photo by Will Counts, Sept. 4, 1957
Elizabeth Eckford, not yet sixteen years old, followed by a white mob who might have beaten her if not for the presence of news photographers, has attempted to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She has been refused entrance, and now she is retreating to what she hopes will be safety. She carries a notebook. She is a student who wishes to learn. A lamb among lions, innocent child threading an isthmus of sin, focus of white eyes, she stares straight ahead. No face is more poisoned than that of Hazel Bryan, also only fifteen years old, shrieking epithets from the center of the frame. Eckford's face however is a blank. I must think that she was feeling many things: fear, grief, anger -- but none of these passions register on her face. Bryan and the mob are expressing themselves. Eckford, by her courage and discipline, is accomplishing much, but one thing she is not doing is expressing herself. The grand strategy of protest was to unmask the violence inherent in the system. Emotions of the righteous protesters were not the point, and were not on display. If Eckford had broken down in tears, it would only have intensified the violence. Any expression of her outrage and anger might have gotten her killed, or would at least have turned a welthistorische photograph into the record of a shouting match between two teen-agers. This was the template of the classical Civil Rights era: to contrast the calm dignity of black protesters with the threats, assaults and open malice of white people. Let's not be sentimental about this, or we'll misunderstand. This was not a matter of being nice so that the oppressors would be nice in return. There would be no melting of hearts. The oppressors would not be nice. The emotional discipline of these protests was a strategy, calculated to reveal the malice of oppression on faces that lacked discipline to conceal it. So when black students sat down three years later at Woolworth's segregated lunch counters in Nashville and Greensboro, they did not come there to express their emotions. And when, almost eight years after the Battle of Little Rock, six hundred people walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday, they did not come to express their emotions. When violence came to these people, it was because of their actions, not because of their feelings. They had come there to act and to endure the consequence, captured on film without mixture. These protests were actions rather than passions. The actions were brilliantly, strategically chosen. The principalities and powers could not let Elizabeth Eckford enter the high school, or let black students sit at the lunch counter, or let six hundred people march from Selma to Montgomery, without losing their authority; so they had to respond, and because there was no righteous option their response could only be violent. These incisive actions had grabbed oppression by the short hairs. I was trained in the French theatrical tradition of a masque neutre, a face ready to respond to the present because it is unmarked by the past. You and I of course are marked by the past, but you try to respond to the thing in front of you rather than to history; it's a training in presence. If you succeed in dropping your dramas and traumas, then the currents, the sounds, the textures, the lights and spaces, the swirling passions of others are revealed. Eckford's masque neutre was the clean lens that projected the violence of others. There are historical passions behind these movements -- centuries of grief, of mourning, of righteous prophetic anger, of waiting for the Day of the Lord when justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. But the actions don't speak -- they act. They grab injustice in a place where it hurts. On the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday I walked with five hundred Unitarians and a hundred thousand other Americans across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In the days before, we were visited by great artists of protest, including Rev. William Barber and Rev. C. T. Vivian. Vivian spoke with charm, candor and wit about the Freedom Rides, the Lunch Counter Protests, the Voting Rights Marches, the front and backstages of the campaign. A young protester asked him what it was that, half a century ago, had made victories possible, "so that [and here there was a sigh] we don't all feel so exhausted." In the pause, this is what I thought. I'm not surprised you're exhausted. It's hard work expressing yourself. Coming into the streets every day and evening saying I'm here and I'm black or Latino or queer or poor and you've wronged us and we're angry and you should stop, can wear you out. And the powers can outlast you. To them your righteous sentiments and justified anger are abstractions. They're getting paid overtime. Their patience is greater than yours. They can wait. You haven't got them by the short hairs. C. T. Vivian said, as I remember, that the movement was repeatedly saved by its strategy, discipline and music. It seems to me the songs are yet missing, songs that people of different generations, ethnicities and classes can sing together. Could we perhaps sing "Joe Hill", or "We Shall Overcome," without fighting about who created the song and which culture it belongs to and who has the right to sing it and with what apologies to whom? Can we remember what such songs once meant? And can we use them to unite rather than to divide? But perhaps new songs will emerge. Let us hope. They're not here yet. And the strategies are absent without leave. Strategies that from the first moment put powers and principalities on the back foot, exposing the violence inherent in the system. To say who you are and how angry you are and what you demand and on what day, requiring potential allies to speak from your vocabulary list with your precise talking points, is not a strategy. Where is the direct action -- the action beneath and beyond speech -- that forces a response? Today's exhausted protesters should study the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Though that action grew from decades of outrage, the execution of it was an exercise in patience, persistence and obedience, shrewd calculation and military discipline. At its center, augmenting the willingness of some persons to walk rather than ride in the back of the bus, was an alternative volunteer transportation system, using over three hundred vehicles for three hundred eighty-one days. There were timetables, commitments, commanders and soldiers. There wasn't, I think, much time for self-expression. Not even the choice of Rosa Parks as the spark of the boycott was spontaneous. She was one of several persons who had been arrested for protesting bus segregation, the one selected as a suitable figurehead. That community then withdrew its money from the bus company. The soldiers of justice didn't have to express themselves every day, because every day they had the oppressor by the short hairs. I don't know what the new direct actions will be. I am waiting for them to emerge. They will be the kind of thing people can do without expressing themselves. People will be welcome to do them even if they don't come from our social location, even if they don't talk the way we talk. It won't matter how we talk; talk would be a distraction. The action itself, measured by the song, will be the thing.
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A Gothic cathedral affirms that it was done by us, and not done by us.
-- Emerson, "History"
In the mind of Thomas Bowdler (1754 - 1825), Cordelia could not die. Bowdler could not live in a world where innocence is so reviled. So when he edited Shakespeare, he altered the data, and gave his name forever to acts of cleaning up the past so we could feel better about it. As one who would in a fallen world act justly, I cannot bowdlerize. I must own my past in its horror as well in its beauty.
My quarrel with the Society for Creative Anachronism is that they squeeze history like a lime to get a drop or two of juice, and then serve up the sweetness as a truth. In their world, everybody is at least a duke (or duchess), and the thousands whose wretched existence enables their dancing and jousting are flushed from sight like so much pulp. Nor in these simulations of nobility is there any account of their filth and stink, their rotting teeth and arsenic-pocked faces.
I do love the art that rises from the muck of these ancient times, the poems and songs, the sculpture and architecture, the glass windows and microscopically intricate books of hours. The artifacts speak to me, strangely modern. I have come to think that our Enlightened view of the person, its interiority and sacrality, was born in the fantasy life of those landed pirates, who lived on stolen vitality and could afford to build a chamber for themselves and close its door. The notion of human rights is a multiply sublimated product of class envy.
And yet we cannot live without universal human rights. Any regime that renounces them is a roller coaster to hell. You and I can't talk about justice without presupposing that every person's rights are unalienable. Otherwise it's just you against me, my fist against your knife, my big brother against your bigger one, my gun against your missile, until we all are dead or wish we were. Whether we measure up to justice as we talk about it -- well, that's a different matter, isn't it? When did that ever happen?
Therefore, though I am obliged to accept the noble heritage of humanity, as an adult human being I must also own the stink and rot. Otherwise I might imagine I am noble. No surgeon can separate the rights of persons from the primacy of sin.
Therefore I will not bowdlerize history. I will not whitewash the record of my people's sins.
There is a word I must not say because it was born in the malice of my people, and the saying of it by people like me encompasses centuries of abuse, violence and terror. But I must maintain the record of its use. I must not say the word, but sometimes I must quote it. I cannot tell my children, "There is a word you must never speak, and I won't tell you what it is."
It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself
up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t
ever sorry for it afterward, neither.
-- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
By putting nigger in white characters' mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites. -- Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
I must not let the word be erased from history. We must know that it has been spoken and written, and continues to be so. We must know its harm, even though knowing its harm is painful. Painful to you, my sib of color, but painful to me as well. And yes I know that my pain with the word is not the same as your pain, not as mortal in its wound. But it is my pain, and I lie if I conceal it. I eschew the bad word not only because saying it would be wrong, but also because the word hurts me. It hurts me that people who look like me, from whom I inherit genes and privileges, obtained their gifts so viciously. What, I ask, would we achieve if we could expunge from all historic records, all novels and poems, each occurrence of the bad word? Then our children would not know what you, and we sometimes together, have struggled for. They would not know the poisons that pervade our land, the toxin that now rises from the swamp of ignorance and privation. They would say, what in the world are you so concerned about, silly grandpa? Grandma, why this talk of revolution? The past is always disappointing, never to be adored. There is no trigger warning adequate for this: to meet the past is thrilling, and dangerous, and terrifying. It gives us life and drags us down to death. If I write a Western story, and in my story Bad Bart comes to town and robs the bank, that does not make me a bank-robber, nor does it make me an advocate of bank-robbing. Anyone who said so would reveal himself as an incompetent reader. Bad Bart is not me. Bad Bart is imaginary, and evil. So if Sam Clemens tells the story of an abused and ignorant boy growing up in a two-bit town in the slave-state of Missouri, and if that boy speaks of his enslaved companion by the word I cannot say, that does not make Sam Clemens a racist or a sympathizer of racism. Huck Finn is not Sam Clemens. Huck Finn is imaginary, and ignorant. If Huck did not use the bad words of his time and place, the story would be worthless, as phony as a three-dollar bill. Then the story would be complacent and racist. The best thing about Huck Finn is that he runs away. He carries with him the ignorance, hypocrisy and moral inversion of the town he has escaped from. Wherever you go, there you are. Adrift on the river, his companion a man that immoral laws had made a piece of property, he learns that his right place before that man may be humility. Huck never achieves perfection, nor does his author. But the resistance of Huck and Sam to the nation's original sin is one of the reasons why their story has been revered, not only by Americans but by authors from other shores as well. In the house of my father the radical pastor the bad word was forbidden. We were taught with rigor that other, respectful word: "Negro." This distinction was one of the sacred values of our home, setting us above the saeculum, the world ruled by those who "didn't know any better." It was a distinction not only of morals but of class as well. So in my genteel Yankee childhood and youth, I never heard the word except as a prohibition, or a shocking evidence of sin. But when we went south, to visit the rural half of the family, I met itinerant black laborers and tenant farmers and their families, who worked on my grandpa's land. Some of the white farmers would speak the bad word in the raw, but for the most part my family spoke of "Nigg-ruhs." In that neologism can be read the history of the south, its white folk still angry from the Reconstruction, soon to be placed under federal authority by the Voting Rights Act. You don't know these people, they were saying. We've lived with them for centuries; and we'll be damned before we'll say that word you Yankees are so proud of. "Nee-grow," you say. We'll keep our distance from white trash all right, but we'll keep distance from you as well, Galahad, with a word that's neither fish nor fowl. "Nigg-ruh." Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Compliant and defiant at the same time, they told their history: the romance of a misguided Reconstruction that had awarded franchise and property rights to people who "were not ready." From that inevitable chaos and corruption all had been rescued, they taught, by mercies of the Klan and Plessy v. Ferguson. Now in my Yankee old adulthood, the word is still not in my vocabulary. I never hear it in my house, or in my social and professional circles, but I hear it on the street, and in the subway, and in front of the bodega. Those who speak the word around me are black men. And I've heard the word from a generation of black comedians, and I hear it in the fiction and the drama of black authors. I know the word's use by some black people is a grief to others. It is a grief to me as well, though for special white reasons that lack authority. It is respectful to assume that my brothers and sisters know what they are doing, choose their words for a purpose, and achieve something by their choice. Perhaps they are drawing distinctions among themselves. Or perhaps, like gays who call themselves "queer," they are bleeding the word of its toxin, making it familiar and affectionate in their mouths. Perhaps they are universalizing the black experience, making it definitive in the place of epic whiteness. Not for me to say, though as ally I cannot fail to take an interest. That the word hurts me is perhaps a side benefit. If I'm a grownup, I'll handle it.
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