Sunday, January 25, 2009

What We're Here For

{Note: I'm told this is way too boring a picture to entice anyone to read. When I expostulate - It's ironic! See? Is it really tedious of the sun to rise every day and grain to ripen? Or is it really miraculous and the tedium is just us not seeing it? They still say it's too boring - so please imagine, I don't know - an explosion here, a supernova, something . . . }
For Martin Luther King Day this Monday we make what has become our traditional fare: Civil Rice and Bein's (from Brazil? a.k.a Moros y Chrestianos or Black Beans & Brown Rice).  For something new, we combine different recipes to invent Golden Squash Spoonbread.

And while we're cooking, I tell the junior inhabitants about my first time teaching King's "I Have a Dream" speech to a freshman English class - meaning to use it merely as an example of the persuasive use of figures of speech - how, in preparation, I'd read the speech through several times, identifying metaphor, symbolism, alliteration. One of the other teachers had a videotape I thought I'd show. Popping the tape in without previewing it, leaning up against the wall at the back of the room to watch it with my class . . . I was overcome.

There was so much more going on than figures of speech.

"He was a great American," I tell my children, who are my own embodied hopes for the future - I tell them this over and over every year because there are only so many things you ever manage to get through to your children but this is one I want them to know: "Standing for freedom, speaking for truth, dreaming big enough for a whole nation and generations to come, that's what it means to be an American.  That's what we're here for!" My children nod, gentle-eyed, reaching out to pat down my arms that have been wildly gesturing.

But it's not the great thundering roll of the clauses of King's Dream that take up residence in my mind this week. It's some of the more presumptuous phrases in that commencement speech I read at the beginning of the year. Like when Wallace talks about trying to find something redeeming in the bawlingly ugly others who impede his path:
But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college. . .

And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line . . .

I take those words with me next day to the Food Bank - where there are too many new faces. The paper mill that for generations has shaped this town is now closing. Many, most and then all the jobs - gone.

One young man came in this week – there were three of them together – guys from the mill - but this young man is obviously used to leading the way, walks in with a swagger, every movement of chin and hand enunciating competence and cocky self-possession.

He hates being at the Food Bank, hates having to fill out the forms. “I’ve never had to do this before. I didn’t think I’d ever do this. But there’s no food left,” he half-chokes on the disgust rising in his throat. “My boys are hungry.” Two of them, preschool-aged, I can see from the forms, and he is the only adult in his household. “I have to feed them,” his voice makes it clear he’s not asking for sympathy. He’s not even really talking to me, just keeping himself company, keeping his courage up, getting through what’s necessary. When I start to explain the monthly procedure – “I’m not coming back next month,” he cuts the air with his hand.

Please. Do not tell him his lost job was meaningless.

Or prate about “daily tedium.” (And are there somewhere jobs utterly free of the tedious?)

I am so impatient when outsiders presume to dismiss the experience of others - as meaningless and drudgeful, or as some kind of rural idyll - without living it themselves. Though I've been guilty of this comfortable make-believe myself.

One of the summmers I spent living with my grandparents in their very, very small town in a high dry mountain valley, I regularly biked with my cousin around all the streets and out along the frontage road where my uncle and his crew were building a new highway.

I liked stopping to snap pictures – a black-eyed Susan against a heavy sky, the immodestly pink projections of milkweed above glinting water, fallen-down barns, abandoned hayricks in a field of blond grasses, rusted farm implements – so picturesque to my suburban “back-East” eyes – so backward and soon-to-be-escaped to my cousin who hated seeing them, shrugged at them, skated her eyes over them.

But one afternoon I was out alone, my cousin working at her job at the front desk of the Prehistoric Fremont Indian Museum.  She and I had spent the previous summer going out with the team of archaeologists to the dig – finding a grinding stone and tiny fire-blackened corncobs - out on the foothills above our grandparents’, great-grandparents’ few acres.  So strange to see our family's homeplace as another people’s homeplace.  So strange to re-discover a town  as it was threatened by the new highway going through. Discovered and destroyed almost at once.  And my cousin's dad, my uncle, the local head engineer for UDOT, the kindliest of kind men, as chief perpetrator.  

And now this summer, there was a small museum up the canyon, with artifacts we'd seen in the dirt, and exhibits telling the story of these people that came before.  A summer job for my cousin and the reason I was alone that afternoon. It came over me, that afternoon, biking around alone, the sky heavy with rain that wouldn’t fall, standing at the end of the town, looking out over the irrigated fields of purple-flowered alfalfa – how full this place - and every place - was.

Even in that tiny town, every house was already an echo of habitations that had been there before, and at that very moment every house full with its people past and future, and morever inside every person a whole world of yearning and fear and everything they had ever seen or imagined. That for each of them, as for me, each was the center of a private story, the center of the universe. Like that passage by William Blake  - 
The Sky is an immortal tent . . .
And every space that a man views around his dwelling-place,
Standing on his own roof, or in his garden on a mount
Of twenty-five cubits in height, such space is his Universe:
And on its verge the Sun rises & sets, the clouds bow
To meet the flat Earth & the Sea in such an order’d space:
The Starry Heavens reach no further, but here bend and set
On all sides, & the two poles turn on their valves of gold;
And if he move his dwelling-place, his heavens also move
Where’er he goes, & all his neighbourhood bewail his loss.
Such are the spaces callèd Earth & such its dimension.

That's what I was thinking about, standing in line at the grocery, standing at the front desk at the food bank, hearing the words of that commencement address re-echo in my mind.  I do not live in a county particulary remarkable for the glamour of its people. But at the grocery story I don’t see anyone “stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman.”

The people I see in the grocery lines, the people who come into the food bank – and sometimes these are the same people in this struggling mill-town - but even in the most ravaged faces, teeth stained or lost in fistfights or pitted by meth use, there are things worth seeing – sudden grace, a lovable curve of the eyelid, a humorous quirk – traces of past sadness and happiness left in their faces.

And the vulnerability of other people’s hands, the unbearably familiar intimacy of the half-moons in their fingernails, moles on the back of their hands. When they bend over the counter to fill out their forms I sometimes get a catch in my throat at the sudden image I sometimes get of each of them as a child, some other mother’s darling, first-graders first learning to write their names.

I don't believe it is my liberal arts education that shows me these unbidden images. I don’t think that “us here in prestigious colleges” are necessarily any better prepared to live in this world with a sense of sacramental awareness of every moment being
on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
What are we here for?  I remember the howling wilderness I’d feel whenever we’d have to answer in humanites' classes that particular riddle among life’s eternal questions – i.e., what is the value of studying the humanities? (Did engineering professors ever ask their students to discuss the value of a tech degree?)

Don't get me wrong - I loved my experience studying English lit. But I’ve always been struck that the only other place I heard such impassioned rationalizations for the value of the whole enterprise was the summer I worked at a company called Shutters that manufactured (guess . . .) shutters.

You know? - shutters? - those aluminum rectangles some people fasten to their siding on either side of the window? Not the great, wooden, heavily-hinged protections against weather and odd shrapnel that you can see on the stone farmhouses around Namur in southern Belgium. These shutters performed no obvious function.

But my boss could (and would regularly) spout on about their contribution to the aesthetic and therefore psychological well-being of the family, which contributed to county-wide health and social stability, not to mention property values, the state’s economy and the underpinnings of Western democracy. And of course my liberal arts education usefully trotted out the appropriate Shakespearean tag: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much. . .” (à propos even if my boss was a balding middle-aged bantam.)

Because we want to be involved in what matters.  We want to do what we're here for.

This week in the grocery store I was in line behind an older women – somewhat fuddled – counting, re-counting her change and then burbling on with a question and something she needed someone to confirm. The clerk was brisk and bright and helpful.

“Sorry about that,” the clerk said as I came up to the register, the old woman tottering out towards the door. “She comes in every day, just needs someone to talk to. Lonely I guess,” the clerk shrugs, laughing through her bad teeth. “But that’s what we’re here for.” 

Monday, January 19, 2009

What Daughters Do

week of January 11 to 17

I sigh.

“What’s wrong?” says my oldest.

“Oh, just thinking of all the reasons why people wouldn’t like me anyway.”

Stay with me – there’s no reason yet to swoop in with reassurances. Does no one else have these moments of self-pity/loathing/weariness when you wonder how much longer you can count on other people’s forbearance?

And let’s get this into context.

It’s 5:47 a.m.

Last week my youngest broke his two front bottom teeth into a perfect V – while I was out of reach for the day doing research at the city library. I had turned off my phone and so my trusted neighbor was stuck with my suffering son until she was able to contact his dad who then had to arrange from work an emergency trip to the dentist. When I turned my phone back on before driving back along the river home, I had a record of the whole saga – the frenzy of the first messages modulating into straightforward information about a follow-up appointment with the dentist in my husband’s calm voice - everything already wrapped up and taken care of.

This week began then with the discovery of what I blithely identified as the second of three (and then we’re done!) calamities – the third being that my 16-year-old daughter is planning to hold her Winter Ball dinner this weekend here in our house – which despite earnest scheduling and honest effort is still a construction zone.

I am under vow never to reveal what this second calamity is. But it is 5:47 in the morning. I’ve been up for over an hour already. My back and neck ache. And I have another day of extensive laundering ahead of me. The only good thing is that I don’t know what I will know shaping these notes a month later – that this would not be a case of 1-2-3 and you’re out of danger, but instead just the beginning of a month of irritants almost to rival the plagues of Egypt . . .

“I like you,” says my daughter.

I laugh, shrug, still caught up in replaying a particularly maladroit interchange with a new colleague from the day before, still aching and tired. It’s still pre-6 a.m.

My daughter laughs, “Really, I like you. Partly because I’m your daughter and that’s just what daughters do,” her face turns up towards mine, eyes frank and open and very serious all at once. “But also I think you give the best advice – you know what to do, but you’ve also taken time to understand me. You talk to me and listen to all the things that happen to me.

“And I like your food – I love how you get so excited about a new recipe and you’re always trying new things, you get inventive with whatever’s in the kitchen – sometimes what you’ve done sounds strange but it’s usually delicious.

“And I like your garden – it’s like our family, a little unusual, kind of wild-looking, but the closer you look the more detail you can see – all kinds of greens, different shades and leaf shapes and textures.

“I like reading what you write. It’s obvious how much you love your family and I like how it’s so real and what you’re thinking.

“And I like your rocks on all the windowsills – ”

“Oh, yes,” says my other daughter, “like the Monday-Tuesday-week-rocks from when Dad was laid off when we were little and you put them by the window in the kitchen and touched one each day of the week until he got a new job and we moved here and now they’re in the little window by the front door so I see them whenever I go out.”

“I think it’s cool how you bike over to swim in the morning and then bike to the Food Bank,” says one daughter.

“Oh, yeah,” says the other daughter.

By now, there is water standing in my eyes. I am basking, truly, in this unexpected gift of affectionate, high-focus regard.

“And I love falling to sleep at night to the sound of you playing the piano . . . ” (at which I pull a face, which you would understand if you heard me play) but my daughter continues, “ . . . you do it with your whole heart. Like you do everything.

“And you make history come alive when you homeschooled us and when you read to us now. And I like how you can explain the scriptures and acting out the Passover dinner – that makes it all come alive, too.

“And I like the way you plan our trips. We would never just go sit on the beach and think about maybe going shopping – you would have researched everything out – and been like oh, that would be interesting, and we’d have the day at the beach but you would have found out funky little curiosity places along the way.”

“I like that, too,” says my other daughter.

I (who am hardly now even the same person who was – so soon ago – in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, plus all alone beweeping my outcast state), I sat aside as soon as I was able after they were gone and jotted down the whole list of everything they said. Because honestly, how often do you get to be seen the way you would want to be seen, even for a moment?

It would be worth getting up before 5:00 – if it happened every morning.

Of course that very evening the same daughter will snarl, “Why are you always trying to psychoanalyze me?” (Uh, I’m trying to understand you?) And with the prescience that comes from shaping these notes four weeks after the fact, I can safely prophesy that I will soon be able to report on the discomfort as well of being seen so clearly by your own children. But why chip away at what was a full, round, perfect moment?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Secret Flowers of the Potato

Last Saturday, walking the hills, my friend had told me about choosing totems for the different members of her family. And how one of the other women in her group said, “You know, don’t take this wrong, but have you ever seen a female elk – they’re so – "

“Awkward?” my friend had said, retelling the story to me.

“No," her other friend had answered, "kind of humble and majestic at the same time. I think you’re a female elk.”

My friend is underwhelmed and would rather be a bird.

“Like a tern?” I suggested.

“I would rather a raptor of some kind.”

Now it is the next Saturday and my friend and I meet again on the road, greeting each other in puffs of frosty steam, our faces rosy with the cold as we turn together to tackle the 6-mile loop of hills around the fairgrounds. We come to the topic of totems again. 

“Don’t worry,” she teases. “It’s not as pagan as it sounds. I don’t think it will keep you out of heaven.”

“Such a snert,” and she laughs as I shoulder her off-step.

“So?” she asks.

“Well, I’d have to be something with a keen sense of smell.”

“Definitely.” Our walks are punctuated as much by my stopping and sniffing the air – what is that? – as they are enhanced by her pointing out drops of water pearling along a fence wire or shaggy emerald moss on a fallen log or an anthill taller than either of us.

I really would love, just for a day, to experience the woods with that augmented sixth sense of smell.  I'd like to live in that reality made up of all those layers of smells, to be able to follow the paths laid down in scent-trails.

“I know you would,” says my friend. We agree I coulda shoulda been a Nose – though she snorts with laughter at the idea of a Mormon wine-sniffer – but maybe there would have been a future for me in perfumery?

As for the animal I would be, “Some kind of dog?” I’m thinking a kit fox or even –

“Actually I kind of see you as an English  . . . what are they? some kind of long-legged hound? I know that sounds awful, but they’re very noble, velvety grey and they’re very useful to the farmer.”

But I am so tired of being useful. “But I would want to hunt down the prey and the taste of hot blood – ”

“Ooo, visceral. Okay, so you could be a wolf.”

But I know it cannot be.  Even my wish to be wilder shows how domesticated a dog I am. For a wolf there is no glamour in the hunt.  Bare sustenance.  The only alternative to hunger's gnaw. It's the noble-jowled farm dog who looks off longingly to the woods before turning reliably back to her duties.

Herding. Guarding.  Scaring bad beasts away. Isn't that what I do?

I don’t know that I can see my children all-at-once enough to assign them a characteristic animal. Perhaps 1st Daughter – this week especially – is a happy koala – sweet and contented as long as there are plenty of eucalyptus leaves.  Rather unconcerned about the rest of the world.  But restfully and adorably so. “Well, at least that’s better than being a golden-haired sloth like you said I was in first-grade,” says my daughter when I tell her about our conversation after the walk.

My friend had nodded when I suggested that 2nd Daughter is some kind of brilliant lizard or shiny cat – sleek and sinuous, very still, very quick. Though we agree that maybe an ermine is even better: finely wrought, suddenly fierce, a symbol in the Renaissance of loyalty. We realize we’re both thinking of the same Da Vinci painting.

My son – I don’t know – he’s still so unformed. A big-footed puppy? When I tell them all about it in the kitchen after my walk, my son tells me he wants to be a German Shepherd – we can bark around the yard together with our ears flapping.

“How about you?” I ask my husband. 

But he refuses to play this morning.  Too busy.  Too burdened. 

“Okay,” I say, “then I guess you are –-- ” glancing around the kitchen my eyes fall on the box of potatoes he’s been urging us to use up. Every year he brings more boxes of potatoes back from his parent’s neighbors in Idaho than we can ever use. Every year I fail to use them all – though I even give bags and bags of them away at the first of the autumn. 

“Dad is a potato?” my son shakes his head. His dad is his favorite hero.

Well? It’s not particularly flattering but the more you think about it – underground, persistent, ordinary – and (yes) useful. 

And more than that - easily bruised with rough-handling, perhaps a little apt to turn poisonous in over-brilliant conditions. Capable of sprouting endlessly, though, and sustaining life even in obscurity. 

With strange purple flowers most people overlook.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Into a Better Language

I am a minor and ridiculous character in this multivalent/polylingual/pluravocal/endlessly interconnected and reshaped novel that is the Internet.  This web writing itself on the blogosphere moment-by moment as I replace the cursor with letters, as your eyes read, as thousands of others do the same –- the perfect literary artform of our age –- Borges’ Library of Babel, or better Donne's -

library where every book shall lie open to one another.
But that was heaven for Donne. For me, to be writing like Donne wrote – with that wit and roaring – that would be heaven.

Life-shaping moment: second row from the windows, three seats back from the front, cold afternoon light falling in on my desk, high school English. The teacher is droning. I’m leafing through the textbook which opens to Donne’s
Meditation 17 which we would not be studying, which I would never study – and so it has always stayed elemental in my mind, powerfully un-analyzed. My heart begins to pound, the hairs on my arms stand up. Are there flames bursting from the opened page, licking up into my face and neck? In that moment I am burned forever with those rhythms,
all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated
with those ideas,
I am involved in mankind –
His hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again –
with those turns of phrase,
an excusable covetousness -
a piece of the continent, a part of the main -
but God's hand is in every translation -
even just with the experience of savoring the words, rolling each line over my toungue in wonder -- it's like caramel! -- caramel being at that point of my life the breadth and height and depth of tactile pleasure.

But here, in the present, I am stuck with my plodding self and this pedestrian project – having given myself also the galling parameter of working in a weekly mention of one meal worth remembering: this week of not-Christmas we eat leftovers. Of course. Stuffed into the two last pie pumpkins from the CSA and baked. Memorable? Only because of the curry filling and the tasty toasted pumpkin seeds on the side.  So there you go –

I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.
“Give,” said the little stream,
“Give, oh! give. Give, oh! give.”
“Give,” said the little stream,
 As it hurried down the hill;
“I’m small, I know, but wherever I go
The grass grow greener still.”
Another life-shaping moment: Just over our back fence is a creek. I am maybe three or four, but inside my memory I am the age I have always been. My best friend (Janeal Dusnip – where you are now?) My friend and I both have brand-new garden implements, which I adore like I have rarely adored anything.

Over the fence, the sound of the creek makes the sound of the song – Give away, oh! give away – and I am seized with a beautiful thought: “Let’s throw our garden tools into the creek for the poor children who live downstream!”

My friend does not think this wise, nor desirable, but I am taller than she and impassioned -- my added arm length the more persuasive element of my argument.

I have a clear physical memory of my hand reaching over hers, forcing the white aluminum toys up and over the chain-link fence, tossing them up in a satisfying arc into the water. Those lovely, lovely rakes and spades with their flower-colored handles floating bravely toward their new –- soon to be ecstatic –- owners.

My holy glee, however, is short-lived when two sets of parents descend upon me, the neighbors carrying off my howling betrayer, my parents, deeply disapproving and deaf to reason. I learned from this experience many useful nuggets:
  1. I would have a fatal weakness for the beautiful idea.
  2. I would be misunderstood.
  3. It is good to know what lies downstream –- my mother’s descriptive force made me see (and see still) –- my heave-offering bent and broken like so much trash in the weeds beside the rusted mouth of the underground culvert which lay waiting to receive everything that floated on my backyard stream.
  4. Songs are not always the best guide to action.
  5. There is always another way –- less beautiful but more effective –- to do what you want to do. When you know what you want to do. There is always another way.
And if I knew . . .

When I don’t know what to do, I start divesting.

For example, I decided at the turn of the year that I read too much – yes, I do. The only way I know how to tell what's real, what's frippery is to start cutting. When it hurts to give any more away, that may be a nub worth keeping.

At least by giving up reading (two months at a time) I’m not sacrificing anyone’s toy but my own.

I am still misunderstood. No one believes me, first. When I tell them – they burst out laughing, or bug their eyes out at me – “You’ll never be able to do it.” Or they wrinkle their forehead, worriedly, “Reading's such a good thing. I really should read more . . .  ”

Even when I clarify - one month on (reading at will), two months off (no reading except for

  1. Scripture, warning labels, recipes, correspondence – i.e. functional reading
  2. The Economist (my window on the world)
  3. alphabet (the poem I am memorizing)
  4. books about the Catawba (one of the few tribes to stay in their ancestral lands in South Carolina) – history, pottery styles, and folk tales.
-– they still laugh, “Your non-reading program looks like a reading program to me!” (and yes, they have a point. But this is just a measure of how unrestrained the worm is.) 

Or they say, “If you start with a reading month, you’ll go on reading all year. I know you. Better start with no reading –- if you really mean it?!”

Only one friend nods in understanding approbation when she hears my vow. We understand each other.  Her small house would be dominated by the two looms in the main room except for the entire wall of bookshelves that reaches almost all the way to the peak of the ceiling – loaded with riches. I am trying to finish
one of her favorites before my month is up, and I am lending her one of mine.

I know that I want to write. To finish the novel I’ve been writing and unraveling for too long, the same way Penelope wove and unraveled – or is this just a symbol of what we do until our Telemachi are old enough to fend for themselves?

Turning myself towards this goal, divesting and re-dedicating, I feel around me that creative bevy - Penelope, Christine de Pisan, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Izak Dinesen, Penelope Fitzgerald, Inger Christensen – that cloud of witnesses - women who wrote and wove and who now nod and murmur, reach their hands to my forehead, nudge me forward with a hand on my shoulder, a sharp poke in the back --

Another moment: walking toward a small rural town on the French-Belgian border. Avioth. It is early spring. Fields and trees that feel somehow familiar -- like the fields around the town my dad grew up in, that high mountain valley. It’s the cathedral I’m aiming for, spires rising out of those soft fields. A “crocodile” of primary school children and their two teachers walking across the narrow road, all turning their necks to watch me. The cathedral is tiny –- maybe the tiniest in France. And it is empty. No one is there to let me in, but one door is ajar. Pushing the heavy, carved wooden door I look up –- all the Gothic arch above and all around me is overcarved with images of saints and scripture stories.

Idolatry, comments some forgotten ancestor in my blood –- shocking me a little with its vehemence -- Puritan, Quaker, Danish Lutheran. But look, breathes a more medieval or even older voice in my veins –- and I see how every time a girl from the fields, knowing no books, but reading all these stories of heroines and martyrs at a glance, entered the door, she carried in with her all these others who believed and worshipped with her and paid the price of worshipful belief, and every time she departed through this door, she carried out with her all these friends and witnesses testifying that she too can lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset her, and run with patience the race that is set before her. 

She would never be too alone.

Inside, the tiny cathedral is full of rainbow-colored dust motes and small statues jutting out of the pillars -- incredibly expressive, brightly painted, almost comical if they were not so earnest.  They are like the work of a very gifted child. In a tiny niche near the front: a broken eggshell -- bluish green, a songbird shell -- and a crayon-colored drawing of Jesus in the manger. At the center is a
doll-like Mary holding her Baby, both mother and child are dressed in real clothes of a heavy white fabric and lace, with crowns on their heads.

Back outside the cathedral near the Gothic arch of the entrance is an open stonework
porch? – of some mysterious function.

I’ve since learned (the wonders of
Google) that this child-sized cathedral was built in honor of a miraculous statue found in this very spot, where a thorn bush cast its shade. The people of that day tried to carry the image (carved by angels they believed) to the closest church, but in the night the image returned to the shade of the thorn bush. So they built an oratory there where the stone porch now stands. Later a small church and later still the smallest of cathedrals.

The stone porch has been ever since a site of pilgrimage.  Barefooted parents would come to stand on the cold stone with their stillborn child in their arms. The tower bells would call all the village to gather there and pray together to bring the baby back to life in order to receive baptism and be freed from limbo. The signs of life were perhaps not always indisputable –- because the priest would baptize out there on the cold porch under condition: si tu es vivant . . .

The grateful parents would return to pray their thanks to this clear-eyed and compassionate Mary who granted their little ones respite enough to be gathered and translated into God’s better language.

Am I that barefoot parent this cold morning? Or am I the child, trying to wriggle, trying to make the signs of life? Trying to say, Yes, I am living . . . gather me, translate me, don't leave me here inarticulate and floating . . .

Monday, January 5, 2009

Useful Tyger

Tyger, Tyger burning Bright
In the Forests of the Night
What Immortal Hand or Eye
Could Frame thy Fearful Symmetry?

"I can’t believe there is a God. How could a God let floods happen.  Shootings, child abuse, genocide?" my brother Rob had asked.

Looking down at the newborn son in his arms, Rob now says, "Right there is the best argument that God exists."  For him it's an ongoing debate.

I think you can only really know what you yourself have experienced.

I don't debate within myself anymore whether God is there or not. Because -- not always when I pray; I content myself too often with half-awareness -- but because, at times when I pray, something inside the top of my head opens up, something issues out from the area of my heart and my lungs. And something – I sense it as Someone, as my Heavenly Father – comes to meet my opening up and issuing out. Someone who feels Not me, Beyond me answers my call. Like suddenly linking up to the fully-functioning website whose expert webmaster is a genius of design - approachable, intelligent and direct.

At times I have been suffused with joy, bliss -- those impossible words that mean nothing except to the one saying them.  It's as if I'm hearing the silent beat after an immense and embracing laugh. It's like being given access to - a momentary glimpse from - some better being's organs of perception - sights and sounds and smells suddenly clearer, sharpened thought, deeper and more compassionate understanding.

When I'm in that place I can pour out my questions and make my pleas and clarity enters my mind: ideas, calmness, the shapes of a next step. My angry heart is softened. My hurts assuaged. A new direction gently sprouts out. Sudden insights into another’s motives that help me to be more gentle towards them. A full current of love toward someone I need to work with. Courage. Energy. Direction.

I still misstep, misjudge, and missay, but when I pray and follow that leading, I find myself on the kinder path more often, succeed in unplanned ways, do more good in ways I wouldn't have known to do.

If I'm doing it to myself, it's a mysteriously efficacious doing.

I don’t think I am doing it alone.

But I don’t expect my experience in prayer to convince my brother – only ever to suggest, O taste and see! 

And I know it would be irritating if I were to parrot on about it.

We’ve both heard of people who make bad decisions, do awful things, claiming God told them to do it. We know that some people lie – even to themselves. Some people are ill - in their minds and their hearts and their bodies. We know it is possible to be confused by fear and greed, to misunderstand even with the best intentions in the world. But neither of us would argue that only the religious are liable to claim a wisdom their actions belie. And neither of us is so simpleminded as to believe that God and religion cause wars – though often used as excuses – any more than the object of desire causes crime and violence.

We both know people always justify themselves with whatever weighs most in them.

A friend of mine, a science teacher, told me once that organized religion has little appeal to her because she "was raised to be more interested in the questions than the answers.”

I told Rob about this, how I'd said, “But the answers are just theology – the study of someone else’s experience of God. Real religion begins when you take your questions to God – the questions are where you begin to engage with God.” My friend and my brother both shook their heads affectionately at me.

Rob said to me this past weekend, between Christmas and New Year’s, as we sat together watching the fire – our teenagers off enjoying themselves at a movie (his wife Jackie brought not only her dear self but also contemporary cousins to our family circle when she married my brother) – we sat there, talking, and my brother said at one point, Religions are always claiming they’re true because of the good they do. Just because some group does good things - it doesn’t make anything they believe true. All kinds of groups do good. Hindus do good things, Baptists, Mormons. They can’t all be true.

I think maybe where they do good is exactly where they each partake of Truth? Jesus said, By their fruits ye shall know them – giving us this key for recognizing one another.

But I don’t say that either. I laugh, because earlier that morning I had been writing in my journal: “I worry that too often religion separates people who want the same things, whose hearts are after the same truth – splitting hairs and setting up false dichotomies.” I’d been thinking all day about religion in terms of that poem about poetry by Marianne Moore:


I, too, dislike it:
there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it,
however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful . . .

 Useful. Though it is always dangerous to set out to do good. Too much like setting yourself up to be ridiculous - like Miss Clack (in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins) who, when not hiding religious tracts in people’s furniture, is very busy with her meetings of the Select Committee of the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society – the aim
of this excellent Charity is - as all serious people know – to rescue unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent, by abridging them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.
 Later in the week, my brother calls to wish me happy on my birthday. I’m tired, having stayed out late the night before, chaperoning a New Years’ Eve Party for our young people – (riotous living with a vengeance!) – the party: a dinner mystery, games, an inflatable air castle play structure. Then: information about homeless teens in our own town and the young people are set to knitting hats, putting together hygiene kits, making a coat collection box and tying fleece blankets.

A good way to start the new year.

“So what are you doing for the rest of your day?” my brother asks.

In a little while, my friend with the world’s happiest laugh is coming over for dinner. Upstairs, my oldest is cooking for me West African Chicken Peanut Soup. My middlest is baking for me Blueberry Lemon Pound Cake.  Both girls came with me earlier to tidy house, fold laundry for a young woman who has just been diagnosed with cancer. She has three small daughters.  She is beautiful and brave. We three have just come home and I am happy. Tired but happy, indulging myself at the computer, reading the blog of a poet I admire – her blog, in its brevity, immediacy, playfulness, everything that mine is not.

My brother, because he loves me, makes a small parade of the good deed: “Think about it! How many people would do that on their birthday? How many wouldn’t just focus on themselves?”

More than any of us realize, I think. All I know for sure is that as I age, the chance to escape myself even for an afternoon is increasingly sweet.

After my brother hangs up I go back to the blog I was reading before – which links to
this – a commencement address where the speaker argues for the real usefulness of an education. I quibble with some of the speaker’s points but he’s got me thinking – also a good way to start the new year. I read:

If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
The speaker isn’t sure “that mystical stuff is necessarily true,” but insists that
here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.
It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
Useful in that sense of the word.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

When the night is deep . . .

"Ecce Homo," by Caravaggio

"Behold I Stand"by Gerard Kelly

When the night is deep
With the sense of Christmas
And expectancy hangs heavy
On every breath,
Behold I stand at the door and knock.

When the floor is knee deep
In discarded wrapping paper
And the new books are open at page one
And the new toys are already broken,
Behold, I stand at the door and knock.

When the family is squashed
Elbow to elbow
Around the table
And the furious rush for food is over
And the only word that can describe the feeling
Is full,
Behold, I stand at the door and knock.

And when Christmas is over
And the television is silent
For the first time in two days
And who sent which card to whom
Is forgotten until next year,
Behold, I stand at the door.

And when the nation has finished celebrating
Christmas without Christ
A birthday
Without a birth
The coming of a kingdom
Without a King
And when I am

Behold, I stand.

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