Tuesday, June 23, 2020

One Day, in the Dark of an Endless Night

A person woke up, waiting to be fed. Do I need to tell you that he is a man? Of course not. Who else wakes up waiting for the bread of life to fall into his mouth?

Not all, of course.  But him? Always.

He will read this and feel vindicated. "Yes," he will think, "This is real."
He tells himself he is ready for real truth however it comes. As long as he is at the center of it. As long as it is spoon-fed onto his tongue by gentle hands. As long as he doesn't need to harvest it himself. All he needs to do is what he does naturally, shining as the planets spin around him. Wait, which is he, anyway: Sun? Prophet? God? So many hats. The burden is great.

This story would be of more value if it were permanently deleted.  Then it could offer no more of what he expects: wisdom dropping like ripe fruit into his open, sleeping mouth.

Forget the story, then; consider only the image. We live in a culture where the image says it all. Those of us who write ought to know better than to waste breath on words. But you work with what you have when what matters is what is true, and you get used to it, over time, the way no one reads. There's freedom here. At least there isn't the burden of attention. In case you had not considered the terrible heaviness of such a burden, listen to the man waking up with a spoonful of cake waiting to drop into his open mouth, if only he would stop moving it to complain.

"What a chore," he moans, "to shine so bright, with everyone taking."

Pearls of wisdom are still dropping from trees, whenever he's moved to harvest for a moment or two. Along with the waiting cake, the endless abundance, manna from heaven enough for an army of men while he cries poverty.

Now he will find it and think it is just for him.  Do you blame someone for this sort of thinking, when it is all they know?

If I were a prophet I might have an answer. I am no prophet and I am no sun, and I never imagined myself to be either. In this lowly state, all I can know is the endless black, one foot in front of another, and only hunger scraping against these insides at the end of the day, and at the end of every day, this gamble: if I give into sleep now, will it disappear?

No answer ever comes.

Except for him. For him they always come. I guess this is what it is like when you are a prophet, when you are a chosen one.

He stretches his hand out while he's still in bed, and Behold! The abundance of gifts in his direction is a fact as central as gravity, except he never names it. He gets more attention crying, or presenting himself as The Giver Himself, bright and central as the sun, shedding light on all the anointed at his feet. Groggy with the burden of fulfilling such a great obligation, he stumbles around. He can't find the light switch. In his disarray, he knocks over the forkful of food presented to him as it had been presented every day for the last thirty years. Every day someone rose early to bake him a fresh cake. He let it mold and waited for the party to leave. Then he cried about how hungry he was, and all of the recipes he meant to make, and how there were never the right ingredients on the shelves at the right time.

He remembered a tree, vaguely. He remembered himself, vaguely content with it. But the garden was long gone. What happened? Why did gardens always die? How depressing. And never any food when you needed it. How was he supposed to deliver all these prophecies to people when he was so hungry? It was so hard to be the sun, waking up every morning in the dark, the center of the solar system, expected to keep it spinning and lit.

One day it will happen that at a moment when he is yawning, the forkful of food that had been presented to him every day of his adult life, while he pontificated his daily complaints, will fall into his mouth. This will stop him for a moment.

"What a sudden gift!" he will think. "How appropriate that this should come now!" No thought is too meager to keep to himself. He is, after all, a generous god. Hence the sun salutations, the gratitude and willingness of so many, awaiting his pronouncements. Assuming he is the first to behold such a gift, he must proclaim!

Of course the same forkful of food has been presented to him every morning for the past thirty years. But if he were to accept it he would not be able to prophecy like the sun, and he would have had no excuse for his tears. Better to cry and prophecize. With duties like that, who had time to look?

 Such are the unanswerable questions one must bear when they bear the weight of the sun.

"Look at me!" he announces. "I am eating this food!"

"Look!" he says, finally grabbing the fork in his own hands. "What a discovery! I must tell the people!"

"Yes!" he proclaims, "Watch me as I shine!" Here is a great feat indeed. He finally clutches the fork.

But no one sees it, because everyone has grown tired of watching their cakes grow mold. He clings anyway.

"Look at me!" he says, "You thought I wouldn't come through, but look at me now, doing my part!"

And he sits alone in a dark room, chewing the first forkful of food he ever lifted to his own mouth. Surely the spotlights will come on soon. Surely the band will play soon. Surely there will be a great party beginning any moment.

He waits. It is dark. The darkness goes on and on and still he does not see. He weeps, thinking how sad it is that everyone is waiting for the sun. What a burden. He weeps into a pile of cake crumbs collected over thirty years. How hungry he was. How sad. How forsaken he felt, to be so neglected and unseen.


Epilogue

Don't worry. Weep not. Of course they will come. You don't have people showing up every day baking cakes for nothing, no matter how unreliable you are. People love their false idols.

They come, they bow at his feet. He talks about the struggle, how real it was. How grateful he is to have persisted.  How grateful that he had the drive and the follow-through to struggle through the desert wasteland.

"I have seen!" he proclaims. The crowd erupts in ecstasy.

Then there is a great speech and vast quantities of applause. It is unheard by the woman who shows up every night to quietly clean the mess of crumbs at his feet.  She throws them in the garbage knowing there will be another pile the next night, and the next, and the next. Probably the piles will grow even bigger, now that he has found so many more willing subjects. There's going to be a lot more cake now, and a lot more crumbs, and a lot more tears.

The trash bag is full again. What would it be like, she wonders, to live in a world where the trash bag was never full, and the question was not between cleaning the cake crumbs or sleeping with bugs?

One day, if she ever get's a moment less ripe with crumbs to clean, she'll have to ask the prophet.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Reading the Martyr Image

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
(Matthew 5:4, NIV)
In these heated times, many of the more powerful symbols of the movement have involved depicting George Floyd as a martyr, sometimes by naming him as such, but mostly by invoking this image with imagery of halos, wings, and robes. This is problematic for some, for reasons that are understandable. Various people have expressed confusion over this -- most notably among these, Candace Owens, who seemed, when I saw her video for the first time the night before writing this post. Knowing nothing about Owens, I assumed her to be a thoughtful black teenager speaking from her heart as is her right to do.  Considering her apparent youth, it seemed like she was raising alternative and controversial perspectives for the sake of argument in a way that seems at first not unlike the habits of many young people I know and work with. *

*Knowing nothing about Owens but what I could see in her video on George Floyd, I wrongly assumed that she was a teenager. At the time that I first published this post, I originally wrote: "I do not wish to discredit the value of her words for furthering a conversation, for it is also her responsibility as a young person to challenge all of us. But sadly, her voice is being misused by many in a way that serves a racist agenda of death."I have since learned that Owens is in fact a thirty-one-year-old pundit with a history as a spokesperson on alt-right media outlets. While I find her presence both fascinating and deeply troublesome, I am going to decide to leave any speculation about her motives out of this post, since they are irrelevant here. I now know that she is more than the thoughtful [albeit misguided] young woman she appears to be, but it is not my role to cast aspersions on her character or motives. Rather, I want to address this confusion in hopes that this may not be the sticking point that it currently is. Because, right now, this understandable confusion over the use of the term "martyr" is being exploited by right wing media outlets in a manner that soothes and justifies certain covert racist beliefs, offering a balm to the conscience of those looking for a reason to discredit the whole movement. 

The effect on the listening end, among many, seems to go something like, “See? he’s a criminal, not a martyr. These people are crazy.” It’s the classic red herring move, distracting people from the central issue at hand. I have noticed the discussion and confusion around this and been troubled by the capacity for this confusion to sow further division.

I did not know George Floyd, but from what I gather from various sources it is safe to say that he was an imperfect man who was loved.  At this essential level, this makes him much like anyone I know. It is also clear that he was murdered by police, and that his murder follows a predictable pattern of killing.

One definition of martyr involves standing for a cause, and by that definition George Floyd fails, except if you reduce “cause” to its simplest possible interpretation, which is wanting to live. As a black man in certain communities, in certain lights, this is cause enough — and fraught enough with difficulty, to absorb the weight of a burden that we typically associate with a responsibility greater than staying alive.

Martin Luther King’s image is often held up in contrast to other victims of racialized violence, as a way to discredit the current movement. King was a man of the church and he gave his life to the cause. It seems worth mentioning that he was also called a thug in certain circles, and worse. But there are many men and women of the church, many who devoted their lives to working for the cause of the modern Civil Rights movement, and they were not murdered. Was King, in the end, murdered for no better reason than being a black man in America who failed to “know his place?” This is a deeply disturbing idea. It is easier, in many ways, to martyrize King, because the narrative of the persecuted liberator is familiar. To think that King's murder was the result of his blackness is in many ways a more difficult pill to swallow.

George Floyd was no MLK. The only thing that the murdered black men and women have in common is a common liability, which is being black in America. It is time to recognize this.

It is also time to stop wasting time debating the term martyr. People are moved by symbols and in the times we live in now, an idea doesn’t gain traction without an image and a hashtag. Many also took issue with #blacklivesmatter for similar reasons, objecting, with unnecessary reminders about the sanctity of all lives. This argument deserves further study now. To anyone still arguing that all lives matter, it may be helpful to notice the lack of a qualifier in this term. It is not "all  those who have never done anything wrong" or "all lives with no public record of their missteps." Passing a test of model citizenship should not be a prerequisite for life. None of us should have to prove we are saints to be protected from murder.

The halos around George Floyd’s head should not be seen as awards he earned for being an upstanding citizen.  They should not be misunderstood as misguided calls for his canonization. What he did or didn’t do is irrelevant here, because similar actions, done or not done, do not typically lead to the state-sanctioned murder of a white citizen. George Floyd’s death is a tipping point in a long series of racially-charged murders, and these deaths are symptoms of a much greater disease. Racism in America is so rampant, so omnipresent, and so deeply embedded into the fabric of the nation (and our bodies, as Resmaa Menakem explains), that unless you are actively working against contagion and transmission, you are sure to be spreading it.

So it may help here to stop worrying about whatever intentions, misunderstandings, or differing opinions may be behind any of the martyr images, and recognize the larger symbolism of these images should invoke, and this symbolism should be readily accessible to those professing to follow Christian principles.  To any person of faith, any available halo/martyr imagery should invoke nothing more complicated than the teachings of Jesus, the heart of which is effectively captured when he declares, in the days before he is crucified, that those who wish commit to following and loving him must recognize his face and his image in the bodies of persecuted people everywhere.


“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 24:40, NIV
The martyr/ saint imagery should not be misunderstood as a campaign to canonize any of the victims, but as a call to recognize Jesus' face in the persecuted of the world.  George Floyd needs no greater justification than his humanity here, and being a black man murdered by police is enough to justify his place among the persecuted.  To fail to stand with those who mourn is to reject the most urgent call of Christ's teaching. He sat with criminals, prostitutes, outcasts, and persecuted everywhere -- not to condone any sins they might have been accused of, but to demonstrate against the larger sin of judgement -- in the name of God's love, a term that Christians are called to recognize as synonymous with life.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Weep Not

I write in a moment that needs no introduction. The image speaks for itself. I'm going to get right to it. Friends, be angry that this happened. Hold your rage. Decide how to use it. Above all, know that this is nothing new. The pharisees stood before a church when they demanded that Jesus be crucified. This is a critical context for the moment we live in. Power mongers have always sought to align themselves with some church or another. But the church is not a building. It is a people. And we, the people, are now called to remember what we stand for. Evil does not wear the face of a monster; it doesn't come in a dragon costume. It aligns itself with symbols of righteousness. Those who count these symbols sacred have a sacred obligation to call the bluff for what it is: an old, dirty trick -- predictable and worn out.  But the key is this. The pharisees posing before the church don't get the last word. Without the Crucifixion, there is no Resurrection. It's time to hold on. Stand your ground. Remember the battle. It's an old one.

"Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us"

(Luke 23: 28-31).  
Then: on the third day, he rose from the dead. The hour comes again. Take heart. Hold.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Reading the Moment at Hand

Cities are burning. People are standing and singing. People kneel, weep, throw things. People throw up their hands. People watch these events unfold with a creeping sense of dread: this is the moment we live in. Daughters and sons die, mothers and fathers cry.

This is not a not a new story.  On the one hand I wish this were otherwise (the age of the story); on the other, I take courage in standing among the ranks of the army on the side of justice. What is new are the people now in childhood, trying to become adults. What do we tell our children now?

Education is nothing if it does not show you how to interpret the current moment. It is critical now that this one be understood as something other than the worst we've ever seen. We live in dark times, but this is, as Rebecca Solnit has observed, "a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave" (Hope in the Dark).

Now we're coming on June, and I haven't seen my students since March 13, and it is possible I will not see many of them again.

What do we do as educators but provide a critical counter to the flame-throwing media frenzy of hatred, fear, and anger, and the dreary despair of being locked in at home with no immediate way out? I don't know. I am willing to have a different answer every week, but this is finals week, and I spent the morning weeping as I watched the news: part in hope, part in concern, part in worry for the next of the dead. But ultimately, I know (not think, not decide, not wish) that now is a time for hope. I know because I have studied history enough to understand why Richard Rohr asserts that "the story of history is a story of salvation." This is opposite to what standard presentations of news will have any of us believe. I am grateful in this moment to have been taught a deep belief in the power of the unseen, and I wonder now how best to translate this understanding in a world where the easy headline and oversimplified image reign -- on the level of the seen, that is -- supreme. This isn't new, either.

The diseases of bigotry, ignorance, fear mongering, hopelessness and despair are and have been at the level of a global pandemic for some time. As teachers, we must recognize the role we play in working against this system. The only curriculum that matters now is: 1. Why anger is the right response 2. What to do with this anger 3. How this moment is part of a history as old as civilization, and a specific series of wounds as old as this nation itself -- and finally, why now is a moment for hope.

"We are going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. So however difficult it is during this period, however difficult it is to continue to live with the agony and the continued existence of racism, however difficult it is to live amidst the constant hurt, the constant insult and the constant disrespect, I can still sing we shall overcome. We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice."

-- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, 1968.

This is what I am thinking about as we go into finals week. This is what comes of it.

2020 Visions: Final Reflection
It’s the end of the year, and all that I want you to take from your learning  (in this course and in life) is this.

Key Lessons

  1. If you have your eyes open, anger is the right response. You have to fight to keep them open.
  2. How to harness this anger, resist the understandable temptation to blow something up, and create real change.
  3. This moment is part of a story as old as civilization itself, and this moment in the U.S. speaks to wounds as old as the nation. These must be addressed, or the dream of America dies
  4. Now is a moment to hope.
  5. To grow hope and spread it to others, you must always be willing to recognize the unseen -- that which is hidden, obscured by dark, underground, or silent. This is where wonder and possibility live. Yes, we live in times of darkness, “a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.”

How? 
READ. Study history. Learn where you come from. Listen to others who have lived these questions. Create and listen to your own. Answers DO exist. Hope is real. This moment’s crises are only old crises, felt in new ways.

Why?
The world needs the best of us now. To cultivate wisdom and righteousness in a world of ignorance and bigotry, you must be a very strong warrior. These questions aim to allow you to cultivate and practice this  strength.

So What is the Final? Here is the Final. 
Choose one of these questions as a focal point.

  1. What can we learn now from King’s legacy, in terms of how to deal with anger effectively?
  2. What can we learn from the 1963 Children’s March on strategies for effective nonviolent resistance?
  3. Why is this moment a moment for hope?
  4. Notice and describe a small wonder: something beautiful, profound, or otherwise remarkable, which is life-giving and beautiful to notice, which may easily be missed, especially now. 


Create a meaningful response. Your response may be:
A written reflection, a speech, poem, or original verse, a letter (to whom is your choice, or it can be an open letter to a group), OR a video you create. Then share it.

Related resources
Here are resources to help you think about the corresponding questions. Many of these have been explored in previous lessons. You may go beyond these, but please start by reading and/or listening to the resource(s) related to your selected question.What can we learn now from King’s legacy, in terms of how to deal with anger effectively?

For thinking about anger, consider this:

  • "Power of MLK’s Anger"  and also his "Three Evils" speech (Think MLK wasn't angry? That's because you got only the Disney version on TV of this complex warrior. Think again. MLK knows as well as anyone why anger is righteous in the face of injustice, and also why we must fight the impulse to do violence. We have the power to channel this powerful emotion into a life giving force.)

For thinking about nonviolent resistance, consider the 1963 Children's March.

For considering why is this moment a moment for hope, consider:

For noticing small wonders easily overlooked, consider the following:
You are here in this moment now for a reason. The world needs you to heal. Practice seeing what really is, and not what simply seems to be. And then listen, and practice speaking. Because it is time for a chorus of new voices to sing. I stand with you in awe, lifting my arms in recognition. Now is the time. The walls will come crumbling down. Take courage. Reasons to do so are here, everywhere around us. They are less loud than the reasons to despair. Listen carefully. 

Look. The hour of change is at hand. I am so proud to be standing here with you.




Thursday, April 2, 2020

On Doors Made of Wood

"A gift opens the way
and ushers the giver into the presence of the great."
 - Proverbs 18:16, NIV

Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree needs no introduction, so I’ll save it. Take a moment. Remember it’s impact.

I do. It seemed prophetic when Mrs. Commuti read it to my second-grade class. There was no possibility, then, for understanding how, and no context to place it in, either.

Some people like to bring up this book in various nostalgic reveries, perhaps as a way to show some level of heart or affection. People often say, of this book, “I cried.”

Sentimentality happens when someone is rubbing up against the feelings they wish to have. With this in mind, one must always be consoling the criers, who find it flattering to believe that they can imagine what it means to give one’s being away.

The only thing to do when this happens is to remain silent,  remembering how the would-be bereaved have no idea what they are crying about, and understanding  — with a depth perhaps not unlike the depths glimpsed by the women and men who served food and made beds aboard The Titanic, whose stories are somehow never chronicled, and who were last to find seats aboard limited life boats —  that they never will.

This knowing is useless unless it comes with an understanding of how unknowing is a privilege or a curse bestowed on some, and that the bestowing or revoking of privileges and curses is something best left to higher powers unless one wishes to spend a life growing into wormwood. When it comes to dealing with the privileged, you can’t blame them. They honestly think it is their birthright, the absorption of other lives.

Certain trees you can harvest over and over again, cut to pieces and use as you like, and unless there is some blight, the wood will grow again.

Is it a tree that grows after this cut? This depends on the viewer. It was probably a tree, once. It was probably good at being a tree. But then a boy came along and he couldn’t help himself for knowing nothing but his own needs. So the tree gave him what he needed: again and again and again. Then he sat on the stump and looked at the great house he had built and thought fondly of the tree he once knew.

If a tree falls in a forest an no one hears it, did it really fall? This question is perennial and will remain forever unanswered, but one fact is certain. If the tree fell where it was cut, and it fell in a verifiable way, then when it was found it was no longer a tree. It was wood, because the viewer was wielding the saw, its teeth still warm from the final cut.

Here is a suggestion: now is the time to watch how people react. Some cry for the tree. Poor tree, they think, all used up.  But that’s just sentimentality and ignorance talking. The tree loved the boy because she knew the boy. She loved him where she met him and the place where she met him was simple: a child’s need.

But the child became a man and he did not grow beyond his need, so he sat on the stump of the tree he had once known with no way to account for the missing parts he had accumulated in the building of the home he claimed to want. Only the tree could account for this now, and the tree remained silent, and the boy remained ignorant of the cause of his endless want.

The tree knew only to grow and to give. He didn’t. That’s the lesson. Stop crying for the tree.

Pity the boy.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Art of Loving in Uncertain Times

In January, I emerged from the campus library with a stack of books, titles I had written in the back of the notebook I’d been keeping in the winter months, because they had been referenced in other works of interest at the time.  One of these was Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. I found its opening half rich and interesting and then I was interrupted by other necessities, a major writing project, and the beginning of the spring semester.  Three months passed, and then came COVID-19 school closures and the governor’s stay-at-home orders. I cleaned, among other things, my nightstand, and found, hidden behind and beneath a collection of numerous other books and notebooks and magazines, this slim volume. Suddenly it seemed timely.

When Fromm published The Art of Loving, in 1956, he was fifty-six years old and a prominent psychoanalyst living in Mexico City after fleeing Nazi Germany, first for the United States. He had already published, to wide acclaim: Escape From Freedom, Man For Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, and The Sane Society. I have yet to read these. All seem equally apropos to the moment at hand.

Certain questions emerge now: how do we care for one another? Certain truths about purpose tend to make themselves known when others fall away. Among those separated by lockdown, relationships may be alternately strained by distance and more deeply and poignantly appreciated. For members of the same household living together, a new closeness may emerge, along with a surfacing of irritation and frustration. The heart hopes for renewal and the heart sickens with separation.

Fromm makes it clear that the casual reader looking for a simple tutorial in loving well will be disappointed, and he makes his thesis clear at the outset: “Love is not a sentiment that can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him.” He goes on to explain that love is unattainable without true humility, courage, faith, and discipline.

The book opens with an epilogue from Paracelsus:
“He who knows nothing, loves nothing . . . the more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love  . .  . anyone who imagines that all fruits ripen at the same time as the strawberries knows nothing about grapes.”

A central question opens the book: “Is love an art?” A central premise is that it is, and the purpose is to explore how understand and practice towards mastery, and to cultivate an awareness of the pitfalls and barriers to the development of healthy practice. Modern society, as Fromm sees it, is ripe with these barriers.

Chief among these are principles of capitalism which pervade modern Western society, and which are antithetical to love in all of its forms: brotherly (love between equals), maternal (love for the helpless), divine (love for God), and erotic (desire for deep union with another soul). The last of these, unsurprisingly, is the most fraught with illusion and pitfalls. Fromm highlights the problem with the popular “market model” of love that pervades Western culture, which dictates that “two persons fall in love when they believe they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values.”  The practicality of such a model is problematic because it is egocentric and because it tends to exclude possibilities for transcendence. When it comes to popular psychology of relationship, Fromm finds fault in the "teamwork" model of partnership, which is based in corporate models favored by capitalist societies, and which reduces the individual to a mere means to an end while failing to recognize the divinity of each "partner" as an end in themselves, while also tending to forestall any chances of transcendence within this limited framework. The idea of “falling” is also problematic because it is oppositional to the posture of mature love, which is standing in active and focused attention, with full concentration on loving. Falling is wild, passive, and unpredictable; standing is done with calm intensity, with the fully active engagement of an individual’s highest potential, and with constancy.

Considering the art of such a stance, Fromm orders his study of loving into two parts: theory and practice.  Mastery of both, fused in to one, epitomizes the mastery of any art. These combine with a third essential factor, namely that “the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern.”

William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam
His theory of love begins with a theory of man. A defining characteristic of man, in Fromm’s view, is his original “awareness of aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the faces of nature and of society.” It is recognition of this state that Fromm recognizes as the original pain of humanity. The sudden shame felt by Adam and Eve, as Fromm sees it, was precisely the result of this awareness. It is appropriate that the story of humanity in the Christian tradition begins here. The recognition of one’s separateness is the original source of shame, and also of guilt and anxiety; reunion may come only through the transcendence of deep and mature love (be this brotherly, maternal, or erotic — any of which, in its pure form will bring deep and lasting union with all other beings and with God).

It’s an old question: how to overcome the prison of alienation in favor of at-one-ment. Various cultures before today’s Western (and increasingly global) one have had various ways of connecting to nature and to one another. Primitive societies had various seasonal rituals by which communal orgiastic states were achieved. These were often violent and destructive in nature, but undoubtedly provided a form of transcendence. In order to attain more lasting and life-giving forms of transcendence, Biblical man was challenged to set aside these practices for the purpose of graduating towards a budding understanding of a model of mature love (hence all of the Old Testament admonishment of sex-and-religion practices, which people were constantly drawn back into for reasons that are as understandable as the pull of addiction). Man’s craving for transcendence beyond his own separateness is so deep and relentless that it will either find resolution or fuel individual or communal pathologies. There is no in-between.

In the Christian tradition, the coming of Christ represents this call to graduate toward a more mature relationship with God, an experience of divine love that is neither an all-protecting mother or a punishing father. In reminding his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt and the light,” Jesus calls people to recognize this deep union with creation, not with passive poses of submission or supplication, but as active participants in creation.

We would do well to remember this today, particularly when uncertain circumstances of global unrest tend to cause such desperate anxiety that people often cling to false senses of certainty which miss the point, prevent growth, and silence human agency. These are wild optimism (everything will be fine, just wait) and dire pessimism (everything is ending, just wait). Both are passive. The alternative is loving faith, and as many wise thinkers have pointed out, the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. In uncertain times, we are called to love. We are reminded that our vulnerability is not our own, but one that is shared by all other humans.  The addictions, compulsions, depressions, and widespread anxieties that plague so many of us modern society are symptoms of our failure to know and understand how to be -- which is as students of this art. In a world where so many activities are routinized, prefabricated, under constant surveillance, “how should a man . . . not forget that he is a man, a unique individual, one who is given only this one chance of living?”

As I am finishing these notes, I step outside for an afternoon walk and on it I listen to Krista Tippet’s On Being Interview with Rebecca Solnit, author of many volumes, including one published in the wake of the 2016 election, called Hope in the Dark. In it, Solnit speaks of the need for better metaphors and truer stories. The ones we tend to be most familiar with, when it comes to crisis moments like this one, have to do with falling apart, and the fragility of human beings. But what is also true is the “joy of disaster” which comes from the escape from separateness, from the natural coming-together in the midst of crisis moments, a tendency that points towards quite another story: one of human nature’s remarkable capacities to embody the call to be the salt and the light of the world, to participate in the ever-renewing spirit of creation which is not only his ancestry and his birthright, but the healing hand for his original pain, and it is made of the same substance as his own, raised in celebration, submission, awe, and wonder — all opposites to certainty, and each fundamental to faith — and art, and love.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Sharing silence near the ends of our worlds

 In the first week of COVID-19 isolation at home, I found myself as many did: checking news updates and then getting outside or reading poetry or staring through the window as an antidote to the noise, wondering if I had enough of various essentials, being a bit unnerved by the lines outside the grocery store, and by the empty shelves, and by the reports from Italy of elderly sick being left to die. I have also been deeply moved by moments of compassion, empathy, thoughtfulness, and by wonderful humor. This week I also had the pleasure reading Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, and of being moved by the vision of a people who have chosen a collective deafness to the commands of the soldiers occupying their town, and by this line, from one of the many beautiful verses in this masterpiece, in the voice of one of the “Deaf” townspeople: “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.”

“It’s the air,” one speaker observes, “Something in it wants us too much.” The townspeople lock arms and form a circle to keep the soldiers away from the dead body of a murdered boy.

And in this moment, I am moved and inspired at the idea of listening in this spirit, while resisting the urge to respond obediently when expected. And also, as many I know are, wondering about the difference between what is and what officially is; and feeling deeply at certain wavelengths that are often undetected, noticing what tends to escape standard qualification as legitimate observation.

Among these observations, a recognition that the moment at hand is a global event, that the people living through it are those for whom it will become a defining hour in various ways, and that I — as one of them — can’t help but notice how fitting it seems, how like something I had long suspected was just around the corner. I sense that I am not alone here. I fall into that strange category of generation that is a bit too young for the utter disaffectedness of Gen-X and a bit too old to catch any millennial confidence. (As a child, I was deeply moved by the appearance of Reagan’s sincerity. It would be another decade before I could begin to understand the problematic moral crisis that his policies presented, and when this happened, R.E.M.’s “The End of the World as We Know It” was playing at a constant loop.) My natural melancholic strains have long been tempered with a wild-eyed sense of living at a tremendous time, and this in turn is equally tempered by a natural mistrust in professions of progress. It was clear that some bottom had fallen out somewhere, and like any family secret this became the thing that no one would discuss.

There was a deep sense, which grew like a hearty weed resistant to slogans on optimism and positive thinking and the virtues of technological progress. It grew in the pit of the stomach, tainting our abilities to receive such messages with anything better than a forced smile and willingness to do our best to be (to use a catchphrase of the moment) a "team player," or if we couldn’t do that, to aim at being the next one to “break the mold” (in the name of progress, of course). By the time we were old enough to read Yeats, or to come to him by way of Joan Didion’s famous Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she quotes the poet’s “Second Coming” which we first read in certain formative years, many of us would be stunned by the way that such a moment that seemed so particular to us in its strangeness, and so defiant of words, had already been foretold: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer —. . .”

"Falconer's Bird" by Steve Herring on flickr 
We were born after the listening stopped, but our hearts were crowded anyway with vestigial memory of what it had been like in the days before there was so much relentless noise or deadening speed.

There is something here, I think: in the days of Corona isolation, in-between impromptu homeschool math lessons and physics experiments and reading poetry and making food and playing tennis and sharing conversation with fellow isolated;  in between moments of relief at being off of the schedule of the machine, and deep into a deeper kind of work, and I’d like to take some time to think about it more before I try to share. But, observing that the organic nature of the busy-ness of these days at home makes it unlikely that I’ll be doing this any time soon, makes me want to offer this observation up to neighbors in isolation in the same spirit that I would offer a half-empty travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, some cans of tomato paste, a bag of beans, a bar of soap, or a half-empty pint carton of half-and-half. This is what I have right now.

I used to want to give when I had enough to offer, but it turns out that when shortages become real, the impulse to give persists anyway, but more desperately and with fewer restraints, and it’s all I can do when I see you, stranger: hold out this half of my sandwich and say “Here” so we can listen as we chew our simple meal in silence, staring at the sky.