“. . . a partial temperature drifts down from the sky. . .” Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

Meaning or actuality?

Meaning or actuality?

The last few days my writing has been bits and pieces, attempts to get something started that fizzle into nothing. That’s important only because it may be evidence of something shifting in my inner life, a “sea-change.”

For several days I’ve been in the grip of a physical anomaly that’s familiar yet new. It may not be physical at all. It may be in my mind, not in my brain.

If it’s in my mind, I think it’s not unusual for someone my age. That is to say, the disconcerting sense that “the center will not hold” (William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, “The Second Coming”). If it’s in my brain, Drs. Agostini, Bret, and Daly better figure it out soon!

Dizzy. Dissociated. Disoriented. Dreamlike.

Am I alone in the experience of suddenly realizing I’ve not actually been “there” for the last (how long?) hour? That I chat for with a friend on my way out of the tutoring center, and, by the time I get to the elevator I’m pretty sure it never happened? That I was not physically there at her desk?

What’s that all about, anyway? A normal sense to anyone who stops to think for one moment? Especially anyone who has reached older age than many of the famous personages whose deaths are in the news. Wondering not only about the “meaning” of life, but also about the “actuality” of life?

One of my father’s favorite Bible verses comes to mind. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:19). I don’t precisely think there’s such a thing as “sin.” And, if there is, I have no idea what it has to do with what I’ve written so far. The injunction, “Come now, and let us reason together,” I suppose.

Let’s be reasonable about this.

He knows what's "only"

He knows what’s “only”

I know dissociation is a common symptom of TLEpilepsy (back to that old song). It means “disoriented” and “dreamlike.” It’s an easy leap of logic from that feeling to one of intense religiosity, or at least spirituality. [What a ridiculous word! Even the bigoted and viciously fundamentalist atheist Sam Harris has written about it.] TLEptics know the experience. Not all of us see visions and dream dreams, but we all know the sense of the “other-worldly.” It’s right here. In our brains. Every day.

It may be, I think, what drives us to write, to try to make sense of the way we feel.

Make sense.

Very little veritably makes sense to me.

Not obvious things. Calling the Koch Brothers “libertarians,” for example, when everyone knows they are simply the greediest sons-of-bitches on earth. Or thinking Ebola or ISIS are a threat to the people who live in my apartment complex, when anyone with half a brain can see both are fear-mongering constructions of big business, the media, and complicit governments. Obvious things which, when one says them, immediately give one the aura of insanity.

Perhaps a certain insanity is a mark of TLEpilepsy. Cassandra (see The Trojan Women) was TLEpileptic? Amos (see the Bible) was TLEpileptic? John Brown (see American history) was TLEptic? Makes sense to me.

Supposed insanity is simply a mark of someone who has non-conformist ideas but is not smart enough to say them in any comprehensible or useful way (perhaps because they live in a haze of dissociation).

Or someone whose medications are out of whack or who has an as-yet-undiagnosed inner ear disorder. Or simply, as all gay men would say of each other, “A dizzy old queen.”

Not-so-obvious things don’t make sense to me, either.

I wonder how (if) Sam Harris would make his fundamentalist pronouncements differently if he were TLEptic.

But the reality of consciousness appears irreducible. Only consciousness can know itself—and directly, through first-person experience.” (Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion).

Damn! I wish I knew what he means!

Sam Harris sounds a great deal like John Hagee to me.

Now, people who believe the Bible believe in this [that God established Israel because ‘Salvation is of the Jews’] too, and therefore their support for Israel is not a political issue, but rather a matter of obedience to the Word of God.” (Hagee, John, John Hagee: ‘If You’re Not for Israel, You’re Biblically Ignorant or Not Christian.’ Charisma News. 9/24/2014. Web.)

“Only consciousness. . .” “. . . obedience to the Word of God.” How, exactly, are “only” and “obedience” different?

So I’m back to my opening gambit here—wondering not only about the “meaning” of life, but also about the “actuality” of life.

In about 1995 I was in a seminar in translation at the University of Texas at Dallas. Because she was working in the UTD translation center, Edith Grossman, translator of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, talked to the class a couple of times. She introduced me to the poetry of Pablo Neruda. We used the book Translating Neruda by John Felstiner. I don’t know. It’s all mixed up in my memory. Perhaps Grossman didn’t actually introduce me to Neruda. I associate her with him because both were important to that class. And that’s not because it’s been nearly 20 years. It was mixed up in my memory while it was happening.

You see, Harris is wrong that “Only consciousness can know itself.” I know, I know, I’m quoting him unfairly out of context. And Hagee is wrong that some sort of “obedience” is necessary. That they are equally misled may be evidenced in that their ideas about Israel’s relationship with Muslims is exactly the same.

But, based on my experience—whether it’s born of TLEpilepsy or incipient old age or a simple inability to understand—I’d say Pablo Neruda has the question of reality about right. Perhaps I’m not in the middle of a “sea-change.” Simply a recognition.

“Unity,” by Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

There is something dense, united, settled in the depths,
repeating its number, its identical sign.
How it is noted that stones have touched time,
in their refined matter there is an odor of age,
of water brought by the sea, from salt and sleep.

I’m encircled by a single thing, a single movement:
a mineral weight, a honeyed light
cling to the sound of the word “noche”:
the tint of wheat, of ivory, of tears,
things of leather, of wood, of wool,
archaic, faded, uniform,
collect around me like walls.

I work quietly, wheeling over myself,
a crow over death, a crow in mourning.
I mediate, isolated in the spread of seasons,
centric, encircled by a silent geometry:
a partial temperature drifts down from the sky,
a distant empire of confused unities
reunites encircling me.

Neruda

“. . . A type of that twin entity which springs From matter and light . . .”

Hungary or Ukraine

Hungary or Ukraine

My students are writing this semester on my favorite class topic, “Writing about the grotesque.” Flannery O’Connor’s essay on the subject, her story “Parker’s Back,” the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Body Snatcher,” the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the work of the French performance artist ORLAN.

It occurred to me the other day when I heard a news story from Odessa (not Texas) that I might have used Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which I studied years ago in a graduate seminar on the language of film instead of Invasion. Could we have discussed the “grotesque” in a film based on an historic event? We might have discussed the grotesquery of propaganda. Or of the slaughter of innocents. Or of Tsarist totalitarianism. Any of those things. The over-acting of silent films?

That occurred to me for the same reason I’ve listened several times recently to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 –the “Little Russian.” A colleague at Bunker Hill Community College told me (20 years ago!) the “Little Russia” the title refers to is the Ukraine. The Symphony makes elaborate use of Ukrainian folk tunes. My colleague had relatives living in Kiev. How I’ve remembered this bit of musical trivia all these years I don’t know.

For a couple of months I’ve been trying to explain (to myself) my aversion to hearing about the events in the Ukraine. I cannot hear the news from Kiev or Crimea without cringing.

That radio piece about Odessa began with the Potemkin Stairs.

Potemkin stairs

Potemkin stairs

My thinking is circuitous at best. From classes today back to a graduate seminar in the language of film and Battleship Potemkin, forward to my teaching at BHCC, to the present and my desire to hear no more news from the Ukraine.

The “situation” in the Ukraine has taken on a significance for me far beyond what is warranted. I grew up in the ‘50s when Russia (the Soviet Union) was the arch-enemy. The Soviets sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 to quell an uprising. The Hungarians were willing to remain part of the Soviet “empire.” They simply wanted autonomy.

Right or wrong, that’s the way I remember it. My parents were particularly interested because many of the radio news reports we heard from Budapest were by a reporter with whom, I think, my dad had attended high school. Why I remember that (whether or not it is fact) after all these years is even more mysterious than my remembering Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russia.” However, some memories that seem far-fetched are, I think, too strange to be imagined.

Not long ago I rediscovered and wrote about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “The Soul’s Expression.” The poem ends with an image I can’t get out of my mind: If I were to manage to express myself in words, just as thunder tears apart the cloud from which it comes, so my words would tear apart my body.

But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul
.

A student asked me the other day if, when I spoke in class—as part of my introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I spoke with some resentment about the ‘50s. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer that question. It was my childhood. I was in sixth grade when Russia put down the uprising in Hungary. At almost the same time Britain and France were involved (with American support) in the “Suez crisis.”

It seemed to me our country should have helped the Hungarians who wanted freedom (a vague concept to me, but one that I had learned in school and at home was the basis of our society). I could not see what the Suez Canal had to do with that. I remember standing in our kitchen with my dad while he explained both crises to me. I don’t remember anything he said except that there was a possibility that the US would go to war in the Suez, but not in Hungary.

(Another inexplicable memory: In the background of this conversation Vic Damone was singing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Neurologists who study the workings of memory might find this fascinating. The radio most likely was not on during that conversation, but “The Street Where you Live,” Hungary, and the Suez Canal are run together in my mind inextricably.)

I don’t want to hear the news about the Ukraine because my feelings about that situation mirror so closely the feelings I had about the danger of the loss of freedom in Hungary—the bedrock of everything we believed about the political world—and the inability of our country to protect the Hungarians while supporting Britain and France in a war to keep the flow of oil uninterrupted through the Suez Canal.

How much of that I put together in 1956 I don’t know. I put some of it together now. The reason to be concerned about Ukraine is the flow of natural gas through the country to Europe. The 1956 tension with the Russians is resurrected—and in some bizarre way for the same reasons.

Now the longest stretch in my thinking. In his poem “Sonnet—Silence” Edgar Allan Poe juxtaposes two qualities of humankind, the “double life.” First is the physical, that in death

. . . dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”

By this quality no “power hath he of evil in himself.”

The other quality, the “shadow. . . haunteth the lone regions where hath trod No foot of man.” Whatever is going on in Ukraine, whatever our response to it, we are perilously close to the lone region where has “trod no foot of man.” We are looking squarely at death.

“Sonnet—Silence” —by Edgar Allan Poe            
There are some qualities—some incorporate things,
   That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
   From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore—
   Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
   Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!
   No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)
   Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod
No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

The stairs in fiction

The stairs in fiction

 

“. . . alone with the deep alone, a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.”

In the winter of 1989 I made a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery, in West Park, New York (from the Second Day of Christmas through the day after Feast of the Epiphany). A “vocational retreat,” living at the monastery and participating in the activities of the brothers (including washing dishes) in order to discover whether or not I was suited to the monastic life.

A calling to pray?

A calling to pray?

I returned to Massachusetts for the spring semester at Bunker Hill Community College and waited impatiently for the letter from the Novice Master welcoming me to my life as a monk. I knew that, as a mystic, I belonged in the monastery. In addition, the monastery needed an organist.

Finally the letter came from Brother Robert saying the monks did not believe I had a vocation for the religious life.

I was crushed.

I knew I had (have) a vocation for the religious life. I am a mystic, after all. When I told my AA group I’d received the letter and was trying to cope with rejection, one of the old timers told me I should be proud because, “You’re the only person I’ve ever known who received a message from God in a letter.” I didn’t care if she did work in Gov. Dukakis’s inner circle. She had no right to joke about my life (and death).

(I haven’t broken her anonymity. I don’t remember her name, and Dukakis hasn’t been governor since he ran for President. Think how different our history could have been. George H. W. Bush might never have been President, and George W. Bush would not have had a vendetta against Saddam Hussein for trying to assassinate his father. Who knows how much war would have been avoided?)

The monks said they thought my vocation was for teaching, not meditating, and that I needed to use my gift of playing the organ far more than I would be able to in the monastery.

I consider myself a mystic to this day.

But almost everyone with Temporal Lobe seizures considers themselves mystics.

Mysticism and me. And the great mystery of my inability to share the strength and resolve with which people “believe” in their religion.

I waver about believing in God. Most days I don’t. And then I experience something that makes me wonder. And wonder about the wonder. I’ve written about these experiences before:

As I walked [on the beach at Port Orford, Oregon] the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon . . .  unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf . . . was not, as surf had always seemed before, an unending series of discreet waves crashing offshore a few yards and the foamy edges washing up around my ankles. . . The ocean was all one. I knew the same molecules were pulsating together to make the waves, and the waves were conjoined with . . . the earth in one unbroken moving, life-filled, mass . . . including  . . . my own body, and my mind somehow made up of the elemental universe undulating as far as I could see. . .  the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep . .

This is the continuing mental/spiritual conflict of my life—of everyone’s life who is honest, I think. What is the meaning of our death? How do some people’s implacable religious fanaticism (think of President Museveni of Uganda and his American mentor, Doug Coe of “The Family.” See note below) and my enervated agnosticism exist in the same world? Is our experience of the mystery of existence the same? I answered the question for myself in my writing of November 15, 2009.

Gays must not pray.

Uganda Parliament: Gays must not pray.

And I weep this morning again for the joy I knew then and in the sorrow to know that one day I will simply be a part of the reality—not with a consciousness to love it and be sustained by it, but part only of the elemental structure.

I have grown in four years. I no longer sorrow at being simply a part of the reality. I sorrow at the knowledge my consciousness of it will end. Edward Hirsch describes that mystery better than I.

I’m Going to Start Living like a Mystic,” by Edward Hirsch 

Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.

The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage—silent, pondering.

Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.

I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.

I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.

I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.

I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.

— (Hirsch, Edward. Lay Back the Darkness. New York: Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. 2003.)

. . . the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep . . .

. . . the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep . . .

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Can one be a mystic and not believe in a God (or the gods)? Is a mystical view of the world a choice or—horrors!—merely a function of seizures in the temporal lobe? Does religion have anything to do with mystical experience or is it the antithesis of mystical experience?

I’m not sure why I’ve provided links to three of my other writings about mysticism. Because I can’t avoid it. I keep “walk[ing] home alone with the deep alone a disciple of shadows, in praise [or in search] of the mysteries.” It would make much more sense if I were religious or spiritual or sensitive or artistic or brilliant. But I’m not. So I don’t know what to make of all of this. Perhaps the Holy Cross brothers were right.
______________________
“The Family is largely responsible for the medieval anti-gay laws just passed in Uganda. President Museveni of Uganda. . . spends time and “sits down for counsel”[with Doug Coe] . . . [Coe is] the leader of The Family . . . the same man who believes that ruthless dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao mirror Jesus’ central message on power. . . [The Family] comprising a number of influential congressmen, senators and other people in strategic positions, works secretively to promote its political, economic and religious ideas. . .  in the United States and across the world. . . One of The Family’s central ideas . . .  is that Jesus Christ’s message was not about love, mercy, justice or forgiveness. Rather, it was about power. The group says that Jesus didn’t come to take sides, he came to take over. (“Museveni, Bahati, named in US ‘cult’.” The Observer. Observer.ug. Wednesday, 25 November 2009. Web.)
Please note this is not the British Observer. You can read a more sympathetic interview with Coe here. If you’re a Christian, make up your own mind if you think he speaks for you, or if you are an American think if you want his power influencing our government.

“. . . the longing for God is a prayer said in the bones. . .”

Yesterday I wrote of the unexpectedly strong life of the feelings old folks discover in themselves. “Weeping may indeed endure for a night,” but we don’t yet know if “joy cometh in the morning” as the writer of Psalm 30 asserts.

No longer in the way of asking. . .

No longer in the way of asking. . .

A few hours after I wrote I was in my office talking with students. A young woman brought the first joy of the afternoon. I was able to help her see that what Flannery O’Connor speaks of as “mystery” is not the Sherlock Holmes suspense of “what will happen next?” or “who is the murderer?” O’Connor’s mystery is one in which the writer

. . .  believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, [in which] he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, [and] what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960).

The student with great wonder asked, “Then the mystery is why the people in the story do what they do?” Yes. The mystery in the story.

The meaning of my story “does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.”

Would O’Connor have been appalled at my applying her understanding of fiction to my own (non-fiction?) life? I think not. She would have said that the writer of this kind of mystery must have experienced it in their own life, or they could not know to write it.

It is the mystery that “does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.”

This is the stuff of great fiction because it is the stuff of our lives.

". . . she composes her rickety grocery cart of a body. . . "

“. . . she composes her rickety grocery cart of a body. . . “

What adequately explains the life of my feelings and/or actions? I’ve been in therapy of one sort or another virtually non-stop since about 1970. I know myself (at least in clinical, pathological terms) about as well as my poor limited brain can know. I even know a little of why I cried for about six hours yesterday.

Really.

Of course, if the doctors had been less excited about a patient with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and focused instead on the Bipolar II Disorder that, once diagnosed, was obvious for anyone to see, I’d have saved much time and money.

But even those amorphous, but correct diagnoses do not—not even close—begin to explain who I am and the mystery of my “existing in a created order to whose laws [I] freely respond.” My brain for some reason misfires (electrical some impulses fire differently from most of the rest of you). So?

That in no way explains my response to the “created order to whose laws” we all respond with our own peculiar set of actions and reactions.

Now, don’t get all Freudian or Jungian or Frankl-ian, or even Dr. Oz-ian on me. Or analyze away if you want. See if that gets you any closer to the mystery of who I am. Or who you are, for that matter.

I wrote yesterday about singing hymns (because I’ve played them on the organ all my life, and they are the music within reach when I want music in my mind rather than ruminations on why a university that can raise One Billion Dollars one year needs to cut budgets the next) and quoting Psalm 30, and being aware with overwhelming grief of the horrors to which human beings subject each other. One of the writers whose blog I love to read and with whom I carry on a cyber-exchange commented on my post,

Singing hymns, quoting Psalms, and weeping over human suffering and folly. Has anyone suggested that your life is becoming increasingly more God-haunted?

My response was, “Still.”

Dr. Howland, Dr. Weinberg, Dr. Bret, Dr. Schomer, Dr. Agostini, and all the other psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists who’ve had a crack at explaining my brain have not yet given me a hint as to the mystery of who I am and why or how I [exist] in a created order to whose laws [I] freely respond.

Don’t get all squirrelly on me and raise the silly debate about evolution versus creationism or the big bang versus God. Believe in Jesus or believe Richard Dawkins. Just don’t bother me with it.

On May 5 of this year I will teach my last class as a full-time practitioner of my profession. I will no longer be able to say I am Professor Knight of the Discovery and Discourse program in the English Department at Southern Methodist University.

It breaks my heart.

It leaves me at sea to think about it.

What is the mystery of who I am that insists that part of me IS that professor? Everything about this experience is mysterious to me. I had no idea I cared so deeply about teaching. I

". . . as though someone has cornered them, giving it all away. . ."

“. . . as though someone has cornered them,
giving it all away. . .”

had no idea I could be as frightened as I am pondering not being a part of any institution. This is not simply fear of insecurity—although it is that. It is the profoundest fear of asking the question, now that there is little else to do—no responsibility to get in the way—“Who am I?”

I stumbled upon this poem yesterday. It has nothing to do with psychology or religion or philosophy or politics or science. It says at least some of what I’ve been trying to say here.

“Speaking in Tongues,” by Mary Rose O’Reilley 

I go to church every Sunday
though I don’t believe a word of it,
because the longing for God
is a prayer said in the bones.

When people call on Jesus
I move to a place in the body
where such words rise,
one of the valleys
where hope pins itself to desire;
we have so much landscape like that
you’d think we were made
to sustain a cry.

When the old men around me
lift their hands
as though someone has cornered them,
giving it all away,
I remember a dock on the estuary,
watching a heron get airborne against the odds.
It’s the transitional moment that baffles me—
how she composes her rickety
grocery cart of a body
to make that flight.

The pine siskin, stalled on a windy coast,
remembers the woods
she will long for when needs arise; so
the boreal forest composes itself in my mind:
first as a rift, absence,
then in a tumble of words
undone from sense, like the stutter
you hear  when somebody falls
over the cliff of language.  Call it a gift.
(O’Reilley, Mary Rose. “Speaking in Tongues.” Half Wild: Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.)

“. . . a comet’s nucleus emits X-rays and leaves tracks. . . “

Pulling the covers up around my shoulders as I got into bed, I said to Chachi the cat, “I don’t want to be alone when I die; that’s all.”

That followed an evening of particular awareness of and grieving over my aloneness. Aloneness in both a physical sense—in this moment home alone—and in, shall I say (even though it seems pretentious), a metaphysical sense.

Every 100,000 years

Every 100,000 years

Metaphysics. noun
“branch of speculation which deals with the first causes of things,”
from Medieval Latin
metaphysica . . . from Greek ta meta ta physika
“the (works) after the Physics,” title of the 13 treatises . . . on physics
and natural sciences in Aristotle’s writings. . .  misinterpreted by
Latin writers as meaning “the science of what is beyond the physical”
(“metaphysics.”
Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, ed. 2001-2014. Web.)

If I use the word, I’m sure to misuse it. Because I don’t know what it means. Is it philosophy? theology? psychology? some new-age mixture of the three? One example of the uncertainty of its meaning is that the people who have codified their ideas in the 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know? have preempted the word to mean an association with “channeling,” that is, speaking for a dead person who whispers truth to the channeler, and the channeler teaches these truths to the rest of us on the dead person’s behalf.

This film features students of JZ Knight of “Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment” in Oregon. Knight channels the teachings of the 35,000-year-old Ramtha the Enlightened One (from an ancient city in what is now Jordan). Who am I to decide whether she’s is bogus or teaching the truth? I mention the (far out-of-the-mainstream) use by “Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment” of the word “metaphysics” only as an example of the possible corruption of a word (an idea?) This “channeling” seems to me to be an attempt to short-circuit the universal experience, the ultimate human experience of being alone when we die.

Dying is the last and greatest undertaking of our lives, and we do it alone.

I’m not trying to be profound. And if you find that statement depressing or jump to the conclusion I’m depressed, you will probably miss my point (of which I am not at the moment certain—I write to discover what I’m thinking, remember).

The belief someone from 35,000 years ago can speak to someone alive today obviously presupposes some kind of “life after death.”

Last night I wrote to a friend,

I know how to be alone. I know all about solitude. But simply to want someone to talk to, even to hug–I’ve touched one person today—I put my arm around [a friend’s] shoulders for 5 seconds in my office—is not pathological. It is not pathological to grieve my isolation. And it’s not pathological that I don’t have a clue how to find someone that I want to be with, rather than simply calling up someone I know in a desperate attempt not to be alone. This probably is pathological: I don’t want to be alone, but I feel uncomfortable and out of place with anyone and everyone I know. This is probably bipolar rapid cycling. Or some shit like that. But I’m too old to be this miserable. [Note: “rapid cycling” because the night before I was seemed quite happy.]

“So,” you say, “this is not ‘depression?’”

OK, have it your way.

To channel or not to channel, that is the question.

To channel or not to channel, that is the question.

And you’re probably thinking, “Someone ought to call Dr. Bret, the Gerontological Psychiatrist at UTD Southwestern Medical School who prescribes his meds and with whom he does regular (somewhat—because he forgets appointments) ‘talk therapy.’ Surely anyone who’s thinking and talking and writing about dying alone and being in grief over his loneliness is depressed and needs counseling if not hospitalization. This can’t be healthy or simply speculation. He needs help.”

On the other hand, let’s posit this is a “metaphysical” (speculation which deals with the first causes of things) rant.

. . . In 1996, we saw the [the comet] Hyakutake through binoculars . . .
Comet Hyakutake will not pass earth for another 100,000 years—.
. .

Many (I suspect most) of my friends maintain some belief that includes their being around in some form somewhere the next time human beings on Planet Earth will be able to see Comet Hyakutake’s tail. By that time, human beings from Planet Earth may well possess the ability to meet the comet in space. Who knows?

When my late partner was on his hospital death bed, I spent virtually 24 hours a day with him for his last three days. The hospital brought in a “Lazy-boy” for me. About 72 hours before he died, he opened his eyes and said, “Water?” I moistened his lips—he could not swallow. That was the last communication we had, and I’m almost certain I was the last person he saw before he died.

That moment gave me a responsibility I carry until I die. And an invaluable gift.

This can’t be a “metaphysical” rant because that word itself exists in our language through an error of interpretation (see etymology above) from its first use until, for example, its use by JZ Knight. (Barnes and Noble’s online catalogue has 152 pages of book titles using the word.)

I’m not writing about “the science of what is beyond the physical.” I’m writing completely about the physical. Dying itself will be the last solitary physical act. Whether it happens now or the next time Hyakutake makes its rounds to Planet Earth’s skies, “no matter, ardor is here.”

I said, “I do not want to die alone.” And saying so makes my life whole. I need to give to someone else the fragment of reality Jerry gave me. Ardor (“heat of passion or desire,” from Latin ardorem “a flame, fire, burning, heat”) is here.

“Comet Hyakutake,” by Arthur Sze (b. 1950, New York City)

Comet Hyakutake’s tail stretches for 360 million miles—

in 1996, we saw Hyakutake through binoculars—

the ion tail contains the time we saw bats emerge out of a cavern at dusk—

in the cavern, we first heard stalactites dripping—

first silence, then reverberating sound—

our touch reverberates and makes a blossoming track—

a comet’s nucleus emits X-rays and leaves tracks—

two thousand miles away, you box up books and, in two days, will step through the

        invisible rays of an airport scanner—

we write on invisible pages in an invisible book with invisible ink—

in nature’s infinite book, we read a few pages—

in the sky, we read the ion tracks from the orchard—

the apple orchard where blossoms unfold, where we unfold—

budding, the child who writes, “the puzzle comes to life”—

elated, puzzled, shocked, dismayed, confident, loving: minutes to an hour—

a minute, a pinhole lens through which light passes—

Comet Hyakutake will not pass earth for another 100,000 years—

no matter, ardor is here—

and to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole—

Not to be lone

Not to be lone

“. . . religion . . . a matter . . . in which no other, & far less the public, [has] a right to intermeddle.”

A scary place?

A scary place?

Marlise Muñoz is the latest victim of an insane and deadly religious war in the United States.

“Conservatives” (that is, apparently, those terrified of science) are waging a war in this country that is every bit as sectarian and brutal, and—where they win the war—results in a despotism every bit as un-Democratic and cruel as any these same “conservatives” claim to hate in countries where “Islamists” are in control.

When I was in junior high school (1957-1960), we lived in the house at the corner of the northwest city limits of Scottsbluff, NE, the corner of Avenue I and 30th Street. All of the land between our house and that corner was vacant. The First Baptist Church was eventually built there. I don’t know where the city limit is now. There’s a shopping center to the west across Avenue I from there, and houses cover the hillside to the north, so I assume the city limit has succumbed to the Nebraska small city version of urban sprawl.

From our yard, we could see St. Mary’s Hospital (Roman Catholic) on the hillside north and east perhaps half a mile away (at an extension of Avenue B). We lived there for 5 years, and I never once was closer to St. Mary’s than our yard.

My brother and I had our tonsils removed at the Methodist Hospital downtown on Broadway. I remember that overnight stay well. And I remember being taken there many times to visit friends and acquaintances.

. . . in which no other, & far less the public, had a right to intermeddle. . .

. . . in which no other, & far less the public, had a right to intermeddle. . .

But St. Mary’s was a mystery—because it was Catholic, and we Baptists had no reason to associate with it. I remember a few times my father, the Baptist preacher, had to go there to visit a parishioner. When he came home, it almost felt as if Mom wanted to fumigate him.

Besides the obvious historic animosity of Baptists toward Catholics, Mom had a (fairly sound?) reason for not wanting anything to do with St. Mary’s Hospital. After all, she explained, if a woman was delivering a baby and there were compilations, the Catholics would let the mother die in order to save the baby if it came to that.

This was well before Rove v. Wade and before the Catholics and Baptists joined in their un-Holy Alliance to declare religious war on the rest of us.

The late Marlise Muñoz and her husband Erick Muñoz of Ft. Worth became casualties in that religious war. Her brain died from an apparent embolism last November, but—because she was pregnant—her body was kept alive on machines until two days ago, kept alive against her prior stated wishes and the wishes of her family. Kept alive by the religious laws of the State of Texas.

The political struggle over abortion is a religious war. The Catholics, most Baptists, and other “conservatives” are hell-bent on forcing their religious belief on the rest of us. A “conservative” victory in the religious war carried out in the Texas legislature made it illegal to discontinue life support on a pregnant woman—even if the woman was brain-dead. Saving an unviable fetus in a situation that could be described only as cruel and inhumane for the family of the mother is a victory in the religious war.

That a human being, Homo sapiens, has a soul is 100% a religious belief. One hundred percent. It does not matter whether or not I personally think I have a soul, but if I did, it would be 100% a religious belief.

100% religious.

The belief that the soul is somehow “created” the moment a human sperm enters a human ovum is also a religious belief. “Conservatives” can show us all the ultra-sound pictures of all the fetuses they want, and they have proven nothing. Nothing.

Except their 100% religious belief.

100% religious.

I do not mean in any way to say that reproductive rights are not a struggle for women’s rights (which “conservative” women seem to be willing to give up for the sake of the religious war). Reproductive rights are absolutely about women’s rights. But the basis of those rights is as much in the Constitutional declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” as it is in the right to privacy or any other right.

It is 100% a religious right.

Every time the Congress or some state legislature passes another restriction on abortion, they are passing a law respecting an establishment of religion. They are using the power of the majority to force their religious belief on all of us.

As a matter of public policy—that is, an establishment of religion—those who believe in the human “soul” cannot constitutionally force their beliefs on the rest of us.

That they have done so is sectarian violence not unlike the sectarian violence that is tearing Syria apart, or the victory of one sect over all others in Iran, or the official and legal banning of religion in China. It is the same. It is forcing the view of one religion onto everyone else.

It is mindless, violent, and un-American.

Jacquielynn Floyd of the Dallas Morning News summed it up pretty well.

But the freakish, dystopian hell superimposed on [Marlise Muñoz’s family’s] loss was an inhumane synthesis of factors outside their control: obscure and misinterpreted law, cover-your-butt bureaucratic paranoia and hysteria surrounding reproductive politics (Floyd, Jacquielynn. “Marlise Muñoz case was about bureaucracy, politics — and cruelty.” dallasnews.com. 27 January 2014. Web.)

“Hysteria surrounding reproductive politics.” The Christianist majority’s war on the religious beliefs of the rest of us.

Which, for the time being, they have won. They have imposed their religious will on the nation as surely as His Eminence Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei imposes his religious will on Iran.

1813 May 31.  (Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush).  “…the subject of religion, a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.”

George Mason, "father" of the Bill of Rights

George Mason, “father” of the Bill of Rights

“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. . . “ (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Follow the Mariachis

Follow the Mariachis

.
In about 1970 a group of us from Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, trekked to the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in East Los Angeles on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas).  The church’s name for decades has been Iglesia de la Epifania. The congregation is predominantly Hispanic.

We wanted to participate in (or rubberneck at is probably more accurate) the colorful pageantry of their celebration of El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day). A noisy and joyful procession around several city blocks accompanied by mariachis. Then our first celebration of the Episcopal liturgy in Spanish (again with mariachis). And finally a huge party with all of the Mexican goodies you can imagine to eat.

On the church’s Ordo Kalendar (which you can purchase in the exactly same format and colors I used to buy 20 years ago) today is the Feast of the Epiphany.

The Feast of the Epiphany is my favorite day in the church’s year of commemorations and celebrations. It’s the day of the ἐπιφάνεια (“showing”) to the Wise Persons from the East of the Divine nature of the Baby Jesus. Or is it the human nature of God? I forget.

At any rate, it’s the day the church says to the world, “Even you, heathens, agnostics, apostates, followers of other religions, even you can understand the presence of God in human life.” Those Wise Persons from the East didn’t know anything about Hebrew scripture and prophecies and stuff like that. They knew some kid who was a Capricorn was born, and he had to be special because a new star appeared. Of course, they also knew Capricorns were intended to rule the world (ask Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong), so they ought to go and see this kid over in that insignificant little kingdom, that “protectorate” of the Romans in Palestine.

Follow the Capricorns?

Follow the Capricorns?


[Interlinear note: It was hardly remarkable when President Nixon visited China and met Chairman Mao. Capricorns are meant to rule the world. Ask any of us. The most interesting description of their meeting is written by the wacko blogger, The Last Columnist, with the most interesting out-of-step-with-official-explanations discussion of
the US “debt crisis” on the Internet.]

I take great comfort in the fact the Church Universal says to all of us who never did or no longer do believe all of the theology and rationalizations about the creation and salvation of mankind, “You’re part of this, too.” I’m not even cynical enough to think the church universal is saying, “Give us your gold, frankincense, and myrrh (whatever that is), and you can be saved.”

No, I think Epiphany and the story of the Wise Persons from the East are simply the church’s shorthand for, “Here, you guys—whoever you are—this is for you, too, if you want it and are willing to make a little effort to find it.”

If I really want to struggle with words and try to figure out what a writer means by ideas complex enough to leave me scratching my head (and admitting the limitations of both my conscious and unconscious mind), I sometimes look for a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Like this one.

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.

With the help of Spencer Reese, I could give you the English professor’s analysis of this dark and complex poem (Reece, Spencer.

Follow the poet-priest

Follow the poet-priest

“Countless Cries: Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.” American Poetry Review 38.5 (2009). But I won’t—partly because it would be boring, and partly because it would be more a report on what Reece says than thoughts of my own.

Hopkins was a Roman Catholic priest. Depending on what critic or academic you read, he either was or was not a homosexual (and either did or did not ever have a sexual relationship with a man, especially Dugby Mackworth Dolben, a handsome classmate of his at Oxford). Never mind. That’s “argumentation by distraction,” as our favorite waitress at O’Reilly’s Irish Delicatessen in Ontario, CA, said one Sunday also about 1970 when a group of us from Christ Church were having lunch after services (see “comments”).

The point is that Hopkins sees himself waking in the night (during a time when he was physically, mentally, and spiritually drained and defeated—we know what was going on in his life at the time) having dreamed of his wasted life, his (perhaps unfulfilled sexual) desires and other sins—the first two stanzas—and his “terrible” conclusion. This is one of the six “terrible” sonnets—so-called by academics who have nothing better to do than categorize things.

The conclusion is that he is—like the rest of us heathen—“lost” because we expect ourselves to be the “yeast” that leavens our own lives. We make the dough sour (as opposed to sourdough bread). Our scourge is the same as his. He, like us, he says is “. . . gall, I am heartburn. . . my taste was me; / Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.” Our blood is brimmed with the curse.

And that’s what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about. We’re all in this together. We’re all the same. Even being a Capricorn won’t help. Even President or Chairman. Or a rubbernecking Anglo. Or a Christian.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Refrain
O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.Born a king on Bethlehem’s plainGold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Refrain

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Refrain

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Refrain
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.
Refrain