“. . . but perfect love casts out fear . . .” (1 John 4:18)

the good samaritan

Antonio Zanchi, The Good Samaritan, 1680

I assume I understand some important concepts of the Bible―at least in a general sense―even if I don’t believe them. I grew up as the son of a Baptist minister and attended Baptist Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and even a “nominally” Baptist University. For a semester I attended a Methodist seminary. They asked me to withdraw because I’m gay (that was 1968, and I don’t know why I was in seminary anyway).

About 30 or 40 years ago, I began seriously thinking about what I hear when others, Christians, speak of Bible basis for their faith/belief. Some theological constructs have such a tenuous relationship to anything I know about the Bible that it’s easy to dismiss them out of hand. The Rapture. Dispensationalism. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. A prohibition on abortion.

I don’t have any trouble with literal beliefs in ideas from the Bible that are obviously meant as mythology. If someone has to believe God created the universe in six days in order to navigate their life on this earth, that’s fine.

All of those nit-picky little “beliefs” are immaterial to me. My relationship with the Bible is only a little more personal than my relationship to Beowulf, Siegfried, and Odysseus. If anyone wants to believe in “The Clear-Eyed Athena,” that’s fine with me, just don’t expect me to join in any sacrifices in an old stone building in Athens.

The ideas I wonder about even in my apparent apostasy are less based in “factual” details that someone might or might not believe, than in what seem to me to be the “big ideas” in the Bible. Some of those “big ideas” I do believe in.

For example, the concept “love” in the Bible. Here are some Bible verses about “love” I remember. I had to look up exact citations, but I remembered all of these verbatim (not exactly―I found the NRSV translation to replace the King James language I memorized as a Baptist kid).

• Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
• So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:16)
• There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)
• By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness (Galatians 5:22)
• If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
• He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

From the news:

[On FOX News Cruz] listened as Crowder outlined “four winning issues for Republicans. . . . Islam, now, is a winning issue: calling it out for what it is.” Cruz nodded vigorously and responded, “Yep.”
___That’s what’s really going on. Cruz isn’t agonizing over the mechanics of vetting refugees. He’s exploiting anti-Muslim anger and sucking up to the Christian right. And he’s doing it while wearing his own disguise: principled leader. (Saletan, William. “Ted Cruz’s Sophisticated Bigotry: This is how you bash Muslims while pretending to be principled.” Slate. Nov. 24, 2015.)

And again:

[Cruz appeared] On Fox News, the day after the attacks on Paris. If there are Syrian Muslims who are really being persecuted, he said, they should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries.” Then he reset his eyebrows, which had been angled in a peak of concern, as if he had something pious to say. And he did: “On the other hand,” he added, “Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them.”
(Davidson, Amy. “Ted Cruz’s Religious Test for Syrian Refugees.” The New Yorker. November 16, 2015).

Finally:

Cruz is ramping up his South Carolina efforts. . . . On Monday, he visited one of his two campaign headquarters in the state . . . He quoted Scripture and prayed with a woman on the phone as Vonnie Gleason, a volunteer in her 50s, looked on with tears in her eyes.
___“His words are so much from the heart,” Gleason said. “He was praying with her like she was his best friend.”
___That ability to connect with Christians gives Cruz “a real good chance, because of all the conservative Christians here,” said Linda McCarthy of Greenville. (Glueck, Katie. Politico. 12/09/15.)

I do not mean to accuse Ted Cruz of anything. I don’t know the man. I’ve never heard him say, “I hate Muslims” or “I hate gays.” However, these positions he has taken are clearly not congruent with

  • There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)
  • By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness (Galatians 5:22).

Ted Cruz is rising in the polls for the Republican nomination for President, seemingly poised to give Donald Trump, who has said blatantly hateful things about women, Hispanics, and Muslims, a run for his money. I do not mean to denounce Cruz or Trump (although it probably seems that I am). I’m pretty sure I could have found such items for every candidate.

I merely want to ask a question.

In order to feel secure in a society presumably based on Christian and/or liberal democratic principles, must we forego treating non-Christians and/or those who are not already steeped in liberal democratic principles with the “love” that seems to be at the core of the Christian tradition?

samaritan

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), The Good Samaritan

“. . . outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert. . .” (Galway Kinnell)

. . . how little flesh is needed to make a song.

. . . how little flesh is needed to make a song.

Enough of politics! of ballots rolled into joints and smoked. Let’s talk about sex.

The old Boston Garden. North Station. From the North Shore train into the city, I headed down to catch the Orange Line out to the college for my day of teaching. About 1990. We residents of Boston’s North Shore were “green” way back then. We rode the train the 25 miles to work rather than drive.

In the station I met an acquaintance headed out to catch the train out to Salem. He lived in the city and worked for Essex County in Salem. I’ve forgotten his name even though I was only 45, with my mind as intact as it had ever been. I was a relatively attractive dude. He was more than relatively attractive.

He walked straight toward me, and I said “Hello.” He was with a woman, both of them dressed for the office and carrying brief cases, and I assumed she was a work colleague. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, said nothing, and walked past me.

I found out later my assumption was correct, that since he didn’t know my last name, he didn’t want to have to introduce us or explain to her how we knew each other, so he ignored me. Any gay man—and lots of other folks—knows this scene. He was a “trick,” not a friend. Different from most tricks. I had been with him several times and absolutely sorta kinda fantasized we’d be real lovers or partners or something. Delusional, of course.

That morning I was rejected as well as delusional. Funny how certain moments, unimportant in the scheme of things, stick in one’s memory.

The giant billboard in the station displayed a photo of Steven Tyler clutching a microphone to his incredibly wide open mouth, his hair swirling about him—if you’re older than 30, you know the picture—announcing an Aerosmith concert later that week at the Garden. Boston’s own Aerosmith.

In my rejection, I decided I must buy a ticket. I knew Aerosmith’s recent releases of “Dude” and “Janie’s Got a Gun.” One of my students who fancied himself the next Steven Tyler insisted I listen to the album, and then I saw the video of “Janie” on M-TV.  “Janie’s Got a Gun” lodged under my skin in a way few pop songs do, for reasons I will write about some day.

I had a much-too-sensorially stimulating evening as a wanna-be teenager (except, as I recall, many in the audience were about my age—Aerosmith had been around for quite a while). I was into Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll (minus the Drugs—I was clean and sober by then—and minus the Rock ‘n Roll—I was, after all, an elitist classical musician).

Funny. Of all the concerts, both classical and not-so-classical, I’ve been to since then, the sensory memory of that evening is still clear. I think—no, I know—that’s because I attended the concert to assuage my hurt.
Isn’t that what sex is all about? The ultimate drug of escape?

Aerosmith "Dudes"

Aerosmith “Dudes”

No, you say?

Of course I know better. I’ve been through enough therapy and 12-step meetings and retreats and seminars and—you name it—to know that’s not what sex is all about.

So why am I writing now with an Aerosmith concert as the central theme of the piece, an Aerosmith concert I attended with sexual fantasies not as merely an overtone but as the raison d’être?

Like all so-called “rhetorical questions,” that one is disingenuous. If I know the answer, why not simply say it, and if I don’t know the answer, I have no business asking the question as part of an “argument.”

Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song. . .

My “argument” now takes a sharp ninety-degree turn. Forget about becoming emaciated. Don’t worry about eating. Doesn’t (what, sex? love? companionship?) “outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert?”

The rhetorical question again. Kinnell’s poem is a litany of images of eating (my favorite is “book lice clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old Webster’s New International, perhaps having just eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon”).

[NOTE: “Izle” – ember; “xyster”– surgical rasp or file; “thalassacon”—this must be a real word, too, but I can’t find it anywhere]

Here the connection between eating and sex is explicit. But with the wren, Kinnell is piling image upon image. Don’t worry about not eating because even the wren, tiny as it is, can sing. In the middle of the contemplation of eating and sex comes the contemplation of music and– and what? Sex? And back to eating? Casanova throwing his spaghetti out the window because—apparently—eating spoils love-making?

Now I am as confused as ever I hope to be. These wonderful images—Monarch butterflies in their migration from—from where? Ohio, Wisconsin?—to Mexico. To the exact forest where they were born. Singing, eating, migration, sex, love, death, rebirth?

What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?

[NOTE: “glaim”– viscous substance; “gleet”– discharge, as from a wound; “birdlime”—a sticky material smeared on trees to catch birds]

. . . navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico. . .

. . . navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico. . .

Now I’ve written myself into a corner where I don’t know what I’ve been trying to say, or where logic (there is none here) will take me next. “Why regret?”

Doesn’t it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?

The brilliant concert. The wren. Aerosmith. I don’t know what the poem means or what I meant to say here. Except I want no regrets about any of it.

About anything. Missed love. Concerts. Eating. Not eating. Anything. The memory of waking in the night holding hands with someone in my sleep?

Oh, yes. I nearly forgot. I’m going to a Lady Gaga concert next week.

“Why Regret,” Galway Kinnell (b. 1927, Providence, RI)
Didn’t you like the way the ants help
the peony globes open by eating the glue off?
Weren’t you cheered to see the ironworkers
sitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,
in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybe
baloney on white with fluorescent mustard?
Wasn’t it a revelation to waggle
from the estuary all the way up the river,
the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,
the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?
Didn’t you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster’s New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?
What did you imagine lies in wait anyway
at the end of a world whose sub-substance
is glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?
Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song.
Didn’t it seem somehow familiar when the nymph
split open and the mayfly struggled free
and flew and perched and then its own back
broke open and the imago, the true adult,
somersaulted out and took flight, seeking
the swarm, mouth-parts vestigial,
alimentary canal come to a stop,
a day or hour left to find the desired one?
Or when Casanova took up the platter
of linguine in squid’s ink and slid the stuff
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat.”
As a child, didn’t you find it calming to imagine
pinworms as some kind of tiny batons
giving cadence to the squeezes and releases
around the downward march of debris?
Didn’t you glimpse in the monarchs
what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren’t you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring’s offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,
to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,
by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestors
who fell in this same migration a year ago?
Doesn’t it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concert
to wake in the night and find ourselves
holding hands in our sleep?
(From Strong Is Your Hold.  2006)

“. . . How to find my soul a home. . .” (Maya Angelou)

Maya AngelouYesterday I was hoping to come across a poem or an essay or a witty saying someone else wrote to quote as my idea for the day, so I could forget this nonsense of trying say what I need to say. (I began this writing yesterday, but I realized only this morning that I already knew the words I was looking for).

I live (we all live) in conundrums. Riddles that cannot be solved. Sometimes the riddle can be solved with a play on words. Sometimes not. Here’s my conundrum for yesterday.

If Ann and I had remained married and she had not died, today would have been our 47th wedding anniversary. We were divorced shortly after our 8th anniversary, and Ann died in 2002. I am grateful we did not divorce from our relationship, only from our marriage. In my bedroom I use the bureau she and I bought together at an antique store 45 years ago. From where I sit at my computer, I can see a box of her family’s photographs on a shelf of my roll-top desk. The desk belonged to my partner Jerry who died a year after Ann, and who had become great friends with Ann—I carried a slight resentment for a long time that in 1997 when she came to visit us in Dallas, they went off to see Titanic together while I was at choir rehearsal.

I am NOT a pack rat or a hoarder. (People with addictive personalities do not know how to sort—a little known secret about us drunks.) Even when I figure out how to sort out all the stuff in my place (I won’t say the stuff I own, simply the stuff that’s here) so that when I die my nieces and nephew won’t have to bring in a backhoe to clean the place out, I will still most likely have my little collections. A rosary Ann gave me when we were Anglo Catholics, four buttons and a broach of her grandmother’s, a pair of rings we bought for each other and a Jerusalem cross all made with jade, a Canadian $5 bill I brought home in my pocket from her funeral, her mother’s watch, a gold chain with a St. Christopher’s medal I gave her, and her wedding ring (I don’t have my own)—a tiny part of my collection. Does anyone want a cloisonné butterfly?

So yesterday we would have been married 47 years.

Apparently one way I try to hold onto the people I love is to hold onto things they owned. This is not so unusual, of course (see Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things they Carried” for a moving expression of the way “things” are important to memory).

Things

Things

As usual, my memory of one part of my life is entrée to writing about another. A couple of days ago a friend took me to dinner to propose an enormous writing project for us to work on. It has to do with memory, with our collective memory with a large community of mutual friends and acquaintances. It will be difficult and lengthy. It will entail a range of feeling and experience I almost certainly cannot express. It will involve thinking and writing about people whose lives we need to hold in the dual reality of the present and of memory. We do not have “the things they owned” to hold onto. We have only our mutual experience, both in the present and in the past.

Yesterday the poet Maya Angelou died.

When I read about her death, I posted my favorite of her poems on Facebook:

“Alone,” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

I am grateful to Maya Angelou for her many expressions of truth over the years, and for broadening my (our) understanding of the beauty of language and the importance of “essaying” what we think and feel.

This morning I realized what I was trying to say yesterday—to say about Ann, about Jerry, about my friends and a possible writing project, to say about my life so far and about the time I have left—Maya Angelou has already said. What I long to know is

How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone.

Maya Angelou uses Biblical imagery. The Gospel of John records Jesus saying, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” And the Gospel of Luke records his saying, “Which of you is a father whose son will ask him for bread and would hand him a stone.”

Bread and water are not “things.”

I don’t know if Maya Angelou thought of herself as a Christian. It doesn’t matter. She understood that finding “water that is not thirsty” and “bread [that] is not a stone” requires understanding

That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Happy Anniversary, Ann. And thank you to Maya Angelou, and Jerry, and YOU— everyone who has helped me to understand I cannot “make it out here alone.”

Even a country can't make it out here alone

Even a country can’t make it out here alone

“There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea” (Richard Brautigan)

brautingan blogWho remembers Trout Fishing in America? That kinky out-of-step-with-the-normal book that helped shape the thinking of a couple of generations of American wannabe drop-outs. It was published in 1967, the year I graduated from college. Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) was one of the “Beat Generation” writers.

I read Trout Fishing when I was working in the 1972 George McGovern Presidential campaign. Our Campaign Guru from the East, gave it to me. The same way he gave me “Manassas,” the new (1972) album by Stephen Stills. (He said as he handed it to me—and this I remember exactly—“Don’t you listen to any music at all?”) All of this to make sure the McGovern Campaign in San Bernardino County, CA, was staffed by people who knew what was going on in the world (and to lighten his load a bit by finding me something to talk about besides Bach, Karl Barth, and Beverly Sills). He also arranged for a group of us to see Harold and Maude on a night off.

Poor Al. He not only worked with me 14 hours a day 7 days a week, but he rented a room in my house.

I wonder why I remember Trout Fishing in America. I recently came across a reference to the novel and had to look it up to find one of the sections I have carried around in my memory all these years, the chapter “Trout Death by Port Wine.” Probably because when I read it I was perilously close to dying by, not port wine, but some other “strong drink,” as my father would have said. I couldn’t quote it exactly, but for years I’ve remembered the sentence, “It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine” (a snippet of the chapter is printed below to give you a flavor of the writing).

For some time I’ve been keeping an eye out for poems about friendship. Probably because I’d like to write a poem about friendship that doesn’t sound like a Hallmark card. I have nothing against Hallmark cards, but I would hope my poetry—if I knew how to write any—would be of a different variety. You know, post-postmodern, not rhyming, maybe not even sentences that make sense, but sounding beautiful with a sudden and unexpected profundity or sweet image at the end (that’s my description, not one garnered from a graduate seminar in wacky literature or anything like that).

That’s also something of a description of my personal writing, I think. Wandering around discussing some memory or current state of my affairs or the world’s, not making a whole lot of sense, and then suddenly at the end I get to the point (sometimes out of the blue), and I understand it whether anyone else does or not.

Back to Richard Brautigan. He was a tormented soul. Bipolar with a vengeance, or so all the biographical sketches say. A drunk (or was it heroin addict?). He shot himself in the head, and his body wasn’t found until it had pretty much decomposed—he was living off in the woods somewhere so he could go trout fishing. A tormented soul, as I said. I remember being aware a few years back (more than a few) that he had died. That was pre-Google, so I couldn’t research him easily, but I knew about the bullet to the head—sort of like Hemingway.

This is a cheery little piece, isn’t it? (Funny thing about writing. I wouldn’t dare to write about someone shooting himself in the head—I’ve said that about enough times now—when I am depressed myself. It would be too hard, too close to home.)

But I’m quite serene and unstressed this morning. I ought to be. This is my third day without a job—retired, remember.

Really, four plus 27

Really, four plus 27

And in my retirement (is that a weird thing to say, or what?) I’ve been thinking a great deal about friendship. I had a big retirement party last Saturday, and 31 of my closest friends (that’s not a joke or hyperbole but the honest truth) showed up to eat and talk and sing (seven songs from the ‘50s with me at the Steinway grand) and give me more hugs than I’d had total in the six months previous. Most of them knew only four or five of the others, but I knew everyone. With every person there I have shared a moment at one time or another when one of us managed to do just what was needed for the other—with some of them, that moment of giving/receiving has been reciprocal time after time.

So I’ve been hoping to find (or—not likely—write) the perfect poem about friendship. Then I remembered it’s been only a couple of months since I wrote about one of my favorite friendship poems, “Your Catfish Friend,” by (who else?) Richard Brautigan.

Louisianans and Texans like to think they have a special right to catfish. Perhaps they do, at least for eating. But I remember the catfish people snared from the North Platte River when I was a kid in Western Nebraska. I don’t remember that we ate them, but we knew what they were. Pretty nasty sorts of things.

I need to remember Brautigan’s poem as I think about friendship. It’s sad to think he perhaps didn’t understand it himself, or perhaps, living in the woods alone he didn’t have enough people around him to throw a party and get 31 times oodles of hugs.

But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from my mind even (or perhaps especially) when I don’t know my friend is near and/or thinking about me is a stunning idea. Even a friend I might not think capable of such thoughts, One of those ideas that keeps me sane and safe.

“Your Catfish Friend” Richard Brautigan (1935 – 1984)

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

TROUT DEATH BY PORT WINE
It was not an outhouse resting upon the imagination.

It was reality.

An eleven-inch rainbow trout was killed. Its life taken forever from the waters of the earth, by giving it a drink of port wine.

It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine.

It is all right for a trout to have its neck broken by a fisherman and then to be tossed into the creel or for a trout to die from a fungus that crawls like sugar-colored ants over its body until the trout is in death’s sugarbowl.

It is all right for a trout to be trapped in a pool that dries up in the late summer or to be caught in the talons of a bird or the claws of an animal.

Yes, it is even all right for a trout to be killed by pollution, to die in a river of suffocating human excrement.

There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea.

All these things are in the natural order of death, but for a trout to die from a drink of port wine, that is another thing.

No mention of it in “The treatyse of fysshynge wyth an angle,” in the Boke of St. Albans, published 1496. No mention of it in Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, by H. C. Cutcliffe, published in 1910. No mention of it in Truth Is Stranger than Fishin’, by Beatrice Cook, published in 1955. No mention of it. . .
catfishp

“. . . I kept busy being lonely. This took up the bulk of my time. . . “ (Marilyn Krysl)

All you need is love.

All you need is love.

Most people (I refuse to read a student essay that begins “most people”—how do you know? I ask snippily) who know the Sanskrit word “sutra” know it as half the title of the Kama Sutra, the Hindu sex manual. Most people who know of the Kama Sutra have never read it.

Most Americans—even the most sexually liberated—would be shocked by the Kama Sutra.

A sutra is simply an instruction manual.

I only this moment ordered Marilyn Krysl’s award-winning collection of short stories, Dinner with Osama. A friend told me they are (charming? hilarious? wistful? sad?) stories about how crazy Americans have been since September 11, 2001. From the title, I’d guess it’s about how Osama bin Laden looms (alive or now dead) in the background at dinner every day.

If he didn’t, Edward Snowden would not be a household name. The United States would not have the blot on our world-wide reputation for fairness and the rule of law known as Guantanamo. And five decent Americans from the Holy Land Foundation would not be in prison for life. This last is not directly related, but the events of September 11, 2011, provided the George W. Bush administration the cover they needed to make accusations of connections between this charity and “terrorism” that were proven in a process of refusing the accused their right as American citizens to confront their accusers. Oh, and the most elaborate scheme of the fabrication of “evidence” since the Rosenbergs.

Do you see what happens when you begin an essay “most people? You end up writing about stuff that was not even on your mental radar (I love sophomoric metaphors) when you began.

Marilyn Krysl wrote a poem named “Sutra.” The more inclusive meaning of “sutra” is simply a writing with strand of loosely connected thought that holds it together (what goes on in my mind is so loosely connected there’s not so much as a strand to hold them together—obvious from this writing so far).

“Sutra,” by Marilyn Krysl
Looking back now, I see
I was dispassionate too often,
dismissing the robin as common,
and now can’t remember what
robin song sounds like. I hoarded
my days, as though to keep them
safe from depletion, and meantime
I kept busy being lonely. This
took up the bulk of my time,
and I did not speak to strangers
because they might be boring,
and there were those I feared

would ask me for money. I was
clumsy around the confident,
and the well bred, standing on
their parapets, enthralled me,
but when one approached, I
fled. I also feared the street’s
down and outs, anxious lest
they look at me closely, and
afraid I would see their misery.

Our favorite dinner guest. Still.

Our favorite dinner guest. Still.

A few days ago I gave “My Last Lecture” to my classes at Southern Methodist University (I’ll be shamelessly egocentric and tell you it’s on Youtube). I told my students that the most important “bliss” that I follow is simply loving other people.

Of course, this is an extremely complicated and dangerous idea. I do love. I think I have—and indulge—a capacity for loving acquaintances and strangers—almost anyone I meet–that is pretty highly evolved. I have no idea if it’s more or less than anyone else’s, but I know I derive my greatest pleasure and satisfaction from simply liking people—I suppose I should be careful about saying I “love” everyone because that’s such a maudlin, clichéd, and meaningless word. Besides, I can love you without liking you.

I suppose I should be a little more precise and say I make it my business to try to practice (and feel) the Greek concept of philos, you know—at least those who went to Baptist summer camp in the 60s do—one of the three kinds of “love” in the Bible (or in Aristotle and Plato). that is, love of other people. I don’t know. I’m making no pretense of any kind of scholarly or philological disputation here. I just like the idea of “Phila(philos)delphia,” the city of “brotherly love.” All you need is love.

So if I love everybody, why I am I lonely so much of the time?

Another (not related, but of exactly the same order of magnitude) question. If we are so secure and safe from Osama bin Laden, why does it take William Snowden to show us that we are 100% insecure and completely unsafe in our persons?

An entire city dedicated to love.

An entire city dedicated to love.

“. . . to ease distance to fetch home spiritual things. . .” (Susan Howe)

My sister's art moves into my mind

Bonnie Knight Sato, 2014. My sister’s art moves into my mind

The poetry of Susan Howe is as mysterious and as obvious as any language art can be. I get it completely at the same time I have no understanding of it at all.

I suppose my intellectual life would be more satisfying and complete if I had studied the great movements in art of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. Structuralism. Post-structuralism. The imagists, the objectivists, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat generation. I don’t know. I am ignorant of the parameters of these styles or “schools,” and a great deal of 20th –century poetry I simply can’t comprehend.

An example of the writing about this mysterious writing that is even more mysterious than the writing itself is a critique of a couple of books about Howe’s work, and of one of Susan Howe’s own books available online.

Why is there so much interest in a writer whose works are so difficult to fathom? Perhaps it’s just that. They present a challenge to the reader who has grown tired of the usual fluff that passes itself off as literature these days. In the process, the works of Susan Howe extend our concept of what poetry (and writing in general) is, creating new dimensions, new problematics and techniques to be understood and mastered by the adventurous writer (Cunningham, John Herbert. “Write Through This: The Poetry of Susan Howe.” Rain Taxi. Spring 2011. Web.)

That’s the easiest to comprehend paragraph in the critique—if you don’t already know how critics have pigeon-holed Howe’s poetry. Or, perhaps, simply the most interesting.

I don’t want to read those books about Susan Howe. What a bore. On the other hand, I might be able to arrive at some understanding of her work if I did.

Or perhaps her work is somehow “prediscursive” (a word from an article about ORLAN I had my students read). Can poetry exist before the possibility of talking about it or the ideas it represents? Of course. So, as far as I am concerned, Howe’s poetry is “prediscursive.”
Bonnie 3 blog left

I found that online critique of critiques of Howe because I came across her poem “That This” (or rather the first of five poems with that title). It’s somehow about music. Don’t ask me.

But I love the way the words go together. The poem has the lines

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery.

Mysterious. But lovely. Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy? You’ll think I’m joking when I say it gives me goosebumps. I’ve read it aloud probably ten times since I began writing this little attempt to say something.

I’d give anything to be able to put together nine words like that—I wouldn’t care what they meant.

Today is my sister’s birthday. I was five when she was born, and I remember the family excitement and activities around her birth. She and I are close in a way that only a brother and sister can be. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, perhaps, but she is, in a way that I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone, my best friend.

Are my birthday wishes for my sister connected in any way to Howe’s poetry? Well, yes. The question, “Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy?” is an exact metaphor (in my mind—I have no idea what Howe means by it) for the question I ask about the love of siblings. Is light anything like the stray commonplace pleasure of a life of in-jokes no one else understands, of a life of caring for and about each other in a way one does about no one else, of bearing one another’s burdens even when separated for decades by thousands of miles, of knowing pretty much without thinking how any given thought, idea, or creation will affect the other? No, light is not “like” those things. It is those things.

So I’m off into some space where no one can follow me, I’m sure. Even my sister will scratch her head and say to herself, “What is he talking about?” It’s prediscursive. It’s before conversation. Some things are best not “understood.” Simply known.

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

I’m glad Susan Howe will never see what I have done to corrupt her meaning. But one mind (my mind, my sister’s mind, your mind, any mind?) moves into another mind without our knowledge, our minds move among trees in moonlight or gardens in the daylight, or anywhere we might be. We come together without knowing ourselves how it happens. And this easing of distance is the spiritual reality of our lives.

My sister’s spiritual reality has recently moved into painting. You don’t have to know my sister to see the beauty in her work. But it simply moves into my mind. My enjoyment of it is prediscursive. I don’t need to–I can’t explain it.

There, you see, I can write a critique of Susan Howe’s poetry. And in the process, odd and incomprehensible as it seems, wish my sister a Happy Birthday.

“That This,” by Susan Howe      

Susan Howe

Susan Howe

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery

A secular arietta variation
Grass angels perish in this

harmonic collision because
non-being cannot be ‘this’

Not spirit not space finite
Not infinite to those fixed—

That this millstone as such
Quiet which side on which—

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every
age or century for a day is

“Meaning appears on the edge of consciousness, unable to break through. This is Howe’s magic—to make you, the reader, reach for something you feel is there, and to keep you returning to the page in hopes that, at some point, the boundary will be breached” (John Herbert Cunningham).

“. . . Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

A very thin place.

A very thin place.

Seeing the natural world and understanding how it fits together (either as the random result of the Big Bang or as the handiwork of a god) and having the experience of “otherness” or “oneness,” or of the “numinous,” or of “eternity,” or some such mystical comprehension is not my style. My mystical experiences are infrequent, and they are often (like so those of so many other people) dependent on nature or the cosmos or some such grandiosity. I write about them fairly often—sometimes even in public—and when I do, they are usually tied in with some experience of nature. Most often they are connected somehow to my being at the edge of the ocean.

(The hyperlinks to other of my writings more or less on the subject are not for my reader, but for me to have them all together. That may be annoying to anyone trying to read this, but I have to do it.)

The natural world and I have a “come here/stay away” relationship. I have had some remarkable experiences in nature.

The truth is, I have to admit, that my obsession with talking about “mystical” or “religious” or “spiritual” experiences is something of a smokescreen for my inability to believe in God. One might ask how I can write all of this stuff more-or-less about God (at least the numinous or inexplicable) and say I don’t believe in God.

Two daily “meditations” arrive in my e-mail. I subscribed to them, hoping they would help me focus my thinking for the day. One is hardly ever helpful. The other occasionally presents an idea that arrests my attention.

One of those came today.

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp, something that no thought or feeling can help me know. It appears only when I am not caught in the web of my thoughts and emotions. It is the unknown, which cannot be grasped with what I know. (Jeanne Matignon de Salzman, 1889 – 1990)

Madame de Salzman, I found in Wikipedia (don’t tell my students), was a musician, a dancer, and a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff. All I know of him is that he was an “influential spiritual teacher.” Forty years ago when I was in graduate school trying to find my way in the world and rejecting almost everything anyone said, an older man with whom I had just had a “fling” gave me a copy of Gurdjieff’s most famous book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and I promptly gave to a library book sale. I have come across mention of Gurdjieff many times since then but have never bothered to investigate his work.

Can this be a thin place?

Can this be a thin place?

Many times throughout my life someone—a plethora of someones—has presented me with a book, with an idea, with a “retreat,” with a spiritual course of some sort to help me on my—my what? my spiritual quest? Is that what I’m writing about? The most helpful notion I’ve received was years ago when Sue Mansfield, rest in peace, from the church I still consider my “home church,” Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, said, “You don’t have to believe; you just have to believe that we believe.”

If my Holy Week cold is less obtrusive tonight than it is right now, I will attend the Maundy Thursday Service at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) Church, of which I am a member. For about two years I have not been to a service except those for which I have substituted at the organ. I’m not 100% certain why I will attend tonight, except that some inner voice is telling me I need to. It’s a lovely service with foot-washing and stripping of the altar in preparation for Good Friday. I like the name—Maundy Thursday. It’s one of those churchy mysteries—Maundy is probably from the Latin mandatum, “commandment” from the injunction Jesus gave at his “last supper,” the new commandment that they love one another.

I’ve never been able to bring together in my mind those words and the experience I had on the beach near Port Orford, Oregon, a few years back.

As I walked in the edge of the ocean, the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon. I know, I know, you will say that it already did. That’s what oceans do. But the ocean unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf was exactly the necessary disruption of the view. The motion 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. . .

Something about the ocean that day, something about the box work formations of Wind Cave in South Dakota, something about the service for Maundy Thursday at St. Michael (at any church that “performs” that liturgy with a certain “style”) is a “thin place” for me.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004). I didn’t discover Borg’s language on my own. My friend Lee suggested I read Borg.

I’m not certain, but I think what I struggle with is the thin places. Daily.

The thinnest place for me

The thinnest place for me

There is in me something mysterious that nothing is able to grasp.

I don’t know about God. I don’t accept the theological/religious language I will hear tonight and on Sunday. But I know the space between me and that something mysterious will be very, very thin—as it has been on the beach in Oregon and deep under ground in South Dakota. And the space is thinnest when I love. Someone. Anyone, I think.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider,” by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.