“. . . seeing the Nothing from which he was made . . .” (Pascal)

1-IMG_4991College writing teachers face an impossible choice between allowing free thought and insisting on a despotizing formalism.

I wish I had a dollar for every student essay I’ve seen in the tutoring center that had an inverted triangle at the top drawn in conference by the professor with the instructions, “begin with the general and move to the specific as the thesis for your essay.”

I have never formally studied logic. My understanding of what such instructions mean is guesswork, but I think they are aimed at getting a student to write an essay using inductive reasoning, that is, “the process of estimating the validity of observations of part of a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole class.” The student is invited (well, no, ordered under pain of a low grade) to demonstrate through their observations of a “class of facts”―ideas of their own or ideas they have gleaned from approved sources―that their proposition is valid, that their thesis is plausible.

Okay. So my thesis (proposition) here is that it is better for me to have contact with other people―friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone―than to spend a 24-hour period at home alone. I could have begun with general statements about the way one can spend time (or specifically the way I might spend time), or found a clever quote from some psychologist about the necessity for social creatures to be in contact with other social creatures. Then I might have moved carefully step by step to the proposition that  I  should not have been alone for the past 24-going-on-48 hours.

But I’ll jump right in, a flat line instead of a triangle. I will use as evidence first the class of facts around the tasks I have not performed today because I had no deadlines. My breakfast dishes are not yet washed. My laundry is not done. The floors are not vacuumed. I didn’t take a walk (for that I have an excuse: thunderstorms were moving through the area). If I were a college English student, all of that would be the first of the three obligatory “body paragraphs” before the conclusion.

I might use my second body paragraph to estimate the validity of what I did accomplish. I spent about six hours researching International Humanitarian Law on Collective Punishment in a given territory by an occupying power. (You can read the result of that work HERE. ) I read a couple of chapters in my current in-progress book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (which I highly recommend). I played Sudoku. I took a nap. All of these things are worthwhile, but I didn’t need to spend the entire day at them.

I’m not sure my third body paragraph “estimate(s) the validity of a part of the class of facts” or fits my argument. While I was having lunch, I turned on CNN for company as I often do. I’ve never watched an episode of “The Voice,” so I’d never heard of Christina Grimmie until today. I had to search for her online when the news turned to an item about the man who killed her last night. And yet I wept at the news. Yesterday I heard on the radio and saw on TV much of Muhammad Ali’s funeral. I wept. I heard Lonnie Ali and others say with apparently absolute certainty that the Great One is now in heaven. I’ve been thinking about death today. Calmly, but not with detachment. The truth is I think quite a lot about death, trying to get my mind around the idea. I’m going to be dead soon. Even if I live the 97 years my father lived, I will be dead soon. If you’re 50, you’re thinking, “Why does he say ‘soon’? That’s 25 more years.” A 50-year-old thinks that’s logical. It’s not. We’re all going to be dead soon. This is not cocktail party conversation. Or a chat on Instagram. Many (most) people reading this will think either I’m some kind of Goth or I need psychological help. When I was in about 7th grade and finding my feet as an organist, I played and sang with great gusto and conviction

This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

I can still sing the first line with gusto and conviction. The rest, not so much. Some time ago I read an article (I did not save the reference) that quoted a passage from Blaise Pascal (of “Pascal’s Wager” fame). I saved the passage.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (Pascal, Blaise, 1669, Pensées, Sect. II, 72. trans. W. F. Trotter. The Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Sons, 1909–14).

This third body paragraph has all of the problems a student paragraph could have: too many ideas, not a logical progression, straying away from the topic. Too long. Disorganized.

I will make my mandatory conclusion strong since the body is hopeless (even though I have, in fact, provided “a class of facts as evidence for a proposition about the whole”). It is obvious that I should not spend 24 hours alone. I cannot keep my mind from wandering to topics like being dead. I’m pretty sure my “audience” (another despotizing college writing idea) doesn’t like thinking about my thinking about being dead. It’s not healthy for me to sit at home alone contemplating death. Or to end an essay with a sentence fragment. Even though that’s the topic of the essay. A fragment.

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“. . . and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up . . .” (Pascal)

BIRTHDAY MUSINGS with appreciation to May Sarton.

In 1984 May Sarton published her enchanting memoir, At Seventy. I heard her read a bit of it at Salem State College in Massachusetts in about 1986. She was the only openly lesbian writer I knew of at that time, brought to the Salem Campus by a gay member of the English faculty. I remember thinking then how lucky I was to meet this elderly poet and hoping that she would write more poetry before she died.

She did. She published a collection of poetry in 1993, and her even more enchanting memoir, Coming into Eighty, in 1994 shortly before she died.

I finally got around to reading all of At Seventy after I heard Sarton had died. By then I was in Texas studying creative writing and wishing I had paid closer attention to this remarkable woman who was in 1986 the only “real live” (that is, published and famous) poet I had ever met. I didn’t yet know I loved poetry; I was adjunct professor of music at Salem State, the job which enabled me to achieve my appointment as chair of the music department at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The tenured position I gave up (no one does that!) to move to Texas.

May Sarton is in my mind today because I stumbled across a poem of hers from her 1993 collection, and I realized that tomorrow I will turn the age she was when she published At Seventy, that is, 71.

NOW I BECOME MYSELF, by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before-‘
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

(“Now I Become Myself,” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.)

Sarton is writing specifically about writing a poem that expresses herself, “As slowly as the ripening fruit . . . Falls but does not exhaust the root, so all the poem is. . . Grows in me.” I’m not sure what it’s like to write a poem―or create anything―that “grows in me.” But becoming myself has “taken Time, many years and places; I have been dissolved and shaken, Worn other people’s faces, Run madly, as if Time were there, terribly old, crying a warning, ‘Hurry, you will be dead before―’”

Before what?

Yesterday in its weekly online newsletter, the AARP published its annual “people we have lost in ___” list. First on the list is Fred Thompson, 73, US Senator. Notice the “73.” The list comprises 31 celebrities; the oldest is Maureen O’Hara, actress, 95, and the youngest is Stuart Scott, sportscaster, 49. The average age is 79.3 years. Minus 71, that’s 8.3.

One of the questions a patient in a mental hospital (whatever gentle description it may have) who is committed because they are actively suicidal is, “Do you often think about death?” It’s surprising how many ways there are to ask that question and how soon the patient realizes it’s the same question over and over in disguise. I, at any rate, figured it out.

(I also figured out what the signs on the locked doors, “Elopement Danger” meant and have written a short story with that title, but that’s not germane to my task at hand―just a little comic relief.)

How many ways are there to ask if one often thinks about death?

Or, the real question should be, “Who doesn’t often think about death?”

I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death shortly after it was published (1973) while I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I had thought about death quite a lot before that, but Becker gave me an organized way to approach the contemplation.

The answer to the “who” question is “Anyone younger than 60 years old.” Someone that age might (and probably does) think about death in some abstract way. We all know we’re going to die. It’s the one idea we have that the “lower” animals don’t. But when it’s news that Fred Thompson, 73, dies and you’re about to turn 71, thinking about death takes on a completely different urgency.

I am neither suicidal nor depressed (more than is normal for me). I am not afraid I’m going to die in two years. My father lived to 97. There is some genetic possibility that I will be here quite a while longer. I am, however, taking stock.

What do I want to do, to accomplish, to finish before I die? How do I want to live? Who do I want to be with?

I have to admit that I really don’t have any well-reasoned, definite (or even off-the-top-of-my-head) answers to those questions. The first question I need to ask myself is, “How important is it to have answers to those questions?” I don’t know.

What I know is that I want to be able to say with May Sarton, without doubt or equivocation, “Now I become myself.” I have a sense of urgency that my work-in-progress attitude needs to begin to find some accomplishment, to be able, without sentimentality or braggadocio, to say,

“O, in this single hour I live all of myself and do not move.”

Thank you, May.
_______________
NOTE: another poem I read today (because someone suggested it to me) is “On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet, 1902 – 1963.
One stanza reads:

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

The entire poem is here.

“. . . deep calls to deep, a saving breath. . .” (Susan Palo Cherwin)

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

I cannot begin to explain the levels of grief associated with this picture.

“Love” for animals is a concept many people don’t understand. I put the word in quotes because many people would say it can be used only theoretically, not as fact. I am neither offended nor challenged by anyone who would say the word belongs in quotes because it cannot be real.

In 1957 Kleenex aired a series of TV ads for paper napkins starring Manners the Butler. Kleenex was in a race with Scott to establish market leadership in paper napkins, and they produced the clever “special effects” ad with Manners the Butler as a tiny man helping a housewife set an orderly table.

My first cat, when I was in 5th grade, 1957, was mostly black with a white chest, and I called him Manners the Butler. He was a gentleman cat who knew what he liked and was intolerant of what he didn’t like. He liked me. He arrived at our house when a school friend’s cat had kittens, and my friend convinced me to take one home. In my jacket pocket so my parents wouldn’t see it until it was too late to refuse to let him stay. He lived with us (indoors/outdoors) for about five years.

Manners knew all of my secrets—including the seizures I was having that no one knew about or (parents and doctors) could figure out. He knew when I was happy and when I was sad.

Many years later I broke up with my partner and bought a condo in Salem, MA, and was living alone. Since the time of Manners, except when I was living in a college dorm and not permitted, I had always had at least one cat. When I broke up with my partner, I left three cats behind, one—my favorite—all black and named Otello (the other two were Lohengrin and Brunhilde).

I was debating whether or not to get a cat, and my therapist asked me to describe my relationship with cats over the years. He told me I had definitely used cats as “Therapy Units,” and that getting a cat would give me many TU’s. I found two black and white brothers at the pound, named them Henry and Oliver, and took them home. Both of them lived with me until 2004.

They, and all the cats (and dogs) who have lived with me have definitely been at the very least TU’s, but in reality something much more important.

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Christmas over Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, CA, 2014

Whether or not it is possible or appropriate to use the word “love” for my feelings about my cats, I’m not going to theorize. Anyone who has felt what I have felt for cats (or dogs, or pigs, or parrots) knows exactly what I mean. Anyone who hasn’t had those feelings doesn’t know and can’t be persuaded. The epistemology of the concept is personal. Knowing or not knowing is not cause for judgment. It simply is.

When my cat Groucho died on December 20, I felt grief—not the grief I felt when my parents or brother-in-law or my lover died, but real grief. And here’s the important reality about that: one of my spiritual mentors tells me that every grief reminds us of all the griefs we have experienced before.

In his little essay, “To Go Its Way in Tears: Poems of Grief,” on the website Poets.org, the poet Edward Hirsch calls attention to our societal penchant to

. . . live in a superficial, media-driven culture that often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feeling. Indeed, it seems as if our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief.

This is not an unfamiliar concept, but I like the succinctness of Hirsch’s language.

When Groucho died, I experienced a bit of self-condemnation for feeling as deeply as I did (do) about the emptiness left in my life by the loss of one long-haired basically aloof little creature who—truth be told—like all cats, one could not say returned the “love” I felt (feel) for him.

Anyone who celebrates Christmas (today is the 6th day, remember), either as the “Holly Jolly” secular materialistic orgy or as the “O Holy Night” of sentimental religiosity will probably wonder what’s wrong with me that I’m writing about grief at this time of year.

Well, duh! My little companion died.

As did Michael Brown, Rafael Ramos, Eric Garner, and Liu Wenjin.

Even though I have little (no) belief in the “Christmas Story” anymore, I think the rhythm of the church’s liturgical year offers a glimpse of reality that we might well take to heart. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, when the focus is on doing exactly what the Baby Jesus grew up to preach—feeding the hungry. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorating Herod’s murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem—a reminder of the horrors of lust for power (a reminder we are in process of ignoring at our own peril—as well as the peril of the innocents around us).

A friend once asked me what loving cats (dogs, pigs, parrots) does for me. My answer was (and is) simple. I understand my own mortality by living with and watching my pets through the cycles of their lives. And, when I pay attention, I understand that even my own death will be natural and blessed.

The hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has—amazingly—a section of “lament.” One of those hymns, by Susan Palo Cherwin, seems to me a proper understanding of Christmas. I’m not sure about the “song,” the “tears,” and the “love” of “God,” but I know, without doubt, that facing and feeling the darkness of my life is necessary to arrive at feeling “Merry” about anything.

That darkness increases as I age. So does the merriment—but transformed into reality as opposed to giddiness or frivolity.

In deepest night, in darkest days,
when harps are hung, no songs we raise,
when silence must suffice as praise,
yet sounding in us quietly
there is the song of God.

When friend was lost, when love deceived,
Dear Jesus wept, God was bereaved;
So with us in our grief God grieves,
and round about us mournfully
there are the tears of God.

When through the waters winds our path,
around us pain, around us death;
deep calls to deep, a saving breath
and found beside us faithfully
there is the love of God.

Words: Susan Palo Cherwin (b. 1963)
Music: Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962)
From Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006)

If you want to hear how the understanding of the darkness “lightens” with age, you can compare my playing here with my playing the same tune a slight two years ago. I think the difference is stunning.

“A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map. . .” (Ron Strauss)

Athlete

Athlete

(Please note: I realize I have written about tattoos—my tattoos—recently; however, that post is one I inadvertently deleted. This is not, however, a replacement for that post.)

In the summer of 1972 I lived and worked at the Robert and Francis Flaherty farm in Brattleboro, VT. At that time it was the center of study for Flaherty’s films (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, and Moana), administered by the School of Theology at Claremont (California), under the direction of Professor Jack Coogan.

I was assigned to catalogue and file still photos from Moana. The work was tedious, but the situation was intellectually stimulating, and the farm, located at the foot of Black Mountain, was idyllic and naturally inspiring.

Moana would be seen as even less appealing than “quaint” to modern film-goers. It would be almost impossible to endure for most of the students I’ve taught in colleges. Black and white. Silent (with subtitles—and, in versions available online, with theater organ accompaniments). Naive, I suppose—Polynesian kids running around in a blissfully innocent idyll playing and cavorting in the least sophisticated (by 21st-century styles and rituals) activities imaginable.

It was made before rock ‘n roll was invented, an eternity before rap or any of those other new musics. The film has not a single “special effect” or murder or explosion in its entire 60-some minutes.

Last week, a conversation with a young man from Tonga (the South Pacific islands) jogged my memory about Moana.

He asked me about my tattoos. He was fascinated and wanted to know if they “mean” something. He explained that his parents had asked him not to get any tattoos until he considered the “rite of passage” tattoo of many Polynesian Islands.

Tattoo.

Published in 1769, James Cook’s memoirs of his travels to the South Sea Islands introduced the word tatau into the English language from the Polynesian word referring to the practice of inscribing the skin with indelible ink. This word quickly morphed into ‘tattoo’ in English and spread through other European languages. . . (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body & Society 8.4 (2002): 91–107.)

When I was in 3rd grade, a new boy joined our class. He was also the new boy at church, the nephew of one of the pillars. My parents insisted I play with him even though everyone at school thought he was weird (I knew most of the kids thought I was weird, too). I was willing as long as it was at home and no one saw us together. David had an older brother, out of high school, thin, muscular, wearing t-shirt and jeans like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. He was not handsome, but he was so sexy I could hardly bear to be in his presence. He had several tattoos. They were not socially acceptable in 1955.

My being tattooed may be a case of arrested development. I still think of Casey now and then when I consider the history of my emotional development. I know the image of his tattoos (I do not remember what they were exactly) is one of those from childhood that inhabits my most private memory.

So I have tattoos because, when I was 10, I was in love with a playmate’s 19-year-old-brother who had tattoos? I’ll admit that’s possible. Arrested development.

It’s also possible that it has something to do with my life-long search for my true identity—and my (limited by creativity but nonetheless real) unwillingness to fit my life to some pattern some unidentified power would prescribe for me. I’m a shy, introverted (unspectacular, even meek) non-conformist. That I knew at age 10 I wanted to be tattooed but waited until I was 69 to do it does not speak well for my being a rebel, with or without a cause.

All of my life I have been in professional positions in which it would have been out of the question to be tattooed unless one were a far more extroverted non-conformist than I.

Many of the student athletes I work with now have tattoos—not simply a few scattered about their bodies, but elaborate swirls of ink over large parts of their bodies. I’m not sure when that became fashionable. My guess is Dennis Rodman made it popular; I don’t know.

Is it possible that these young athletes and I have the same motivation for our “body modifications?”

My tattoo in Arabic

My tattoo in Arabic

(Ernest)Becker has argued that one of the ways of dealing with the terror of death is to take a heroic attitude. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. (Strenger, Carl. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Gender and Sexuality 10 [2009]: 166–171. Referencing: Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press [1974].)

In his poem “Tattoo,” Dr. Ron Strauss tells of meeting a patient covered with tattoos, one of which the doctor thought said “J.S. Bach.” He was mystified until he discovered the tattoo read “S.S. Beech.”

A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”
explains “SS Beach” himself.
He’s become his own map, his own guide to what he will become.

Will he die or live forever through the permanent marks he has made on his body.

. . . as society focuses increasingly on the material body, individuals feel alienated from their own commodified bodies. This alienation stems from experiencing the world with rather than through the material body. Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming. The tattoo can serve as an indelible identity marker inscribing the boundaries of possibility for the body (Fisher).

The boundary of possibility is death. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. . . Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming.

I doubt any of this was in my consciousness as I sat for my first tattoo. The truth is, I could not have told you, had you asked, why I was in that chair letting Joe work on my arm. I have read many times and absorbed Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back.” I have studied and taught Orlan’s body modification of. I have read Becker, Strenger, and Fisher.

Perhaps I’m struggling against death. Perhaps I’m expressing non-conformity. Perhaps I’m trying to be as sexy as Casey (and the students I work with). Perhaps I like my tattoos.

Finally, the fourth function of tattoos is decorative. Regardless of their particular psychosocial function for the individual, tattoos are images (even words become images as/within tattoos). By modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher)

Soon I’ll tackle tattoos as “denial of death.” Stay tuned.

“The Tattoo,” by Ron Strauss
Pushing aside the nursing home curtain that’s come within reach,
a diehard sailor flexes a biceps.
For an instant we see “JS Bach” instead of “SS Beach.”

Down the street, the usual kvetch
of speed-metal pours from the local reptile shop
as if to further tattoo the curtain of his skin. The sweeping reach

of aquamarine vines and blue-green rosettes. Pitch
black nipples. A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”

explains “SS Beach” himself. Or in the clutch
purse of the deep. If only that crepe
of a curtain which Shelley calls “the painted veil” could come within reach

of the hand that would lift it. If only such
a hand were not itself caught in the grip
of the inching histiocytes that had blurred the distinction between “JS Bach”
and “SS Beach.”
From all across the map
a chorus of twenty-some-odd kids warms up
behind a scrim curtain, beyond his reach,
JS Bach instead of SS Beach.

Mine isn't Bach, but it's music

Mine isn’t Bach, but it’s music

“Live in the layers, not on the litter. . .” (Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006)

My Big Horn Mountains - tectonic uplift

My Big Horn Mountains – tectonic uplift

Stanley Kunitz was 73 (three or four years older than I am now) in 1978 when he wrote his poem “The Layers.” He lived another 28 years and died in 2006 at 101. Remarkable by almost any family’s stats.

My mother lived to be 92, my father lived to be 97 and His father lived to be 92. I could continue the list of my close relatives who lived to be nonagenarians.

By the laws of averages and statistics, it seems to me that I may be hanging around here for some time (I’m only 69). Given simple genetics, I have some time left to enjoy myself—or do something, at any rate.

I want to spend more years in the mountains. The real, majestic, overwhelming mountains. Mountains like the Big Horns in Wyoming, at the western slope of which I lived my first five years. Or the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, in whose shadow I lived for 11 years.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

I am not who I was though some principle of being myself remains.

Of his poem Kunitz said,

“I wrote ‘The Layers’ in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends. . . I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work.”

He went on to say that the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter” came to him in a dream. I suppose if one is a poet, lines appear in dreams.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

If I think about the tribe of friends and family I’ve had in my life so far, I understand the notion of the tribe scattered. I’ve been watching a TV program about the geological history of Australia. I’m fascinated that the geologists and zoologists and anthropologists can look at layers of rock and decipher the ages of fossils they find there (I’m fascinated that they can pick up what appear to be scattered rocks and put them together to form a dinosaur fossil).

My beach at Winter Island

My beach at Winter Island

The earth has—apparently world-wide—a layer of what used to be soot (it’s black, at any rate) that has been compressed into rock. Geologists find it almost anywhere on the earth they look. The residue of earth’s crash with an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Anyone who knows even the little I know science/evolution/geology knows about the great Yucatan Asteroid Smash, a cataclysmic event. And one which is revealed through the constant movement, the uplift, of the earth’s outer shell (made up of the “layers”), the tectonic plates.

Stanley Kunitz (as poets do) gave me a new way to think about the layers of the earth—the layers of my life. Childhood. Teen years. College. Floundering. Graduate school. Failed marriage. First partnership with him. Second partnership. College teaching career. Third partnership. More graduate school. University teaching. Topsoil. Retirement/whatever.

My favorite geological wonder is the uplift of mountains. How do the tectonic plates move? Is the uplift sudden and earth-shattering, or slow and deliberate (apparently it’s slow—the Andes, I’ve read somewhere, are getting taller by a milli-inch every year)? I want to know the mountains.

The uplift, the earth-shattering experiences of my life (yes, I am a drama queen). Moving from Nebraska to California for college. Getting married. Moving to Iowa for graduate school. Getting divorced. Moving to Massachusetts to be with him. Then the next him. College teaching. The real him and moving to Dallas.

The uplifts, the layer-shattering experiences of my life seem to have involved moving from one place to another.

Or simply visiting one place or another.

The greatest tectonic uplift of my life was my first trip to Palestine in 2003. Nothing about my life was unaffected by that experience. All of the layers were dislodged.

OK. I’ll stop with the (by this time over-done and corny) metaphor.

I understood there for the first time how costly, how inestimable human life is. I realized for the first time the meaning of one sentence I learned from the foundational “layer” of my life. The way I learned it first was something about losing your life to find it. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 16:24-26. I met people in Palestine who

Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. . . Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way. . . to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

I met people in Palestine—Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Rafa, Gaza City, Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron—who know about keeping themselves but losing everything. I’ve purposefully left out the phrases in the quotation that make it explicitly “Christian.” I know some of my friends would have visceral negative reactions to that. They’re missing the point.

I’m not saying people who know about losing everything (the shattering crush of the “tectonic plates” of their lives) and saving themselves don’t live elsewhere. But most of the people I met in those places, especially the Salsa family in Beit Sahour, showed me (I still have not learned the lesson well) what little is worth “. . . trad[ing] your soul for.”

Of course, the Palestinians have been forced to learn. But they have learned. Those whom I met in 2003 and again in 2009 know about the value of life in a way almost no one else I know does. They know how to live in the layers of their lives, not in the litter around them—even the cataclysmic earth-shattering events of their lives.

“The Layers,” by Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

“. . . Above the eagle a serpent was coiled about a shield and in the spaces between. . .” (Flannery O’Connor)

. . . interested in] what we don't understand rather than in what we do . . .

. . . interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . .

A couple of days ago when I showed up at Tigger’s Body Art studio in Dallas to have my tattoo finished, the young clerk greeted me by name. Two tattoos, and they know me because I’m the only person they’ve ever tattooed with a snippet of medieval music on his arm. A 69-year-old codger at that.

As I have told students repeatedly through the past fifteen years, one cannot conflate a writer’s discussion of (or creation of) fiction with what one knows from real life—either one’s own or someone else’s.

However,
. . . if the [fiction] writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . then 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 . . . pushing [fiction’s] own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because . . . 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. . . . [The writer is interested in] what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . . in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Mystery and Manners.)

In O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” Parker is a young man covered in tattoos.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color . . . [The] arabesque of men and bears and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. . . Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed . . . a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed. (O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1964.)

This is tricky. Merely three weeks ago I was tattooed for the first time. I did not see a tattooed man in a fair. I first read “Parker’s Back” in the summer of 1973 (give or take a year). I have read the story probably 25 times since then. I don’t know why I wanted a tattoo. It’s not Flannery O’Connor’s fault.

I first contemplated a tattoo in the late ‘80s. A friend had tattoos I thought were exceptionally attractive—Greek key designs covering his shoulder and biceps. The day I had my ear pierced, I was with him, and somehow my “body modification” has always felt incomplete without a tattoo. Don’t ask me why. I wrote about it on February 16, 2011.

Like my friend's Greek keys

Like my friend’s Greek keys

Again, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. I am not, like O’Connor’s Parker, “filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes” when I think of having one myself. I do live most of the time with a sense of “wonder in [my]self,” with an understanding that there is something “out of the ordinary about the fact that [I exist].”

It is possible that a church organist, a college professor, or a steel worker (another secret—no, I’ve written about it several times here) would want a tattoo. (I first read “Parker’s Back” sitting hour after hour in the Kaiser shipping office.)

Life imitating art. “The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology . . . have been exhausted.” Writing such a story “a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do . . . in possibility rather than in probability. . .” For such a writer “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.”

We engage ourselves in therapy, study Frankl and Heidegger, Freud, Jung, and Dr. Phil, attend 12-step meetings, and try myriad other analytical or self-help activities to discover “who we are.”

Or we avoid that complicated and not-very-fulfilling process altogether and simply adopt a belief, religious or otherwise, to explain our existence to ourselves and to others.

And we are left with—I think, if we’re really being honest—the nagging suspicion (no, the absolute certainty) that we don’t know where we came from, why we do what we do while we’re here, and where we will go when we die.

Let’s say my getting a tattoo serves the same purpose as someone else believing for the sake of political expedience that human life begins at conception. The anti-abortion crowd have invented a belief that explains to them where they came from. They hang onto that belief so they don’t have to think about where they will go when they die. It’s all tidied up.

Perhaps I have discovered a way to feel as if I have some control over my body, to shape it in my own image, to help me think about or avoid thinking about where I came from and where I will go. If one knows with absolute certainty where they came from, one can assume one knows where they are headed. You believe absolutely that life begins with conception, and I’ll be interested in “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.”

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death compared with the horrors of war and subjugation of those who think differently (Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171).

Besides, my tattoo looks groovy.

A Medieval snippet

A Medieval snippet

“At least 10 Palestinians have been killed, including at least three children, a pregnant woman, and a mentally ill man.”

Who is in danger?

Who is in danger?

This writing has been percolating in my mind since about 2001. I have no idea how to write it. I know exactly what I want to say, but the subject is too close. It is too complex. It is too emotionally overwhelming.

For all of that, the subject is so simple I can’t comprehend it—and I certainly do not know how to write about it clearly, logically, powerfully.

My sister wrote in an email this morning,

I am convinced that unless we forgive those closest to us there will never be peace in the world. We strangle each other with hurt and sorrow until the wound is so deep that we forget how we got it. Placing band aids over spurting veins only minimizes the pain until one of us bleeds to death. The problem between Palestine and Israel . . . goes on and on until there is no blame just stupidity.

It’s partly just stupidity. But it is also injustice and oppression. If you are an Episcopalian, you likely pray every Sunday for “the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.” (Note: the article and the video are not from American sources. Such reporting never is.) Does that apply to the Palestinians living (for 47 years now) under brutal occupation with the goal of ethnic cleansing?

Kidnapping and murdering three teenage boys is wrong in any context by anyone’s reckoning. Israel’s response is—as it always is—totally irresponsible and unconscionable. And America’s support for Israel and approval of the mass punishment of all Palestinians for the actions of a few—without even knowing who the few are or why they did what they did—is evil.

Evil.

Evil.

He's only a Palestinian.

He’s only a Palestinian.

And you and I are complicit in the evil. We perpetuate it. We condone it. We pay for it. And many of our leaders praise it.

Here are links to some materials about the situation. I wish I knew you’d read at least the first four which are about the current “battles” directly:

http://www.sabeel.org/waveofprayer.php

http://www.intifada-palestine.com/2014/07/searing-hypocrisy-west/

http://fosna.org/reporting-palestine#overlay-context=user?utm_source=AAAAA+Digest+July+2%2C+2014&utm_campaign=July+2%2C+2014&utm_medium=email

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/12218-israeli-army-storms-birzeit-university-and-arrests-two-students

http://www.ifamericansknew.org/
http://blogs.elca.org/peacenotwalls/
http://voicesforpeace.blogspot.com/
http://972mag.com/nstt_feeditem/photos-right-wing-activists-police-clash-in-anti-arab-protest/
http://www.elcjhl.org/

Do Palestinian boys' homes count?

Do Palestinian boys’ homes count?