AS THINGS ARE: FINDING MEANING, MAKING SENSE
May 17, 2020
In this time of loss
In this time of asking why
We light a flame of sharing
We light a flame of commitment.
In this time of why
We light this flame
Sign of our searching
Sign of our sharing
Sign that together we remember
Together we ask why
Together in sadness and joy
We share light.
Together we celebrate
What we are together
HYMN 128 For All That Is Our Life
PERHAPS THE WORLD ENDS HERE
Joy Harjo – 1951-
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
I returned to a long strand,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
[an] ocean-deafened voice…
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
buoyant with hindsight—
It said, …
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
VARIETIES OF QUIET
Too many elegies/elevating
Sadness/to a kind
one wants/in the end
just once/to befriend
To make/the ache
music maybe/or even just believing
in it/and summer,
and the long room/alone
where the child/chances
on a bee/banging
like an attack/of happiness
AT THE DOOR
from the Strokes
I can’t escape it
I’m never gonna make it out of this in time
I guess that’s just fine
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent, ” the philosopher Wittgenstein said.
But, Saint Augustine’s famous phrase at the end of his endless book on the Trinity: “I have said this not in order to have said something, but in order not to have remained altogether silent” balances Wittgenstein, I suppose, for the purpose of our speaking –the purpose of any thinking about ultimate meaning – is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning –by which I mean those aspects of life that will not be reduced to what we can make sense of–more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful
Most days, I’m with Hart Crane: I am only interested in adding what seems to me something really new to what has been written.
In truth, however, what I crave at this point in my life…in times like these, times as the gospel song says, when “I need an anchor” both to solidify, stabilize my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, is to say more than I can say, to more clearly say what it is that I believe. It is not that I am tired of poetic truth or that I feel it to be somehow weaker or less true than reasoned discourse. The opposite is the case (most days).
Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transformative, transcendent but also evanescent, temporary and, all too often, anomalous. The memory of that momentary poetic blaze can become a reproach to the fireless life I find myself in most of the time. To experience inspiration is one thing. To integrate it into life is quite another.
What I crave now is integration, some speech that is true to the Transcendent yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily life operates, where we live by what cannot be seen or controlled or predicted.
Karl Barth wrote:
If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of hte world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito is most impenetrable, we shall encounter (something like Truth), he suggests.
The transformation of all things occurs where the riddle of life reaches its [deep]culminating point. Hope emerges for us when nothing but the existentiality remains.
Does the abyss of pain and contradiction and paradox finally resolve to a happy ending? The sense of an ending? Maybe, except that maybe it’s not yet the end. The perfectly shaped moment disintegrates into chaos, the dramatic resolution collapses into a moral muddle.
I’m rehearsing these days (via ZOOM) for a rethinking by Jen Silverman of a play from 1621 using a contemporary lens to make the machinations of the distant past strikingly relevant to today in which Silverman cultivates her theme of a world without hope made hopeful by the renewal that might follow wholesale slaughter. “We are poised” she says, “in the quintessential moment of asking ourselves if we can fix the system from within or if the only way forward is just to burn it all down.”
(The play is called “Witch” and is another take on the Faust and the Devil. No surprise – I play the Devil.)
Early in the play, the presumed witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, says:
I’m not arguing for the end of the world but then again maybe I am. This one anyway, the hard stop, the full re-set. Burn it all down….O, I understand, you’re hesitating, you’re like: Is she kidding, is she series, is she crazy…and those are questions. They are valid questions, but they are not the RIGHT questions. Here is the single question that you should be asking yourself: DO I HAVE HOPE THAT THINGS CAN GET BETTER?
And if you do, then ignore me. You’re fine? But if you don’t…then, maybe this is where we start to which the Devil replies : I just find it hard to have hope right now.
The young Latinx technician, a student from Marquette, who rescues my hopelessly unreliable computer from time to time asked me recently: -” Does the idea that life is too mortifying to be taken seriously compute for your generation? This is so obstreperous all I can do is laugh out loud.”
OK, I think Julio means “preposterous,” but I get it – the times are totally resistant to any kind of control. They are obstreperous
If mystic words of encouragement from Richard Rohr or brainy quotes of Maria Popova are today’s savvy spiritual salves for application to psychic pandemic wounds, notions conjured out of nostalgia or quick pop-psyche getaways from lives that have become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit it: They are not working. Life is obstreperous!
Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern, liberal, free-thinking consciousness, all my pandemic anxieties pressure up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralized as ever.
Politicians, priests and pundits alike review the bullet points of the day, nearly all of them ominous. Reporters sit at least 6 feet apart, when they do not phone in their plaintive questions, asking, in sum: Do we have enough ventilators, workers, homeless shelters we need to keep going? When can we go out again? What will happen if “Open for Business” signs are really “Welcome Back” banners for a patient virus in the weeds?
And I ask myself “Do I need more liquid soap?” Where can I find a roll of toilet paper quick? “Yikes, where in the devil is my mask?” “I’m never gonna make it out of this in time.”
My hall-neighbor is very snappish about the delayed opening of her hair and nail salon and the spa downstairs…while 7 bodies of aged nuns of the Sisters of the Holy Angels are found bagged away in back room of their convent’s nursing home in West Allis. Millions are out of work, the oil market is in tailspin, we’re on another red and blue political rampage and Stephen King’s newest apocalyptic novel is set to make Texas Chain-saw Murder sound like the Hardy Brothers.
The wisdom of Julio’s assessment is self-evident. It is preposterous. It is obstreperous.
At bottom, however, we are simply, frankly, desperately …afraid.
My friend, David France, who has written a fierce, passionately intense historical review of the AIDs Epidemic (How to Survive a Plague) reminded me the other day – “There is reason to be afraid. Being afraid is absolutely the appropriate feeling. Being afraid works. The reason that fear works is because it keeps you from doing things that would put you at risk, right? ”
So back then (in the AIDS period) it was the very first tool for prevention. It created this notion that everybody’s probably sick, that you could either be sick and exposing yourself to others, or they could be sick and exposing themselves to you. There were no tests, just like there are no tests now, no real access to tests anyway.
So you had to convince yourself that, for ethical reasons, you had to consider yourself both healthy and infected simultaneously. And that drove your behavior accordingly.
So that’s what we’re seeing now, France suggests: – that’s why people are wearing masks, that’s why people are avoiding going inside stores, and that’s why people are sanitizing before and after putting gasoline in their cars and that kind of stuff. That sense of fear is what led to a series of innovations in public health years back.
We’re trying to find a way to do that now, with these sera surveys that are being conducted to find out how many people have been exposed already, research to determine whether or not having been exposed to or having survived COVID-19 confers immunity. And if we have conferred immunity, can we start putting those people on the front lines and putting more vulnerable people in the back lines? All these things that are born out of fear are going to help us find a way through the way things are.
David France says that If you look at that 15 years of AIDS – and this won’t be as long but it will certainly be incredibly devastating – the fear led to innovation, which led to good advice, neither of which got us out of the plague and so that led to anger, and anger led to activism and activism led to the kind of political pressure and economic pressure and cultural pressure that saw our way out of the Plague Years.
So, If he is right and we’re in the fear stage now, when do we hit the anger stage?
Well, FRANCE’s reply is:
“If I were to predict, I would say next fall. If we’re lucky and we get a few weeks or months of reprieve this summer, then when this thing roars back in the fall we are going to have had a moment of time to measure what terrible political and moral errors were made in the first round of this pandemic, and see how little has been laid for protecting us into the second round. I don’t think we’re going to get out of the fear state until we get a vaccine, and I think when we realize that we’re going into another year of COVID deaths that’s when people are going to become really furious.”
That may come.
But, for now there is no questioning the present fearful darkness.
If we come out of our rabbit holes and realize: It’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or under employed and can’t make their maintenance or mortgage payments or their rent but the rich have somehow gotten richer off of the pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by forcing people to work under adverse, even dangerous, conditions and they don’t care whether or not people old and young, brown, white and black are safe, then, yes, I do sense that we could have massive political disruption.
We folk of UU mind and conviction have fought to hone and perpetuate a grammar of inclusivity, what Rabbi Lawrence Kushner calls the “Invisible Lines of Connection” by which no one is made to feel isolated, alone or insufficient, but much of what I hear tells me that we are turning in on ourselves and have arrived someplace exclusive, in a condition of purposeful disengagement where general heart-ache doesn’t quite register – perhaps an emotional tipping point- where caring too much for ME begins to look like not caring at all for US.
Night into day, early into late, hours stretch out…, wailing sirens still ferry coronavirus patients to hospitals near my apartment just as they did weeks ago in Brooklyn Heights or Camden.
But, then sometimes, something happens (New Yorker, April 13, 2020) Sometimes, as David
Remnick reported , “Joy comes at seven.” (Or is it sheer catharsis?) Every evening, in many neighborhoods across NYC and up and down the street where I live, cheering breaks out. It spills from the stoops and the sidewalks, from apartment windows and rooftops, for all the nurses, orderlies, doctors…everyone who cannot shelter in place and continues to go about healing the people of the city.
We take out smartphones and record the roar outside, the clapping and whooping, the tambourines and windchimes and vuvuzelas.
What’s being applauded at seven is the courage of professionals, applauding the likes of Anthony Fauci, of course, but also cheering everyone who makes it possible for the city to live on…grocery clerks and mail carriers, truckers and cops.
The days remain dark and the next weeks and months (and if the predictions are true, years) will be demanding in ways that are hard to fathom. We are still in hiding but the virus has a knack for seeking and finding. Still, with time, we say, normal life will return to Milwaukee and Lancaster and Dubuque and New York. Doors will open and we will leave our homes, we say.
We will meet again face to face “around the kitchen table.” Our kids and grandkids will attend classes with teachers. Remnants of the crisis will be tucked away out of sight and out of mind. We will forget a lot about our suspended life. Tears will be of joy, for what can yet be mended.
We will remember what and who we lost. And, as David Remnick reminds us, we will remember “the sound of seven o’clock.” with something like an “attack of happiness.”
Perhaps. Maybe….maybe…. but Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer prize winning author for her 2017 book: Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, who has been labeled the prophet of this pandemic, is not so sure. She questions whether we will ever go back to a “normal.” She says normal is a “fantasy.” She asks: “Did we go “back to normal” after 9/11? No we created a whole new normal. We securitized the US. We turned into an anti-terror state. It affected everything. And that’s what’s going to happen with this.”
Not the metal detectors, perhaps, but a seismic shift in what we expect, in what we endure, in how we adapt.
It is already happening. We are marked. I don’t believe in “laying to rest” the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that have happened to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religions and therapy we swallow, what forms of art we turn them into, what we “compose in darkness” expecting an aurora borealis. Some things are going to go on happening inside us for as long as our brains are alive…with no “cascade of light.”
I am reminded of a Robert Louis Stevenson story of young boys who form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of membership. From the outside they look just like anyone else hurrying by in the night. But, when they meet one another, they life the edge of their coats to reveal a hot burning light hanging from a belt loop.
An image for today, perhaps – kids hiding fire, faces momentarily illuminated in lamplight, triumphant in their allegiance to the game.
Something like what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (“Nameless”) wrote after the Holocaust, something about the courage required to be together even when alone, about the fragile consciousness and importance of the inner/outer life, the shared life that cannot be seen or guessed or known from the outside and that cannot therefore be so easily extinguished or taken away, something that cannot perish or crack orfall, something still at the core of a life, something gold that does stay.
I’m coming to believe, and in rare moments can almost feel, that, like an illness, some vestige of which the body keeps to protect itself, distress may be its own reprieve; that the foolhardiness that is latent within us …never altogether dispelled or tamed can be acknowledged, defined, and perhaps, by the love we feel for our lives, for the people in them and for our work, rendered into an passion that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves, an energy we may even be able to celebrate; and that for those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called “normal unhappiness,” wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give our lives a coherence that is not “closure” and learn to live with our memories, our families and ourselves within a truce that is not yet and may never be peace.
Survival, after all, is the triumph of stubbornness, and spiritual stubbornness, a sublime stupidity, is what makes the occupation of faithfulness endure, when there are so many things that should make it futile.
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. I believe this gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of our work ahead, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, if they contain more pain than their original sculpture, if the whole is changed… then restoration of our shattered history, our shards of vocabulary, the remnants of uniting hope is the challenge of our lifetimes.
And this is the exact process of the making of faith, or what should be called not its “making” but its remaking, for the fragmented memory of faith is not some fixed, unchanging thing we cling to through the vicissitudes of life. (Those who try to make it so are destined themselves to become brittle, shatterable.)
I don’t mean simply that faith changes – although there is that. I mean that just as any sense of divinity we have comes from the natural order of things – is in some ultimate sense within the changeless changing natural order, so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any clean, intellectual coherence, some abstract ultimate meaning to be found, catalogued and stored.
When life is thriving in us, flourishing as too-soon-departed Peter Gomes was fond of saying, we crave to get beyond it: experience that takes us out of ourselves, poetry that articulates a shape and space for the inexpressible, prayer that obliterates self-consciousness for the sake of the Divine. When it is death or the threat of death that is thriving in us, though, when the inexpressible has begun to seep into us like some last ineluctable dusk, and the tick of each instant is the click of a door closing us out–we look back, “triggered to stirrings beyond sense”(Ted Hughes – Thrushes” ) of end or of beginning.
At every point, Life, with its patterns and repetitions, scrutinizing its own workings from every possible angle, gives as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken – lost to memory – as it does to the engine of its own movement. Part of its mystery is “the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope in all their contrariness, contradiction and irresolvability,” (Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending) but also retroactively, in a way. The past is suffused with a presence that, at the time one can only feel as an implacable absence, and we can understand that we really are all in this together – at times in different bodies or in different centuries. Some of us have died; others live on or have yet to be born – trivial differences compared to what unites and abides.
Our journey takes us to suffering and sorrow, so woven through us, so much a part of our souls that every experience is dyed with its color. Some of us go willingly to the end, some are driven there, some of us find ourselves there by grace. All of us get there sometime in our lives, (each year harder to live within/each year harder to live without – Craig Arnold) when through the gateway of the present moment we glimpse something beyond.
And when we do, may we open ourselves to a light that time and change will not snuff out.
May it be so…for each and every, one and all of us.
In both suffering that endures and suffering that belongs to the past, there is a need for something more than solidarity as time goes by: There is a need for narrative, for integration, for some reason about what the pain and anguish meant. The purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but we must search for meaning, insisting that in their own lives people should be looking for glimpse of a pattern, for signs of what these times might mean.
Ross Douthat: The Pandemic and the Will of God – NYT, April 12, 2020