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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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How shall I say this?

I’m ….not upset that Donald Trump is being inaugurated as 45th president of the United States.

I’m a lot of things: bemused, still sort of incredulous, interested, entertained, wary…but…upset?

I’m sympathetic with those who are. Well, with some of those who are. Others I just want to swat away.

But I get it. I do. There are people who are deeply upset at this moment because they believe that his character is beyond poor and that his ascendancy empowers that kind of similar poor behavior and lousy attitudes. They are upset and feel the need to find each other and support each other because they think (I think) that if someone voted for Donald Trump that must mean that that same someone admires Trump as a person and thinks his personal character is worth emulating, and when you multiply that by the millions, that is an upsetting and distressing vision of the country you live in.

That doesn’t capture everything, but as I have listened and thought through this, that is what I’ve come to conclude. My instinct, though, upon running up against these views, as a person raised in an academic environment by two very tough people, is to wonder what the hell is wrong with people that they take things so personally and are so enmeshed in emotion and the feelz, and Good God, can these people just go to church or synagogue or something and find something transcendent to identify with…now?

Oh, sorry about that.

(Although many have objections to what they assume will be Trump policies, as well, that is not where the movement to #resist is rooted. It’s all in a reaction to his character. Which is, in a way, understandable, but in a way not, once you think through what politics and government are for. But I’ve talked about that before. Stop me before I repeat myself.)

So as I said, I get it. This odd, repulsive-to-you man is the president, you’re offended by him, afraid that his ascendancy signals that it’s okay to be a proud p…….-grabber, and of course, that is not okay. It’s terrible and it would be better if Donald Trump were not that way. Better for him, better for all of us.

Agreed.Now. Can I have a turn?

As per usual, what interests me about the current moment is how people are talking about it and how people are talking to each other.

As I have said before, and those who have been with my on the Internets for a long time know, I have really lessened the amount of issue-related blogging that I’ve done over the past few years. I have explained in the past why that is so, but perhaps it bears repeating.

First, I don’t have an adult in my house or close in my life who can balance out the insanity of engaging in issue-talk on the Internet, whether that be blogs or social media.  I just didn’t want to be deeply engaged in online discussion with people I really don’t know all day, and have no one to be there when I closed the computer who will say, “Don’t worry. You’re sane. This is real life, right here.”

That’s very important.

Secondly, it’s a time suck. We all know that.

Third – and this is right up there with #1 – I have not been able to manage jumping into the rhetorical flow that has taken over public conversation on political, social and church issues over the past decade. I long ago identified what I think the problem is, and discerned that I didn’t want to waste my time engage in “discussions” on that level.

And what is that level?

It is the level in which narrative and tribalism are the paradigm.  We don’t discuss issues on their own merit. We toss out labels and dare you to be associated with that label.

It’s a paradigm which dominates conversations, such as they are, about the Francis pontificate. If you don’t like a decision or question a statement (or lack thereof) you are a (deep breathe) Francis-hater/Trad/sedevacantist/doctrinaire/right-winger. And you probably hate poor people too.

Sad!

Way too much of the issue-related material that comes out of American bishops, either individually or as a group, is framed in terms of narrative instead of actual information and data. “We have to welcome migrants and refugees.”  Well, yes, but what does that mean? “Health care is a basic human right?” Well, okay, but what does that mean in terms of policy, economics and access, realistically speaking? Food and shelter are basic human rights, too. So?  Of course, we all know that “health care is a basic human right”  doesn’t mean that Catholic institutions lead the way in providing inexpensive and free medical care or pick up the total cost for health insurance for their employees any more than the bishop’s “concern” for economic issues means that Catholic institutions pay any employee and actual living wage beyond well-compensated hospital and university administrators. Nah.

Narrative. All narrative and virtue signaling. Because it’s easy, that’s why.

And it frames most political discourse, as well, on all sides. In a way, of course, there is absolutely new about this, since labeling and boxing up is quick and convenient and easier to sloganize.  Always has been.

But there is something about the rapidity of communication now that leads more and more people to fall into the trap and if anything is worth #resisting, that is.

Let me illustrate by offering a (totally) imaginative dialogue:

“I think Tom Price is an interesting  choice for HHS secretary. I’ve read what he said about – ”

“Ah….so you’re a Trumpkin. Sweet. Did you see what Trump tweeted last night about Twizzlers? I mean..how can you defend that??”

“Well, I’m not..I was talking about Tom Price for HHS. His ideas about the exchanges…”

“How can you justify having such an undisciplined poser as president? He’s going to tweet our way into war.. “

“Okay, yeah, I wish he would get off Twitter, but you know even that is interesting, because when it’s an effective way of going over the media gatekeepers and directly..”

“Yup. Fascist. I hope you and your other Trump fans are happy when he tries to sue the New York Times out of existence…”

“Wait. I’m not a “fan.” I don’t have to defend everything he is or does. I was just talking about this one area of policy.  I mean, I didn’t support him or even vote for him, but he is the president now and..”

“#NOTMYPRESIDENT!”

Look. If you can predict, right now, the night before the inauguration, that you are going to be deeply opposed to every single policy position that a Trump administration proposes, go ahead and #resist. I guess.

But as you do, try to make your opposition about the policy and based on data and your philosophical position not about the fact that IT’S TRUMP and my tribe is #RESIST and my other tribe is #NEVERTRUMP and my narrative is TRUMPLAND IS EVIL.

And, perhaps, acknowledge that those who are not suffering from the Sadz tonight, not posting statuses saying that they’re ready to bravely endure the next four years because they will always have Art, and who are  relieved that the Obama presidency is coming to an end and are even more relieved that we’re not going to see the Clintons up there on that dais tomorrow, not because we’re misogynists, but because they’re criminals…yes try – just try to acknowledge the fact – yes, the fact– that those of us who feel that way are not necessarily Trump “fans,” may not be able to watch him in action without cringing, may not have even voted for the guy, and are interested in issues, not because they promote a narrative or tribe or reflect well on Donald Trump, if they do,  but because they seem to us to be better for the country, and if a Trump administration is proposing something we agree with, we’ll agree with it, and if we disagree, we’ll do that too.

And it’s fine.

It’s perfectly tenable to hold the following positions. I’m saying that because I hold them, of course:

  • Barack Obama seems to be a good role model as a husband and a father.
  • Barak Obama’s presidency was marked by overreach, excess by the executive branch, authoritarianism, politicizing the mechanism of government, and a personality cult.
  • Donald Trump is one strange guy. Probably not a good personal role model. YMMV, but not in my house.
  • Donald Trump was not a candidate I supported at any point in the election of 2016.
  • I didn’t agree with some of Donald Trump’s expressed positions and found him politically inscrutable and incoherent.
  • My now-twelve year old spent a lot of the year before the election reading Bloom County and then much of the election year very puzzled.
  • I wasn’t upset when Donald Trump won the election.
  • I am not “proud” or “ashamed” that Donald Trump is the president. I’ve not been “proud” of a president, ever, in my  life. He’s the head of the executive branch, not my relative or an expression of my inner hopes and dreams.
  • Although I find Donald Trump strange and cringeworthy (I mean…why is his 35-year old son-in-law going to bring peace to the Middle East? Because he’s Jewish??)  I also am not quite sure of my judgment. I suspect there is an element of performance art happening here, partly as a method of staking out positions, but also partly as a way of causing distraction by shiny things and squirrels over there while real business is happening over here. When you observe his actions with that assumption, rather than simply assuming he is a narcissistic poser, things get interesting. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m just saying.
  • I am interested in the policy prescriptions that are in the wind regarding health care, education, immigration, and the size and role of government in general. I don’t know what Donald Trump actually thinks about any of this, but the direction that his administration is going in at this point interests me, and I find most of the conversations, as I have dipped into the confirmation hearings, well-grounded.
  • I was never worried about Trump being any kind of fascist or authoritarian or being able to bully his way through the presidency, except to the extent that he made use of mechanisms to that end created under the Bush and Obama administrations, the latter of whom perfected their use.  I was not bothered because, honestly, even though those might be his instincts, he would be limited by the fact that everyone seemed to hate him. The press hated him, Democrats hated him, a big chunk of Republicans hated him. (They  still do even as they glad-hand) That would hem him in, even though he seems unfazed by negative reactions and even energized by it. But balance of powers, checks and balances – especially from members of his own party? It would work.
  • But who knows? It’s all an enigma at this point (Thursday night). I’m not particularly nervous about undue and inappropriate influence in government because after 8 years of hibernation, the press is clearly well-rested and is on it. Even if it has to make stuff up more or less constantly, it’s on it. #brave
  • There should be constant fact-checking and digging and reporting and holding to account. There always should be. There should be during every presidency. Welcome back, guys.
  • It’s all pretty entertaining.

 

 

Someone wrote on Facebook to someone they knew that even though that other person had voted for Trump, they knew that they were better than that. They had to be.

Someone else I know (not me!) is taking tomorrow as a day of celebration – keeping the kids out of school, watching the inauguration together, and so on. Why? Is it because this family thinks of Trump as some sort of hero and DJT in particular as a role model for their kids? Or because they believe every word he has written or spoken is true? Not at all. It’s because they are a small business family whose business has been hammered by the costs associated with ACA and other regulation. Perhaps, with Trump, they have a chance, not just for themselves, but for the customers they serve and future employees.In their judgment, they didn’t have a chance with a Clinton presidency. They made a decision about policy, not about the meaning of life and masculinity.

Maybe they’ve been had. Maybe the price of trusting what you believe is a good cause to Donald Trump’s stewardship will be higher than they expect. But what was the alternative? Honestly?

Perhaps you can judge their support of Trump as a candidate for president as a mistake, but caricature it by saying that it must be racist and misogynist hero-worship, a moral  failure and a betrayal of all the women you know to boot is small-minded and lacks empathy.

And even more so to say that if, now that it’s done, if you don’t reflexively hate Trump and everything Trumpian, it must be that you  love him and have bought into the bombastic Messiah cult, and you will be called on to defend every word he utters and if you can’t or won’t, that proves….

….something. 

I was just watching Tucker Carlson – another change in my life – I haven’t watched any kind of television news for probably fifteen years, but I’m recording his show and watching much of it every night – and he was talking to Robert Reich, who served as Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary.

Carlson gave him two very Trumpian quotes about trade, and said, “Who said this?”

Of course, Robert Reich himself had said them. And Carlson proceeded to grill him on why, if he was, as he admitted, closer to Trump on trade issues than he was to Hilary Clinton, why hadn’t he supported him? Why couldn’t he support him now?

Reich averred that he wished Trump well and hoped that his policies resulted in better economic climate for middle class and poor Americans, and who knows, they might, and yes, he admitted, he had disagreed with Clinton on these matters, and had actually supported Bernie Sanders. He told of being at book signings in the Midwest last year and often running into people who were weighing their support between Trump and Sanders, which is not surprising to me at all. But, he said, Sanders was a progressive populist and in his view, Trump was an authoritarian populist, and that was scary. His public behavior reveals him to be vindictive and small-minded, and that worries Reich.

“But,” he said, “if he can get above that, great! Let’s hope for the best.”

Carlson’s answer:

“What if both are true? What if he’s vindictive and small-minded but he stops TPP? (chortles) I hope you’ll come back, we’re out of time – but meditate on that. “

And there you go. Meditate on that. We can keep grumbling or shouting our chosen narrative for the next four years, and trying to play gotcha with those we deem members of the enemy tribe, or we can be thinking adults and have conversations about real programs, policies, decisions on their merits, not based on who proposes them or what blog is for them and how they impact real people, call out wrongdoing and dishonesty, celebrate the good, grapple with ambiguity and unintended consequences, and admit limitations – first and foremost, our own.

This. Yes. 

People are perfectly capable of holding seemingly contradictory opinions about a person as a president and a person as an individual.

Also, Michael Brendan Dougherty

My hope is that entrusted with power, Trump follows his more dovish foreign policy instincts. The unipolar moment in world history was always going to end, and ending it without an aspiring or revanchist great power rising to dethrone the United States militarily is the best possible ending, just as the British Empire’s mostly peaceful transfer of power to Washington over two World Wars was the best possible outcome for that empire’s end.

I concede that it’s on foreign policy where my hope is clutching the thinnest reed. The last two presidents ran as peace candidates and each pursued wars of choice, in part because the president is given almost unconstrained latitude to do so. But perhaps Trump, being suspicious of experts, will ignore the universal advice of American apparatchiks who believe in the omnicompetence of the American military to salve every irritation across the globe.

Lastly, I hope Trump’s administration ends the cult of sophomoric wonks, ideologues, consultants, and even experienced politicians. Most Washington “experts” hold forth with confidence to prove to themselves the value of their expensive educations, even though they skipped most of the reading assignments. They crashed the economy, they wasted and marooned American military might across the Middle East, they balkanized the American nation, and paid each other handsomely for the tender service, while saying Trump could never win. If an impulsive, self-aggrandizing dolt ends this cult, it would be a fitting judgment.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rectify returned last night.

For those of you who don’t know, Rectify is a television series seen on Sundance TV that’s “about” a man released from prison after 19 years on death row for a murder he may or may not have committed.

The point is not really that particular mystery. The point is the impact the incarceration and the re-entry has had on this character, Daniel, and his family. Rectify is about human connection and how we do or don’t live with ambiguity and change. The acting is magnificent, the pace is meditative.

I like Rectify for a lot of reasons. I appreciate the southern setting. It’s filmed in Georgia, in a town a bit southwest of Atlanta, and a couple of the actors have Birmingham connections. I once saw and chatted with actor Michael O’Neil, who plays the corrupt senator in the series, in the Whole Foods here in town. The accents are good – even though two of the leads are Australian!

It’s a profoundly spiritual piece, with more than a hint of Flannery O’Connor.

If you want to catch up, the first three seasons are currently streaming on Netflix. I’ve written about it a few times before – the last time here, I believe.

So let’s get back to this first episode of this fourth and last season of Rectify.

When the third season ended, Daniel Holden was leaving his hometown of Paulie, Georgia for Nashville. He had been convicted of raping and murdering his high school girlfriend, but released from Death Row on an evidential technicality. He had confessed to the crime rtfy_401_jld_0415_-0142-rtat the time, but we have seen in flashbacks over the course of the series that this confession was almost coerced and that there are certainly others who might have committed the crime. But what we see of and hear from Daniel in the present has never been enough to lead us to conclude on his guilt in one direction or another.  In fact, our general impression has been that he is not sure himself.

In any case, for various reasons, after a few months out of prison, Daniel has admitted to the murder and, as part of the plea, has been exiled from his hometown and the state and is taking up residence at a halfway house in Nashville, which is where we meet him at the beginning of the fourth season, which seems to be taking place a few months after the end of the last.

This first episode focuses solely on Daniel up in Nashville. We don’t see anyone from Paulie, and we have no idea what’s going on down there. The question is – how is Daniel adapting? The answer: he is walking and talking, but as if he is still in his death row cell that has shrunk, encased him and which he wears like a cloak.

At least in Paulie, he had his family, and as fraught and awkward as his relationships with them were, at least he had some degree of familiarity. Here in the halfway house and at his warehouse job, he functions, but he doesn’t interact. He just doesn’t know how, and in Aden Young’s performance – in his eyes, body language and strangled voice – we perceive that struggle and honestly, it makes us a little afraid.

Alan Sipenwall has reviewed the first two episodes of this season here, and I can’t add to that except to share a bit of last night’s episode that struck me on a spiritual level.

Near the end of the episode, Daniel returns to the halfway house, and is pulled into conversation with one of the counselors. One of the core events of the episodes has been that Daniel’s roommate tested positive for drug use and left the house in the middle of the night. This initially seems like a tangential event that has nothing to do with Daniel.

But doesn’t it?

Daniel was his roommate. Daniel even saw him leave and did nothing, said nothing. There have been no fireworks or drama about this, but as the episode builds, the central question emerges:

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Well, yes, you are. “New Canaan” is the name of the halfway house and here, in this community of hope and new beginnings, yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

But this is not something Daniel knows a bit about, not because he wants to be cruel, but because almost two decades of isolation have malformed his soul.

This comes out in a cathartic conversation with the counselor, in dialogue that might seem a bit overwritten from Daniel’s perspective at first, but does make sense when you consider it as the fruit of twenty years of introspection and reading. It is not surprising that he would talk this way about his own existence and the stripping of his soul.

But even this is not what I want to focus on. For the core of Daniel’s dilemma comes down to this:

He doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know anymore if he killed Hannah or not. That uncertainty, that unknowing about the past, makes living in the present impossible.

Here’s what this made me think about last night, then:

Do any of us know the impact of our actions/ Do we have any clue to the reality of our own sins? Is there even any way for us to grasp every sin of omission and commission, what we have done and what we have failed to do? How the words I spoke in the grocery store yesterday helped or hurt and what they led to in someone else’s life a minute or an hour or ultimately a week down the road?

How tangled and mysterious is human history, activity and experience.

This is not to diminish the impact of sin. It is not to say there is no space for justice or requirement for restitution or judgment.

It is simply a recognition that there is only so much we can do for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we can’t even begin to count the ways. God must do the rest. All of our efforts to make sense of our impact on others fall short not only because they are weak and limited but also because we don’t know what to do. We do not know how to pray as we ought, Paul says, and not just because human words are limited, but because we can’t comprehend the scope of our lives and our impact, for good and for ill, on others. We don’t know what we should be asking forgiveness for, not all of it, not really.

How can we rectify when our sins are either so great or so unknown to us?

So how do we live? In continued isolation, separating ourselves from others because we are afraid, we feel unworthy of them in our guilt, real or imagined, or we feel superior to them in our innocence, real or imagined?

Or do we do what we can, hand the rest over, and edge from the door to the side chair to the place waiting for us at the table with the other sinners in the house that is half way?

Rectify season 4

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a piano that is new to us. It is, strangely enough, about the same age as the one we used to have, but it’s much better, and after some drama, it lives upstairs, rather than in the basement.

Having it upstairs means it gets played more often, including by me, which is one of the reasons I wanted it up instead of down and mostly out of sight. I thought that I might play it more, and that seemed to me to be a good thing, even though I didn’t know why. I have enough to do, I have interests and work. On paper, I don’t need to play the piano more, and it wasn’t a conscious burning desire, but nonetheless, it nudged and became a reason.

It’s been about three weeks, and in that time, I have realized something: I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing the piano.

 

— 2 —

 

I think what happened was that as decades passed and I got rusty, I checked “piano” off the list. That’s over. I was never very good anyway. My personality is not that of the perfectionist. When it seems good enough, I move on to something else, and combined with the fact that I lead life mostly on intuition and response, that means everything I do only goes so far until I decide something else is more worth my time.

For most of my adult life – well, since my 30’s, I guess – I’ve had a piano in the house, but it was that old Storey and Clark, it wasn’t fun to play, I was busy, and every time I did sit down, I fumbled on those unresponsive keys, it was a strain to see the music and reading glasses didn’t help, so yes, that’s what I figured. That’s over.

— 3 —

Here’s my piano history.

When I was in second grade, we lived in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My father was doing some sort of year-long commitment with the Department of the Interior. They rented a piano, and started me on group lessons at the public school. In 1967, long before electronic keyboards, group piano lessons in a public school meant a classroom full of children, each with a wood board painted like a keyboard in front of us. I don’t recall anything about it, except the recital, in which I played this, from this book.

photogrid_1477066028446.jpg

I don’t keep a lot of things, but music, I keep. But I didn’t know until I just now found it and opened it up that – gulp – almost fifty years later, I could read the kind words of congratulations from that first piano teacher right there.

The next year, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. During third and fourth grade, we lived in an apartment, but moved into a house, where we were through seventh grade. At some point during that time, my parents convinced my paternal grandmother to buy a piano for me, and so that Storey and Clark entered our lives (used you can get one for a couple hundred bucks now – that’s why I didn’t even bother to put ours on Craigslist, and let the piano delivery guy take it away instead) and private lessons began.

There was a catch, though. The catch was that my parents were frugal and my mother didn’t drive, so when they looked for at teacher, they looked only as far as the KU music department, and a student who could drive to our house. I don’t remember much of anything about my teachers – I think I had a young woman one year and a man the next. I don’t think there were recitals (which was fine with me), just these music students showing up at our house to give me lessons.

 — 4 —

 

When eighth grade came around, we had moved again – to Knoxville. That first year, of course, we lived in an apartment, but then for high school, we settled into a house in an area called Holston Hills, in east Knoxville. It’s that kind of hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks, full of 1950’s ranches and some Tudors built on half-acres, set well back from the road. A few months after we moved, we figured out that the woman who lived across the road and two houses down taught piano out of her home. So I started. Again.

At the time, I intuited that it was an odd situation, but didn’t know how odd until later. She wasn’t the most rigorous teacher in the world, but she wasn’t terrible. She had me play Bach and such, but she also let me play things I wanted – like Summertime. I was never really comfortable in her home, and I reached a tipping point when, for a winter “recital,” she insisted I play a duet of Rudolph with her daughter at their Baptist church’s Christmas program. I didn’t like recitals anyway, I was a senior in high school playing Rudolph in the basement of the Macedonia Baptist Church, so I was done.

Oh, and why was it odd? As we learned a few years later, both the woman and her husband were serious alcoholics. They both ended being hospitalized, the kids did nothing with the house, the parents died from their alcoholism, and last time I was there – probably four years ago to see to the sale of my parents’ home – the house was in complete collapse and disrepair, overgrown, a notice of condemnation on the door.

— 5 

And that was it. Maybe five years of instruction all together, spread out over ten years?

Over the years, when passing the keyboard, I might sit down and pound out a few measures of Maple Leaf Rag or Alla Turca. I remember those. Probably about twenty years ago, I went through a stage when I thought I would try to get serious again, took out the Gershwin, and worked at it. Not too bad, but then we probably moved again and life took over again.

Now we have this new-old piano, it’s in the dining room, and since it cost a lot of money and it’s sitting there, I might as well play it, I think. So I do. And I’m not bad. And I’m getting better.

And as I said at the beginning, what has come back to me in a startling rush is how much I like it, and how much I actually don’t mind practicing. I don’t think I ever did, either. I don’t remember practicing being an agony. I say I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not, but I do want to get it basically right, and for some reason, even though in most things I have the attention span of a gnat, when I play piano, I can play the same few measures over and over again and not tire of it.

Perhaps it’s just a new way to procrastinate and put off work. I think it’s going to be helpful in keeping mentally sharp as I age: my version of my father and his crossword puzzles, taken up with intense commitment in his 60’s. Who knows.

 

6–

I have goals, and they are the same goals I’ve had during every other return to the instrument. Right now, it’s The Maple Leaf Rag – the first page has been in my memory for forty years, but I never really went beyond that, and now I am, and I want to learn the whole thing. And then there’s the Gershwin.

Gershwin’s piano music – his variations on his songs, and his stand-alone pieces like the Preludes – have always been favorites of mine. As a teen, I played the William Bolcom recordings over and over, and tried my hand at several, but could never get beyond a certain point: too many accidentals, I felt my hands weren’t big enough. Again: not a perfectionist.

Somewhere along the way, my book went missing – I suspect it’s either in a sorority house in Williamsburg, Virginia or a resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. So I bought a new one, and am working hard. I started with Rialto Ripples, have almost got ‘S Wonderful down and really really want to conquer Prelude 1. I think I can do it.

So I play. I play during the day when the boys are gone, and I play in the evening, after Michael has his time. I enjoy it, but it’s also part of my determination for them to see me doing and reading real books and making real things instead of scrolling through one more damn screen. And it works. An adult doing this in a household is an invitation for interaction and community in a way that an adult staring at a screen is not. It might be a joke, right? The minute I get interested in doing something…there they are, all around me.  But I don’t mind. I sit down to play, and before I know it, one’s on the futon behind me, flipping through a magazine or drawing, and the other is standing at my side, leafing through music, wanting his turn again.

I also think it’s good for them to watch me take on something I’m not so great at, then work and improve. We lecture them all the time on how that’s what you have to do, but how often do they actual see us at this task, making mistakes, learning and growing and having to resist the temptation to give up?

— 7 —

My experience with piano explains why I am torn about children’s activities. On the one hand, I’m mostly against them. I am famous among my friends for asserting “I won’t be held hostage by my children’s activities,” by which I mean that there’s more to life than weekends at soccer fields allows many of us with children to experience. My kids do activities when they have an interest. My daughter was intensely involved with forensics and drama – but in high school. My youngest son has exhibited some musical talent and likes it, so I am investing in some pretty high level instruction for him. They know that if they are interested and serious, I’ll support them. But I do draw a line, and in the end, a weekend just hanging out, relaxing around home or taking a day trip is, I think, more valuable than most activities.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted an impassioned Facebook post after her family had spent a Saturday morning doing some really good volunteer work. She wondered why they didn’t do this kind of thing more? And then she answered her own question: because of sports, dance and homework projects that absorbed every second of their family’s free time and energy. Then she asked another question: what would the world be like if everyone made more time to help others instead of spending so much time watching 4 year olds play soccer?

But yet.

I only had five years of haphazard instruction, and..I’m not bad and I like it. I think I can get a lot better.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my parents had seen my moderate level of talent and interest and made the effort to get me more consistent instruction – even as we moved about – at a higher level. Why didn’t they? They had their own problems which dominated the home, that’s true, and I would imagine that’s a big part of why as long as I didn’t present problems – and I didn’t – I was left to myself. Perhaps back in the 70’s people didn’t pursue Excellence in Extra-Curriculars as they do now. That’s certainly true. And it also never occurred to me to ask for something different, or even that there might be the possibility. Who knows. And who knows what would have happened if they had done anything different. I might have had intense music instruction, excelled, and then grown to hate it and never take it up again, even here in middle age, when I am hankering for it and appreciating it again.

We parents do what we can do with the information we have. I won’t say “we do our best,” because we don’t. We just do what we do. It’s what I have done, it’s what my parents did. So I’m not resentful. I just wonder.

And then I sit down to play.

"amy welborn"

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

 

It is the best time of the year in this part of the world. Daytime highs in the 80’s and low 90’s , evening temperatures in the 60’s. No mosquitoes – perhaps because it hasn’t rained in a month, it seems. I don’t mourn their absence. It makes sitting outside under that crescent moon, finding Venus and Saturn, the only way you want to spend your evening.

— 2 —

Our Charleston people have evacuated. They were going to come here, but they both work for companies with offices in another, inland city, so they’re going to be put up in that spot for the duration by the company, waiting with millions of others to return, dreading what they’ll find.

Returning from travel, that last mile or so before getting home always has my insides in knots. I dread pulling up to the house. What will greet me? Will we have been broken into? Will a tree be on my roof? A flood in the kitchen?

(Nothing like that has ever happened, by the way. And having good neighbors who would communicate with you if, well, a tree fell on your house, takes away the worry, if you’re rational about it. Which is not always easy to be.)

Anyway, imagine how that dread is multiplied by coming home after a hurricane has moved through.

 

— 3 —

 

We got a new piano. Finally. I had the slightest twinge of sentiment as the old one was loaded up and carted away..but really only a twinge of a twinge, if there is such a thing. It was not that I didn’t want to replace it. Of course I did. It was terrible, and my son, who is quite talented and promised that indeed, he is all in with the piano stuff – deserved something better to play. It was just that feeling of letting go of something that had been in my life for decades. My grandmother had given it to me probably around 1970, I imagine because my parents convinced her to fund it. It was a Storey and Clark spinet, which is not even made any more and which, experts agree, was not a good piano.

Honestly, why I had hauled that thing around the country for thirty years, I don’t even know. For what it cost to move it, I probably could have just bought a new/used piano at every stop, and sold it again when it was time to move on.

But now…we have a decent one. We also have it upstairs, and not in the basement. When we first moved into this house three years ago, it was just the path of least resistance to put the piano in the basement, which, because the house is built on a slope, is actually ground level. It just slipped right in.

In piano shopping, I had been apologizing for this, not that any of the salesmen were demanding explanations, much less apologies, but one did tell me that if there is no moisture problem, a basement is not the worst place for a piano. After moisture, temperature variation is the enemy of good piano health, and since the temperature in basements tends to be more consistent than other areas of a home..it can work.

But we just wanted the piano up out of the Lego Emporium and up where we spend most of our time. (Yes, I think Lego Days might be approaching twilight…can it be true?) I had explained the front door situation to the guy at the piano store and he assured me it would be fine. In retrospect, I see that I probably should have taken a photograph and shown him. For when the delivery men arrived, they took one look at the slope of those measly five steps and the angles up past them and said…Nope.

O…kay.

What aboimg_20161006_231003.jpgut the back patio? I had mentioned this to the piano salesmen and he said that no, since there was a large patch of yard that would have to be navigated, that wouldn’t work. The piano would have to be brought over a paved surface – it would sink in the ground.

The delivery guys said he was wrong. They had an all-terrain dolly that would do the job, no problem. But they didn’t have it with them, and would have to go get it. Which they did, and an hour later, there it was.

It’s so much better. My son is really enjoying it, and guess who else is playing again? Yeah, me. It’s such a better instrument, plus it’s upstairs…I’m back in business, and even re-ordered that book of Gershwin piano music that was waylaid either in Williamsburg or Germany – where ever my daughter took it that time she took it.

 — 4 —

Well, I couldn’t put it off any longer, so we have embarked on Orthodontic Adventure #4 for my family. It’s been a while – ten years, I guess. I was going to let #4 Kid take care of it on his own when he became an adult, since the issues seemed cosmetic to me, and not that serious. But then this summer, a couple of teeth started trying to come in…unsuccessfully…and it became clear that this wasn’t just cosmetic. And that I am not qualified to diagnose teeth.

But man, I hate orthodontic practices. I hate the buzz of profiteering cheerfulness, I hate the matching polo shirts, I hate the little fountains and beige tones.

So when I heard that an acquaintance of mine was a huge fan of the local university’s dental school clinic, which includes an orthodontic section, I was intrigued.

And, after two appointments, I’m a fan, too.

First, it’s about half the cost of private treatment. That cost must be paid up front, but I’m telling you – when I walked away from that desk, knowing that the next couple of years or so were paid for, from records to retainers..it was a great feeling.

Secondly, the whole process is very interesting. You have a resident assigned to you, and he or she works under a supervising orthodontist. In the initial assessment, the resident worked alone at first, and sketched out a treatment plan. Then the supervisor came in. He asked, “So what’s your treatment plan?” But then he stopped and continued, “No, don’t tell me. Let me look, then I’ll sketch out a plan, and we’ll compare.” Which is what they did, and it was fascinating to observe the teaching that was going on – and good for my son to see it to, to see that this is not magic, nor is it cut-and dried and always obvious. Medical treatment of any kind is not just a matter of matching items from different columns, and it’s good for him to observe that process.

— 5 

I read two novels over the past week. I enjoyed both as light reading that’s a little though-provoking.

I’ll begin with the one I enjoyed less – The Leftovers by Tom Perotta. Perotta is the author of Election and Little Children, both of which are very good and have been made into great movies. The Leftovers has been adapted by HBO as a series – two seasons have aired (I haven’t watched it.).

The novel is about the aftermath of a Rapture-like event,in which about 2% of the world’s population just…disappeared. There’s never any explanation given of the event, and since we enter the story three years after it occurred, we don’t see the characters wondering about it themselves – when we meet them, they are simply trying to cope, to deal, to move on.

So what the book is about is grief and loss. Really, that’s it. It’s about how human beings live with the reality of loss. What the characters of this novel live with in a very focused way is what all of us live with: this or that person was here one day, and then gone the next. What does that mean for my life? Do I dishoner that person by “moving on?” What about if I discover that person wasn’t who I thought he or she was? Where can I find meaning? How is respectful or even possible to live a “normal” life, knowing that people – including yourself – will someday be gone?

It was okay. The choice to not make the “why” or “where did they go” an issue is intended, I suppose, to put the emphasis on the responses of the leftovers. This makes a sort of sense, but the ultimate effect, I felt, was a flattening of the events of the book. It really was just about a bunch of people responding to the losses of loved ones in various ways, but because the peculiar circumstances are not an issue, there seems to be no reason why the loss couldn’t have been via a flu epidemic or chemical leak.

It was an interesting device to explore grief, but done in, I fear, by a kind of spiritual and intellectual reserve.

6–

Much- much –  better was the quirky novel Amp’d. I won’t say, “I recommend it,” because I don’t say that – people have different tastes, and recommending books usually gets the recommender in trouble from someone who imagines they will be getting one thing because they have an image in their mind of what kind of person they believe the recommender to be, but of course they actually have no idea, and the book is in fact quite different from what they expected, and possibly has swears and drugs in it, and maybe sex. Surprised and disappointed email to follow.

So. Don’t read this book.

It’s the story of a guy – Aaron – who has lost his arm in an car accident and returned to his father’s house to recuperate and figure out what to do with his life. It was funny – often hilarious, and just page after page of succinct, on-point observations. Making frequent appearances are a pet alligator, Cancer Boy and various lost and seeking friends and family members, as well as the fish Aaron is hired to count as part of a ..fish counting project. Also a presenter of short radio bits on scientific trivia, and the content of these bits is simply perfect. You can hear the voice as you read.

I think the best way to communicate what the book is about is to tell you that it begins and ends with lists. It begins with a list called “Things you can’t do with one arm” and ends with “Things I never did with two arms.” The second list is far more intriguing , and there’s the point, right there.

You know what? Everything is better with humor in it. Even life-affirming lessons. Especially life-affirming lessons.

— 7 —

Melanie Bettinelli recommends a children’s books…and it looks great!

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On this feast of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusians, you might want to read this talk that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave in 2011 at the Charterhouse of Serra San Bruno:

I chose to mention this socio-cultural condition because it highlights the specific charism of the Charterhouse as a precious gift for the Church and for the world, a gift that contains a deep message for our life and for the whole of humanity. I shall sum it up like this: by withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, “expose” themselves to reality in their nakedness, to that apparent “void”, which I mentioned at the outset, in order to experience instead Fullness, the presence of God, of the most real Reality that exists and that lies beyond the tangible dimension. He is a perceptible presence in every creature: in the air that we breathe, in the light that we see and that warms us, in the grass, in stones…. God,Creator omnium, [the Creator of all], passes through all things but is beyond them and for this very reason is the foundation of them all.

The monk, in leaving everything, “takes a risk”, as it were: he exposes himself to solitude and silence in order to live on nothing but the essential, and precisely in living on the essential he also finds a deep communion with his brethren, with every human being.

Some might think that it would suffice to come here to take this “leap”. But it is not like this. This vocation, like every vocation, finds an answer in an ongoing process, in a life-long search. Indeed it is not enough to withdraw to a place such as this in order to learn to be in God’s presence. Just as in marriage it is not enough to celebrate the Sacrament to become effectively one but it is necessary to let God’s grace act and to walk together through the daily routine of conjugal life, so becoming monks requires time, practice and patience, “in a divine and persevering vigilance”, as St Bruno said, they “await the return of their Lord so that they might be able to open the door to him as soon as he knocks” (Letter to Rudolph “the Green”, n. 4); and the beauty of every vocation in the Church consists precisely in this: giving God time to act with his Spirit and to one’s own humanity to form itself, to grow in that particular state of life according to the measure of the maturity of Christ.

In Christ there is everything, fullness; we need time to make one of the dimensions of his mystery our own. We could say that this is a journey of transformation in which the mystery of Christi’s resurrection is brought about and made manifest in us, a mystery of which the word of God in the biblical Reading from the Letter to the Romans has reminded us this evening: the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and will give life to our mortal bodies also (cf. Rom 8:11) is the One who also brings about our configuration to Christ in accordance with each one’s vocation, a journey that unwinds from the baptismal font to death, a passing on to the Father’s house. In the world’s eyes it sometimes seems impossible to spend one’s whole life in a monastery but in fact a whole life barely suffices to enter into this union with God, into this essential and profound Reality which is Jesus Christ.

This is why I have come here, dear Brothers who make up the Carthusian Community of Serra San Bruno, to tell you that the Church needs you and that you need the Church! Your place is not on the fringes: no vocation in the People of God is on the fringes. We are one body, in which every member is important and has the same dignity, and is inseparable from the whole. You too, who live in voluntary isolation, are in the heart of the Church and make the pure blood of contemplation and of the love of God course through your veins.

Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis [the cross is steady while the world is turning], your motto says. The Cross of Christ is the firm point in the midst of the world’s changes and upheavals. Life in a Charterhouse shares in the stability of the Cross which is that of God, of God’s faithful love. By remaining firmly united to Christ, like the branches to the Vine, may you too, dear Carthusian Brothers, be associated with his mystery of salvation, like the Virgin Mary who stabat (stood) beneath the Cross, united with her Son in the same sacrifice of love.

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