Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jack, An Original

Out. Out to dinner with Jack this week. Another of my specific congress. Jack, who the flood has put out of work, out of his work pushing a vacuum at the local HUD apartment building downtown. The building where the blind, the halt, the addicted, and the poor live. Or used to until the flood.

Jack, who just turned eighty. Jack, who used to work with a Pentecostal minister and an alcoholic attorney on the cleanup and maintenance crew down there. Who would trade theological and political insults with these hard-bitten realists. These people to whom life has been a periodic flood.

Jack, an original mystic believer priest who has spent his life looking for God. And of course finding him. Who has spent his life playing the organ to God. Caring for the parishioners with his music. Teaching others the playing of organ music, a music he thinks is the best possible way to make a joyful noise to God.

He and Ethel ran a hotel in their younger years. He recruited students for a business college. Sold organs for a time. She worked in accounting departments here and there. Early,was a school teacher. He was a pastor and preacher. He was a pastor’s assistant. A vagabond also. A man who also has moved around. An odd job here and there to keep body and soul together so that he could keep playing. Keep making. His music to God.

A man who when he plays gets a sense of God with him. God around him. All through him. A man who is rich in God’s presence.

Son of an alcoholic. Son of a self-made man who managed the electric utility business of half a state. Who had no college. Who read technical books at night to keep up. Who had Ph.D. engineers working for him and had a hard time keeping up. Who had no use for a son who was not interested in engineering. A son who majored in English and organ.

Who this week starts volunteering at the elementary school next door to his apartment building. Something to do. Since there are no actual paying jobs around here anymore for somebody like Jack. What with the flood and all the businesses closed. Fifth graders, he says. He’ll help a fifth grade teacher. A young girl not so long out of college.

When he was in school, the teachers were all old women. Old women who said he wouldn’t amount to much, some of them. Women who weren’t allowed to get married, if they also wanted to teach. But now they have young ones. That’s certainly a difference. Certainly a difference that he could like.

Something to keep from getting old and worn down, he says. Something to get him out of the apartment. Something else to do in addition to his interminable solitary walks. Something to occupy the mind and spirit after almost three months now that he’s been out of work. His janitorial work, his literal and figurative cleansing work. We’ll see, he says. See how this goes.

Jack. Who has left much behind now. Who has lost his son first to Vietnam. Then to a wife. Then to their children. Just like any father whose son grows up. And away. Lost his wife, which was the hardest thing. Her dying was like being shoved into another universe where everything was pain and suffering and evil. Lost all his family—parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth—to death, except the one sister he rarely sees and who has diabetes. Has barely kept alive with it in another state. The smart one. The Phi Beta Kappa. Who married an attorney turned elevator manager. Grain elevator manager who died. Oh. Years and years ago now.

Jack. Who has left behind his youth. Who has left behind much pleasure. Who has left behind a life he built. A life that’s largely disappeared now, as far as he can tell, like a refreshing rain that ran to flood and now has disappeared in the dry time. The summer’s end time. The high cloudless sky time. Of the year.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Deciduous Story

Or think of it this way, what lives under the deciduous canopy. Think of it as a story that is revised, moment to moment. Season to season. Year to year. Think of the ways the days work. How they keep coming, one after another. The earth rocking round itself, its course through space. And each day is a new day. Anything might happen. Each day, one may choose something new or at least different to do or say or be.

I think of Walt Whitman. The original vagabond. The original American poet. Who spent his life as a poet writing and revising Leaves of Grass. Revising himself. The record of himself. The song of himself. As the deciduous tree revises itself. Shedding and remaking itself seasonally, all of its life.

Shedding what has been in part destroyed and consumed by the life around it. Shedding what has become tattered and bitten. Sloughing off an essential part of the old self to make room for the new.

The earth works this way, even geologically. Architectonically. New rock pressing upward in the form of magma. Thrust upward to form mountains. Eroding over millennia to form sand that mixes with dead matter to form limestone and other forms of stone. That then gets eroded itself when stranded on land, away from its over-mantling water. To make more sand.

Think of the species, the succession of life forms. Moving through time. Changing through time. Revising their forms and their methods and their spirits through time. Life itself revising itself. Rethinking what it will be. Reformulating how it will be.

Revision as the underlying principle. Getting the words right. Getting the forms right. Moving always toward something and away from something else. Leaving something essential behind and inventing or growing or making something new that is also essential. A new essence. A new centrality. A different and perhaps more faithful expression. Rendition. Perturbation. Instantiation. Foliation. Flexion.

I think of Walt. Grandiose magnanimous magnificent quotidian Walt. Disreputable Walt. Inventing and discarding himself. Refashioning and refurbishing his song. Revising and remaking his record. Intentionally making of himself a method. A way. An emphasis. An example. American. Uniquely synthetic. Synchronic. Letting history go. Accumulating the future. Holding in mouth and mind the linguistic trove but reinvesting it for the coming millennium. A new sensibility. A different mode.

Some way, we Americans are in a cradle that Walt has helped make. Find ourselves climbing out of a cradle that Walt sings of. Discover ourselves in a way of speaking that Walt borrowed from the Bible. The cadences. The mixed mode chaos of rhetorical approach and rule and device and form and pseudo-random form. An essentially spiritual formulation of what it means to be alive. But a departure also from the specifics of the Bible’s story to write a new story. With the emphasis on new. On what’s coming. What will happen next. What might or could or be made to happen next.

Walt, full of kindness. Full of sorrow for the Civil War maimed. Full of joy and love and sadness and celebration and grief and. Possessed of an outsized spirit that his body could only with difficulty contain. Like the hummingbird. Improbable. Perhaps impossible. But incontrovertibly actual. Genuine. Impious. Frank. Flagrant. Unbuttoned. Naked before God.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sunday Afternoon

Hammocked. In my adult cradle, rocking gently from moment to moment. Metronomic. Metonymic. I look up into the deciduous canopy. The delicious panoply. The precocious and riotous greenery of the woods that stand on a hill over the back of my house. Here, nearby, over and above me also, are the several Rose-of-Sharon bushes with their dozens. Oh. Maybe hundreds of blooms. Red. Semi-flame-shaped. Variously opening and burning and closing and falling. At once. Simultaneous. Moment to moment.

Rose-of-Sharon. Endless flower. Native to China and India. Not so much the flower in the Bible because that may be a lily or a crocus of some sort, one recalls. More the flower from Korea. More an oriental rather than an Old Testament allusion. Importation. But. How to say. Still there is this residual meaning because of the name. The name that marries the Mideast to east and now both to me here in the Midwest. Through time. Through hammock swings. On the deck of a home in the burbs. In America. In the modern cradle of western civilization. As I try to hold together in mind. Oh. More ideas than I can know or say. More history and thought and life and experience and time in the language I’ve inherited than I can possibly parse or explicate or sufficiently articulate.

And here. Here. Here is a hummingbird. Feeding at the rose of Sharon blossoms. Ontologically suspect, it is so light. So fast. So odd, really, sipping flower nectar. Backing up. Hovering. Suddenly here and gone and here again. Murmuring softly as a spirit its small subliminal cheep. Cheep. Odd. It might be as much spiritual as corporeal. Suddenly here. Beautiful. Red-throated and iridescently green. Other-worldly, with its metallic sheen and its. Well. Its complete maneuverability. Its blur of motion where its wings should be. Its ability to appear and disappear at will. In the time it takes to say, for example, Oh!

So remarkably delicate. Exquisite. American. Native to the western hemisphere. (A misnomer, really. More where east meets west. Remember Columbus and his Indians. The theory of the migration across the Bering land bridge.) Summers here. Perhaps travels here from Mexico, one reads. If so, flies over the Gulf. Eight hundred miles. Eight hundred miles! This little thing. A few grams is all. Without food or rest. A feat that suggests the supremacy in it of the spiritual, don’t you think? I mean, really? How is there enough matter there to fire an engine at 60 Hertz for what is it? Days, maybe. Wing-beats at 60 times per second for.

Well, let’s do the arithmetic, shall we? Let’s say 30 miles per hour and a direct line, for the sake of argument. That makes it 27 hours, give or take. And that’s what? Is this right: 216,000 wing-beats per hour? Or a total of 5,832,000 wing-beats over the 27 hour period. Give or take.

Six million or so wing-beats! In a little over 24 hours! Incredible. Isn’t it? From something that weighs a few grams. Wouldn’t it simply expire? Wouldn’t the mechanics fail? Wouldn’t its stores of energy give out? How is this creature possible?

Improbable. Remarkable. This little bit of feather, beak, and bone. A spirit as large as. Oh. I don’t know. An angel, maybe. An angel with ruby neck and emerald back. Come from all that way away to sip on the beautiful here where east meets west and my hammock cradle rocks. And the leaves profuse. And the blossoms profess. And my leisure holds everything endlessly in mind as I swing slightly, thinking of Walt Whitman and his poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and as I remember W.D. Snodgrass reading that poem in such a way one starry night that I thought I would weep. And as I remember this reading, this listening, this moistness around the window-shades, I also remember a poet friend of those very same days who thought. Back then. That the reason we see wildlife. Birdlife, for example. An eagle. A red-tailed hawk. A ruby-throated hummingbird. Is that the particular bird in question wants to be seen. Wants you to see it. Has selected you. To see it for everything it is.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Notes From Above Ground

“One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see!”

The response the man makes to the Pharisees in John 9, when faced with their accusations and disbelief.

The subject of the homily this Sunday at the Gymnasium Church, which. Well. It’s where I still find Philip Larkin loitering about. Doubting. Sneering. Being clever. Being his bookish and snooty self. Another of my specific congress.

Plastic chairs. People mostly in their twenties and thirties. Children. A few gray-hairs like Pat and me. Not many.

And the singing. The songs are mostly new to me. But as I sing one. As I learn the new song by sort of singing it and listening to it. I find my throat tightening. My eyes a little leaky. A flutter in the diaphragm like the wings of two mourning doves flying to the peak of my house roof.

I feel God reach into my chest and massage my heart. Caress my heart. And it’s lovely how he does this. This is what I come here for. This is what I love God for.

A fine homily. A remarkable idea. Let’s say what we know from personal experience. This Jesus thing is a personal thing. A personal and intimate knowledge thing. It isn’t a matter of. Oh. Theology. Theology, for want of a better term.

As far as I can tell, he doesn’t so much want to be studied. Oh, that isn’t to say he doesn’t want us to understand him. But so much of theology seems to want to perfect him. Or the Bible. One or the other or both. Seems to want to carve up the words we have from him into pieces we can use to assemble anything we like and call that God.

As far as I can tell, he wants to be worshiped. He wants to be loved. Understood, yes. Understood in part as an outcome of worship. Of love.

It’s a matter of what happens to us personally—what happens to him personally—that he’s most interested in. It’s a matter of how our lives (his and our lives) have changed. How the world has been lit up. Has been opened up. Contrary to what we might have thought. Contrary to Philip Larkin’s snide remarks. Contrary to the rants of the underground man. Contrary to the other evidence and logic one might accumulate and present. Contrary to the rules. Contrary to ordinary expectation.

A blind man is made to see. An underground man is brought above ground. These things happen. They happen more often than most of us understand. I think they happen in one fashion or another millions of times a day. Billions of times a day. All over the world.

What more are we asked to do than to say what we know? Tell the truth, he says to us. Tell the world the truth about you and me. Then follow. You’ll figure it out as we go. Listen. I’ll help. Keep your eyes and your ears open. Forget everything you think you know except the one thing I have asked. Love me. Love one another. Focus your mind and your heart on this. Everything else is secondary.

So as we’re talking about the Gymnasium Church afterward, Pat and I decide. Well. We’re tired of our little church tour. It wears one out. It wears one down like a long walk in a strange dark place. Like a bad long dream. Let’s go to this Gymnasium Church awhile. Let’s see what may happen there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Notes From The Underground

“I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.”

The beginning to Notes From The Underground, Dostoyevsky’s famous novella. The book that launched the existentialists. The character who hisses like sulfuric acid in the souls of those who read him. Who recognize him.

The Underground Man—the unnamed narrator—gets under my skin. Got under my skin thirty-five or forty years ago or so and has remained there. Seething. Bubbling.

A man who remains perversely independent. Not heroically independent. Not courageously independent. Vilely independent. Rebelliously independent. And solitary.

A pathetic man. A bathetic man. A person who describes himself as lazy. Who is certainly withdrawn. Fearful of others and their opinions of him to the point of morbidity.

A person who lives in extreme poverty rather than work and be forced to socialize with others. The banal conforming unconscious others who flow around him like a river around a discarded and rusting industrial appliance.

Consciousness for The Underground Man is a disease. His awareness of his own moral degradation is a disease. His self-pity and self-loathing.

He cannot bring himself to be like the people around him, because they are vile. They are unaware of their herd-like nature and are therefore inexcusable. But so is he, in the extreme form of moral consciousness that he cultivates like a fungus in himself.

As I say, this is one of my particular congress. He lunges out into the world occasionally. In fact, there are periods in which his voice can regularly be heard above the others.

Ah, there you are, I sometimes think. There you are again. Where have you been? It’s been awhile.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Vaguely Christian Church

Here. I don’t know. I feel like there should be incense. I feel like there should be beads and lava lamps all around. And Indian rugs. And Ravi Shankar on the stereo. I feel like we should all be sitting cross-legged on the floor, taking sensitivity training from well-dressed, attractive looking people who have taken a detour from their careers in modeling.

The people. Well. They are very friendly. They have that friendliness about them that makes them seem a little like the Moonies of yore. As if someone has brainwashed them with Mickey Mouse Club reruns for maybe ten or twenty years. For ten or twenty years kept them high on hash and nitrous oxide and chocolate brownies and the smell of wildflower fields and the sounds of a stream coursing over stones and through reeds and marsh grasses piped throughout the facility.

As if they had been isolated in a manufactured environment in which nothing bad ever was allowed to happen. As if they had been persuaded that the world and human experience is thoroughly and unremittingly peaceful and happy.

We sing songs about peace and love. We even hold hands. We sway to the music. We meditate. We pray prayers out of. Prayers that seem like they were written by a greeting card company that wants to be spiritual without being specifically religious. Lots of references to the Good and the Light, for example. To the Force for Good that Permeates all Things.

I feel as though I’ve been set down in a pastel world and have been asked to paint the few white spaces that are left with a palate populated by pastels. Everywhere I look around here, the shape and the form has a soft focus to it. Everything is a little foggy and sunlit and vague.

There are one or two references to Jesus. Jesus, the Divine. Divine because he was made by God, just as we are. Just as we are Divine.

The homily is called The Teaching. Something like that. And there isn’t one reference to the Bible or God or Jesus throughout the whole thing. It’s kind of a self-improvement pep talk type of deal. In which discovery after discovery is made to the profound delight and satisfaction of the speaker. Discoveries that all have to do with the improvement and enlightenment of the self. With the spiritual and moral improvement of the self. References to spiritual laws of various kinds are made. Invariant, unambiguous, discoverable, and provable spiritual laws.

Much discussion of prosperity and how prosperity is our destiny and the plan of the universe. How we only need to step toward the outer circle of light in which we find ourselves, and the circle of light will expand to accommodate us. Will enlarge itself to center us in a widening circle of light wherever we will go.

There is a guest musician who plays a guitar and sings. And we listen to her as though we have come here to be entertained. We clap when she finishes each song. On the whole, she plays and sings beautifully.

Piano and flute accompany our singing. We sing two songs all by ourselves. The singing is dominated by women’s voices. The singing is high-pitched and upbeat. I’m reminded of children singing in a school program.

We visitors are given guest packets that tell us what this church is all about. We are welcomed after the service by many. Many introduce themselves to us and wish us well. They ask us to return. They all have name-tags, and they are all quite persistently friendly.

Quite persistently and consistently cheery and animated and positive and encouraging. And everyone seems to be laughing or chuckling or smiling as we make our way slowly back out into the day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Getting The Words Right

But getting the words right isn’t just for writers. It’s for everyone.

Getting the story of one’s life right is what we’re all about. What we’re all here for. Our stories must be true, compelling, interesting, original, coherent, meaningful, and important, just as any good piece of writing must be.

The characters must be dynamic. In other words, they must learn from their experience. They must change as they learn.

There must be considerable conflict. The protagonist must face difficult choices.

The conflict must achieve a kind of resolution, no matter how tentative or ambiguous or nuanced.

Good writing delivers news of some kind, and so should our lives. Good news of some kind. Hope is the most abstract form of good news. Love and forgiveness taken together are the most powerful form of good news.

In good writing there is verisimilitude. There is the feeling that this is plausible. That this could actually happen. That this could actually be real. That the characters are possible.

And so should our lives be plausible. Non-random. So should our lives have understandable motive. So should we be believable. Integral. So should we have some consistency. Some constancy. Even in the midst of our changing.

Believable and interesting characters must struggle. Their careers must have hard patches. Maybe long, hard slogs. But they cannot be thoroughly defeated by their suffering. If they are, what we get is merely pathos, bathos, and death.

Good writing finds something affirmative even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances. Well drawn, fully imagined protagonists tilt the world toward the sun, even if that tilt sometimes seems very slight.

Good writing is surprising. Vivid. Varied.

It can be minimalist. Rhapsodic. Circuitous. Direct. Spare. Elaborate. Prosaic. Poetic. Lyrical. Cacophonous.

Good writing is not formulaic. It is not trite. It is not sanctimonious. It is not stuffy.

A life well lived lets the wind blow through. It opens itself to the elements and their vagaries. Their contingencies. Their extremes.

A life well lived does not hide. It is not fearful. It embraces its times and its place in time. Its talents and its inadequacies. Its personal and familial place. And it launches itself out onto the flood of experience to see where the flood will take it. To see how it might make its way across the flood.

The story of our lives is not knowable in advance. It is not predictable. If it is, it is bad writing. We don’t really know how it will turn out. How we will turn out. We have our point of view. But that’s all, really. All we can claim with certainty. With the certainty of personal experience. Personal awareness. But we go with it anyways. Getting the words as right as we can. As we go.

And the words and other actions seem. They sometimes seem. When they work. They seem to be given to us, in part. Provided. As though their authorship were not wholly our own. As though the author is both us and some other. Someone present but not exactly present.

Someone with us here. With us almost elsewhere, as well. As though we are getting these words as interpreters. Translators. Who are taking words from a language that is quite different from our own and finding their rough counterparts here.

Or maybe that’s not right. Maybe we aren’t so much translators. Maybe, as I say, it’s more like we are co-authors with someone little seen and even less heard who by hints and insubstantial suggestions moves us together toward a plot and a style in which he’d like to be pleased.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Spiritual Discipline

But I said spiritual discipline, not moral discipline. There is a difference.

And what I mean by spiritual discipline is this. It’s a method by which we can approach God. Not emulate God. Not imitate God. Not be like Jesus. Not be good.

And what better way to approach God than by telling the truth, to the best of one’s ability? What better way to approach God than by fitting the words one has been given exactly to what is, what has been, and what might be. To say the world with an immediacy, a verisimilitude, a concision, an incisiveness, an honesty, and a freshness that makes this articulated world impossible to ignore.

Getting the world right is the objective. Honoring God’s creation is the objective. Making a secondary linguistic creation that has illuminative power upon the first is the objective.

Why do this? Why go through the agony of this? And the joy of it? The great disappointment and difficulty of it? What’s supposed to happen? Why bother?

Because getting the world right. Making the world right. Saying the world right. Gets one involved with the mind of God. With the creative, active, seeking, loving mind of God.

It gets one involved with God’s creation, which is where he is. Where he creates and seeks and encourages and loves. So it gets us involved with his work and with understanding his work as he sustains and makes and remakes the world. And us. And all his creatures. Everything.

God’s own life and home. Our own lives and home. This. Right here. This and what this has been and what it might be. All of this. Together.


Rain. Rain this morning. In this flood destroyed part of the world, it has been dry, and we need this rain. A paradox. An unkind paradox. But of course the paradoxical is everywhere.

Particles that are neither here nor there, for example. A particle whose momentum is determinable but whose position isn’t. Or whose position is determinable but whose momentum isn’t. And these are everywhere. Particles like these.

You are certain of something. You are absolutely convinced you know something to be true. Then it turns out you are wrong. Someone or some event brings the fact to your attention.

That certainty. That lovely feeling of being right. Of having got this one right. Well, it disappears. Like a lake into sun-heated sand.

And so feelings along with statistics and. Well. Just about everything else. Aren’t all that trustworthy.

Hard to trust oneself. What one knows and doesn’t. What one believes and doesn’t. After awhile. After more decades than one can count on a hand.

I read with surprise and pleasure yesterday the comment on the “Made Up Stories” post. Kathy Snodgrass! Wow!

Something I thought was true, wasn’t. Something I thought I remembered correctly, I hadn’t.

I begin to wonder how much I really do get right. Factual matters. Matters of judgment. Moral discernment. Aesthetic assessment. Spiritual insight. Matters of faith.

Saying anything about anything is chancy. Feels chancy. After you discover one of these mistakes. One of these many mistakes I know are there. Have got to be there. In the record. The record of this blog. The record of my life. The full cosmic range of them.

A pastor friend said to me the other day that writing is a spiritual discipline. Well, I don’t know who between us said it first. But the idea has been there between us and in us for quite a while. In the way we talk about our writing and our faith.

I’m not sure where the idea started in my pastor friend’s life, but I do know where it started in mine. It began first in a poetry workshop with Donald Hall. It then was nurtured in poetry workshops with Philip Booth and W.D. Snodgrass, George P. Elliott, Richard Murphy, and Howard Nemerov.

In those days, we didn’t call it a spiritual discipline. If we talked about it, we used words like honesty and integrity and skill. But the idea was that we were not merely messing around with words. That there was a moral intention in what we did and how we did it. We felt our word work and our life work were one integral and coherent thing. Or should be.

And of course, one felt cared for by these great teachers. One felt deeply valued because these fine writers took precious time away from their work to work with us and to help us learn their medium and their discipline.

Good writing gets things right. This was the idea.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Undercroft Church

Putative worshippers are directed to the understory, me among them. I descend with the crowd. How second or third century, I’m thinking. How London Blitz. How reminiscent of fallout shelters, circa the late 1950s. How Fuehrer bunker.

The people are friendly. The people are always friendly. Everyone very politely introduces himself. Herself.

We sit around tables, looking at one another. Round tables. There’s a stage at one end of the room. Drum kit et cetera to the right. Projector attached the ceiling playing announcement slides on the screen beside the drum kit et cetera.

The junior pastor works the crowd. The assembling crowd. A man. More a business man by the way he’s dressed—dark suit, white shirt, dark diminutively patterned tie. A large man. A man who likes his food, there’s no denying. A man who likes to wear his sin on him like a suit. Like a very fat suit.

But he seems. How to say this. He seems prosperous. He seems well paid. He seems quite happy to be himself. He seems to suggest that this particular sin of his is okay. It’s really rather respectable, even if it is a little uncomfortable.

The way he carries himself…. I’m a man of some importance, see? He seems to say.

The songs happen. And the songs—this is a contemporary service, not the main service—are the namby pamby Christian songs that have been playing on Christian radio now for about 30 or 40 years. Maybe longer. Songs that are superficial in word and music. And are played and sung by this particular keyboardist and guitarist and vocalist to be quickly over. Unimportant in our lives, really. An entertainment. A quick dose of music and then we’re out of here kind of lilt to it.

I’m thinking they ought to be playing this in double knit suits.

Communion is an assembly line affair. First pick up the bread. Then pick up the little cup of grape juice. Then down the whole business as you’re walking. Then drop the cup in the trash before returning to one’s seat. A lovely bit of efficiency.

The homily is called the message here. The message. Might as well call it the sound byte. In it, the junior pastor likens Jesus to a modern business executive. Confident, competent, calm, companionable. He actually uses these four words. He asks us to be like him, Like Jesus, I mean.

One man at my table. An older man. A man who plans to go to Dubai, of all places. Vacation in Dubai. Says he really likes this pastor because you can understand every word, he says. Every single word.

Made Up Stories

Speaking with a pastor friend the other day who has been reading this blog, and he said he liked the entry on the Harley Davidson shirt. Debated whether or not it was real. Others telling him, no, it can’t be real. Finally he came out on the side that it was indeed real.

And so I had to disabuse him. “Pretend,” I said.


“We are all a congress,” I said.

“A congress?”

“One version of me,” I said. “One version of who I am. Of what happens or might happen or might have happened. My children gave me a Harley Davidson shirt for Christmas, and so that got me thinking.”

We’re all characters in an exemplum. Or exempla, I should say. We’re all wandering around in the story of our lives, capable of thoroughgoing evil or something better. We’re all making up the story of our lives. And at any point our lives can go in many directions, depending on the story we want to make. Or depending on what the story wants to make us.

I remember a conversation with the same pastor friend some years ago. We were having breakfast at the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite valley, because that’s the only meal we could afford there. The ceiling was tall. The setting was. Well, it made me feel like people could say important things in a place like this. The place seemed to draw forth a feeling of momentousness.

I chose to speak about a former poetry teacher, a fellow by the name of W.D. Snodgrass, who wrote a book of poems later in his career called The Fuehrer Bunker. It was a group of dramatic monologues in the voices of Hitler and his colleagues.

I had recently heard Snodgrass being interviewed on public radio, and in that interview he said that the book, The Fuehrer Bunker, had destroyed his career. When asked how that could be so, he said that all his friends and acquaintances and possible employers shunned him after he published the book. Shunned him because he presented these Nazi monsters as mostly ordinary, pathetic, and bathetic human beings.

The attitude of his friends was that the Nazis were monsters; they could not be ordinary human beings. And picturing them as ordinary human beings was morally reprehensible. Morally vile. And they concluded that Snodgrass was therefore morally vile and didn’t want to have anything more to do with him.

And then I said that the moral of that particular little story is that people don’t like to think of themselves as monsters. As possible monsters. They don’t like to think that placed in circumstances like late 1930s and early 1940s Germany, they might have actually become Nazis or at least looked the other way as the Jews were exterminated and Europe was devastated. People will in fact become quite vicious if asked to recognize the monstrous in themselves.

I don’t know about you. I think a little fiction thrown into one’s actual life from time to time helps to keep one on one’s toes. A little fiction about what might be or might have been or could actually happen helps. Helps us to get over the idea that we ordinary good people can’t possibly be monsters.

Or at least it does seem to help me.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Melting Church

Like the Wicked Witch of the West when doused with water, this church diminishes.

Of course, its music is impossible to sing. And that’s part of it.

But there’s also the pastor—a man about the size and shape of Jabba the Hutt—with a tendency to laugh and smile like he’s keeping an evil secret or perhaps sharing one especially with you.

The people are kind and welcoming, numbering no more than 50. I hear from my friend the organist that they can’t afford to pay Jabba. They won’t be able to afford to heat the church this winter. He says the way Jabba and the board are talking about this, they expect a miracle from God.

My friend says that they regularly get visitors, but none of them returns. It’s like there is plague here. Or the rumor of plague.

It’s mostly an older crowd. Older like me or even older than that. Perhaps the young have all, one speculates, been murdered in unspeakable midnight rituals by the vile Jabba. Or perhaps there’s a more mundane explanation. Maybe they were just bored to death.

As I say, the people. The poor people. They have the gentleness about them of people who have suffered terribly at the hands of a despot. A tyrant. People who long for release from their evil captor but who dare not risk escape, for fear of reprisals. For fear of the torture their remaining family and friends will have to endure.

I say diminishing. What I mean is, the people are melting away. Dying off, certainly. Many members are sick at home or in the hospital. (Hence the plague metaphor.) Others are moving away or have moved away as the neighborhood has deteriorated and has now been eviscerated by a flood.

I’m told the nearby interstate put a steal-reinforced concrete stake into the lungs of this church when the roadway was built in the 1960s.

After the service, drinking coffee, I get to know Jabba’s assistant a little. A professor from a local university who has become a part-time pastor. Very well read. Curious. Full of life. Excited by ideas. Someone one might actually talk with about all this God stuff.

Someone. Diana, I’ll call her. Someone more interested in exploration than judgment. Someone who might also long to sing.