Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Jury Duty

First time here. I’m a jury selection process virgin. So I look around. Open my eyes and ears wider than usual. Some very heavy women, one of whom sits next to me, shoving me to the opposite edge of my chair and breathing like Darth Vader so that the whole room can listen with expectation to the details of each breath. A few heavy men. A kid who works at a fast food joint. An accountant. A truck driver. A couple of teachers. A construction project manager. A buyer. A young man with no teeth in front whose father was convicted of sexually abusing the young man’s sisters. The son of a detective in another county. A former elementary school principal. A woman whose friend was murdered some years ago.

Nine men and one woman own among them about 45 handguns and shotguns and rifles. Useful for recreation. For hunting and target shooting reasons, they say. This is out of a universe of 25 possible jurors. You could outfit a pretty effective terror cell with hardware like that, I’m thinking.

It’s a criminal trial. It isn’t murder, but it’s close. A crime involving a gun. The use of a gun. The defendant—a young black man in white shirt and tie. A man in custody. A man whose shackles around his ankles are not visible beneath the table from where we’re sitting. The only black man in a white room. A room with maybe 45 white people in it, and we’re in the Midwest. So it’s a very white room. All of us present to consider his case. And one another’s qualifications to judge. To sit in judgment of one another first. Then him. Of this young black man. Whether we like it or not.

Judgment is critical here, which the prosecutor makes plain. “Are you comfortable judging?” he wants to know. “That is what you will have to do. If you are selected for the jury.”

“Are you comfortable sitting in judgment of someone else? Of this man over here, for example?”

We all sit here thinking. Eyes open. Wondering if this guy really does understand what he’s asking. Wondering whether this guy reads books at all, has read the Bible at all, thinks about the various meanings of a question like this. Hears the various meanings of a question like this as he utters it. The various contexts of a question like this, beyond the particular context he has in mind.

Context One: This particular trial, which the prosecutor clearly has in mind. Context Two: Any criminal or civil proceeding. Context Three: Our lives outside of the purely judicial context. Context Four: Eternity. For example.

I want to say something like, “You vile creature! Are you comfortable judging someone else? Is your conscience clear and clean as a newborn’s? Are you untroubled by your job? By what happens to the miserable souls of the accused when you succeed? Do you experience an untroubled sleep? What price does justice exact, do you imagine?” But I don’t. I hum quietly to myself, under Darth Vader’s breathing.

The prosecutor talks a lot about the standard of proof in a criminal trial: “Convinced beyond a reasonable doubt” he says. “Not convinced beyond all doubt.

“Do you understand the difference?” he wants to know. “Does anyone have difficulty understanding the difference?”

I want to raise my hand, but I don’t. It isn’t worth it. This is another existential question. Another eternal question. Another question over which one could make a career in philosophy, for example. In linguistics. In poetry. In prose fiction. I want to debate this with him. It deserves a thoroughgoing analysis. A far-ranging discussion. But we are not in a classroom, I’m thinking. We are not in my living-room. This isn’t a discussion group. We are not so much interested in getting at an answer to this question.

No, we are much more interested in finishing up by 4:30 this afternoon. Much more interested in getting our list whittled down to 12 plus an alternate. Much more interested in weeding out the obviously incompetent. The racists. The cop haters. The slavish cop lovers. The people who are too busy to take this seriously. The people who don’t understand that the current theory of criminal jurisprudence in this country is that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The people who have trouble with arithmetic tests involving single-digit numbers.

First things first. So when he asks the question and makes a gesture that puts “convinced beyond all doubt” physically above “convinced beyond all reasonable doubt” in space—one hand about belly high and the other hand well over head high—none of us raises his or her hand and says, “Yes. I have difficulty. Please explain the difference. Gesturing doesn’t cut it. Stop your inane gesturing. Give us the criteria. Give us the infallible tests.”

None of us says anything like this. No. We look at him like a bunch of idiots. A bunch of parishioners. A bunch of students hoping we don’t flunk. A bunch of dopy pilgrims. Hoping that we are not publicly humiliated by a guy. Well. A guy who…. Oh, I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t say anything.

I don’t know. I get the impression that in this particular little world. This little artificial reality we’ve all agreed to buy into here. That if we are ejected from this process, we are defective. Morally or intellectually defective. And I think we’ve agreed that if this were to happen to us, it would be similar to being exiled to outer darkness. Similar to being sentenced to hell. Oh, maybe not by God, but by somebody who is delegated God-like power here. In this simulacrum of the actual world.

So, what are we, I’m wondering. What are we in this pretend little analogical world in which the judge is given God-like power and in which the attorneys for the prosecution and defense sit at the right and left hands of God? A trumped-up little world in which that black man over there waits also to be judged by all this heavenly whiteness?

Maybe we are the candidate humans trying to be Christ-like. Trying to appear fair and even-handed. Peaceful, forgiving people. Trying to rise above the profanity of our larger lives. People working for a seat in heaven by the avoidance of sin. The avoidance of the appearance of fault or imperfection or sin or defect. No, we aren’t racist, we insist. No, we have nothing but unmitigated love and respect for the police and black people and people of color and all people everywhere.

We are always fair and balanced. We have no prejudices or weaknesses of mind or spirit. No, we have no difficulty understanding improbable distinctions. Impossible direction. No, we are tabula rasae. Clean of mind and spirit. No, we haven’t ever dreamt about putting a bullet into the temple of an enemy. A rich man. A person with privilege or power. Someone like you, for example. Or wittingly imagined it, either. Not us. Not me. No. Not anyone here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Labor Day

Hammocked again. Reading my former teacher, Donald Hall. Remembering. Discovering. His latest memoir. His latest poems. Listening to his voice again after. Oh. More than 30 years. On the CD in the sleeve in the back of his book of poems.

Another of my congress. Encouraging. Discouraging. Judging. Living his life away, quickly, in the time it takes to read these books, in part. Ambition on display. Love. Devotion. Grief. Fear. Courage. Concupiscense. An aesthetic of work. A work of aesthetics. A life work. A premise. An hypothesis. An assertion. Another deciduous story. Another story that renews itself. Refreshes itself. As he moves forward, poem after poem, memoir after memoir, lover after lover.

From a young age, there are his children. Grandchildren now. His poems. His many friends from his many years here and there who still survive. A generous person who has gathered many to him through his joy, his care, and his liveliness. Through his years.

Each day, as he describes, begins with work on his poems. Then other work. Other freelance and other prose work as the day progresses. With other pleasures coming later in the day. Usually.

Almost 80, his days mostly written now, he tells the story of being picked up for DWO. Driving While Old. Handcuffed. Taken to jail. Etcetera. A lovely story.

In and out of Faith. Less interested since his wife died of leukemia a decade ago. Yet one does understand an underlying faithfulness that is quite profound, one that adheres to the truth in words. To the power and the mystery of words. To the remarkable purposes words take for themselves as we daily spin them out. Purposes that are both concealing and revealing and that are ultimately making, and creating, and underlying, and loving. That are enlivening. At least, in his aesthetic. His life work. His making. Words that come against falsehood. And death. And despair. And destruction.

Words that affirm. Words that open up the possibility again. For what it means to be human. Words that assert our redemption in love and honesty and courage and discipline and work. Hard word. Heart work. Mind work. Spirit work. All of these inextricably bound up in words and our use of words. In how we live our lives. Because our lives and our words are of a piece. Are mutually contingent. Interpenetrate. What we know and what we love and who we are and what we do are all mediated by, defined by, informed by, felt by, and understood by words. Our words. Others’ words.

Words. The medium of communication. The method of connection. The fundamental means of intimacy. Of understanding. Words. The work of our maker. The means of our making. Words. The foundation of what we know of our maker. The Bible is only a pile of words after all. Being made in God’s image simply means—before all other meanings—that we use words to know him and one another. Love him and one another. As he has loved us by giving us his words. His Word. His meaning.

And so this teacher of mine. This fine teacher and poet. Donald Hall. Someone who relatively early got me to pay attention. Who opened my ears to words. As several of us fortunate ones drank beer with him in the Rathskeller. An Ann Arbor drinking establishment. And read poetry. Talked about poems. The beer, the color of amber. A preserving substance. As we wandered the universe. The one verse. Opened up by words’ purest form. Poetry. The world and what it contains made possibly beautiful. Made possibly whole. Made possibly well. Possibly euphonious. Even in its cacophony. Even in its disease. In its fragmentation. Its ugliness.

Poetry. The woman by the well at the heart of the world, drawing water. Pouring water. Sweet water. A water that is nourishment to the soul. And she pours it for all. All day and all night. The sweetness of this water, a daily delight.

And here I am. Hammocked, as I say. Swinging in this rope cradle regarding the world out here. Recollecting my congress. Drinking my water. As the sun arcs overhead. And the days spin. And spin. And the oak and the maple out back and overhead begin to dry. The leaves darken. And the acorns start to fall.