Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Literal and Figurative DNA?

Literal and figurative DNA? you may be thinking. Literal and figurative DNA? What in Sam Hill are you talking about? Why can’t you speak plainly? Why do you have to go off on these. These. Oh, I don’t know. On these confusing excursions. These silly similes. These monotonous metaphors.

Would you please say a thing straight out? Would you please say what you mean?

But indirection is how art works, I want to say in reply. Metaphor is how art words. Works, I mean. Figure is how we know. It’s how we imagine and therefore how we know. And in God’s universe, paradox and ambiguity and ambivalence are his amino acids. They are his basic building blocks of life.

To bring real life into the conversation. To bring economy and concision and precision into the life of meaning. We need to use metaphor. Simile. Tropes of various types and kinds. We seem to need this. We seem built to take in meaning, take on meaning, take in the spiritual shapes God has in mind. Better. If we use figurative language to say what we mean.

And so when I say literal DNA, I am certainly referring to the chemical code, the molecular information from which all life is created. I am certainly referring to the infamous adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. I am certainly referring to the actual molecular structure and the behavior of the stuff—the words, the syntax, the semiotics, if you will—of the chemical language that God uses to speak life into existence.

And when I say figurative DNA, I am certainly referring to the figurative power of the language. Of these chemical words. To put shape and color and attitude and hairiness or scaliness and role and talent to the life a particular strand of DNA contains in code. Just as human language contains the figurative power that enables us to give shape and color and smell and tone and pitch to the life of meaning our language contains in code. To the stories our language contains in code. To the overarching understandings our language contains in code.

And so by conflating them, I hope to say something about the similarity. The resemblance. The illuminating possibility of looking at one in terms of the other. And I hope to say that as God speaks us physically into being through our DNA, he speaks us spiritually into being through spoken language. And as we use language and as we manipulate DNA, we participate in God’s own imagination.

We are not only imagined by God. Given a shape and image by God. But we also participate with God or work against God in his imaginative enterprise. In his creation. In his salvation. And in his love.

Monday, March 30, 2009

I Imagine You Imagining

Looking for you. Looking to see you, touch you, taste you, hear you, smell you. I imagine you imagining all this. All that I know. Except my choosing. My choice to accept your love, for example. My choice to love. And this is what you discover when you imagine me. This is how you let me surprise you. Delight you. Maybe.

But after all, you imagine this also. All imagination is discovery.

I imagine you imagining me imagining you. Imagining your universe.

You are working all the time at this. It brings you pleasure but much pain. It brings you joy to spin us out of your immaterial material heart and mind. To make us and all that is about us. All that is not us. All that we are coming from and going to.

I remember a reverend in boarding school. A Ph.D. railroad economist turned Episcopal priest. Then hired into the school I was attending. Telling me my understanding of you was pantheistic. Telling me I was a pantheist, not a Christian. Telling me I had an improper. An incorrect. A heretical idea of you. He took delight in this.

I was fifteen. And he enjoyed cutting me. Cutting me down and casting me out. Casting me into outer darkness. I remember it. Like it was just this past weekend. He smiled a dazzling smile and turned his back on me. He was always smiling.

I became an atheist after that. I wandered for decades without you. Not knowing to look for you. Not knowing you are everywhere around here. All around this life.

I thumb my nose at that Episcopal priest. I imagine you thumb your nose at all such priests as well. At all those who would limit you and your Kingdom. You and your presence. You and your power. You and your work. Your making.

I thumb my nose at all those who would reduce you to a neat set of doctrines. A neat set of precepts. A set of ideas about you that keep you uninvolved. Unintegrated. Aloof. Apart. Imaginatively dead to this world.

I imagine you as a poet, not a systematic theologian or a designer. Not a logician. (You delight in confounding logicians.) Not a watchmaker. (You delight in a universe that is infinitely indeterminate.) Not a designer of machines.

I imagine you writing the story of the universe. The one verse. And as you write your story, we emerge from it. You discover us. You are delighted as we emerge from your words. From the work you are making. From the literal DNA and figurative DNA that you are spinning out. Spiraling forward through the infinite present. The always now.

We, among other things, are the work you are making.

We are made up. Fictions. Actual true-life fictions. Creations out of your mind.

Characters in your verse play. Your comedy. The original divine comedy.

And this comedy evolves. This comedy has many acts. Many ages. Along the way, you make many marvelous, beautiful things. You make the stars and the galaxies. You make the moons and the planets. You make the creatures of every kind.

You are deeply involved. You are profoundly present in everything. But you create everything with a common set of semantic and syntactical rules. With certain conventions. You create everything in an idiom that is purely yours. That is unmistakable because everywhere in the making there is beauty. Everywhere in the making there is a liveliness. A loveliness. A grandeur. An imperfection. An immediacy. An urgency. That is striking. That is overwhelming.

Because this is of you. Because you have imagined it. And are. Because you continue to do so. Not because you are bored. Not because you haven’t anything better to do.

You do this because you love making. You love creating. You love discovering what will emerge next into the nexus of your love.

And so I think of Psalm 148. I am always thinking of Psalm 148. Everything you make is grateful. It is alive, after all. It is made and enjoys the astounding loveliness you are making. Enjoys its participation in the Kingdom that is becoming. That has come and has yet to come. That is overwhelmingly possible. Now. And now. And now, again.

Everything enjoying what emerges as the writing moves forward. As the story unfolds. As we together imagine you more and more clearly. And are able to see you more and more clearly. Hear you. Touch you. Smell you. Taste you. More and more of you. And what you have made.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Present As This Day

So who are you, Abba Father? I mean, where are you today? Where will you show up today? How will I know you? How will I see you? Hear you?

Sometimes I think you are hiding because you don’t like me so much anymore. Sometimes it’s because I’ve done something you don’t like. Sometimes I think you aren’t hiding at all. Sometimes I think I’m not paying enough attention.

O Father. I ache sometimes to be near you. To be with you. For your presence to overwhelm me. Inundate me like a fifty-foot wave glistening with many suns. Many images of the sun. A wave that will annihilate me and submerse me completely in your holy presence.

If I have absence of mind. If I have presence of heart.

If I physically ache in my mouth and my head and my shoulders and my back and my chest and my belly and my buttocks and my hips and my thighs and my knees and my calves and my ankles and my heels and my toes. For you. Only for you.

If I have not allowed the quotidian to distract me. If I have not allowed sinfulness and tasks and being good and being right and being better to distract me.

O God. Save me from being good. Save me from having to be good. Save me from proving that I am good. Showing that I am good.

O God, be present as this day so that I may walk into you.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Aesthetics Anyone?

I remember taking an aesthetics course as a graduate student. Oh. A lifetime ago. So I’m sure all the rules have changed by now. I’m sure the philosophers have rewritten all the rules and what used to be beautiful isn’t any longer. And what used to be ugly maybe isn't either.

So please take anything I say as being qualified by old-fashionedness. By a quaint sensibility. A dowdy sense of artistic and philosophic style.

But one of the things we read. I forget what it was now. Came to us from the wonderful world of Anthropology. A philosopher of beauty wrote this book on representation, see? He tried to suggest that any art has its conventions. Its rules. And representational art was no different, he said.

And he gave as examples the difficulty people in New Guinea had upon being presented photographs of familiar people and things. (New Guinea people who lived remotely and separately from westerners. From moderns. Or post-moderns. Or ultra-moderns. Or supra-moderns. Or whatever we are. Or were then.) Photographs of huts and trees. A village, for example. And how they had no idea at all what they were looking at. How they looked at the photographs and seemed only to get a welter of color and perhaps shape.

As hard as they looked. As hard as they tried. They didn’t get meaningful shape. Identifiable shape and color and identity. The westerners in this example had to laboriously explain to the people in question in their own language what they were looking at. They had to insist on the relation between the objects photographed and the photos themselves.

They had to repeat the explanation over and over again and over again, pointing and gesticulating and jumping up and down and getting red in the face and insistent in their voices until finally. After hours of this tedium. The locals began to see what they were supposed to see. Began to identify the shapes in the photo with the objects they were supposed to represent.

So even objects that are present to the senses are conditioned. Are conditional. Need to be interpreted. Need rules for their interpretation. For their understanding.

Everything needs to be decoded. Everything is provided to us as neutral. As semantically insensible. Or philosophically opaque. And we must bring to it meaning. A priori or a posteriori meaning. Context. Story. Understanding. Imagination.

Oh, an interesting aside. Or I hope it’s an interesting aside. It is to me, but I’m biased, and am not strictly speaking fit to judge. So you be the judge.

Prior to enrolling in this course, I called the professor to see whether I was qualified. Whether I knew enough, basically, to take the course without risking failure. And I seemed to catch her at the cocktail hour, a time of the day when she had imbibed a bit. Had had a couple of glasses of wine and was enjoying everything in God’s creation, in part through the experience of an extraordinary pinot noir.

And I’ll never forget what she said toward the end of our conversation, a conversation in which I told her what courses I’d taken, what sort of course of study I was engaged in, what professors I had worked with and continued to work with, and so on. She said, “Mr. Elkington, I’m sure we’ll have a lovely time. A lovely time. Please do take the course. I know we’ll all have a lovely time.”

I don’t remember using the word “lovely” much prior to this. I don’t know why. But I do like it now. It’s one of my favorite words these days.

And I think of this particularly now because last night I had a conversation with my daughter. And my daughter is a person who, unfortunately, has never met my aesthetics professor. But she said something interesting. She said, “Dad, if there is one word I think of when I think of you, it’s the word ‘lovely.’ It’s a word that you like to use, and it’s a word that I just don’t hear other people saying. But you say it all the time.”

Well, I certainly don’t mean to be repetitive. I mean. Repetition, as my wife likes to tell me, is at best boring and can be maddening. And I don’t want the effect of my words or my presence to be either.

But I do think my daughter may have something there. I must admit to thinking love and beauty do have a great deal to do with one another. Are conflated, one in the other. And further, I do imagine that we are given both. That love is a gift from God. It doesn’t so much originate with us in any meaningful way but is passed through us, if we allow it. If we choose for it to be.

And further, I do imagine that when we allow God to pass his love through us, we are allowing God to pass something of his beauty through us also. But what’s important here is that this isn’t so much us. This is something we allow. And in allowing it, we reap great emotional benefit and understanding.

What I imagine is happening here is that God’s love is a kind of light. It is in the spiritual world the equivalent of photons in the physical world. We are able to see a thing or a person spiritually. To see them steady and see them whole because of this light from God that we allow to pass through us and upon others. And they do become beautiful, nine times out of ten, as a result.

And by the way, we did have a lovely time. The few of us who took that course together. An extraordinary and enlightening time. And I remember that professor with profound gratitude. I learned a great deal from her.

The woman’s name is, oddly, Catherine Lord. And of course, my daughter’s name is Katharine. My daughter was conceived and named years later. A connection. A relation. A meaning. I had not understood before writing this post. Could not have possibly imagined.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Imagine That!

How do we imagine? Why do we imagine? What role does imagination play in our lives? What role should it play in our lives? What is the purpose of imagination? What is the function of imagine. Why does imagination exist?

What is imagination anyways?

This imagination business. I don’t know. There’s something quite mysterious here, isn’t there? There’s nothing rational or rectilinear about it. There’s something almost absurd about it, don’t you find? Something that feels like it’s imported. Something alien. Something other.

I’m reminded of the artist M.C. Escher and his “Drawing Hands.” This is a print of two hands that seem to emerge out of the bounds of a piece of paper they both belong in, and both of them are busily drawing the shirtsleeve of the other.

I’m also reminded of the Mobius strip. A surface with only one side and one boundary component. Take a strip of paper. Make a half twist in it. Tape the ends together. Then draw a line along it until the beginning of the line and the end are the same point.

It’s like wondering about the beginning of the universe. If it began with a Big Bang, what was before the Big Bang? Imagine that!

What I mean to say is that it is a bit like the particles that seem to appear out of nothing. Physicists tell us they are there and that this sort of thing happens all the time. That particles are appearing and disappearing all the time. And this isn’t just one physicist.

If this were just one physicist, we could safely call the guy loony. Off his rocker. On account of the law of the conservation of matter. Which was a very firm law when I went to elementary school and junior high school. But by the time I went to high school, this law wasn’t so firm after all. It was more of a guideline. And then by the time I was in graduate school. Well. By then, we had discovered that the laws of physics are just about as subject to question and revision and rethinking as the laws enacting the federal budget.

But we now know. Hey, isn’t that a kick? To say something like that? “We now know….” As if one could speak for the authorities (whoever they are) in such an authoritative way. In a field one—strictly speaking—has no competence in?

But as I was saying, we now know, because just about every reputable physicist on the planet will say so, that matter appears and disappears just about everywhere all the time.

And so this imagination. This activity of imagining. Well. It just seems to be bubbling along all the time, doesn’t it? Like mystical matter. Like these elementary particles. Bubbling up out of nothing. All the time.

Where does it come from? Why does it pop up where it does? Why does it appear in the form it does? How does it work? What are the rules of its operation? Who knows?

And so one wants to know, for example, where Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems come from. Or where. I don’t know. Where Yosemite Valley comes from. Or where Ansel Adams’s photos of Yosemite Valley come from. Or where paintings depicting Yosemite Valley come from.

I don’t know. But maybe I’ll take a shot at saying several things that I’ve observed about my own imagination at work.

First, it seems unstoppable. It just keeps bubbling along, as I say.

Second, it is indiscriminate. Oh, it’s a bit like going to a landfill. Have you ever been to a landfill before all the stuff gets dozed beneath a pile of dirt? There’s stuff in there no one ever could have imagined. Or I should say. There’s stuff in there I had no idea could ever possibly exist.

Third, every once in awhile, something actually apparently useful pops out. But most of the stuff seems random.

Fourth, getting a sense of things seems impossible without it.

Fifth, planning anything is impossible without it.

Sixth, understanding possible outcomes is impossible without it.

Seventh, framing hypotheses is impossible without it.

Eighth, sympathy and empathy are impossible without it.

Ninth, anticipating others’ reactions to things is impossible without it.

Tenth, telling stories and making stories are impossible without it.

Eleventh, understanding what someone else means seems impossible without it.

Twelfth, getting out of bed in the morning and going anywhere or doing anything or thinking anything or feeling anything all seem impossible without it.

Thirteenth, speaking about or writing about or thinking about or depicting God in any way seem impossible without it.

Fourteenth, speaking about or writing about or thinking about or depicting anything not physically present seem impossible without it.

Fifteenth, speaking about or writing about or thinking about or depicting anything that is physically present seem impossible without it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Naked to the One Verse

Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Another of my congress. Drug addict. Christian. Poet. Literary critic. Literary philosopher.

In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge says something momentous and germane:

“The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.

“The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.”

The context here, in the history of ideas, is the Enlightenment. This is the end of the 18th Century, beginning of the 19th. Reason and God are one at this time. And what Coleridge is audaciously claiming is that. No. Reason and God are not one. Imagination and God are one. Reason is subsidiary to Imagination. Reason is in service to Imagination. Making is not the product of reason. Making or creation, if you will, is the product of Imagination.

The universe, according to Coleridge, is not a clockwork universe. It is not engineered and pieced together. No. It is imagined. As poetry is imagined.

When we are told that we are made in the image of God, what this means is that we have imagination as God has imagination. That we are creative as God is creative. Among other things.

Coleridge was thumbing his nose at the conventional wisdom—the received ideas—of the time. And by doing so, he kicked off a whole new old way of thinking and feeling and experiencing that has continued to ramify down to us today. And the loopy wild world of quantum mechanics (an ironic misnomer if ever there was one) fits right into this conception. Mystic matter. Paradoxical immaterial matter.

In other words, the conflict continues. We have Enlightenment Christians, and we have post-Enlightenment Christians. We have clockwork universe Christians, and we have narrative theology Christians or mystic matter Christians. We have deterministic Christians, and we have open theology Christians.

So when I recommend that we imagine God with us, I am not making a recommendation that is innocent and light-headed or light-hearted. (Or maybe I am, but for the moment I’m going to pretend that I’m not.) I am making a recommendation that is freighted with real heavy-duty goods.

I am not recommending hallucination, for example. And I’m not saying we should lie about what we see and hear and feel so that we appear to be more saintly or more holy or more perfect little Christs.

What I am recommending is that we take the story that we all say is true and live inside that story. Uncompromisingly. Unflaggingly. Faithfully. Completely and fully. (Does that sound like perfection? I think it does.) Or as completely and fully as a bunch of buffoons and scoundrels like ourselves can manage. Which probably means periodically. From time to time.

And to do that, we have to exercise our imaginations. We have to consciously and intentionally imagine ourselves inside God’s story. In the way that the novelist consciously and intentionally imagines himself as the protagonist inside the story that he spins out. Or in the way that the poet imagines the speaker inside his poem saying the poem. Or in the way that the songwriter imagines the singer and the singer’s song.

And what we need to imagine is a God who loves us. A God who is love to us. For us. A God who wants us to wade out into the warm lake of him up to our chins and enjoy the overwhelming comfort and acceptance and buoyancy we can only find in him. The restoration. The peace. That he wants to provide us. Periodically here in the already/not yet. And eternally thereafter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Say Doorway to Eternity

I say doorway to eternity. I don’t mean the doorway into a funeral home parlor in which someone is laid out under a massive display of flowers. Nor do I mean the doorway into the embalming room in the funeral home’s basement. Nor do I mean the doorway into the morgue. Nor do I mean the doorway into the autopsy room. Nor do I mean the doorway into the dying room—the room in which someone is dying.

While all of these doorways may be instructive places to hang out and may be salutary in their own way, what I am talking about is the doorway to eternity. The doorway into God’s holy presence. Into the peace and rest only God provides us.

Many of us stumble around as believers. We are random mystics rather than systematic mystics. We seem to randomly happen upon God and are. Well. Surprised. Surprised? Yes, we Christians. Many of us. Are surprised to discover that God is with us after all. God is right around here somewhere after all.

And death provides us an extraordinary opportunity to find ourselves walking or sitting or merely being in complete solitude. Complete and singular solitariness. Naked to the cosmos. Naked to the one verse. The universe. A state of being in which we are very open to being visited by God. Very open to hearing God’s voice. Seeing him. Feeling the peace and love and beauty of his holy presence. Experiencing the affirmation and encouragement of his ordinary extraordinary presence.

I’ve run into a lot of Christians over the past 58 years or so. A ridiculous number, maybe. And mostly what I find are intellectual Christians. No, that isn’t right. I find Christians who are wedged tight as an oaken bung in the bunghole of their minds. No leaking. Successfully retaining the contents under pressure.

I mean, seriously! I’ve run into a lot of people who have no idea that their main thing is enjoyment. Their main activity is to find God and enjoy his presence. Their main preoccupation is to welcome God and his love for them. To find God. To look for him. To expect him. To look forward to seeing him. Hearing him. And then once found, to rest in his presence.

I was reading a book the other day. And in it, the author talks about some of these Christians. And I immediately wanted to reach through the pages of the book, through the lines of type, and stroke these poor people. Pet their heads. Hug them. Oh, these poor souls! They had no feeling in them. No feelings of love for anyone in them. They had been so traumatized. So hurt by. Oh. Who knows. Parents. Grandparents. Brothers. Sisters. Lovers—supposed lovers. Random events. Random catastrophes. Random violence.

Oh, it’s terrible what happens to people! It’s so sad! Here they are reading their Bibles and listening to their pastors and participating in small groups of one kind and another, and they’re dead inside. Completely numb. They don’t need drugs or alcohol because they are walking through life in a semi-comatose state already. They are lethargic and depressed and a bit zombie-like.

And they don’t know how to change this. They don’t know that they are living inside a tragedy and have a choice. They don’t know how to choose comedy. They have no concept. They read the words about how God is love and how all the Law and the Prophets can be summed up in the two commandments. They read the words about the Counselor coming and role the Counselor is to play in our lives.

They read the words about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. And they have no idea what any of this could possibly mean except to be good. Be Christlike. Be perfect. They honestly think that love is a commitment and not a feeling. They honestly believe that it’s their job to identify sin in other people and themselves and work on various sin-reduction projects.

They think that conduct is everything. They think that sin-management is everything.

And all I want say is, “You poor baby. You poor damaged human being. You weren’t made for this. This isn’t what God has in mind.

“He doesn’t want you wandering through life getting beat up over and over again. He doesn’t want you to make believe you are a little Christ. Pretend you are little Miss Perfect. Little Mister Perfect. He wants you to experience his love. He wants you to experience his peace. He wants you to come to him and live in his presence. Look for him. Speak with him. See him. Hear him. He wants to reassure you. He wants to comfort you.

“You can’t see him or hear him or feel his touch, feel the deep and abiding warmth of his holy presence, because you are wedged there in the bunghole of your mind. You are too busy feeling the pain of the tight wedging. Feeling the constriction. Feeling the pressure. Holding your breath.

“Or you are too busy not feeling. Refusing to feel. Too busy being wooden. Strong. Inflexible. Moral. Sin-free. Too busy pointing out the defects of others and perhaps yourself. Too busy thinking theology and giving yourself no opportunity for feeling the profound, the infinite, love of God washing over you.

“You poor baby,” I want to say. “Take care of people who are dying. Take care of people whose loved ones are dying. Do something. Anything. Desperate situations require desperate measures. Do something different. Use your imagination. Set yourself free.

“Walk away from the church, if you have to. It can be a toxic place. It can encourage this self-destruction. This God-denying. This self-denying. This God-destruction. Desperate situations demand desperate measures. Open your heart to God.

“Imagine God in your living room. Imagine him in the passenger seat of your car. Imagine him at work, walking down the hall toward you. Imagine him in every room you inhabit. Imagine him with you wherever you go. Imagine speaking to him. Speak! Imagine him speaking to you. Listen! Imagine him as a tub of warm water. Lie down in him, and let him warm you there.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

O, Death

I don’t know if you have ever heard the version of “O, Death,” the Appalachian Mountain song, that Ralph Stanley sings in O Brother, Where Art Thou? But if you have heard it, you will remember it. And I think, like me, you may treasure it.

It’s a conversation between one who is dying or may be dying and Death himself. The man asks to be spared for a time. Death proclaims his power in a sadistic litany:

“I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk
I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very air, come and go with me
I’m Death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To draw up the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim”

Ralph sings it a cappella, which emphasizes the spiritual nakedness of the man dying. If you are a mystical believer priest, this will be a comfort: It will remind you that there are other spiritually naked people out there, just like you.

I admit that the comfort is ambivalent, since the guy is dying, and dying isn’t all that pleasant a state for most people. And one’s own death isn’t all that pleasant to contemplate. But pleasant or not, this is what mystical believer priests do from time to time.

In fact, it is de rigueur, I find. Or maybe it’s de rigor. I’ll have to look it up. What I mean is that it is salutary to look Death in the face. Or it can be.

But take a moment before you go off and do something like this and answer a question: In what genre do you live? Is it a comedy or a tragedy? If it is a tragedy, the effect won’t be salutary. No. It will be sad. Grievous. Despairingly bleak. Terrible.

If the story you live inside is tragic, I don’t recommend that you confront Death. That you contemplate your own death. Because this will be depressing, and that is all it will be. You may even begin to feel. Oh, I don’t know. Suicidal maybe.

If you live inside a tragedy, I recommend you consider changing genres. Changing your life story. Because sad, grieved, depressed, and lethargic is no way to live. A bit of it goes a long way. As a steady thing, it’s really. Oh. It threatens to make a failure of the entire enterprise.

But for those of you who have chosen comedy or whom comedy has chosen (it happens both ways), I recommend a good, strong dose of Death periodically. I suggest taking care of the dying and of those they are leaving behind. I suggest wading into the experience of death the way you would wade into a mountain river on a very hot day. Douse yourself in it. Thoroughly wet yourself with it.

Oh, it might be frighteningly cold. It might make your bones ache and tears come to your eyes, it is that cold. It might make you numb for a time, if you stay in long. It might threaten to annihilate you, it is so cold and the currents are so strong. You might have to desperately hang on to someone’s hand to keep from being pulled away.

But do it anyway. Because here God is in remarkable power, and here also is the doorway to eternity.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Of Course, Death

Of course, Death comes like one of those. Oh. Those smiling evil geniuses with a knife. Comes to cut us all down to size.

Comes to cut off our conversation, our words bleeding from us in inarticulateness, pooling on the floor. In the bed. Making a mess in the carpeting. As we struggle to escape.

But we do not escape. Oh, maybe for a time. But then he returns like a Mormon evangelist in the summer. A young person. White shirt. Dark pants. Well-mannered. Book of Mormon in one hand. Scalpel hidden discreetly in the other.

Ding-dong. He’s baaaack!

So far, several teachers have fallen to him. All the important ones but one. George P. Elliott. Philip Booth. Hayden Carruth. W. D. Snodgrass.

Both parents in law.

A childhood friend. Boarding school acquaintances. Boarding school headmaster, who helped me through a difficult time.

Quite a number of random strangers whose hands I’ve held, whose medications I’ve delivered, whose sputum I’ve wiped, to whom I’ve read to pass the time.

Who’s next? I don’t know. It seems random, doesn’t it? Random as a madman.

He teaches us to number our days. And to make the words we have time to say, count.

The other day, I was reading the blog of a friend of mine. A very good pastor friend. And the responses he was getting! The comments that people who supposedly cared about him. People who are supposedly Christians. Supposedly God lovers. Supposedly neighbor lovers. The comments that they made. Were. Well. They were terrible.

It was like all of them had scalpels, white shirts, dark pants. Male and female. Holy books in one hand. Scalpels in the other. And I had an image of them all running up to the stage in my friend’s church, all stabbing together. Stabbing and stabbing. Until my friend was silenced by these friends, lying helplessly in his blood on the stage, expired.

Pupils fixed and dilated. Staring at the ceiling, like an imbecile.

With nothing more to say.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Blog, Blog, Blog

Work, work, work. Trope, trope, trope. Blog, blog, blog. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

All the world’s a blogosphere,
And all the men and women merely bloggers.
They have their endings and their beginnings;
And one may in his time blog in many voices ….

What is a poem or a story or a book or a blog or any saying, really? Any verbal simulacrum? Anything constructed of words?

Isn’t it our contribution to the conversation? The long story of our manifold conversations?

One of the striking things Christopher Tietjens—the protagonist of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End (an excellent novel, by the way)—says is that a relationship is really a conversation. A relationship between a man and a woman, in the context of this particular novel, is principally thought about by Tietjens as a conversation. But I think we can abstract this to all relationships.

So, for example. The simulacra that we know as Aristotle’s Poetics and Moses’s Torah and Aristophanes’s The Birds, down to. Oh. W.D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle and Annie Dillard’s Holy The Firm and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. And…. And…. And…. And all the blogs out there today on the Web. Are all contributions to the relationship. The relationship that people have with one another in a common attempt to understand things. To come to terms with things. To represent what happens—what is and what was and what is to come—and to turn it this way and that until it reveals itself. Until the truth of it steps more fully out from behind the curtain. Until the truth of things becomes more fully known. Until we can make something of it!

And this conversation takes place across the ages. Oh, it is contemporaneous among the living. But there is a store-and-forward kind of thing going on with the moribund. They have made their blogs and left their blogs—their simulacra—to the generations that have followed them. And we. Well. We first of all read their simulacra. We attempt to form a shape of the world they see in our own minds and then look out of ourselves at the world as though we were in fact, in some sense, them.

Then we ramify them. We add the shape of the world that they have articulated to us to the other shapes we have been given and invent a new shape that takes into account all that we understand from all of the other simulacra we have inherited and then reshape everything to take account of our own particular experience as well.

And then we create our own simulacra. And these. Well. These articulate pieces of the shape that has formed and is forming as we speak in our minds of what the world is, was, and is yet to be. And we exchange these among the living, each of us reshaping what we know or think we know with the shapes provided by our contemporaries.

So, yes. What happens among contemporaries is most appropriately called a conversation because only this is a bidirectional interchange. A bidirectional contemporaneous reshaping of the known universe. The one verse.

But this shape—this making—that emerges in contemporaneous discussion and debate and the sharing of simulacra has within it the shape of the world that has been handed to us by our ancestors, our literary forebears. Our linguistics masters. Our philological and philosophical progenitors.

One might almost think of this as a process of passing, combining, and recombining spiritual DNA. Words and combinations of words are our spiritual DNA. Just as physical DNA is used to determine the shape and characteristics and operating modalities of our bodies, so is spiritual DNA used to determine the shape and characteristics and operating modalities of our souls. Of our minds and hearts.

And so those who came before deposit their spiritual DNA in us, which is recombined with the spiritual DNA of those around us. Inevitably there will be differences in what we have read and with whom we have conversed, and the conditions of all this will of course be slightly different and will have an influence. And so each of us will end up with slightly different spiritual DNA. One result is that each of us has a somewhat different shape of the world in mind as we go about our business.

And just as it might be said with justification that our role biologically is to reproduce imperfect physical copies of ourselves, so it might also be said that our role spiritually is to provide our spiritual DNA to our descendents as well. Descendents taken both biologically and spiritually.

One of the upshots of all this is that the world model that we have in us. The made shape that we have come to concerning the way the world was and is and is yet to be may be something like biological DNA—there may be something in us that urgently wants us to share this. In other words, we may be designed and built in such a way that forming spiritual DNA may all be very well, but there is a spiritual imperative for many of us that it be passed along for the making and use by contemporaneous others and future others.

So what is required is relationship. The foundational concept for any of this to happen is relationship. And relationship requires—in the spiritual realm—the ability to look at the world through the other’s simulacra. To see the model or shape of the world constructed by the words of another. To make of things, at least provisionally and hypothetically, what the other person makes of things.

If we cannot do this, we are strangers inhabiting different galaxies that are billions of light-years apart.

Monday, March 9, 2009

I'll Call Him Liking

Another man I know. I’ll call him Liking. Why an odd name like Liking? Maybe it suits him. Maybe he’s a modern day tropist. A modern day simile-man.

Author of prosaic complaints and laments, thanksgivings, descriptions of God’s sudden manifestations. A satirist. A surrealist. A self-centered bit of gristle and nakedness. A blogger, in other words.

Finds God by rolling around in his bed all night. His wife sleeps in the other room, he is so energetic and persistent in his rolling. So sweaty and teary and altogether irritating in his wrestling and cavorting and caterwauling and caviling with God that she will have no part of it. That she will make her own bed so that he and God may have their fun. The light on every hour or so. The TV on every hour or so. The “Abba, Father” rasping every hour or so in his dry throat.

Finds God also by waking up, turning on his computer, and writing. Writing his bloggy pseudo-psalms. His soggy balms. His bleary songs. His seery bongs. His. Well, you get the idea. Writes out of anxiety and love. Out of fear and grief. Out of tenderness and anger and banality. A holy rolling blogger, if you will.

Full tilt boogie human here who reads the actual Psalms. A real dirty human, see. The real thing. Muck of the earth. Your garden variety human. Your muck farm human. Your slimy 21st Century American human. Your ruling class type of human. Your Holocene extinction type of human. Your wealthiest class of human in the history of the world type of human. Your make war, not love type of human.

And who can’t understand. Can’t altogether get. The angst. The hyperbolic whining that he finds there in the Psalms. Until he comes to the blog at hand. His own particular blog. And then of course the whining comes wheeling out like some Medieval war machine. Creaking and moaning. Flinging real figurative missiles all about. All about the place.

Real Medieval death machine that comes creaking down the centuries like Freedom’s monster itself. Like the monster that the idea of Freedom (God’s own idea, by the way) unleashes to maraud over the earth, laying waste the earth, extinguishing the beautiful almost wherever it might be found. The great long whine we humans make when we are given a little comfort and expect comfort then like a birthright. Preserve comfort then at all costs.

And orthodoxy. Preserve orthodoxy of whatever peculiar variety. At all costs. However odd. However arcane. However involved and difficult to explain. Rightness. Correctness. A real motive force to be stored and then used to. To what? To assail, of course. To avail. To lay waste. To bring down a wall. Any wall. That stands between the self and what it must have. What it must lave. What it must take. What it must make its own.

But Liking is also mild-mannered. He is humorous. He has a sense of humor. He understands civility. He understands courtesy. He is generous. He likes to think of himself as loving. He likes to think of himself as an okay guy. As a pretty good guy. But of course, he’s made of dirt. He’s made of muck. He’s a potato. He lives underground. He shoves up leaves that live above ground.

He lives in two worlds, really. The world of the air and the world of the earth. The root is his mind, and it is a mind buried in the mud where the worms and the grubs course and the fungus grows. The leaves are his heart, open to the sun and the wind and the rain. Fragile as any leaves that will be dust again in the winter. He is pathetic, really. A pathetic fallacy if I’ve ever seen one.

Liking. A guy I know. Find him anywhere out there in blog-land. Anywhere you’d like to go.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I'll Call Him Bob

A man I know. I’ll call him Bob. Finds God by rolling a wheelbarrow. He takes the wheelbarrow out of his garage in the morning, and he rolls it all day long.

He lives in a place where this isn’t a nuisance. Or a menace. It’s out in farm country. Out where there’s nothing but corn and soybeans in summer and a house here and there. A town here and there. A town in which there is maybe a gas station, a church, and a bar. A few houses scattered around like pebbles on the prairie.

A place where the people call themselves Ethel and Homer and Clyde and Stan and Gertrude and Amelia and Josiah and Ruth. A place that looks a little like a Grant Wood painting except for the absence these days of old-fashioned windmills and horses and the presence of machinery.

Bob lives with his mother, Doris. His brothers and sister are all married with children and live this way and that. His father’s deceased.

Bob’s been simple all his life. Born that way. He doesn’t talk. He hums and yodels. He sounds a little like he’s singing the blues when he hums and yodels, from time to time. Sometimes it’s hard to find a tune in what he’s singing. Sometimes it’s hard to find the most simple of themes.

But then other times he seems to have found something. Something complex and a little bluesy and jazzy. Something Chick Corea might have made. Or no. Something Mississippi John Hurt and Chick Corea might have made together.

He has a route. It’s about a 30 mile route. It takes him past Daisy’s and Isaiah’s and Lyle’s places. His sister’s and brothers’ places. It takes him by Preacher John’s place. It takes him through the town of Paradise, with its one gas station, one church, and one bar. And it takes him through miles and miles of farmland.

Doris packs his lunch for him. Puts it and three bottles of water in a worn canvas knapsack. After breakfast and not long after dawn, he sets out. He sings and he rolls. He looks all around. He looks into the empty wheelbarrow. A wheelbarrow full of air.

But if he could talk, he would tell you the wheelbarrow is not full of air. He would say that it is full of an angel. A brightly burning angel. An angel who sings out a music that makes and remakes the world. That sustains everything. And is beautiful.

And so he sings along with the angel. He sings whatever the angel is singing. And what the angel sings sounds to him a little like a violin and a little like a saxophone and a little like a person singing. It has a silvery tone to it. But this modulates back and forth into gold. More of a gold tone sometimes.

And so he carries the angel in his wheelbarrow. The color of the wheelbarrow is red. Red, the color of the sun in the evening on the prairie. Which Bob washes every evening when he gets back home. Douses with soap and water each evening and wipes down with a shammy. Actually several shammies that his mother hangs to dry for the next day. And the next and the next.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Spirit On The Water

Modern Times, Bob Dylan’s 2006 release. A jasmine sound. I’ve been playing it off and on so often my wife has banished it from the house. “Play it in the car. Play it when I’m gone. Play it, Baby, but please play it somewhere else.

“I’m done with it, Baby, or I’m done with you!”

Oh, she doesn’t call me Baby. I don’t think she calls anybody Baby. And she wasn’t quite that adamantine about it. I dramatize. I engage in hyperbole. But she is tired. Very, very tired of the thing.

But I’m not. I love it. I can’t get enough of it. I think I bought it back last fall. And I can’t hardly keep it off the stereo. I can’t hardly keep it out of my head. And heart. It’s made a place for itself in both places, and on my lips and in my throat and lungs and wind pipe as well.

This is Dylan full of God. Full of God all integrated into his thinking and feeling and knowing and experiencing. This is Dylan full of the presence of God.

I particularly like “Spirit On The Water.” But I particularly like just about every song on the CD. They help me to know who God is better. God through the voice and music of Bob Dylan. God in this rendition is sweet. He’s impossible. He’s a she. She’s the beloved. She’s everything to the singer. She’s his delight and his meaning. He aches for her when she's gone.

Dylan says he’s not a poet. He’s a songwriter. I agree. But still. There’s a poetry in what he does. Here are the words to “Spirit On The Water.” See what you may hear.

Spirit on the water
Darkness on the face of the deep
I keep thinking about you baby
I can't hardly sleep

I'm traveling by land
Traveling through the dawn of day
You're always on my mind
I can't stay away

I'd forgotten about you
Then you turned up again
I always knew
We were meant to be more than friends

When you're near
It's just as plain as it can be
I'm wild about you, gal
You ought to be a fool about me

Can't explain
The sources of this hidden pain
You burned your way into my heart
You got the key to my brain

I've been trampling through mud
Praying to the powers above
I'm sweating blood
You got a face that begs for love

Life without you
Doesn't mean a thing to me
If I can't have you
I'll throw my love into the deep blue sea

Sometimes I wonder
Why you can't treat me right
You do good all day
And then you do wrong all night

When you're with me
I'm a thousand times happier than I could ever say
What does it matter
What price I pay

They brag about your sugar
Brag about it all over town
Put some sugar in my bowl
I feel like laying down

I'm as pale as a ghost
Holding a blossom on a stem
You ever seen a ghost? No
But you have heard of them

I see you there
I'm blinded by the colors I see
I take good care
Of what belongs to me

I hear your name
Ringing up and down the line
I'm saying it plain
These ties are strong enough to bind

Now your sweet voice
Calls out from some old familiar shrine
I got no choice
Can't believe these things would ever fade from your mind

I could live forever
With you perfectly
You don't ever
Have to make a fuss over me

From East to West
Ever since the world began
I only mean it for the best
I want to be with you any way I can

I been in a brawl
Now I'm feeling the wall
I'm going away baby
I won't be back 'til fall

High on the hill
You can carry all my thoughts with you
You've numbed my will
This love could tear me in two

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can't go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time

Words and music by Bob Dylan
Copyright 2006 Special Rider Music

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Been reading the biography Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Paul Mariani. Gift from a good friend. We both admire Hopkins’s poetry, and for Christmas he gave himself and me a copy. Something we could share and talk about.

Funny. When I first started writing poetry with some seriousness. Oh, this was back when Pangaea, the super-continent, was still forming. This was about 300 million years ago or so.

At a time when rhyme and meter and alliteration and parallelism and syllabic construction—all the techniques we now know today are actually useful in constructing poems—had not been invented yet. Or at least I wasn’t aware of them. But it nevertheless turned out that I sounded—to every knowledgeable person I showed my work to—like Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Go figure. One of the most learned and gifted prosodists and classicists of the 19th century. One of the most innovative and insightful poets in the English tradition. And I had the misfortune to sound like him. And so early on I became aware of him backwards, so to say. Read him because I sounded like him and needed to understand him a bit before I could alter my style and approach so that I wouldn’t sound derivative any longer.

I don’t think I’ve fully recovered since. But I have enjoyed and do enjoy his poetry. I admire it greatly. Part of what is so exciting for me even now is his love of God. It comes through loud and strong in his work. I comes across fresh. Newly made. Every time. He really did experience God. Time after time after time. And he is extraordinarily faithful in bringing that experience to us. Bringing God to us.

And so I launched into Paul Mariani’s biography with some energy. Some enthusiasm. But here I am about two months later and still I’m not completely done. I’m close, but I’m not done.

Why? Well, first of all it’s long. And second, it really does do a remarkably thorough job of revealing Hopkins’s agony. It provides a lot of source material, quoting from his journals and letters and others’ letters, to ensure that we can see that his observations and insights and conclusions are valid. And I enjoy that, by the way.

I say agony. What I mean is that what Hopkins appears to have done is to take quite to heart the idea that he should be like Christ. That he should be Christlike. And he of course never measures up. He never stops trying. But he never is good enough.

Not clear exactly how this idea gets into his head, comes swimming into his head like some marauding lamprey worming its way up a brook trout stream to spawn. But it does. Maybe when he converts from Anglican to Roman Catholic, this happens. Maybe when he decides to become a Jesuit, this happens. Maybe the Ignatian exercises imported this non-native species. Maybe when he is routinely dismissed by his superiors as an eccentric, this happens. Mariani isn’t clear. He may not know, either.

But it does happen and it does so early in the poor man’s life. And it debilitates him. It fills him with despair. It sucks the joy and stamina and laughter right out of him. It makes him diligent to the point of being obsessive. It makes him so self-critical and anxious that he thinks about suicide often. He thinks about his many friends and acquaintances who have committed suicide. Often.

So here is a man of God. This Jesus follower. This God-lover. This mystic. This spiritual friend. This person I have been linguistically and poetically connected to through his writings for most of my adult life. And I’m reading his biography. And I want to weep. I want a time machine. I want to go back in time and find the poor guy and put my hand on his shoulder and say something like, “Peace, Brother.

“God’s own peace. Listen to Jesus. What does he say in this matter? Doesn’t he say to love God and love your brothers and sisters? Isn’t this enough for you? I know you are ambitious. I see that. But set that aside for love. Let love be your companion. Peace, Brother. Cut this idea away like you would cut a parasite away. Or let me do that. Here. I have the stomach for it, if you do.

“This will be painful. It has become so much of you now. Where this begins and you leave off are no longer distinct. But listen. Let’s talk about the Gospels. Let’s talk about what Jesus said in the Gospels. Let’s go to him in prayer together. Let’s ask him.

“Jesus is not a torturer. Jesus does not like torture. Particularly self-torture. Particularly torture that is not necessary. He brings love. And yes, this does entail pain and troubles. But the pain and the troubles are the necessary evil. Not the sought-after good. The sought-after God.”