Sunday, April 26, 2009
“The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze décor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.”
Sometimes the best one can do is to buy The Palm at the End of the Mind, a book of selected poems and a play by Wallace Stevens, in a random, half-priced bookstore. To reread him, the insurance man from Hartford, Connecticut. Sometimes in the already/not yet, the best one can do is to be an insurance man and write poems about the imagination. Or to be an intellectual property man and write the occasional ellipsis… The occasional blue silence. That merely stands uneasily for what one understands. Or what one comes to. Or what one has to say.
Sometimes the best one can do is to regard the redbuds in Columbus, Ohio, surrounding the house of one’s ailing sister. The redbuds in April. Bursting into the color of fire-coals this way and that. A pink. An almost lavender. A color wood will sometimes become after hours of burning. Wood that glows in the ephemeral flames, surrounded by ash. Redbuds. Surrounding the house surrounded by the improbable green. Irregular flower-works. Flowery wood-works. Striations akimbo against the blue sky. Their red-budded branches also dangled down.
Monday, April 13, 2009
And it feels. Oh. I think it feels like straw. Disintegrated straw blown in here. All of us. Turning in the narrow-spectrum, incandescent light. Then the music begins, and we sing. We are human again. And behind me, there.
I imagine because of the voices behind me. The woman’s and the man’s exquisite voices wrapping themselves around me. That I am. Well. That this is it. This is the kingdom of God. This is one of the many chambers in the City of God.
Then Sunday. Sunny Sunday. The bright colors flame through the entry way and up the stairs and into the make-do sanctuary. The rented sanctum sanctorum. The little girls in pink tights. Smiling. The little boys loudly laughing. Ram-jetting all around.
I don’t know. The singing seems quick. Silvery and bright. And again the same woman and man behind. And again now. Lovely. In the natural light broadly washing over us, wave after wave. As the particles carom and ricochet all about the place and burst. Positively burst open everywhere.
And we stand on the western beach of the Sea of Galilee. It’s morning. The waves have just begun to stand up in the breeze bringing us the sun. The waves with the sound of eternity in them. We are eating fish and bread. Our garments flutter in the brightness.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Or try this. The year is 1905. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show is touring France for the second time. You know Buffalo Bill’s Wild West? Right? Cowboys from all over the world. Indians. American Indians. Sitting Bull was a performer in the show for a time. The overarching theme was the taming of the wild west. Making the west safe for white women and their families. Their children.
There was remarkable melodrama. Little real life dioramas illustrating the pioneers’ movement west. The Pony Express was enacted and exhibited. The Deadwood Stage was enacted and exhibited. The hardships. The danger because of the Indians. The heroic exploits of various and sundry. Including Buffalo Bill himself. Who concocted tall stories about his heroism and played them out in his shows. Little fictional accounts of real life events. Or was it real life accounts of fictional events?
The Battle of the Little Big Horn was play-acted out: It was called Custer’s Last Stand. The defeat of General George Armstrong Custer. Bill Cody played Custer. And so on. Little exempla. Little scenarios in which the story of heroic half-white half-savage men made the world safe from the wildness of uncivilized and ungoverned unwhite men. And these. These simulacra. Were how Americans came to know themselves, in part. How Europeans came to know Americans, in part.
It was life undefined, to a large extent. From the European point of view. It was life unrestricted. The American West was the free life. The life of danger and adventure and possibility. There was trick riding and lassoing and sharpshooting, for example. There were cowboys and Indians living in tents! Tents of all things. On the show grounds.
And so in 1905, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was playing at the base of the Eiffel Tower between April 2nd and June 4th. Toured all over France after that. But in Paris drew 3 million visitors during that 2 month period.
And do you know what was going on only 121 miles from Paris during this period? In Bern, Switzerland? Well our friend Albert Einstein is having a wonderful year. His best year yet. He is working at the Federal Office of Intellectual Property as an assistant patent examiner. And he is making babies with his wife. And he is writing and publishing papers. Remarkable papers. Four of them.
It is called Annus Mirabilis because of Einstein’s four papers published that year. 1905. So as Bill Cody was redefining what it is to be an American for the Europeans. As he is setting his simulacra of the American Story before millions of Europeans. As he is raking in the cash and making a name for himself.
There is little Albert Einstein telling his little stories about how the physical world works. Or the physical immaterial material construct we call the world. So one paper was on how we might think of light as many discrete quanta or packets rather than waves. Of course the idea of light as a wave was the popular idea of light among physicists at that time.
So another paper was an explanation of the small movement of tiny bits of matter as Brownian motion. This explanation of random movement traces its heritage at least as far back as Lucretius, a first century B.C. Roman poet and philosopher, who, in his poem “On the Nature of Things” or as it is sometimes translated “On the Nature of the Universe,” explains the random movement of dust particles in a shaft of sunlight as being caused by unseen atoms that cause the random movement of the dust. So this paper by Einstein reaches back to a poet to understand the possibility of the atom—again—and the possibility of randomness or indeterminacy resting at what was then newly (in this paper) considered the foundation of matter.
So another paper was on Special Relativity, which we in part have already touched upon in another post, along with some aspects of General Relativity, which was to come relatively later. Some years later. In his career.
So the fourth paper was on the equivalence of mass and energy and the theoretical possibility of the transmutability of the one into the other. This paper expresses for the first time this idea, and it expresses it in one of the more memorable locutions of the 20th century: E = MC².
So as Buffalo Bill Cody is rescuing a woman and her children in her prairie cabin from her Indian attackers in his Wild West show at the base of the Eiffel Tower, there is little Albert rewriting our understanding of the universe. Or parts of our understanding. Who knows, he might have even taken his young family over the border for a spring or summer excursion to see the splendor and panorama and wild good-naturedness of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
Can you hold both of these in your mind simultaneously? Can you imagine little Albert wandering around the show? Marveling at the. The. Oh, the fancy shooting, for example? At the Indians in their buckskins and their feathery headgear? At the rope tricks? At the trick horseback riding? And at the strangeness of it all?
Monday, April 6, 2009
Messing around with black holes. With places in the universe where the gravity is so great that light can’t escape. What? Are you kidding me? Get outta here! Yuk, yuk, yuk! You really have got to be outta your mind. Don’t you? To imagine stuff like this? To conjure this kind of stuff up out of a notebook full of mathematics and a few observations from afar. From many light years away.
Or take the story of Desmond Tutu and post-apartheid South Africa. Forgiveness. No massive and bloody purge. No mass murder. No frenzied outpouring of anger and revenge and evil. No. An orderly process of discovery and forgiveness. Who could have imagined that? How? Ridiculous, I know. Absurd. Silly. Impossible. Improbable. Given what we know about humans and how they work. Unimaginable.
But of course this is the universe. The one verse in which we in fact do live. Don’t we? Whether we will or no?
The one verse in which heterogeneity and diversity and silliness and absurdity and impossible facts and improbable theories and. A universe in which the foundation of matter looks more like ideas than particles. A universe in which people are bound together by love, an invisible improbable substance. An idea more than a substance. But an idea that is substantial enough to require great mathematical room in our calculations of one another and how we function.
Love that drives what? Self-sacrifice everywhere we care to look. Forgiveness wherever humans are found. Or almost.
Beauty that brings us almost to our knees. The longing for love and beauty that brings us almost to our knees. Or perhaps in some extreme cases, all the way to our knees. Even in America, where nearly everyone is enthroned in a recliner.
And despite Machiavelli and Nietzsche and the Robber Barons and Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Bernie Madoff and the current crop of casino capitalists. Despite all of the striving calculating death-dealing evil in the world. The greed and thievery in the world. There is also. Remarkably. Improbably. Impossibly. Love and forgiveness and generosity. There is forgetting. There is new life. There is new growth in the volcanic ash.
Incongruous. Ridiculous. Preposterous. Inane. Insane. Pure viscous and long-stranded drool.
And yet the universe is so. Is the way it is. No matter its improbability. No matter its uncomfortable paradoxes. Its ambiguity. Its opacity. Its multivariance. Its rascality. Its imbecility. Its. Well you name it. You extend the list from here.
And to deal with all of this. To hold all of this together in our minds and hearts at one time. We have been granted a great blessing. The blessing of our imaginations. A facility so remarkable we hardly know it is present. Sort of like our eyes or our ears. Notice how they are instruments of knowing but they disappear, don’t they? In the process of our knowing.
So also, the imagination. An extension of our eyes and our ears and our taste and our smell and our touch into our souls. Our senses extended into the spiritual realm of our very souls. Into our hearts and minds. So that we may make things. Make ideas. Make words. Make symbols. Make pictures. Make sounds. Make movements. Make shapes. Make stories. That synthesize the various improbable actualities. The impossible probabilities of the one verse. The one making that is our home.
Friday, April 3, 2009
Or take this morning’s minion, kingdom of relativity, for example. This is the universe we’re talking about now. How the universe works. The one verse works. How this immaterial material cosmological construct behaves.
And so the theory of relativity apparently has some rather paradoxical and perhaps ambiguous and perhaps ambivalent consequences:
1. Two events that are simultaneous for some observer may not be simultaneous for another observer, if the two observers are in relative motion.
2. Moving clocks tick more slowly than a “stationary” observer’s clock.
3. Objects shorten in the direction that they are moving with respect to an observer.
4. Time goes more slowly in higher gravitational fields.
5. Light bends in the presence of a gravitational field.
This is of course in the physical immaterial material cosmological construct. And specifically in the wonderful world of physics. And this paradoxical theory was first floated. Oh. A hundred years ago or so. So this idea isn’t new. No. It’s older than the Model T Ford.
So it’s old hat now.
Keep in mind that this is not hallucination. No. This is how space-time itself is made. Imagined. How it is structured. How it is being imagined. How it is being formed. Informed. Paradoxically. Ambivalently. Ambiguously.
There’s nothing like your grandfather’s clock about this. There’s nothing as quietly and calmly predictable and polite as a grandfather’s clock. No. This is more like. Oh. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Or take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “The Windhover.” A poem about a bird that is not a bird. A paradoxical. An ambivalent. A bird that is Christ himself. A terrible, fierce, carnivorous bird. A beautiful, bright, ecstasy of a hunting and then a dropping bird. Dropping for the kill. Christ-Falcon. The killer of little field beasties. Bunnies romping in the field! Innocent little bunny poets!
It’s one of my favorites. Here it is:
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.”
And of course this poem is old hat now as well, having been written before the turn of the century. The 20th century, that is.
A poem in which the speaker sees Christ and a falcon or kestrel as one being. One image. One multi-identity being. Masterfully hunting and then dropping to kill what? The speaker? The speaker-bunny? The floppy-eared poet? It seems like that.
And then where in the heck does plowing up a field come from in those last three lines? They also are linked imaginatively. They also are imagined by the poem’s speaker (who appears to speak to us and imagine this poem each time the poem is read) to be intimately related to the Christ-Falcon. Because. Well, look here. The earth. The dirt itself! As it is turned over by the plow. Is burning also. Is glowing also with the intensely bright. The brilliant! Glory of God.
So the terrible and the beautiful and the dirty and the lofty and the sacred and the carnal are all one. All contrasting. All contradicting. Yet holding somehow together in one imaginative experience. The one verse of our experience. The one physical immaterial material cosmological construct of our lives.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
But I. I. Being lazy about the thing. I do all four of them in the morning. Oh, typically about 5:30 or so. It takes about 20 or 30 minutes to do all four sessions at one go. I say them out loud. Read them out loud. But quietly. Softly. Because Pat is still sleeping. Then I ease back in my recliner. A typically American way of praying. Kind of like watching TV. And pray some more.
Pray for my ill sister. Pray for an ill friend at work. Pray for my children. My wife. My brothers. My parents. People I love. People I don’t particularly love but that. Well. I want to pray for. Various and sundry, in other words. Then let the mind rest. Let the heart rest. Let the soul rest in all the God talk I’ve been saying and thinking. Rest in the river of words I have been speaking to God. Ride on the current of love he returns to me as I send my current of love and praise and thanksgiving and petitioning for those I love and those I only know back to him. Kind of an alternating current of love flowing back and forth between us.
So as I say, I rest in that. Per usual. The quotidian morning love fest to kick off the day down the right road, so to say.
Various images. Various thoughts. Various words. All scrambled. Montage-like action of the mind. But then I settle. Then there is nothing but the floating. The floating on the circulating current of love.
Then a man approaches out of the distance. He is a kindly man. I don’t recognize him, but I do. I can’t for the moment say his name, but he is very familiar. I have a feeling we know one another very well. He is smiling and looking at me steadily.
And he has in his arms a baby. A precious infant. Oh maybe several months old. Old enough to make eye contact. To smile. To laugh. We look at one another and smile. We laugh. We do this for awhile.
Then the kindly man hands me the baby. It’s so quick, I can’t raise my arms in time to take it. The man releases it. And it falls. I come to myself again, trying to catch it before it falls and hits its head on the arm of my chair. Or worse yet might fall to the floor. I wake and in my broad waking discover the room again. Myself again. And there is no longer the kindly man or the happy baby.
What does this mean, I want to know? What is this about? And I immediately have the feeling it has to do with church. I don’t know why I go there, but I do. Which church, I want to know. What church?
And I honestly don’t know. Is it the one I left 11 months ago? Maybe. Is it the one I attend now? Maybe. Is it an admonition from God? A conclusion concerning my behavior toward my former church? A conclusion about my clumsiness?
Had God given me my former church and had I dropped it, hurting it in the process, as a baby would be hurt if dropped? Was God giving me another church to hold? To nurture? To take care of? And was this a caution? Was this God telling me to be more careful this time? Not so clumsy this time?
Was it one or the other? Was it both?
Or was it a prediction? A prediction of what will happen with my new church, if I don’t wake up? If I don’t pay attention?
Or was it after all about something else? Was it about one or the other of my children or my wife or something at work that I am being asked to do?
Was it about Jesus? Was the baby Jesus and the man God himself? Have I let Jesus down. Have I hurt Jesus?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But I do come away thinking about what I have done and what I can do. What I should do and should not do. Say and not say. Differently. I don’t know what it means, but it does change me. It has changed me. I do feel like this is God.
I do feel like. Well. I don’t want to do that again.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
And I wouldn’t blame you. I wouldn’t blame you a bit.
But here. Try this quote on for size. And pretend George Eldon Ladd had never come along. Pretend you never heard of him and kingdom theology. Pretend you are a first century Jew trying to make sense of what Jesus is saying.
“Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.’”
Do we find our curious amino acids here?
Well, first what is the kingdom of God? Is it a place? Most kingdoms occupy territory and they are ruled by a king. And kings are largely coercive fellows. They like to tax and make wars and live in. Well. A kingly fashion. They like concubines or mistresses or many wives or all of the above. They spend the people’s money lavishly. And they like to put down opposition rather nastily, with “extreme prejudice” I think is an appropriate phrase. They have people killed, often in quite painful ways. They put people in prison. They tax people so much that most of their subjects live in poverty.
Is this the sort of kingdom Jesus is talking about? Well, we don’t know for sure, because he’s a god or man or God-man of few words. But we must suspect that he is talking about a very different kingdom from the run-of-the-mill kingdoms of the time. In fact, because of other things he says, we must suspect that the differences between the kingdom he has in mind and your garden variety kingdom far out-weigh the similarities.
And so what we have is an ironic metaphor, don’t we? An ambiguous metaphor. A metaphor that points to contrast and paradox. Yes, this will be a kingdom, but it will not be like any kingdom you have known. It will operate on significantly different principles.
Why use the metaphor of a kingdom at all then? If the differences far out-weigh the similarities? Why not pick some other way to refer to it? Whatever it is. Why not refer to it as nirvana? Why not refer to it as America? Why not refer to it as a garden of heavenly delights?
So there is paradox and ambiguity in how Jesus talks. Perhaps a heavy dose of irony.
And what do you make of his saying this to a group of Pharisees, people who are out to kill him? People toward whom Jesus has a real attitude. You might go so far as to say that he thinks these are the last people who he would consider admitting to heaven. The last demographic who would be considered for admission on the last train departing for the garden of heavenly delights.
Is he really saying that the kingdom of God is present even to these? Is he saying that these people who he repeatedly condemns for their oppressiveness and hard-heartedness and hypocrisy and lovelessness and Godlessness. Is he really saying that these people somehow also live in the kingdom of God?
And so is his tone ironic? Is he sincere? Is his tone ambivalent? Could it go either way? Could it go both ways?
Hard to say. Hard to pin Jesus down, isn’t it?
Hard to take him one way only. When his language is so full of paradox, ambiguity, and ambivalence. Hard to understand him simply, when in fact his meanings are complex. Hard to feel comfortable thinking only of him as the Lamb of God when he often roars like a lion and is quiet and subtle as a snake and is generous as the sun and is cold and dark as a starless arctic winter night.