In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend

Bill and Robyn Fisher (July 2005)

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

–– W.S. Merwin, “Berryman”

In September of 2004 my friend Bill Fisher sent me Merwin’s poem, adding the comment, “It is as if he is saying, ‘If you have to be sure, don’t love,’ or perhaps, ‘don’t live.’”

Bill’s letter was in response to some crisis in my own life, one of those times when you wonder whether your story matters, whether you are being good enough or real enough or deep enough. Or as another poet, William Stafford, put the question: “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”

In supplying thoughtful perspectives on my faltering attempts to do “my life,” Bill could be brutally honest about his own perilous quest for authenticity. He was well acquainted with the recurring dissonance between the voice within and the scripts thrust upon us by the outer world. And he was never afraid to share the painful parts of his own story if it could do some good for a friend.

“As I write these words to you,” he said in his letter, “I think of the last lines of a recent morning poem of mine: “To whom can I / still safely / confess my sins?” . . . I have to thank you for being one with whom I can still feel safe in my most radical vulnerability.”

Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century English abbot, said much the same thing in his beautiful treatise on friendship:

“But how happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans . . .  Speak then without anxiety. Share with your friend all your thoughts and cares, that you may have something either to learn or to teach, to give and to receive, to pour out and to drink in.”[i]

I could always speak without anxiety in Bill’s presence.
And I always learned something from him; I always received something.

We first met––60 years ago this month––in the 8th grade at Harvard School, a leafy Episcopal boys’ prep nestled against the Hollywood Hills. The peculiar atmosphere of the place bonded us like veterans of some ancient war, incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t been there. Bill’s lifelong passion for teaching and writing might be traced to the bracing theatrics of our English instructor “swearing and throwing chalk and shaking a book in mid-air and shaming us, trying to open perhaps the smallest crack in our magnificent ignorance.”[ii]

Bill Fisher, Harvard School senior photo (1962)

We were classmates through high school and college, and remained close friends through all the changes and chances that followed. He was the best man at my wedding. As romantic idealists, we both found the Sixties a perfect time to come of age, and never quite got over it. Neither of us would ever be fully at ease in the kingdoms of complacency and compromise.

In a letter about the Occupy Movement in 2011, he said such manifestations of just and compassionate community had a value quite independent of any immediately tangible results. He recalled his first taste of utopian communitas at the Monterey Pop Festival in the Summer of Love (1967): “It was inebriating, and begged a simple question: Why can’t it be possible for us to interact in such a loving way––on the streets, in our commerce, among friends and supposed enemies?”[iii] The experience itself doesn’t have to last for the vision––and the questions it poses––to be enduring.

Addressing high school graduates in 2006, Bill offered his personal understanding of the Kingdom of God. “Or if you’re uncomfortable with the biblical term,” he told them, “you can call it ‘the morphic field of love.’” What he described to those students was something he himself had not always found, but had never stopped desiring: an environment where people “could reveal all of who and what they are, could explore themselves and their lives openly, without fear of being ridiculed, with every expectation of growing and realizing what they want and what they are, in their own lives and in their relationships with others.”[iv]

Born five days apart a few weeks after D-Day, Bill and I celebrated many birthdays together. The most memorable was our 30th, when we gathered at his family beach house with two other prep school classmates, also born in July 1944, for a weekend celebration with friends and lovers. For three days we shared fond memories and exuberant hopes. Turning 30 seemed a happy marker between youth’s giddy promise and the emerging fruitfulness of our adult lives. As “Hey Jude” came on the stereo, we toasted our futures by candlelight and vowed to gather again at 40.

But before our 31st year was done, one of our July fraternity of four died by his own hand. After his funeral in our prep school chapel, we who remained vowed to look out for one another, reject despair, and make the most of whatever time we were given. In the four decades since, Bill kept faith with that vow. I could not have had a better and more inspiring friend.

A few years ago, Bill began to show symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia. He went into physical decline, and suffered gradual diminishment of cognitive capacities, although we could still, until very recently, manage rich conversations about our favorite topics––music, movies, literature, art, politics, religion, relationships, and all the arcane trivia of a sixty-year friendship.

Bill was immensely blessed by the tireless support of his beloved wife Robyn, who took leave from her high school teaching position to be his caregiver. It was an immense journey for both of them, unimaginably daunting and at the same time full of grace. Her regular updates on the Caring Bridge website were moving, honest and often funny. That journey is her story to tell, but I am so grateful to know how much my friend was loved, and how not even the ravages of disease could rob him of his sweetness.

“If I’ve just lost the ability to be who I am,” he told her in July, “You remind me of who I am.”

The 17th-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert, well acquainted with debilitating illness, warned the healthy to respect the dignity of the sick, and not “to judge calamities / By outward form. . . tremblings may / as well show inward warblings, as decay.”[v] In his final years, Bill was as alive as ever, but in a different way. His weakness was not, in one sense, a diminution of life, but a concentration of it into a reduced but saturated form.

The will to take on the physical and mental challenges of each day with courage, humor, and a high degree of curiosity exhibited more life, not less. Climbing the stairs, when he still had the strength for it, or just getting out of bed, after his legs had finally failed him, became more of a hero’s journey than the 93-mile trek he once made around Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Piercing the fog of confusion with simple words of affection and delight displayed as much eloquence as any of his masterful writings.

The poet Jane Kenyon poignantly described the shrinking physical world of a woman in a nursing home, who is “like a horse grazing / a hill pasture that someone makes / smaller by coming every night / to pull the fences in and in.” No more “running wide loops,” nor even “the tight circles.” But the body’s decline is not the only thing going on. Surrender is prelude to transformation, and Kenyon’s poem turns into a prayer:

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.[vi]

On Holy Cross Day, September 14, Bill suffered some kind of cardiac event, leaving him unable to speak or swallow. Just hours before slipping into permanent silence, he had told Robyn, “Thank you for being willing to treat life as a crazy adventure with me.”

I drove down to administer Last Rites as family and friends stood round Bill’s bed. His eyes were closed, his breathing gentle. We all laid hands of blessing on him, each thanking him for the gifts he had given us. There was no way to tell whether he could hear our words, but so much spoken gratitude surely bathed him with love, and the sense of communication felt very deep. I anointed Bill with oil and spoke the priestly words:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world. . .
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Later we got out the guitars and made music for Bill, who had been a dedicated folkie since high school. We sang “Angel Band” (“I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near”); “Thanksgiving Eve” (“What can you do with each moment of your life, but love till you’ve loved it away”); “Language of the Heart” (“You will always be, even though time would disown you, / For you have set us free, those among us who have known you”); and many others.

The next day I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.

And I won’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise

Bill’s eyes never opened, but he seemed to stir, as if he wanted to harmonize one more time, the way we had done so often over the years. I gave him a final blessing and a kiss of peace, then left to make the long drive home. I knew it was our last goodbye.

Three days later, Robyn texted that it was now only a matter of hours. In my little oratory, I lit a tea light before a Byzantine icon of Madonna and Child, and kept vigil with prayers and songs. An hour before sunset, the flame expired, releasing the briefest wisp of ascending smoke.

The match dies, the flame is born.
The flame dies, the smoke is born.[vii]

Twenty minutes later the text came: Bill is gone.

The next night I went to hear the Seattle Symphony. I had bought my ticket long before, but the program now seemed more than happy chance––Mahler’s Second, whose theme is Resurrection! This massive 90-minute work gathers up the joys and sorrows of mortal life, pitting its affirming energies against the looming specter of negation. In the fourth movement, a mezzo-soprano pleads for relief:

Man lies in greatest need.
Man lies in greatest pain…
I am from God and shall return to God.
The loving God will grant me a little light…

In the stupendous finale, a hundred-voice chorus joins the soloists to protest the fate of human perishing:

O believe, my heart, believe:
Nothing to you is lost…
You were not born for nothing…

With wings which I have won
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated.

Soaring upward into the light was exactly the image I needed to sing my friend home. Bill got his PhD in medieval literature, and had taught Dante to high school students. I like to think that his close reading of the Commedia prepared him for the beatific vision at the end of the long and winding road:

thus did a living light shine all around me,
leaving me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence
that I saw nothing else. (Par. xxx.49-51)[viii]

 

Bill and Robyn in the high country (July 2005)

But Mahler allowed me little time for such digressions. The music insisted that I pay attention, not miss a note, as if my life depended on it. It was all here: life and death, tears and laughter, darkness and dawn. And in the end, every wound healed, every pain redeemed.

Rise! Yes, rise
My heart, in an instant!
That for which you have suffered
Shall carry you to God!

This heartfelt cry is answered by an explosion of orchestral sound, which Mahler himself described as a gift from beyond: “The soaring development and upward wave is here so immense, so unprecedented, that, afterwards, I did not know myself how I could have arrived at it. The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. And – I think there is no one who can resist it. – One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.”[ix]

In speaking so directly to my own grief, the music offered a consoling vision of apotheosis, as if the tombs had been emptied and all creation gathered into glory. Was this the grace and truth of revelation, or just a passing feeling, a trick of language and the senses?

If you have to be sure, don’t live.

 

 

 

[i] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, tr. Lawrence C. Braceland, S.J., ed. Marsh L. Dutton (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 2.11, 1.4.

[ii] Bill Fisher, personal email (September 27, 2003).

[iii] Ibid. (November 19, 2011)

[iv] Bill Fisher, Commencement address at Tara Performing Arts High School, Boulder, Colorado, June 2006.

[v] George Herbert, “A Paradox: that the sicke are in a better case, then the Whole,” The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 29.

[vi] Jane Kenyon, “In the Nursing Home,” Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 2005), 282.

[vii] I learned this when I filmed Ken Feit, I.F. (Itinerant Fool), who recited it as he lit and then blew out a match.

[viii] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, tr. Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 733.

[ix] Anthony Monti, A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2003), 162.

Running on Fast Forward

Martha, Jim and Marilyn Friedrich, after the great Los Angeles snowfall (January 1949)

They were so young then, the four of them
sitting on a log in the sand, a row of apartments
in the background, each window facing the sea.

We must have been ten, in matching swimsuits,
riding the long rollers toward shore, dreaming
of soldiers handsome in their uniforms.

They look happy, our parents, as if they had
given away all their secrets and could relax,
not one of them thinking of tomorrow

or yesterday, or any peril that might befall
their children, tumbling about in inner tubes
over the thrilling ocean.

A breeze ruffles the hem of my mother’s skirt.
My father has taken off his shoes.

– Marilyn Robertson, “The Photograph”[i]

My oldest sister Marilyn wrote this poem about an old photo from the 1940s. She and a friend were off-camera, playing in the surf, while their parents kept watch from the shore. “The Photograph” is in a new collection of her poems she presented to her siblings, Martha and me, last weekend, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. I found some of my own childhood inside, like the time I fell out of a moving car at two years old.

In return, I gave her my DVD compilation edit of scenes from our childhood and youth, captured with the clarity of 16mm film by our father. I had added an interpretive music track ranging from “My Blue Heaven” to “Magical Mystery Tour.”

A retrospective mood is common enough on significant birthdays, but the documentary evidence of those home movies gave a vivid immediacy to our memories. Both still and moving pictures preserve long-vanished light. They become the past the instant they are shot. To look at them brings the joy of remembered presence, but also the melancholy of realized absence. Our parents are gone; so is our own past. Who are those bewildered little siblings in the old films, inventing their place in this world, improvising as they go? Did they really grow up to be us?

Eight members of the family––by coincidence, one for each of Marilyn’s decades––gathered for her birthday weekend in one of architect Julia Morgan’s rustic wood and stone houses at Asilomar (“refuge by the sea”) on the tip of California’s Monterey Peninsula. My sisters and I, along with various spouses and children, savored the chance to share memories, plans and dreams, as well as games, walks, and very un-Lenten feasts.

Present and future were as much on our minds as the past. But still, the theme of passing time was inescapable. We grow old, we lose loved ones, we know the meter is running. “Last Times,” another of Marilyn’s poems, considers the divided consciousness of mortal beings. Though “now” is all we ever really have, we can’t help but wonder how long we’ve got.

Halfway through December, a day comes when
I wonder how many more turkeys I’ll bake, worrying
over the gravy, the pan always hard to clean.

Or how many more times I’ll unwrap the crèche
from its colored tissue, lifting out the holy family,
the shepherds and their docile sheep.

I am running on fast forward.
If only I could change direction, like movies
my father ran backward in the projector:

smashed bricks gathering themselves
into a wall again, a smashed truck suddenly
good as new, rolling backward down the road,
clouds of dust sucked in by the tires.

The last time I saw that film I was a girl.
We’d beg him to run it again
and finally he’d agree: But this is the last time.

I make out the grocery list,
slip on my jacket, plan the week
as if the days will follow one another
through this house forever.[ii]

Marilyn Robertson, Jim Friedrich, and Martha Stevens at their father’s childhood home (Summer 1980)

On our last evening together we lingered well past bedtime, happy to postpone the inevitable scattering of the clan. We wandered out to the coastal dunes beyond the lights, where Orion hovered brightly beside the Paschal Moon. To the music of breaking waves, we recited Greek myths about the heavens. When we returned to the house, Martha, a brilliant storyteller, gave us an epic tale about a red-headed woman, Maud Applegate, who tracks Death across the wide world to beg for the life of her cowboy love, grievously wounded in a gunfight. When Maud finally spots her quarry climbing the steep trail to his mountain home, she shouts, “Hey, Mr. Death, wait up!”

She not only finds Mr. Death, she also meets his mother, who proves very sympathetic, and the three of them form a surprising bond. Death eventually grants Maud the boon of sparing her man, but the cowboy turns out to be a cad, and in the end the red-headed woman goes back to Death’s place, to help out as best she can and ease the burden of his loneliness. It was a story both funny and strange, deftly told. We all listened intently, like children with upturned faces. Somehow a tale about befriending Mr. Death was just the thing for our little group of aging mortals.

My wife lost her father in January. Four other people dear to me have also departed in the last six months. Our family has loved ones struggling with cancer and Parkinson’s. The losses are mounting up.

“Oh the separations we endure!” laments my poet sister.

A young man arrives at the station,
two black stones in his pocket.
His beautiful face breaks into a hundred pieces,

then reassembles itself
as he boards the train, waving
goodbye, goodbye to the life that loved him,

watching it fall backward into the wind,
the bamboo gate, the garden
with its wooden bridge over the pond.[iii]

Goodbye, goodbye to the ones we love. And then it’s goodbye to the life that loved us. And yet, as Rilke insists, “there is Someone, whose hands, infinitely calm, holds up all this falling.”[iv] While it’s no use to deny our mortality, there remains a mysterious surplus to human life for which death has no accounting.

On Sunday morning we celebrated eucharist together (it helps to have two priests in the family!), and the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent seemed especially apt. First came Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, contradicting the human sense of loss with the divine promise that our story is never quite over. I am going to open your graves, O my people, and raise you up. I will put my Spirit in you and you shall live.

The gospel for the day was the raising of Lazarus, the Fourth Gospel’s overture to resurrection on the brink of Holy Week. Perfect. Two sisters and a brother. Death doing what it does. Then Jesus doing what God does.

On the way to the post office this morning
I thought about the odd things we believe.

Things we swear by, pray for, put our trust in,
or wear printed on the back of a T-shirt.

Tarot cards. Crystal balls.
Runes and rattlesnakes.

First stars, second sight––
not to mention elves and Armageddon.

Just look at me, believing that someone
might have written me a letter,

that the world is in good hands,
that a man once walked out of a stone cold tomb

into the light of day, leaving
poor old Death completely in the dark.[v]

 

 

Related posts:

Tick-Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve

Are we too late for the Resurrection?

You say goodbye, I say hello: A Requiem sermon

 

 

[i] When a Color Calls Your Name: Poems by Marilyn Robertson (Santa Cruz, California, Limited Edition, 2017), 28

[ii] “Last Times,” ibid., 82

[iii] from “Separations,” ibid., 51

[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Fall”

[v] “Belief,” Robertson, 53

We the People: Voices of the Immigrant Experience

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

At the beginning of this century, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago asked me to compile texts of the immigrant experience for a public reading in celebration of America’s rich diversity. In this shameful time of immigration bans and brutal deportations, may these voices remind us of our common origins as strangers and sojourners. In a country beset with what Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux has called the “violence of organized forgetting,” remembering is a crucial act of resistance.

 

Sing to me, call me home in languages I do not yet
understand, to childhoods I have not yet experienced,
to loves that have not yet touched me.
Fill me with the details of our lives.
Filling up, emptying out
and diving in.
It is the holy spirit of existence, the flesh, the blood,
the naked truth that will not be covered.
Tell me everything, all the details – flesh, blood, bone.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

From Asia, you crossed a bridge of land,
now called the Bering Strait, now swallowed
in water. No human steps to follow,
you slowly found your way on pathless grounds…
Travelers lost in time – walking, chanting, dancing –
tracks on mapless earth, no man-made lines,
no borders. Arriving not in ships, with no supplies,
waving no flags, claiming nothing, naming
no piece of dirt for wealthy lords of earth.
You did not come to own; you came to live.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz

 

America is also the nameless foreigner,
the homeless refugee,
the hungry boy begging for a job,
the illiterate immigrant…
All of us, from the first Adams
to the last Filipino,
native born or alien,
educated or illiterate –
We are America!

– Carlos Bulosan

 

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
in east Chicago…
She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
herself…She sees other
women hanging from many-floored windows
counting their lives in the palms of their hands
and in the palms of their children’s hands.

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the Indian side of town…
crying for the lost beauty of her own life.

– Joy Harjo

 

I am not any of the faces
you have put on me america

every mask has slipped
i am not any of the names

or sounds you have called me
the tones have nearly

made me deaf
this dark skin, both of us have tried to bleach…

– Safiya Henderson-Holmes

 

I know now that I once longed to be white.
How? you ask.
Let me tell you the ways.

when I was growing up, people told me
I was dark and I believed my own darkness
in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision.

when I was growing up, my sisters
with fair skin got praised
for their beauty and I fell
further, crushed between high walls.

when I was growing up, I read magazines
and saw blonde movie stars, white skin, sensuous lips,
and to be elevated, to become
a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear
imaginary pale skin.

when I was growing up, I was proud
of my English, my grammar, my spelling,
fitting into the group of smart children,
smart Chinese children, fitting in,
belonging, getting in line.

– Nellie Wong

 

These men died with the wrong names,
Na’aim Jazeeny, from the beautiful valley
of Jezzine, died as Nephew Sam,
Sine Hussin died without relatives and
because they cut away his last name
at Ellis Island, there was no way to trace
him back even to Lebanon, and Im’a Brahim
had no other name than mother of Brahim
even my own father lost his, went from
Hussein Hamode Subh’ to Sam Hamod.
There is something lost in the blood,
something lost down to the bone
in these small changes. A man in a
dark blue suit at Ellis Island says, with
tiredness and authority, “You only need two
names in America” and suddenly – as cleanly
as the air, you’ve lost
your name. At first, it’s hardly
even noticeable – and it’s easier, you move
about as an American – but looking back
the loss of your name
cuts away some other part,
something unspeakable is lost.

– Sam Hamod

 

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin…
Of course, the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paper son
in the late 1950’s
obsessed with some bombshell blonde
transliterated “Mei Ling” to Marilyn…
and there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic
white woman, swollen with gin and Nembutal.

– Marilyn Chin

 

“This is my country,” we sang,
And a few years ago there would have been
A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,
And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.

But now it was “My country ’tis of thee”
And I sang it out with all my heart…
“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,
And it was not too hard to imagine
A host of my great uncles and -grandfathers
Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior
And finding themselves suddenly
On a rock among maize and poultry
And Squanto shaking their hands.

– Gregory Djanikian

 

If I am a newcomer to your country, why teach me about my ancestors? I need to know about seventeenth-century Puritans in order to make sense of the rebellion I notice everywhere in the American city. Teach me about mad British kings so I will understand the American penchant for iconoclasm. Teach me about cowboys and Indians; I should know that tragedies created the country that will create me.

– Richard Rodriguez

 

Names will change
faces will change
but not much else
the President will still be white
and male
and wasp
still speak with forked tongue…
still uphold the laws of dead white men
still dream about big white monuments
and big white memorials
ain’t nothin’ changed
ain’t nothin’ changed at all.

– Lamont B. Steptoe

 

My dream of America
is like dà bính lòuh
with people of all persuasions and tastes
sitting down around a common pot
chopsticks and basket scoops here and there
some cooking squid and others beef
some tofu and watercress
all in one broth
like a stew that really isn’t
as each one chooses what she wishes to eat
only that the pot and fire are shared
along with the good company
and the sweet soup
spooned out at the end of the meal.

– Wing Tek Lum

 

today
we will not be invisible nor silent
as the pilgrims of yesterday continue their war of attrition
forever trying, but never succeeding
in their battle to rid the americas of us
convincing others and ourselves
that we have been assimilated and eliminated,

but we remember who we are

we are the spirit of endurance that lives
in the cities and reservations of north america
and in the barrios and countryside of Nicaragua, Chile
Guatemala, El Salvador

and in all the earth and rivers of the americas.

– Victoria Lena Manyarrows

 

We are a beautiful people
with African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers and sisters. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new
correspondence with ourselves
and our black family.
We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?

– Amiri Baraka

 

Living on borders, and in margins,
keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity,
is like trying to swim in a new element…
There is an exhilaration in being a participant
in the further evolution of humankind.

– Gloria E. Anzaldúa

 

We are connected to one another in time and by blood. Each of us is so related, we’re practically the same person living infinite versions of the great human adventure.

– Maxine Hong Kingston

 

When both of us look backward…we see and are devoted to telling about the lines of people that we see stretching back, breaking, surviving, somehow, somehow, and incredibly, culminating in someone who can tell a story.    (Louise Erdrich)

I am a woman who wants to go home but never figured out where it is or why to go there…I have lost the words to chant my bloodline.    (Lisa Harris)

We are the sum of all our ancestors. Some speak louder than others but they all remain present, alive in our very blood and bone.      (Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall)

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93, and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for ‘wherabouts unknown.’         (Etheridge Knight)

 

When the census taker, a woman of African descent…came to my door, I looked into the face of my sister….She did not ask me my racial background but checked off the box next to Black American/African American/Afro-Cuban American/Black African….

I met her eyes and said, “I’m not Black; I’m Other, Mixed, Black and White.” …She did not smile, smirk, or frown, but checked the box marked “Other,” and lifted her eyes quickly to mine again. I wanted to see her erase “Black.” She did not do so in my presence….

I had been focused on my personal freedom, on my right to define who I am, on my responsibility to my sense of self. The dignity of the census taker was not a part of my mental equation…

She thanked me. But the price of my self-definition had been the wall I felt I’d built between us before I ever closed the door.         (Sarah Willie)

 

I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return…I am not european. Europe lives in me,  but I have no home there. I am new. History made me….I was born at the crossroads and I am whole.       (Sarah Willie)

 

Auntie Raylene, an accomplished chanter and dancer, told us about the necessity of remembering and honoring where we come from….During the question-and-answer session, a worried West African immigrant brother asked her, “But…what if our parents and grandparents refuse to tell us anything? They don’t want to talk about the old days. They are afraid. Or they don’t remember.”

She looked at him with great love and said, “Then you go back further, to the source,” and her hand swept back with assurance to the beginning of time, to the birth of life.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth….

Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe
and that this universe is you.

Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
Remember.

– Joy Harjo

 

Related post:   Remember

We the People art images are available here as free downloads. The texts are drawn from several wonderful collections: UA:Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry , ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan & Jennifer Gillan (Penguin,1994)… N: Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity, eds. Becky Thompson, Sangeeta Tyagi (Routledge, 1995) … and another anthology which has vanished from my library and my memory, though I have traced original sources for most of its selections. In order: Hall (N 241), Sáenz (Calendar of Dust), Bulosan (http://bulosan.org/in-his-words), Harjo (UA 29-30), Henderson-Holmes (UA 60), Wong (UA 55), Hamod (UA130), Chin (UA 134), Djanikian (UA 215), Rodriguez (source unknown), Steptoe (UA 250), Lum (UA 322-23), Manyarrows (UA 330), Baraka (UA 155), Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), Kingston & Erdrich (third anthology), Harris (N xv), Hall (N 241ff.), Knight (The Essential Etheridge Knight), Willie (N 276, 278), Hall (241ff.), Harjo (She Had Some Horses)

It Ain’t Me, Babe: Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

One of my prized 45s is this obscure single, released Dec. 21, 1965.

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.[i]

All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row [ii]

Little red wagon, little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like [iii]

Whenever the Nobel Prize for literature is announced, the American response is often “Who?” In our cultural insularity, few of us know their work or even their names. Not this year. Everybody’s heard of Dylan, and many can recite his lyrics.

The surprise in 2016 stems from the bursting of old academic wineskins. What constitutes literature, anyway? Some of the literary establishment are unhappy that a songwriter tainted with lower-brow genres of popular culture (and currently performing in Las Vegas!) should steal the laurels from more “serious” candidates such as Syrian poet Adonis or Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It’s “a joke,” fumed one French writer. A Scottish novelist dismissed the Nobel committee as “gibbering hippies.” [iv]

But if the linguistic arts trace their origins to the sung poetry of shared rituals, and Homer, the father of western literature, was a blind singer-songwriter who never put pen to paper, then Dylan can justly claim an ancient lineage, and stretching the definition of literature to include his work seems more restoration than innovation.

While Dylan’s jumping the queue ahead of American writers like Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Don DeLillo might seem inappropriate to some, it is at least defensible. Oates herself calls the award “an inspired and original choice. His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the best sense, ‘literary.’” [v]

Dylan has certainly had his down periods of uneven albums and terrible concerts. I myself have endured one too many evenings of mumbled words, mangled melodies, and an almost contemptuous stage presence. But to sustain such an influential and ever-evolving body of work over half a century, bridging the cultural divide between high and low, making the play of language a lever to move the world, is an astonishing achievement. His poetic and musical gifts have so often given voice to the collective longing of our “subterranean homesick blues.” They have also taken us inward, to the places of the heart where “we sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” [vi]

As Bruce Springsteen has written, “Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans . . .” [vii]

Dylan was the soundtrack for my own coming of age. During my first year of college in 1963, a classmate thrust Dylan’s first album into my hands. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. As soon as that growling, barbaric yawp started blasting out of the speakers, I was spellbound. Like so many others, I took up the guitar just so I could play his songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (from his second album), was my first attempt (key of D with its easy chords). By my senior year, dozens of Dylan songs were in my repertoire. I even learned the ten-minute “Desolation Row” by heart, once performing it on Rome’s Spanish Steps, by the house where Keats died, during a post-graduate summer of hitchhiking Europe with my guitar.

In Berkeley on March 28, 1965, I caught one of Dylan’s final all-acoustic concerts, just before the release of Bringing It All Back Home, the first album in his unmatched trilogy (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde would follow). Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were sitting up front. Hippies and Hell’s Angels mixed with students and professors. The hall was charged with anticipation. From “Gates of Eden” to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it was an amazing night.

It was the first time I ever heard “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Top 40 radio, or even Dylan’s previous work, had not really prepared me for the trippy ride “upon that magic swirling ship.” Behind its dazzling succession of vivid images, I recognized something primal and urgent, the call to leave everything and to follow, to look everywhere for the “windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”

As a poetic equivalent of the kingdom of God, the windy beach where the Spirit blows, the space of supreme aliveness, is too little found, and never possessed. And yet, now and then, I have danced beneath its diamond sky with one hand waving free, and hope to do so again as grace permits.

I was also in the crowd on September 3 of that same year, when Dylan played the Hollywood Bowl, backed by The Hawks (later The Band) along with Al Kooper on organ. There all the songs from Highway 61 Revisited were performed in public for only the second time (after a New York concert the previous week). Since the album had yet to hit the stores, it was my indelible first communion with the image world of Dylan’s surrealism. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”[viii]  Indeed.

The encore was “Like a Rolling Stone,” the one song we already knew from the radio. Before beginning, Dylan searched among his harmonicas in vain, then spoke into the microphone, “Anyone got a C harmonica?” As I remember it, 17,000 harmonicas came flying onto the stage, and soon we were all shouting with one voice, “HOW DOES IT FEEEEEEEL?”

When, in 1966, I crossed the country to study at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my guitar and my Dylan records came with me. In a school play, I sang an adapted version of “With God On Our Side” to parody the horrific biblical conquest narratives. I wrote an article on the prophetic theology of Dylan’s lyrics in the seminary journal. And I incorporated fragments of his haunting religious poetry from John Wesley Harding into a multimedia senior sermon (you can hear the audio collage here).

In later years, Dylan’s preeminence in my life’s soundtrack receded, although his masterpiece of anguish and longing, Time Out of Mind, managed perfectly to coincide with my own midlife dark night of the soul. Lines like “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” may not have been balm in Gilead, but they kept me company until the dawn.

These days I occasionally sing old favorites like “Ramona,” “She Belongs To Me,” “Chimes of Freedom” and “Buckets of Rain.” And I never tire of leading friends and retreat groups in heartfelt renderings of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “I Shall Be Released.”

Everyone’s got their Dylan stories, but at their core is a mysterious absence. Dylan’s identity has always been veiled by a succession of fictions, evasions, conversions and withdrawals. He has given interviews full of absurd biographical narratives.[ix] Even before he was famous, he invented personae to protect himself from the prying projections of others. From fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem, that hype you and type you, making you feel you gotta be just like them. [x]

Does it matter whether we ever know the real Dylan, or find him a relatable personality? Or are the songs enough? Is their mysterious power to speak to us and for us enough?

“It’s like a ghost writing a song like that,” Dylan said about “Like a Rolling Stone” 40 years after recording his greatest hit. “It gives you the song and then it goes away. It goes away.”[xi] The ghost, the geist, the spirit blows where it will. The artist prepares to receive it, and learns how to give it away.

Another Nobel Laureate, poet Czeslaw Milosz, concurs, insisting that the artist’s vocation is to be “a secretary of the invisible.” Deliver the message entrusted to your keeping, then get the hell out of the way. It ain’t me, babe. This has been the essential kenosis of both art and spirit since the beginning.

Take Caedmon, for example. An illiterate herdsman in seventh-century Britain, he was suddenly commanded in a dream to sing the story of creation. Without learning or training, he began to sing words unknown to him, gifts from the same ghost who visited Dylan. Thus was English poetry born.

Denise Levertov imagines Caedmon’s in-spiriting in a poem of her own. He is huddling for warmth at night with the beasts of the barn, when suddenly the air is filled with “feathers of flame, sparks upflying.” The cows remain oblivious and calm, not seeing what the poet sees as “that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue / and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.” [xii]

 

[i] Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (Bringing It All Back Home)

[ii] Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[iii] Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain” (Blood on the Tracks)

[iv] “Writers divided on whether Dylan deserves Nobel prize”: https://www.yahoo.com/news/writers-divided-whether-dylan-deserves-nobel-prize-180943929.html

[v] ibid.

[vi] Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)

[vii] Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born To Run, q. on Springsteen’s website: http://brucespringsteen.net/news/2016/bruce-springsteen-on-bob-dylan

[viii] Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man” (Highway 61 Revisited)

[ix] To delve into the strange world of Dylan interviews: http://www.vulture.com/2007/10/the_ten_most_incomprehensible.html

[x] Bob Dylan, “Ramona” (Another Side of Bob Dylan)

[xi] Robert Hilburn, “Rock’s Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2004

[xii] Denise Levertov, “Caedmon”, q. in Edward Hirsch, Poet’s Choice (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), 15

Feast of the Epiphany: The worst time of year for such a journey

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

It is not commended to stand ‘gazing up into heaven’ too long; not on Christ himself ascending, much less on his star. For [the Magi] sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey.

— Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622[i]

 

When T. S. Eliot wrote his great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi,”[ii] he borrowed freely from a Nativity sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language, and Eliot altered the original only slightly to make the first lines of his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

The liturgical and theological focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart.

But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’

The bleak desert crossing resounds with haunting echoes of The Waste Land, heightening the relief we feel when the traveler finally comes to “a temperate valley … smelling of vegetation.” But instead of the sweet, unblemished beatitude of a Nativity scene, the Magus is baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse.

As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described with the utmost reticence, as though words must fail before such a mystery:

… it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.

In Andrewes 1622 sermon, he played nicely upon the Latin verbs for having seen (vidimus) and having come (venimus). What the Magi saw made them come. ‘Their vidimus begat venimus.’ But in our own day, says the preacher, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

I am well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’

And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’

And then what?

 

[i] Andrewes’ complete sermon may be found here.

[ii] “Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1974), 99

Brief prologue for the Nativity

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Dear readers, in these last hours before the Feast of the Nativity, let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Thank you for your interest in what happens here, and for your thoughtful reading and supportive comments. I am grateful for your visits. May the twelve days of Christmas bring you much joy and blessing.

In lieu of a post today, I offer these three passages as prologue to Christmas Eve:

Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and shepherds, glorify the Holy One who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

— Preparation of the Nativity, Orthodox liturgy

“I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?” “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.” “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.” “Can’t I?” “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.” “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years…

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me…

I am food on the prisoner’s plate…

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills…

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge…

I am the heart, contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest…

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow…

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit…

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…

— Jane Kenyon, “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”

 

Related post: How Can This Be?

Tending the lamps of holy imagination

Dreaming in Venice

Dreaming in Venice

We are in the fifth day of the Venice Colloquium, a small gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.” We will finish our work on Sunday in time to attend the mass for All Saints Day in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s cathedral.

The conversations and presentations have been extremely rich, and I will be reporting on them in future posts, once I have begun to absorb and process what has happened here. In the meantime, while I have a rare free moment to attend to my blog, let me try to put into one simple statement the sense of need, perhaps even crisis, which has brought us together:

The practice of holy imagination is like a sanctuary lamp in the life of the Church. If not duly attended to, it is in danger of going out.

(In the very moment of writing that statement, the church bells of Venice began to ring all over the island where we are staying. I’ll take that as a “yes.”)

What would the Church be like if that lamp were to be extinguished? I had a vision of that dismal outcome yesterday, in a video by artist Theaster Gates at Biennale, the international art exposition being held in Venice.

Part of an installation called “Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyrs,” the video filled the entire wall of a dark room. Shot inside the dim space of a ruined church, it revealed few details of the interior. The two men who moved about inside were faceless shadows. It suggested to me a lower level of Dante’s Inferno, an impression reinforced by the repetitive violence of their actions.

Lying on the floor amid the rubble of a fallen ceiling, there were two heavy doors. They had become useless, meaningless, no longer attached to any place of entry or exit. The two men would circle the doors once or twice, raise one or the other to an upright position, and let it fall with a great echoing crash. They did this over and over, as if condemned to enact this enigmatic distillation of their wounded condition for all eternity. A wailing offstage blues singer was the only other sound, a cry from the depths of darkness.

The space between the image and the opposite wall was not wide, so that the viewer could not keep much distance from what was being projected. It was like sitting in the front row of an Imax theater. There was no escaping the image. I was immersed in it, and that added to its claustrophobic feel.

But after about ten minutes of this, the camera slowly panned away from the men and the doors, toward the end of the church where the altar had been. The apse wall was broken down, open to the sky. Being able finally to see light breaking into all that darkness seemed like the rolling away of Christ’s tombstone. And just below the roofline, one piece of unbroken wall remained, painted with a fresco of the Last Supper. The holy image was ancient and faded, like a memory not yet entirely lost.

Whatever the artist’s specific intentions, I came away from that screening room with an indelible image of a desolate church robbed of its light. Such a prospect is why we tend our lamps so religiously. It is why we have come to Venice.

But that ruined church is no place to leave you, dear reader. Instead, let me offer another image of the Church, in which “she” is depicted an old woman in her declining years. It is by Mark Harris, a member of our Colloquium, and he graciously permitted me to publish it here. I promise you, it ends well.

She is an Old Woman

She is an old woman,
Not well respected over the years.
Shuffling off to the bathroom
She looks in the mirror
And does not see the face of Christ.

Whatever happened to my body,
She wonders, whose parts all work
Together for good?

She has been ravaged
By some who claimed to be lovers,
And by others who had no such pretensions,
Only opportunistic rapine desire.

For the moment before the first service
She is quiet. She gathers the shambles
Of her dignity and rambles
Off to prayer and Thanksgiving.

“Who will come today, who will come.?
Will they remember me in my glory,
When I was all light and lovely?
Will they come in pity, shame and wonder
That I am still here?”

The word goes around that it was all a story,
That she was never beautiful and never lithe.
She hears them whispering. She feels
Their eyes as they wait to see her die.
They will scurry over her remains
Looking for something to take away:
A remembrance of glory past,
If glory was there at all.

She laughs softly,
And in a resurrection moment
Almost worthy of the second coming,
She is consumed in fire.

Renewed and beautiful,
She lifts the veil that hides her face.
“Behold,” she says,
“I make all things new.”