A Pall That Has My Shape

August 1, 2012

“I never met a man I didn’t like,” said Woody Guthrie. As great a person as the fascist killer might have been, and as wonderfully humanist as that expression is, I can’t help but thinking that he’s just wrong. Maybe it’s misplaced self-loathing or over-active misanthropy, but a Pedro the Lion song sums it up rather better for me: “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run.”

“Humans contain multitudes,” a phrase I’m quite fond of, and use to excuse faults in people I admire, or to grudgingly compliment people I dislike. And there’s undoubtedly a truth to it; good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. But what if there’s a simpler truth at the heart of it? That there are not easily sortable good and bad people; there are just people, and sometimes they do good things, other times bad. That it is impossible– or, more generously, a fool’s errand– to attempt to sort a person by the way they present themselves outwardly. That we often do bad things for base reasons or for no reason at all, and that some of us are just better at hiding it than others. That given the chance we would, all of us, be capable of truly horrifying stuff. That we shouldn’t be surprised if once someone really got to know us they wanted nothing to do with us.

Writing a song about a serial killer, Sufjan Stevens said, “In my best behavior I am really just like him.” We shouldn’t read this as sympathy for a killer, or a partial excuse for evil deeds. We should instead understand it as a gesture of humility, of self-righteousness taking a seat. We should recognize ourselves in monstrosity, not to absolve it, but to warn ourselves. Even the most engaged citizen can be a racist; a generous philanthropist an abuser; a saint a bigot.

We’re often told that we shouldn’t put on masks, that we shouldn’t bottle things, be genuine. And of course that is true. To a point. The often overlooked fact of the matter is that our masks make us bearable to one another, and when we let ego and id run rampant we display our “true” colors. Our masks are just as true as the things they cover, for they represent a real desire to abdicate the self for the benefit of others. And perhaps if we’re diligent they can cease to cover anything at all; perhaps the self can be rewired. The masks are the glue of society. Their inherent falseness– a falseness we all recognize and go along with anyway– is the very thing that makes them possible. We accept apologies even when still furious because the mask of apology and forgiveness is the act that opens the space for actual reconciliation. Let the mask slip too often and we risk having said of us what Hugo said of Napoleon, “It is a sorry thing for a man to leave behind him a pall that has his shape.”

You don’t see many children named Pilate or Judas, those two names being perhaps the most instinctively reviled ones in all of Western culture. Their names are synonymous with cowardice and betrayal, and yet, I think we have something to learn from these two. My thinking on this subject is spurred by Peter Rollins and his excellent books, The Fidelity of Betrayal and Insurrection. Judas plays a prominent role in the first book, and while Pilate is never mentioned specifically in Insurrection I cannot help but think of him as I ponder Rollins’ arguments.

Crudely put, in The Fidelity of Betrayal, Rollins argues that in order to really be faithful to Christianity, and Jesus, then we have to be prepared to betray it, we have to be prepared to betray even Jesus to death. So the phrase “What Would Judas Do?” becomes the operative motto of the book, turning Judas into a person making a difficult choice in order to remain faithful to his teacher. From this Rollins asks us to consider the ways in which we have to betray our foundations in order to remain faithful to them. How often does the law which grounds us contain inscribed within it the means of its own betrayal? A law (however you want to configure it) can entrench the very injustice it claims to combat. Rollins would argue, and I agree, that the only way to remain faithful to the law– to the rules and mythologies that animate us– in this circumstance is to betray it, to burn it down.

This is where Insurrection picks up it’s tale. Pilate has been on my mind for about a month now. I had already taken him on as somewhat of a role model, calling on the way Mikhail Bulgakov wrote about him in The Master and Margarita. The act of washing one’s hands of a situation or a person is something we’re told is a sign of weakness. But Bulgakov portrays Pilate as a tormented man wracked by guilt and doubt, and for him the only way out of an impossible situation was to mourn and wash his hands of the matter. I think there is much to be commended in this approach.

Rollins goes farther yet in his description of the ways we have to actively destroy our animating principles in order to really enter farther into them. Drawing on the postmodern critiques of ideology, Rollins lays bare the way Christianity has inoculated itself against doubt by letting it. Modern Christianity has invited doubt, a/theism in Rollins’ formulation, in, but in so doing it has defanged it. The God of the modern church is practically the definition of the deus ex machina, an external entity with no previous relation to the action that sweeps in to neatly tie things together. So our talk of doubt gets surrounded by hymns and catechisms espousing certainty over mystery, and sermons that broach the subject always come around to saying, “But God loves you, and God will never let go of you.” If we say one thing, but all of our actions affirm another, in which thing do we really believe? It’s like a person holding a meeting about the evils of corporations in a Starbucks.

Except that as he was dying, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus wasn’t intellectually doubting here– he addresses his complaint directly to God– but his experience was just that, experiential. Jesus felt the absence of a God he believed in/was at the moment of his death. And rather than running from it, Jesus said it out loud. In anguish. Jesus welcomed the absence and the doubt in.

Pete would argue that we have to undergo a crucifixion experience in order to pass beyond the ironic distance that our religious forms give us. Our God has to die in order to be Resurrected. For a person to experience things being made new, they have to do away with the old things. We have to let the doubt in, and we have to let it destroy everything. God cannot be the security blanket that makes everything ok. We can’t become mature human beings if we never allow ourselves to truly experience bewilderment and dislocation. “A dark night of the soul with the lights on” does us no good. This is where Pilate comes in for me. Because at the end of the day, as the ruling authority in Judea, Pilate killed Jesus.

And we have to be our own Pilate. Not only does our God have to die, we have to kill him.

Breathing Time Machines

August 15, 2011

“I am a breathing time machine.”

It is the sort of line that can pass a listener by the first few times they hear a song. It certainly did me. A pleasing construction, meant to evoke a feeling, not much else. Honestly, it felt almost like “the movement you need is on your shoulder,” from Hey Jude– a sort of placekeeper line that sounded good and ended up making it to the final cut of the track because the songwriters couldn’t come up with anything better. But I think The Avett Brothers are on to something here. The song “Laundry Room” is about a person clinging desperately to a relationship, attempting to will it to last “just a little longer,” and in context, the line is sort of heartbreaking.

But it is out of context that this line makes the most sense to me. I can’t get it out of my head.

“I am a breathing time machine.”

What a simple, beautiful summation of people.

Every thing we have been is held within us, and we can make ourselves go back to it. Breathing time machines. The screwy, unfair, wonderful thing about memory is that each time we access a memory we reconstruct the situations, in full, in our brains, and in so doing, we rearrange things. No memory is static; they breathe along with us. But the malleability of our memories does not make those memories any less “true.” Yes, I will grant that our memories are not, perhaps ever, accurate reminisces of the “real” event that they claim to reenact, but that is not the point of memory.

Memory helps us to order and make sense of our world. The things that we hold on to get reshaped in order to help us understand ourselves and our surroundings. Cherished people and thoughts take on a rose tint in order for us to remember when and why life is good and worth living, in order for us to have a thing, anything, that lets us know that the world is as good as it could be, if only sometimes. Pain is held and even amplified for reasons that might be too complex for me to fathom. Maybe we hold on to pain as a warning: “Don’t do that again.” Maybe it is there to remind us of what we aren’t, or don’t want to be. Maybe painful memories, lingering hate, serve to remind us of ourselves and how not great we are.

Maybe most crucially, our memories can help other people understand themselves and their places in the world. The memories of others can help us center ourselves in a narrative– and narrative is something almost everyone craves. Memory lets us see ourselves as others see us. They let us see the world as others see it, to situate an existence in a unique frame. When a person dies, their discrete memories cease to breathe along with their bodies. But, if they’re lucky, the memories they shared continue to breathe, along with personal and communal memories of that person.

I witnessed this most recently at my great-aunt Juanita’s funeral. I don’t know if she could have picked my brothers and I out of a crowd, but she remembered that she liked our voices, so she requested that we sing for her and her loved ones. Juanita made my Christmas stocking, and I won’t be able to do the holidays again without thinking of her, without reconstructing a woman I barely knew. In order to reconstruct her, I have to talk to the people who really knew her, to take on her memories and her life, to make myself a time machine. I have to understand what it meant to be a woman raising a family in the middle of the 20th century, to understand what it meant to be a woman living through the depression, to understand what it meant to outlive a spouse. If I don’t attempt to understand these things, the Juanita in my head will bear no semblance to the Juanita in the heads of my other relatives. So in the final reckoning, memory becomes a fearful responsibility, and much like in the tales of science fiction, playing time machine is fraught with danger; change one thing and the consequences can be vast.

So we have to breathe honestly and deeply and reverently, taking care of the time we go back to change with every memory.

Wake Up, Dead Man

April 23, 2011

The heights of ecstasy don’t amount to a whole lot if a trough doesn’t precede them. That understanding is such an innate thing in us that our language is peppered with cliches to support it. “The darkest hour is just before the dawn,” “Can’t have light without shadow,” etc., whatever. But the basic fact of the matter is that we can have no way to comprehend unadulterated joy and happiness if we don’t have some baseline that is worse.

Sometimes I wonder whether or not, during Holy Week, in the lead-up to Easter we lose sight of the necessary trough. Really, this day sucks. Except it’s awesome. Jesus is dead. In the ground. And for all we know, he’s not coming back. Easter hasn’t happened yet, and we have no way of knowing if it will. This is a trough, and I don’t think we can understand how earth-rending Easter is if we don’t adequately meditate on what it means for Jesus to be dead and gone.

Is it worth it? If there’s no resurrection, are the Beatitudes still the best way to understand how it’s all going to work out in the end? Is pursing peace at all times still the best way to live? Is doing for the least of these ultimately the way to be more honestly human? “Tell me, tell me the story. The one about eternity, and the way it’s all going to be.” Dying on a cross is shameful, and that death would seem to signal that Jesus was, in fact, wrong. Good people don’t win. Peacemakers don’t ultimately carry the day. Attempting to loose the bond of oppression only results in being violently put down.

So he’s dead, and we have to decide, do we still want to try to be like him? And we sit there. whispering, as the profound theological darkness of Holy Saturday closes around us, “Wake up, dead man.”

Citrus

April 21, 2011

Pity poor Judas. Has there ever been a human so reviled? Betraying Jesus? Even if you don’t buy into the whole “Son of God” thing, it’s pretty clear that Jesus never really did anything wrong, and Judas sold him down the river. Right?

This is the terrible thing about Judas. How are we supposed to think about him? If you believe in free will, then Judas freely chose to betray a friend and condemn him to a brutal death. And if you believe in predestination, then it was all part of some plan to torture a guy to death in order to attain salvation. Either choice is really, to my thinking, pretty terrible.

And today’s the day he did it. There was a kiss, and Jesus was delivered into the hands of the people who would kill him. And how are we supposed to think about it? I wonder if there’s a middle ground. It is very difficult for me to get around the fact that Judas betrayed Jesus. He sold him out. But who among us hasn’t done that to a friend, even a dear friend? Probably the stakes weren’t that high, but was Judas even aware of the stakes? Could he have known that by the next day his friend would be dead? Would he have done if he had?

And what about Jesus? This was a guy who made it his profession to piss people off. He had enemies, and he knew it. Wasn’t it inevitable that someone was going to betray him? Weren’t his actions inevitably leading to an encounter like this, particularly against an imperial power like Rome? If not Judas, then Peter, right?

I think we’ve all been there. A person we respect, love, and support finally says or does something that we’re not able to condone. We just can’t follow them there. Maybe we don’t deliver them into the hands of the Roman Empire for 30 pieces, but we sell them out nonetheless. And does that betrayal hurt any less for not having death at the end of it? There’s a rupture, a loss that we can’t quantify, and it kills us. When The Hold Steady sing, “I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere,” they’re talking about just this experience. It’s a deeply human experience, one made all the more profound by the stakes behind Gethsemane. This is what ends up being most compelling about Lent to me. It is an unbelievably human season. Foreboding, betrayal, hurt, pain, death, triumph, joy. This is what it means to be a human, and when the writers of the Gospels say that God has experienced that, it affirms this sort of existence.

Yes, it sucks. Yes, it isn’t fair. But it is what we are. This life is worth all that. Even when Judas kisses us, it is worth it, if only for the glimpses we get of the better things out there.

Keep the Car Running

April 10, 2011

Kids can grasp it. When they’re playing a soccer game and someone uses their hands, they instinctively shout, “HEY! That’s not fair!” They feel cheated, lied to, betrayed. Isn’t there someone who can stop this? Isn’t there someone who can step in and right the wrong? But the act is done. The cheating already happened. And any adjustment by an outside force does nothing to change the fact that the act was unfair to begin with, and short of lopping off people’s arms, there’s nothing to be done to stop people using them.

Often, the adults will calm the situation, and then dispense the sage advice, “Life isn’t fair.”

Because it isn’t. It may occasionally be good. Sometimes it sucks. Other times it just is. But whatever it is, it isn’t fair. Maybe Lent should lead me to reflect upon the space this opens up. In the unfairness there is room for love and for grace to heal. Maybe. It’s only space. It is full of possibility. Love could win. Grace could heal. Or it couldn’t. Maybe that’s what Lent’s about. I don’t know. All I know is that April 10 viscerally reminds me that life isn’t fair.

Arcade Fire are singing about the end of the world, but they could very well be singing about the end of a life. “They don’t know where, and they don’t know when it’s coming.” They seem to come to the same conclusion I come to: May as well keep going; I’m still here.

I miss you, Mark.

Life in Marvelous Times

March 14, 2011

If The Gaslight Anthem were cynical about humanity and our ability and desire to make something of ourselves, Mos Def is unabashed in expressing his awe at the wonder of life. But don’t misunderstand, he sugar coats nothing. “Their green grass is green; our green grass is brown.”

I’m not really sure that beats have ever been something Mos Def has been particularly great with, but what keeps me coming back to him is his deft touch with words. Starting on Black Star, (“From the first to the last of it, delivery is passionate. The whole and not the half of it.”) I’ve consistently been impressed at the sense of momentum that his words construct, epitomized to me by a line from “Definition.”

Connecting like a roundhouse from the townhouse to the tenements.

And really, that line right there might sum up this song, “Life in Marvelous Times,” perfectly. The song starts in a New York slum, but he pulls out his camera as the track goes on. Beginning with a description of a hard culture– “You can see them scowl, feel them prowl, while them steady sizin’ every inch about you. Fast math measuring what you amount to.”– the song shows us a world in which there are often no good choices. But that’s never an excuse for despair, in his eyes.

As Mos Def sees it, life is a journey– Good Lord, that’s a hackneyed analogy. But he keeps at it, sheer persistence turning what could be a cliche into something powerful. “Some lines open, some lines closed. Some stretches go with no lines at all. Some riders don’t know what they riding for, hands on the wheel and they mind is gone.” There’s opportunity, some might even be prepared to say beauty, in suffering. But lest we fetishize it, let’s stipulate that suffering is not “good.” It is not “good” to suffer, but perhaps something good can be made to come out of suffering. Still, Mos Def insists that in the darkest of scenarios, the very fact of life is bursting with opportunities, which might just be what Lent is preparing us to see.

Sometimes, particularly for those of us lucky enough to be affluent, that very multitude of opportunity blinds us to the things that do make life marvelous. “Revelations, hatred, love and war. And more, and more, and more, and more. And more of less than ever before. It’s just too much more for your mind to absorb.” All the more creates a cacophony of competing voices until it becomes easy to miss the small moments that make life worth living. It takes a quiet mind and soul, and a tenacious one at that– one I confess I don’t have nearly often enough– to catch the wonders that life conjures up for us every day. I don’t know that this is a battle that people can win, per se, but I do think that it is a battle that we have to fight.

“Wonders on every side. Life in marvelous times.”

Stay Lucky

March 13, 2011

Regret and melancholy have always been intimately intertwined with Lent in my memory. It wasn’t some sort of conscious thing on the part of my parents, and I didn’t even grow up in a tradition that made Lenten renunciation a big deal. Sure, you always talked about giving up something for Lent, but whether you did or didn’t ultimately didn’t matter much. And my posture towards Lent seems somewhat incongruous given the fact that the whole thing leads up to what is the most subversively triumphant moment in the entire church calendar. But, just as Advent makes me dwell uncomfortably on the tenuousness of the incarnation and human life in general, Lent has served, and continues to serve, as a reminder to me of how utterly terrible life can be, and what evil things we are capable of.

My mood in starting these reflections isn’t helped by world events. Over the past few weeks we’ve watched a madman in Libya commit to slaughtering his subjects and observed in terror as Japan was first rocked by an earthquake and then washed away by a tsunami.

Regret, melancholy, loss. This is what Lent does to me.

The Gaslight Anthem gets this, although maybe not in a “Lenten” way. Their albums dwell extensively on the conditional nature of our lives, on how quickly a person can go from seeming to have everything to possessing nothing. “Stay Lucky” epitomizes this attitude on their part. The song careens along with reckless speed, like the guys are afraid the whole thing will fall apart, just like the life of the subject of their song. And Lucky? Lucky ain’t. He’s trying, and trying too hard, to recapture his past glories. “All the other rooms are a party tonight, and you never got an invitation.”

But the band gets it, too. “Them old records won’t be saving your soul.” Their subject is just a skipping LP, repeating the same scenarios and mistakes, hoping and thinking that it’ll be better if things could just be like they were before. Trapped by his(?) own inability to change, the band’s attitude towards Lucky might be best summed up by the line leading into the chorus: “And it feels like all you have to do is step outside. Stop pacing around and waiting for some moment that might never arrive.”

Far be it for me to try to end on a note of forced positivism, but if Lent is supposed to make us reflective, mightn’t we take a lesson from Lucky? Like the man cured of his delusion that he was seed, yet retained his fear of chickens, Lucky’s fixation prevents the full apprehension of the possibility in life just sitting there waiting to be taken. To my personal disappointment, I see a lot of myself in Lucky.

Revision

February 2, 2011

I’m not sure if I can express just how dismayed I was to read Gavin’s post to me on Facebook.

“More revisions….

just when you thought you were out (of academia), they pulled you back in.”

We have both submitted papers to a journal for publication on the urging of our advisor, and last week received word from them that they’d like a few more changes made before they publish. I’d be lying if I said I wanted to do this. In fact, I actively don’t want to do it. Despite the (obscenely) high marks I received for it, I don’t think this was the best paper I wrote while I was in Belfast, and much of the paper is recapitulated– better, I think– in my dissertation.

But I have to revise it, if only because it isn’t as good as it could be, and I should be willing to go back and make changes. Publication would be huge for a resume, and mine needs some serious padding. I have to go back and change things. Everyone does.

Because where would we be without revision? Listen to the demos of some of your favorite musicians. It’s a good thing those tracks weren’t released on the original album. Sure, you can usually hear a kernel of what became a good song, but that thing needed polished. All writers revise. (Well, all good ones do– which is I cannot count myself among their company.) The truly good biographies of authors lay this bare. Often the biographer will explain the evolution of a seminal passage in literature by showing the different iterations of that passage. It’s thrilling to see a writer hone in on a good thing.

So why the hesitancy to revise? I mean, beyond pure laziness. We’re supposed to be a dynamic species that’s comfortable with change and able to adapt quickly to new information, but we also betray in our actions a hidebound refusal to change our ways. If it sounds right or it’s worked before, then it must be the right way of going about things. And surely there’s an advantage to that. Far be it for me to suggest that conservatism and stubbornness are genetic immutable things, but that reluctance to change can indeed be a good thing. At it’s best, it is a voice calling for a bit of calm and deliberation in the midst of changing circumstances.

But it is a mistake to elevate that voice to a god. We have to change, and change is not a sign of weakness. It is the signifier of an alive mind. A person has to be willing to grapple with new information, assimilate it, and revise their conclusions as required. Sometimes the new information can be fit into the existing narrative without too much trouble, but at other times a painful break with the past is required to avoid paralyzing cognitive dissonance. I don’t know if there’s any way for me to reconcile the way my religious and political beliefs have progressed over the past six years or so, but me then would not recognize me now. And yet, it was constant revision that resulted in me now. There’s no single point I could isolate as the turn, no simple story to wrap a narrative conceit around.

If this is true with people, then it also should be true with our societies. Slavish adherence to old codes may be reassuring in the way that a home-cooked meal is safe for the taste-buds, but seriously, have you seen what they’re doing at Alinea? And lest you think I’m merely talking about conservative adherence to the Founders, this critique extends to all old codes. In our rush to uphold traditions, we should make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. It reminds me of a story Pete Rollins is fond of telling.

Briefly:

There’s a cat at this monastery that’s always interrupting teacher, so the teacher takes to tying it to a tree. A few years later, the teacher dies. The disciples keep tying the cat to the tree during teaching periods, until it, too, dies. But instead of just letting it stay dead, they get a new cat and continue doing what they’d done before.

The words of those who came before us are valuable, and we should pay attention to them. But just because they tell us to tie a cat to a tree doesn’t mean we should.

Plus, who ties cats to trees?

Sit Tight

December 22, 2010

Sometimes I think the crazy just follows me around. Many of you will have heard of the recent tract escapade. For a brief bit of background, there are some regulars at Smokey Row who are a bit obnoxious about their Christianity. They go to a church in town that encourages them to evangelize to everyone they meet, and that’s just the beginning of my issues with this particular church and their theology and group dynamics. Baristas have to deal with these folks constantly chatting us up about Jesus while we’re working– whether or not we express interest. Fatima, a Muslim, has to grin and bear it while she’s steaming milk and one of these folks attempts to tell her how great Jesus is, apparently unaware that Jesus is sort of a big deal in Islam. Michelle, a Jew, has had the whole “Jewish guilt” thing pulled on her. No wonder she works in the kitchen most of the time! And Morgan, a Catholic, is apparently not quite good enough, so he’s subject to much badgering. Those three are the most targeted, but everyone has had to to smile through an attempted conversion, even our other customers.

All this to say that a few weeks ago when I received a tract in lieu of a proper tip, I was in no mood to be gracious. Over my break I sat down and scribbled notes in the margins, correcting contextual errors, providing alternative translations for words– particularly Hell, and setting the historical stage for various passages. In short, I savaged this thing. And then I left it out for the conversion vultures to see. Later I was approached about my notes and responded bluntly, “I like my Jesus just fine; I do not want to meet yours.”

At first I thought to myself, “HA! Bet you didn’t think I had that in me.” The moment really was cathartic, and I’ve noticed that I’ve been given a bit wider birth by certain members of this particular group when they’re in. I was reminded of the Inara George song, “Surprise,” in which she sings, Sit tight; I could be full of surprises.

But I don’t think that this is really the lesson I should be taking away from this.

Instead, I’m reminded that people are vessels of infinite depth; we contain multitudes. First, as a way of illustrating, I’d like you to listen to two songs, both sung by the same musician, a few years apart.


From the same man, a heartfelt expression of devotion, and a biting ode to doubt and defiance. I recently finished a collection of Maxim Gorky’s short stories, and have rarely been more frustrated by an author. I swung from being amazed at Gorky’s ability to distill the struggles of working class Russians into emotionally laden passages to being horrified at his sexism and anti-Semitism. Mostly I felt like screaming, “Why won’t you let me love you!?” History should have taught me this lesson, though. Historical figures are never what we think they are. President Grant probably did more to advance the cause of racial equality than any post-Lincoln President before LBJ, but he also made pragmatic concessions to the Reconstructing states that ensured that Jim Crow grew in strength. For all his excellence as a President, Abraham Lincoln had to be dragged kicking and screaming into abolitionism, and probably died thinking that blacks were inferior to whites.

Sit tight; I could be full of surprises.

Kierkegaard wouldn’t have been surprised, either. In Works of Love he insists on loving humanity as we find it, without preconditions, so as to better see the spark of God that each person carries. A love this freely given opens up the multitudes, shows our contradictions, and continues loving. It may not be easy when I’m being given tracts, but I have to keep reminding myself, Sit tight; we’re full of surprises.

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