The Flags of Memory

Facebook politely reminds me that I have memories.  On April 28th last year I posted #FUCO, inspired by the Daily Show’s effort to get the Democrats and Republicans to F#$%ing Cooperate. Two years ago I celebrated being a scant three days from traveling to China to meet my daughter. Three years ago I posted Tom Waits’ cover of “Somewhere.”  Four years ago, two articles from the New York Times’ caught enough of my eye that I reposted them. Day after day, another batch of the past is just a click away. But all I have to do is turn my head, and I can glimpse the shades of things past.

I am surrounded by memories.  Even the most ordinary thing in my household triggers one or a dozen memories.  The computer speakers on my desk top are the speakers that I had in my attic office, are the speakers that I had in my apartment by the beach, are the speakers that were in my apartment in Roland Park, are the speakers I bought when I lived on Fair Oaks Avenue.  I can see them on a desk in each place, and around that desk old rooms organize themselves, and around those rooms entire buildings take shape, and around those buildings, streets spread out into cities populated by people whose faces are just a turn to the left or right from the chair in which I sit. I feel as if I could start a conversation with these memories just as easily as I begin one with the people who walk just outside my office window just this very moment.

I am not sure if other people experience memories in this same way.  It’s not as if I have an excellent memory; the rules of German grammar eluded me when I was in high school.  But I knew the Constitution by Section and Article almost at first glance.  And I drove all over the suburbs of Philadelphia without getting lost as soon as I had a driver’s license—all based on my childhood memories of being in cars. Years later, when I traveled to Maine after a twenty year absence, I did the same there.  I cannot dredge a memory up, but feel wrapped in a thousand wispy scarves each one peeling away to reveal some past me surrounded by a past world, which is also the present me surrounded by the present world.

Some people must be able to store their memories in boxes in an attic, and that out of sight and out of mind, their memories don’t regularly come crashing down off the shelves.  Or they put one or two—or more—on the mantle in the living room, or on a hidden altar in their homes. And those memories take precedence over the ones in the attic. Maybe I am unable to select, maybe I need them all, maybe I do not know which memory will hold the key to some unforeseen puzzle.

I guess that someone who felt more melancholic would feel ensnared by all these connections. I have moments when I would like to be cut free from them, when the sadness of a particular skein feels overwhelming, and the sadness overpowers all the other threads. At different times of my life I have combated those feelings either by playing a simple solitaire game that I learned from a college friend, or by getting in my car and driving until the roads became strange, or by playing a video game for the seventh or eighth time.

Repetition dulls the brightness of the connections, and I have simple repeated rituals (peanut butter and jelly for lunch nearly every day) that offer some respite from the densely colored warp and weave of the past.  Just this, for now, before the return. And then the glorious return of how many days—twenty thousand?—and how many moments?  This, writing, also limits the connections—the focus required to write narrows my vision to this word, this letter, this comma.  And yet the inspirations to write are all the peripheral visions that are always just a distracted head turn away.

I also turn to the new.  I remember those late night drives—in a brown Volkswagen Rabbit with the stereo turned up beyond reason, listening to John Adams’ Shaker Loops, or Laurie Anderson’s United States, or the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light—which became longer and later in my twenties as I drove farther and farther west, traveling on back roads from Philadelphia all the way to Harrisburg.  I came home, because as far as I went I never forgot my cat.  I returned home to my apartment on City Line Avenue more to tend him than to prepare for a job.  Now, with four cats and a daughter, the journeys away must be curtailed.  I must drive in.

And so in I go, trailing a billowing cloud of memories like flags from countries that I have not claimed, but have claimed me. Turn this way, they insist.  This is where to go.  This is the key.

 

The Soundtrack of my Life

Road trips


I drove five hours to visit my family this week. Part of the joy of the long drive, besides the destination, is putting on the radio and letting someone else pick the music. I love the surprises, besides if I don’t, I have SiriusXM in my car, so there are many other stations waiting to surprise me.

The Groove station was a Prince tribute station.  Yes there was a steady stream of his early hits, but “Housequake“reminded me of his bravado and funkiness.  “Shut up already!,” signals the beginning of the song. He instructs: “Put your foot down on the two;” because everyone in the house knows what “the two” is; we know the beat. “Come on y’all  we’ve got to jam, before the police come!” he exhorts, because it really is a house party, and this is the culmination of the rousing wildness of the night.  The neighbors will call the police because we are making just too much noise. It’s  part of a tradition of calling out the house, and reminds me of John Lee Hooker’s “House Rent Boogie.”It’s just a few steps from the blues to funk, and what unifies JLH and Prince is the direct address to the house and the insistence on “Let’s get together and have a ball.”

On The Underground Garage, the Byrds covered “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” It’s the Byrds, so there is an underlying sweetness, even with the bitter message. And the sweetness leavens the sadness and anger. The gently jangly guitars and harmonies blunt the edge of “The carpet too is moving under you.” The song feels at odds with itself, as if the fragility of the presentation cannot contain the message. Dylan’s original, with his blunt nasal voice, is a clear rebuke. Even the harmonica that frames the song wheezes acerbically. This is not a sad song at all, but a sharp slap.

And then, since I’m doubling up, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Of course Prince loved Joni Mitchell (and covered “A Case of You“).And Joni covered It’s All Over Now. Joni’s original “Both Sides Now” is a bravura performance of early wisdom. She was 26, and putting down a marker. Yes, by then she had, as we have, felt that “now it’s just another show. You leave them laughing when you go.” Her playing and voice are so fine and confident. She’s an amazement. Thirty years later, when she revisits the song her voice has deepened, and now all the youthful confident wisdom is fully colored by experience and doubt. “I really don’t know life,” she closes, “I really don’t know life at all.” Amen, sister!

Happiness, Purpose, and Praise

imageIn the middle of some weeks and months of gloom—sad songs, sad memories, sad circumstances with my mother—happiness occurs too. My students and I read Dickens’ Great Expectations and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. My daughter skips down the sidewalk on her way to school. A volunteer at church wrangles teachers for a middle school class. I organize the twenty-fourth draft of my fantasy baseball league. I see Zootopia three, no wait, four times with my daughter. A strong wind blows. I get texts from absent friends sharing their joys and achievements. The cats jump into bed when I head in for sleep.

I consider myself to be a happy person. Many different things inspire feelings of happiness in me. What kinds of things? Watching my daughter skip down the sidewalk to school, of course. One of my cats leaping onto a windowsill to be fed there. Indian food, well, good Indian food. The grooves of a record. Garamond font. Holding hands with a person that I love. Legos. A light covering of snow on a mountain path in summertime. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Shooting pool with friends. Watching a baseball game in Baltimore with friends. Having dinner with friends anywhere (even at Wendy’s). Kissing a woman that I love. Again and again. Fountain pens. Warm sand at the beach. Otters. Danish modern furniture. Arts and Crafts style houses. Farms. Wind strong enough that I can lean into it. Any wind. Fourteen-inch narrow ruled yellow legal pads. Visiting my nieces. Driving along the Maine coast. Tarot cards. Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blue. Sails. Art museums. Cleanly swept streets in a city where the buildings tower high. Acrobats.

I could go on. Seriously.  Do some of these happinesses outshine others? Certainly. Do I turn any away when they present themselves? No, not if I can help it. Yet, I cannot find a thread to bind all these things together, and many of them contradict each other. Some share nothing other than the fact that they exist in the world and that they make me feel happy. It’s almost as if the only qualification I have is mere existence, but that is not true. I could make a list of what I avoid; it would be a long list. However, it would never come close to eclipsing the other side.

I once facetiously proposed writing a travel book called, Good Food is Everywhere. I was traveling to the Oakland Coliseum with my friend Dean, and he mentioned a place to eat— god knows what. Everywhere we traveled, we found good food. I said, “There is good food everywhere—the kind of panglossian statement that belied our experiences in the world. We had both been bounced around romantically; our parents had faced significant health challenges. Life held no guarantees. Nonetheless, somewhere, everywhere, someone was making something genuinely delicious to eat. Happiness, even in this limited and simple form, was available. All one had to do was find it.

And, to be clear, let me distinguish between happiness and what? goodness? While doing the right thing—being just, striving to be good, or, as Rilke wrote: “praising this world”—is my goal, I have never expected that behavior to provide happiness. The sunnum bonum gives life its meaning and purpose, but it also engenders struggle.

In the Ninth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke exhorts

Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth, and despite that,
still is able to praise.

The struggle is between the Things, and our praise, and the “imageless act.” I know what a Thing is, but struggle trying to nail down what an imageless act might be. Let me propose the following.

I do an exercise with my students in which I pick up some thing on my desk—a stapler, for instance—and ask them to chart its existence before it came to rest on my desk. We consider each human hand that “touched’ it, and if it interacted with any other Thing (was transported, boxed, or shelved in a store or warehouse), we then have to go through the same process with each the things involved with it as it made its way to us. And so on. The result is not an iceberg so much as a galaxy of connections; the web becomes nearly impenetrable, nearly limitless. I think that this may be the “business” that Rilke points to—a series of acts and actors who disappear, become party to that “imageless act,” part of a supply chain that exists only to invisibly deliver a stapler. When we use the stapler without an understanding of the vast cloud of connections—of the benefits and costs borne by that cloud, those people, those Things—we are party to that business and expand its limits.

Cutting through that business is a struggle. But within the business, what can we find? A thousand hands—more—and all these things: a lathe, a cam shaft, a table, a ship’s propeller blade, a rivet, a mallet. Each one sings out for recognition, for praise. Every hand, every foot, every heart, and every thing. Imagine knowing that all your acts would be held up for praise, and to know that your single cause for being was to praise. The tongue is freed, the heart endures. And the world becomes. Again.

Rilke

rilkeThis is from the Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

I have been thinking (and writing) about happiness, and found myself writing about “things.” When I think of “things,” I mean them, in part, in the way Rilke writes: things that are made, that bear the evidence of creation and intention.  But before I go on, here is The Ninth of the Duino Elegies.

 

The Ninth Elegy
Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)—: why then
have to be human—and escaping from fate,
Keep longing for fate?…

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as a practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too….

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once, no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once;
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it,
trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless heart.
Trying to become it,—Whom can we give it to? We would
hold on to it all, forever… Ah, but what can we take along
into that other realm? Not the art of looking,
which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.
The sufferings, then. And above all the heaviness,
and the long experience of love,— just what is wholly
unsayable. But later, among the stars,
what good is it—they are better as they are: unsayable.
For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,
he brings not some handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. Isn’t that the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?
Threshold: what it means for two lovers
to be wearing down, imperceptibly, the ancient threshold of their door—
they too, after the many who came before them
and before those to come…. lightly.


Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth, and despite that,
still is able to praise.

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand, and within our gaze.
Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished; as you stood
by the rope-maker in Rome or the potter along the Nile.
Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even lamenting grief purely decides to take form,
serves as a Thing, or dies into a Thing—, and blissfully
escapes far beyond the violin: —And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient
they look to us for deliverance; us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within—oh endlessly—within us! Whoever we may be at last.

Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer
need your springtimes to win me over—one of them,
ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.
Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.
You were always right, and your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller…. Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.

The Soundtrack of my Life

img_1060

Sky Full of Stars: 

Remembrance

When my daughter is in the car with me, she makes musical requests. Last year featured a month of Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.” Sometime this past winter she settled on ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Often the second song she requests is Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars.” She exclaims “Wow!” when the bass beat kicks in twice in the song. “It goes BOOM.” She laughs loudly as I sing “Boom! Boom! Boom!” to the beat. She doesn’t see me cry. I keep smiling. I keep going, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

I started listening to this song in the days after my friend, Jennifer Slade, committed suicide. It reminded and still reminds me of her. Jennifer was someone who “light[s] up the path,” as the singer says about the person in the song. She was a brilliant minister: insightful and collaborative; just what a co-worker who had worked with four different ministerial teams in six years needed. She encouraged me to explore my gifts as a minister, and even if I did not choose the path she walked, she helped me think more deeply about the work I do, and to accept it as ministry.

Her death, coming in July of 2014 shortly after her fifty-fifth birthday, shocked me. I drove her home on the night she took her life, and can painfully and clearly recall our conversation on the way. She apologized for asking me to pick her up—her car was in the shop. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the drawbacks of living away from home (she lived in Durham, NC), was that she did not have friends. As a minister she was careful about making friends in the congregation. Her work—ministers never have forty hour work weeks—and the circumstances of the year (she and her husband had taken the first steps toward divorce) had made her feel isolated.

I told her that I was always happy to help, that it was my “job.” I felt that as part of the team at our church that we should always have each other’s backs. This was amazingly important to me, because I had been on less than supportive teams at my church. I had been open with her about this, telling her that I had planned to step down from my position, but after working with her and feeling the change that was happening at the church, I looked forward to what we were building. “I’ll stay as long as you are here,” I told her. Besides, I think of my role as a “guy” as a “job,” and part of that job is answering the call. But I said “job.” I did not say, “Are you kidding me? We are friends. You can always call.”

The weeks following Jennifer’s suicide were difficult. I felt dislodged from the world. I argued with my wife and a friend about how I felt and how to respond. I threw myself into healing work at the church. I met with friends who knew about grief first hand, who had survived the Sandy Hook shooting nineteen months before this. I attended services in North Carolina and Norfolk. I saw a therapist. I retreated from the world, and could not retreat from the world; the school year was in the offing—my first full year as principal at my school (my other job). I had a family. And I felt like a shell of a human.

As I listened to this song at astronomical volume in my car, I began to hear Chris Martin’s “you” not as a single specific person, but as a great plural “you.” He wasn’t singing to one person, but to the wider world. Even if there was one particular “you” who tore him apart, he was going to give his heart to the world. In my mind the big bass beat was a heartbeat, a hundred heartbeats, a thousand, a crowd dancing, like the crowds I had danced with in college and grad school. What saves the torn apart heart is a crowd of people, of friends, of love.

Do I think that life is bound to tear us apart? Probably. Do I think that we somehow come back together? Of course. I know that’s true for me. I know that I still shed tears—manly, cathartic tears, but tears nonetheless. I choose to give my heart away, knowing that the risk of sudden, tragic loss or even slow painful loss will not pass. My daughter laughs and says, “Go Boom!” I go “Boom!” I go “Boom.”

 

 

The Way Ahead

The way ahead is all clouds, and has been for almost a day.  Somewhere the sun rises, but the day that has dawned is just another shade of dark. From the horizon line straight to the stars, beyond the stars—defying reason and science as they rise as far as eternity—the clouds form a wall.  They neither block the way nor invite us to some hint of a narrow passage—this gap, this lightening in the darkened whole—they simply wait.

My father emerges from the cabin after checking the charts, and notes that the sky behind us is cloudless. “Too bad we aren’t headed that way,” he muses. He is an old sailor and has seen a thousand skies.  When I ask how this one compares, he shakes his head, “We’ll have to wait and see.” He looks at the sails, which bow out in a beautiful arc to transform the wind into perfect forward motion. “We’ll reef in the main at lunch.” I know that he hates to shorten the sails, especially when we are on a reach with the wind crossing us almost at beam, making an honest six and a half knots, but storms have knocked him down before and he will begrudge speed for caution.

When Ralph comes up for air after sleep, he asks, “What did the forecast say?”  The offshore marine forecast broadcast a few times during the day and the computer generated voice compiles findings with forecasts and locates weather events over undersea features: the Hudson Canyon, the Baltimore Canyon, the Hatteras Canyon.  All forecasts point to what our eyes already tell us; when storms come the radio is worthless.  Only during days of extended reckless calm does the radio offer anything like hope.  Somewhere out there must be some wisps of wind to wend us on our ways.  What we see ahead will turn us amphibian.  How fast it does so, and for how long, is a question for men who cling too hard to their most mammalian selves.

My father quietly calculated all night during our watch. He knows that not everyone possesses our raw stubbornness. Some people, even some sailors, are sensible.  The two other men who sail with us have enough experience and desire to head out on the ocean, but they have no need to hazard the dangerous thrills that awaken both my father and me. Because he is older and wiser than I am, and because it is his boat and his crew, he prepares to do the sensible thing: furl the sails and alter course.  “We are gentlemen sailors,” he acknowledges, resigned to doing the right thing.

I cannot help but think of this now, when clouds blot out another horizon.  My mother, who joined us on dry land in Bermuda, but would never set foot on a boat bent for open ocean, is in a hospital bed.  Doctors order tests to discover what has knocked her down. Answers dissolve in the face of symptoms.  If not this, then what has her down?  My brothers and I settle on this and that prognosis the same way meek sailors settle on forecasts.  But we are not meek sailors, we our father’s sons, and we know the way ahead is cloudy.

My father died when he slipped off the dock at a marina, hit his head, and went under the water.  He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a decade, and we watched while he lost the physical ease that had buoyed him on his boats and made him the most reliable hand on board. He slowly changed from a gifted provocateur in conversation to a witness to his sons’ whip cracks of sarcasm and verbal retribution. He hated the stutter that came with his disease. He never told us that he was suffering, and never acknowledged his illness directly.  We knew because our mother kept us informed and because we witnessed him.

My mother hates the idea of loss of control with a greater and more public vehemence than my father ever displayed. She watched illness sap her husband, and before that saw her mother diminish over slow painful years. Fourteen years ago, she survived a harrowing encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, living on her own, in a house she bought after my father died, she keeps a copy of Final Exit in her living room. She has set her limits.

I don’t think there is any other course ahead.  The future looms and the possibility of proceeding as gentleman sailors dwindles.  Maybe there will be time enough to furl the sails, and there may yet be some glorious sailing ahead, but the future will not brook a change of course.