Persuasion (get over it)

I have been thinking about feelings. Which means, of course, that I have been having them, or rather, overwhelmed by them of late. I wouldn’t bother to write about them if they were good feelings. When I am in love, I tend to write less about that feeling, in part because my need to communicate to the world is being so generously satisfied by the person I love.  The feeling of being so thoroughly understood (she gets me!) is like putty in the gaps through which the words drift out (or in). The feeling of being misunderstood blows all the putty out.

I wonder what it would be like to write about love. I should try.

When there is anger, which almost always proceeds from misunderstanding, I don’t know how to speak to anyone I love. One former lover suggested that I should just “let her be” when she was angry.  I should know to do that, or something like that.  Active listening is an approach I have been trained to use by countless leadership and communications trainings. Yet, it is hard to apply my professional approaches to my personal life, because my personal life is so much more consequential than my professional life, and because my personal life is so, forgive me, personal.

When a congregant, a colleague, or a student is angry, it matters, but not in any kind of existential way. I can pull aside a student several days later, ask what was going on, and suggest what their angry display had the possibility of doing (how it might impact the relationship he has with adults or classmates). Because students are young and impulsive, most do not hold onto their impulsive anger in a lasting way, and most can offer a genuine “My bad” after the fact. They do it days later, and sometimes hours later. Adults hold their feelings longer. With adults, some formulation of “I hear you” and “I hear that you feel strongly about that” is my trained response. And is usually answered with “You’re damn right I feel strongly about that” followed by a lengthy restatement of what the person just said. In my professional capacity I have listened to many explanations. Accords follow later, if they follow at all.

I wonder why adults hold their feelings more dearly.  I think, and I could be wrong, that we live in an age in which the truth of our feelings is valorized. We pick facts that confirm our feelings and change the facts when needed. We organize the world to suit our feelings, and when the two don’t jibe, we seek to change the world and not to change our feelings. I don’t know why this is.  I hold with Rilke, who advises the young poet not to focus on his feelings, but to pay attention to things.  I think today we take our feelings to be as immutable as chairs, or oceans, or stars.

In Rhetoric Aristotle argues that “modes of persuasion are the only true constituents of the art [of rhetoric]: everything else is merely accessory.” (He also states, “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.” Oh, for that simple time.)  Aristotle divides the approach into three: the character of the speaker, the state of mind of the audience, and the proof of “a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.” These days it seems that the state of minds of the audience has taken precedence over truth or character.  I think this is true in our political rhetoric, but it is also true in our professional and personal lives. What matters most is neither your character, nor the validity of your argument; it is how the people or person you are speaking to feels.

However, the feeling of being misunderstood, especially by a person I love most (most intimately, most personally, most romantically), completely upends me.  And so, I try to persuade or explain, which is a fool’s errand, mainly because I am angry at being misunderstood: “How can you NOT understand me, oh person I love?” All that person can hear is the anger, and all I can hear back is more misunderstanding. So, like the tourist who cannot make himself understood in a foreign land, I increase the volume, either the number of proofs (See?) or the protestations with regards to my character (I am a good person). And I fail.

Anger over being misunderstood is my Achilles heel, and should immediately disqualify me from being a teacher, a writer, or a lover because misunderstanding is the common currency of an expressive life. I could say “Yanni” and someone will hear “Laurel” or something else that no one has imagined as a possibility yet: “Bluebird,” “Sarsaparilla,” “I hate you,” or even “I love you.” And yet, here I go, plunging into another teaching job, trying to write this down, and remaining open to the possibility of being misunderstood by someone I love. A cynic would tell me that therapy can help break this cycle, but really, all a therapist will do is help me make peace with the fact that this is my cycle.  I better learn to love it.

The Wrong Side of the Bed

Some days it feels like there is no good side of the bed. I wander into the day with storm clouds surrounding me, and then the day just adds more; I go from grey to absolute darkness. Everything that people say, even people that I love and respect, just strikes me as wrong. Nothing is where I have put it (I work in spaces that I share, so this is—growl—fairly typical). It is too humid. Help that is offered is the wrong help, or worse, unhelpful. My face works itself into a deeply lined scowl. People charitably comment that I look tired. I know the code. I look angry.

In general, I am a happy man. I can find my way to a good feeling by hook and by crook. I take joy from a cup of coffee, and from the sound of my daughter’s voice. I rarely find myself in the place the Violent Femmes describe in “Add It Up”; in fact, just singing along (“Why can’t I get just one fuck…”) makes me laugh. The universe is like a perpetual gift-giving machine designed by the best toymaker ever.

Except. Except when the black clouds of contrariness gather around my head. And then storm. (It’s so bad that I cannot even manage complete sentences to describe the feeling). The first flash of anger brings attendant feelings of self-loathing and despair; I have failed again to keep the thunder at bay. This of course leads to more anger—at myself, and at whatever the temporary cause of it may be. Call worship service boring? Rage. Complain that the smell of cookies in the oven smells like something burning? Rage. The Juniors and Seniors decide to ditch detention on a day I skip an important meeting to sit for two hours with their recalcitrant selves. Rage. I can hear my mother, “I’ll wring your neck.” Thanks mom. Rage.

Anger is my forbidden emotion, and because in the atlas of my brain I have marked it taboo (here there be dragons), I am less familiar with the terrain than I should be. Okay, that’s a lie. I am terrifyingly familiar with anger. I walked over that ground for years as a child and adolescent. The flags of my furies unfurled when something or someone contradicted or existentially threatened the foundations of my moral universe. When I was a boy, those foundations were fairly straightforward and limited, and resulted in squalls of “That’s not fair,” which could pertain to the most trivial (“He has more soda than I do!”), to the substantial (“How can you throw him out of school weeks before graduation?”). The dictates of fairness required an even hand be dealt to all, and later incorporated a sense of esprit de corps (were all in this together). I clove to these rules tightly and took the breaches seriously.

And what isn’t fair to a first born son? We, who stand at the vanguard of the moral universe, who plunge into the morasses that our parents design into swampy labyrinths, who seek strength and consistency and meet frailty and disorganization—or worse hypocrisy. I learned early enough not to get angry when I encounter something that doesn’t simply challenge me (lesson from sailing #37: learn to confront challenges: sea-sickness, rain, rash decisions, doldrums, incapable crew, broken ribs; with aplomb. Because another challenge is coming in 5, 4, 3, 2…), or disagree with me. In fact, I run toward, perhaps too giddily, challenge and disagreement. It wasn’t always so, but learning to be gleefully devastated from time to time helped me become a good student, and (so I hope) a better man.

As I aged, I learned to grasp the essentially contradictory nature of life. I embraced Whitman’s charge: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” On the flip side, I expected others to embrace it as well. I attribute my general buoyancy to the multitudinous sea of possibility in which I swim, but I recognize that others must swim in narrower straits. Must you? Really? On stormy days, I do too. I feel as if I am repudiating myself, reneging on the promises I have made to myself and to the universe, failing at my calling and failing at my life’s sole purpose. I want to run away, and live cabin-bound on the rolling ocean, in the thickest forest, on the side of a stark and forbidding mountain.

On rare occasions, I draw on this narrower, “fatal vision” as Macbeth calls it. When I play poker, for instance, I find it easier to put on the fierce blinders of aggression. Sometimes when I write, I close the larger windows to focus on just this pane or that pane of vision. When I teach, I rein in my big confusing mind so that my students can see what it is like to walk on one path in one direction with singular purpose and clarity; that is the lesson they must learn now. After these experiences, I feel drained, in part because I have intentionally disconnected, and the angry hand is the one that flips that switch.

So, when the grey days come unbidden, from a bad night’s sleep, or illness, or some twist of half remembered dream or memory (do I have to wake up with THAT strange bedfellow today?), I feel less myself, at odds with the world, looking, like Ishmael, for hats to knock off, and eyeing ships bound for sea with untoward desire. But, the day passes. I remain a free man. In the morning to come, every side of the bed glistens with possibility again, and I am once again myself.

A little advice

I hate giving advice, or being in a position to even begin to seem like an authority. This is due, in large part, to the fact that every vestige of what little wisdom I may have is either so narrowly circumscribed by my experience as to be entirely personal and inapplicable to anyone else, or it is bound into volumes or displayed on walls or growing in plain sight, that it all could just as easily be read or seen or visited by anyone, and therefore I am just repeating what already exists. I mean, really, I can’t tell you anything about the Grand Canyon, or Jackson Pollock’s Number One, or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that you couldn’t get on your own. And all the business about sailing, or my divorce, or the way my heart was broken or buoyed by human contact, well, that’s all extravagant navel gazing. Or, if it’s any good, it’s good because it praises the world I have experienced.

A friend of mine once told me (and granted, we were in the middle of a disagreement that threatened to end our friendship, so like all things spoken in heat, I try (and fail) to take it in that light) that I needed people to agree with me. The truth is that 90% of the time when I make what seems like a definitive statement about anything, my shock-proof shit detector blares a secret (oh, I hope it’s secret) claxon. It’s going off right now. Whenever I write, I write through the deafening din. I already know that what I say, or what I write is so riddled with exceptions that each word would take a page, or a tome of footnotes and commentary.

I reread David Foster Wallace’s 2005 “This Is Water” commencement address from Kenyon, and what I notice most is his reluctance to declare.  It’s not this platitude, or this story, or that cliché, which is what all advice feels like it about to disintegrate into—just another fragment of bullshit masquerading as wisdom.  Welcome to the world of Polonious, sending Laertes off with the skin and no pith. Go ahead and utter, “To thy own self be true” without knowing the source and the final awful result. Say good bye to Denmark. Say good bye to the best and brightest.  Here comes history.

I once told my friend, Brian Clements, that the only point of criticism—and what, after all is criticism than a kind of advice, either to the artist (do this, don’t do that), or to the audience (see this, avoid seeing that)—was to praise, that everything else was ego masquerading as wit. Did I really say that? Maybe.  I still believe this. (Quick, check the reams of footnotes). The only art that I ever feel called on to lambaste, is art that fails to find some piece of life and hold it up for glory. And I will go to stunning lengths to find that one moment in any work of art that meets Rilke’s charge: “Praise this world.”  And when I say “art,” I’ll admit it, I mean the intentional product of a life lived with purpose to produce something that praises the world.  And that could be a poem, a sculpture, a taco, a roadbed, a length of  rope. A free throw. A beautifully struck return in tennis. An incisively spoken line in a play. A carefully chosen word to comfort a child, or anyone.  Anything done with intention to praise this world and raise it up.

And if anything, these little slices of my mind, are not so much advice, as reminders, and I think we need reminding, to pay attention to all that is praiseworthy and to hold it high. “Pay attention” is what DFW told the graduates at Kenyon in 2005, and I wish that someone had reminded him every day about the impossible and sometimes ineffable worthiness of praise. Pay attention to that too, big fella. And I know when I write these, I am, in fact, reminding myself as well as you, because it is not easy.  It’s just worth it.




Life Among the Raindrops

This morning light grey clouds cover the sky. The high blue sky of yesterday might be somewhere above, but no gaps appear this morning. It feels as if the roof has been lowered to a space only a short way above my head. Walking into work feels like walking through air that was only a shade less thick than water. And then the rain begins.

When caught in the rain, people walk with their shoulders hunched down and their heads bowed. Their pace slows. I feel it too, the reflexive inward pull against the precipitation. If I can just make myself smaller, I will not get as wet. Still, I do get wet. Sometimes lightly moistened, sometimes soaked. Until I get to my car, where my umbrella waits in the trunk, rain will get me no matter what I do.

When I sailed, rain could last for days. We would sit in the cockpit in our two man watches and just take it. Even in weather gear, water finds a way right down to your skin. After six or fifty six hours of rain, you just become swollen. Your fingernails soften. Then the calluses on your heels peel away. It’s only a matter of time before the bones in your face melt into some new configuration. But at some point, and almost in spite of of your soup-ification, your shoulders unfurl from their mock-fetal crouch and you become human again. Your head rises and you scan the horizon, which is your duty anyway, so you make it as easy as it had been when you were dry. You break out of the shell of reflex and return to humantiy.

When I walk into rain now, I feel that first crimping each time. Not doing it would mark me as inhuman, and I am, if nothing else, too human. But I stretch my neck, roll my shoulders back into place, lift my chin, and stride, as I always do, into the rain. It’s just rain, I remind myself, no matter whether it is a sprinkle or a torrent. It’s just water.

And I think, if this is how my body responds to a temporary inconvenience, what must my mind be doing in this moment? How many things are like the rain in my mind, causing me to shorten my sight, draw inward, become less than what I am? Bernie Sanders is making a case about the impact of living pay check to pay check–surely, this is like walking in the rain. Or of the impact of making less money for the same day’s work. Or of having to think about whether you will be stopped or shot at because of the color of your skin, or the color of your uniform. Imagine what it must be like to feel as if there was a steady insistent mental rain falling on your shoulders.

A few years ago, I had to explain what depression felt like to my daughter. A friend of ours had committed suicide after struggling with depression. I told my daughter that our friend couldn’t see any other possibility. I took a magazine and rolled it into a tube and said, “This was all she could see.” I imagine that the experience of mental rain causes us to limit our vision, forcing our gaze, if only by reflex, to the puddles in front of our feet, (Don’t step in this one, that one, this one), until all the world is puddle and all our shoes are ruined and there is no place to put our feet down dry.

We live among the raindrops. I can say this, not living in Seattle, where the steady rain can threaten to wash even the green from the morning. I can say this because I can look at forecasts that have sun just a few days away. I can say this because I can remember when the rain started. And so I do say it, and I do look up, and my vision can distinguish the drops as they fall—small beads of water spun around motes of dust. And I do look up, and into the faces that I meet, and we are here, together, in the rain, just as we are together in the sun. And I look up and see the water between us, like a connect-the-dots page in three dimensions, extending as far as there is rain.

Lascivious Grace

I have been listening to Rufus Wainwright’s recent album based on Nine Sonnets by Shakespeare, Take All My Loves, and especially the title song, which is a performance of Sonnet 40,  over and over again.  Maybe it’s just because it’s new, and maybe because it’s the season of forgiveness.  But, what the hell, that’s every season.  This is going to get a little academic, so forgive me a little (maybe more).

Sonnet 40

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all
What hast thou then, more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call–
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed if thou thy self deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites, yet we must not be foes.

I suppose that as one goes through the stages of grief, this little meditation would be filed under the heading, “negotiation”: a lot of talk to put the broken world back together. Usually the trick with negotiation is that it takes two willing parties.  No one can be convinced to sit at the table and trade ideas and feelings in order to hammer out some kind of understanding.  Except, and this is what is most interesting to me, I’m not exactly sure with whom the speaker is actually negotiating. Let’s sort this out.

First, there is the problem of “love,” which appears ten times in the poem (a big deal, even for, hell, especially for WS). The first “love” is the loves which have been, or will be taken.  This may include some romantic partner of the speaker, but it also includes the speaker’s actual love and fellowship with the ill-behaving friend.  Take ‘em all, “my love”—the second “love” and this is the friend who has done the taking.  “No love”—the third—refers to any sort of love that his friend (“my love”—fourth) has never been able to call true, except for the speaker’s love (five), which, we suspect, was always true.  Look, the speaker says, if you (my friend) took my love (six, and now this one love may be the mistress) as a sign of my love (seven) for you, then go ahead, take her even if she is my love (eight). Unless, and this matters, unless you are refusing my actual love for you.  This is some kind of fraternal code: our friendship trumps romance.  The last two loves operate in this system. The speaker may be angry, even to the point of hate, but knows that hate will only cause a deeper, and finally self-inflicted injury.

But what about that final couplet?  “Lascivious grace”? Grace is easy: an echo of god’s grace–the kind of overwhelming forgiveness for which any gentle thief, or worse, could hope. But lascivious? The word shows up In Richard III during the “Winter of our discontent” soliloquy, when Richard imagines fell purpose converted to the “lascivious pleasing of a lute,” (which would be a euphemism, though I have never before or since heard a woman’s genitals referred to as a lute), and in Othello when Iago characterizes Othello as a “lascivious Moor,” which had simple direct (and still, sadly) racial overtones. So, why is grace lascivious?  What makes forgiveness wanton?

Pause a moment. Shakespeare writes that forgiveness is profligate and promiscuous. That’s what lascivious grace means. It’s like some half drunk handsome frat boy who is so in love with the world that he gets arrested in the town square for shouting, “I love this world!” at 3 am. Grace is the woman that class and status conscious coeds whisper about, except that there is no slut-shaming this confident, fully self-possessed being. In fact, she gets elected class president, or starts a revolution. There’s no stopping grace: grace shows all ill well.  That’s all, not some, not the ones that only bug me a little.  ALL. Kill. Me.

When the speaker breaks down to “Kill me with spites,” he’s talking back to grace.  Grace and the speaker must not be foes—and that is the negotiation.  Well, it’s hardly a negotiation. Grace, you will forgive anyone, even my wretched awful friend who slept with my girl, and then, you will drive me to find a way to that forgiveness. You will throw love back in my face; reminding me that if I am going to have any ground to stand on with true love, I am going to have to go all in, equal to the big love with all its unbounded implications. Kill me.

And that’s the rub with being a universalist.  You don’t get to turn away from this charge.  Yes, I’m me, and me matters, but there’s love too, and, like it or not, love matters more. Get off the mat, poet, and get back in there and find a way.  Grace is what gives you the vision, now hold up your end of the bargain and love (and forgive).  Who said it was going to be easy?


I bear failure hard. Oh, I have failed. I was, in my youth, an indifferent student, charging at subjects without a plan, relying on passion and interest in lieu of anything like a well documented approach. I memorized the rules for genetics in a single bound, and then wrote rambling half-baked essays about stained glass. I did half well, bouncing between A’s and B’s, some C’s (and that fail in Astronomy—learning a new (to me) science takes a plan). I didn’t care, not a whit. I just kept at it—this is what students are supposed to do.

And the failures that struck me weren’t moral failings either. I stole chocolate bars at the local A&P as a child. I lurked near the registers, pilfered, and then hid beneath tables topped with produce to eat my plunder: Hershey Bars with Almonds. I broke speed limits with teenage abandon. There were indiscretions. Mistakes were made.

What haunted me, what haunts me, and what will always haunt me with stinging clarity, are failings of kindness: cruelties small and large. There was an occasion on the steps to a building at school when I jeered at a young man to hurry up, that he was holding all of us other bright young men up. Turns out he was handicapped and struggling up the stairs with crutches. I never forget that. I have shouted “I hate you” or “I fucking hate you” in a fight with someone I love. I can barely tolerate my myriad failures as a father. The failings for which I pillory myself most are moored entirely in the realm of personal relationships.

Only later in life, in my twenties, when my work became a significant aspect of my personal life, when I stopped trying on the clothes of being a writer and admitted to myself that no matter what I wore, the wild seed hadn’t drifted in from someplace else, but had grown within me as I grew, down in my mitochondria and through each of my stupid and recalcitrant cells, did failure take its most pernicious and debilitating effects on me. Suddenly failure—and by this I mean anything from red pencil marks in the margins to more general criticisms—became not simply a matter of getting the words right, or getting the tone right, or getting the story right, but of getting my bones right, getting my mind right, or worse, getting my relationship with the world right. I, misfit first born child, whose experiences indicated that I had what could only be a terminal relationship with the human race, now had irrevocable proof that the condition was as I had always suspected. Not only was I broken, I was bad. And so I retreated from the site of failure.

For years—nearly twenty—after the first formal flowering of my craft, and first awful awareness of my failure, I struggled to write. I began things in fits and starts. Nothing felt good enough or smart enough or resonant enough to continue. And because of this I struggled to feel good enough to continue at anything. Failure, genuine existential failure, was now something that lurked in the water with razor teeth and insatiable hunger. I was more often sad and isolated than ebullient. I felt guilty and impoverished. I threw myself into and out of jobs. I overburdened and under-burdened my personal relationships—both equal paths to doom. All the while I remembered that I was not doing what I should be doing: should be—the great unwritten scourge, the single invisible flail.

So I was wrong. You who are wiser than me know this already. As I thrashed about, I found other places to succeed. I am a fair teacher. I am an enthusiastic advocate for faith development in children and adults at my church. I Pied-Piper pretty well. I learned, and learn to be a better father. I have accepted the mantle of divorced dad, and do a decent job as a co-parent. I have accepted the hard lessons of knowing my limitations as a person and as a man, and have acknowledged (to myself at least, and now, begrudgingly, but perhaps not begrudgingly enough, to you) that I have needs to which I must attend, and that I ignore at my own peril.

I learned to fail, and in failing, to succeed. The lessons were always there, I just did not see them. I can blame my eyes, blame my genes, blame my upbringing, but what is the point of that? Do some therapy, figure it out, and get on with the work ahead, because there is always work ahead. I forgot and forgave—myself and others. I welcomed a bright presence into my life. And I remembered that I loved stories, true stories, made up stories. I told them—other people’s stories at first, then, slowly my stories. And I found my way.

And I write these short notes. I started them when I felt that I had a story to tell, when I went to China to bring a daughter home. And I continued—and continue—them as I pace my back to the work. I share them with a small and generous audience, shaking off the Cerberus of fear: ego (what right do I have to say these things?); failure (what if I get it all wrong?); and doubt (what difference will this make to anyone?). I write them for you and I write them for me. Finding my way back and setting out lights. This way. Now.