David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

This poem is a meditation on Psalm 77, a lament that seems suitable for the current moment. At the end I reference Marta C. Gonzalez, an Alzheimer’s patient who still retained a memory of her days as a ballerina. At the bottom of the page I link to a video of her that went viral.

Troubles fill the day
and spill into night.
My unresting hands reach out,
refusing sleep’s deficient comfort.

It’s not me, God, who wants
to prop my eyes ajar,
so it must be you.
I remember my night songs,
doves fluttering with hope,
and wonder where they’ve flown to.

“God, will you always be like this?
Did your unending love
reach its end?
Favor, mercy, sympathy—
have they all been chewed to pieces
by your angry jaws?”

Sometimes, I think it to be so,
but stubbornly my mind
recalls your deeds, the wonders
that my eyes have seen,
my ears have heard.

Even if I forget all else,
may your music and your dance
be so implanted in my heart
that I could be like
Marta C. Gonzalez.

She,
though wheelchaired and demented,
became again a ballerina,
filled with grace and light,
when she heard the song.

“Sermon on the Mount” by Aurel Naray. Image: http://www.hungarianartmastergallery.com

Blessed are the destitute, the desperate,
the bankrupt and impoverished,
the penniless, insolvent and exhausted,
all those who know they lack.

Blessed are those who bleed,
cut by the knives of race and class;
blessed are the aberrant,
eccentric, odd, and offbeat,
peculiar, queer, or freakish.

What, though, of the stiff and solid,
punctilious and diligent,
respected and presentable;
what of those who sit on
straight-backed chairs counting silver,
stashing it in sacks?

Which group will be welcomed
into the coming kingdom of rejoicing seas,
elated fields, and delighted, singing trees?
In the teeter-totter world
where the lowly are uplifted
and the pompous are pushed down,
open my hermetic seal to let
the pressured air of pride hiss out.
In emptiness alone
can I be filled.

Here is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6, written after I had been hiking on wooded trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

I walk among the fallen trees
recumbent on a mat of leaves;
no matter that they once reached high,
they’ve yielded life, surrendered pride.

One day I’ll join them, lying down
and, north or south, it’s still the ground
that will receive my tired limbs
consumed by rot, or felled by wind.

Until that day I’ve no complaint;
I’ll watch the clouds, receive the rain
divide my share by spilling seed
to sprout out from the teeming peat.

I’ve cast my bread, and it’s come back
in countless ways; it’s only apt
that God be praised, for it is he
who planted, nurtured, treasured me.

Here is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:11 as it played out one night:

I rush, intending to be finished early—
wash the floor and vacuum,
fold up clothes and fix tomorrow’s lunch.
I’m hoping to have time to sit
out on the porch and read a bit.
All goes well until
it quickly doesn’t.

The sink is the first to balk;
the disposal chokes on a chunk of metal
dislodged from its innards.
Water spills into the space below,
soaking boxes and bottles and jugs,
a variety of oddities. Everything
needs to dry. A plumber
will have to come. Oh, boy.

Meanwhile, it’s started raining
I had left some stuff—a mask,
a paper napkin, and a music player—
on the car trunk. Soaked. Toss
the napkin, dry the mask,
will the music play?

The chair on the porch is wet as well.
No reading there tonight.
The shower curtain falls as,
too quickly, I snatch a towel
to absorb disordered water.

Swiftness does not win the race,
nor strength the fight or smarts the cash;
welcome time and chance
and watch tranquility dissolve.
Remember, Bob, that you are dust
and give to God your trust.

 

 

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

I continue to write poems every Sunday. Recently, I’ve focused on the devastation caused by the coronavirus. Yesterday I wrote about the remarkable ways in which our life in the public places of society have changed. The poem ends with Lamentations 3:26: “It is good to wait in silence/for the salvation of the Lord.” The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC., so it has much to say about life in times of sorrow and hardship.

Chairs sit in shuttered restaurants,
waiting like forsaken dogs for the return
of those who might not come.

Plazas have been emptied of the thousands
who once poured through them like sand;
just a few grains remain.

Cars that used to prance about mostly stand
in their stalls, hoping for the day they will
return to roaming.

The city’s hum and throb has ceased,
engines stilled as the hands that goaded them
suddenly slack from their endeavor.

Life is paused in midstep as an enemy invades,
we listen to dispatches from the front,
mourning all the fallen.

I rest in the stillness, where comfort is
proportional to trust: it is good to wait in silence
for the salvation of the Lord.

In a remarkably short period of time the coronavirus has changed how people throughout the world are living their lives. Here in the U.S., we are exhorted over and over again to practice social distancing—to stay home as much as we can and, should we have to venture out, to remain at least six feet away from those we encounter. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tells us that we’ll need to practice these restrictions for several more weeks at minimum. That degree of restriction will be difficult for many of us to handle.

I was thinking of all of this when I read the lectionary passages that a large number of churches will read this Sunday (or would read if they could have services). I was particularly struck by the psalm that the Revised Common Lectionary uses this the fourth Sunday in Lent. It is Psalm 23, David’s psalm of thanksgiving for God, the shepherd of his flock. It begins as follows:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.  (Ps. 23:1–3, RSV)

That passage speaks to me in this time of trouble. Many now fear want; David tells us that the shepherd anticipates the needs of his sheep and makes provision for them. It’s interesting that the first thing the shepherd has the sheep do is lie down. That suggests that what the sheep needs most is rest and stillness. Though I’m partly retired, most of the time I have a variety of projects going on, so rest is usually in short supply. Maybe the coming weeks will be a time to stop the busyness and “lie down.” And then I might discover that I don’t need to look elsewhere for green pastures; God has already provided them where I am.

Once the shepherd has brought the chaos we’ve created to a halt, we are more inclined to hear his voice and follow him as he leads us beside still waters–places of peace and refreshment. I’m inclined to be on the outlook for tumultuous waters, and I find plenty of those in the news stories that my phone, computer, and TV direct me to every day. The challenge will be to push those aside and notice the still waters I’m being led to walk beside. Following him there, my soul will be restored.

And that in turn will prepare me to be led in the paths that are right for me. For some of my life I think I’ve been on such a right path; other times I’ve strayed far away. I didn’t set out to stray; I was on a good and healthy path, then I wasn’t, and was uncertain how that had happened. Perhaps I stopped listening to the shepherd. Perhaps he wanted me to just lie down for a while, to let him take care of me until I relaxed and trusted enough to see what was the best path to take going forward. I hope I can use the next several weeks of social distancing as a time to lie down in God’s good pasture, follow him beside still waters, and, restored, listen to his guidance for the path ahead.

 

I’ve been making it part of my spiritual practice to write a poem each Sunday. Sometimes I have an idea days before, but other times on Sundays I have no idea what to write about and I’m looking for some touch of grace, some glimpse of the transcendent, to try to put into words. Such was the case the last Sunday of 2019. Earlier in the day I went to a show of 17th century Dutch painting at the St. Louis Art Museum and was particularly struck by one portrait by Rembrandt. The subject was an older woman, rather plain in appearance but vibrant nonetheless. She’s been identified by scholars as Aeltje Uylenburgh, 62 years old at the time and wife of a Protestant minister.

 

In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth described the modern tendency to think that only the present matters. She wrote:

“If time is always moving forward, the past is always becoming more distant and irrelevant. In a sense, modern people are ‘stranded in the present,’ without a meaningful connection to anything that has gone before.”

As the title of her book indicates, she thinks that reflecting on the lives of earlier generations can be a meaningful spiritual practice. As a Christian, she especially encourages believers to engage with the lives of those who have preceded us in the faith. Aeltje Uylenburgh is quite likely to have been one such predecessor, and Rembrandt’s portrait of her was the occasion for me to reflect on her. Here’s the poem I wrote:

Aeltje Uylenburgh, who are you?
I saw your portrait at an exhibition that toured from Boston;
before that the canvas had time-traveled almost five centuries.
I doubt that even in your day
your black gown and black fur-lined cape were stylish–
same with the flat white collar and cap equipped with side flaps.

What calls across the years is not your clothes but your face.
You were old when painted; wrinkles and some sag
along the lower jowl attest to this, and decades of experience
seem encompassed by your gaze.
Your trunk is turned a little to the left, but your head turns less
and your eyes come near to looking out directly,
so that as I stand before you they aim just over my shoulder.
It seems you’re seeing something in the distance.
I suspect the sight is beatific; some such holy vision could account
for why you appear both old and childlike all at once.
You are ageless though of a particular age.

You’re Dutch enough you won’t permit yourself a smile,
but I can see it’s nearly there despite yourself.
I almost know you, sister! One day, when the saints unite,
I hope to recognize you amidst the throng.
I’d like it then if you’d describe
the touch of grace reflected in your face.

I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I read the book I was most interested in what DFW had to say about the struggles we in present-day America have with living meaningful and genuine lives. The first four posts provide some thoughts about what I take to be Wallace’s portrayal of those struggles. This post and the next one will focus on what he offers that might provide help.

As I noted earlier, one place that Wallace thinks provides assistance is in recovery programs such as AA and NA. Wallace was himself an alcoholic and was quite familiar with the 12-Step model of treatment. As he describes the recovery program at Ennet House, a treatment facility, he both repeats some of AA’s standard dogma and offers his own observations about the nature of this approach to recovery and how it works to bring about change.

As discussed back in the first of my posts, IJ describes a world in which most people have strong desires that can gain control over their lives. Pursuit of these desires seems to promise a better life–not only a life of pleasure, but also escape from pain. Unfortunately, with time the pleasure fades and pain returns. One of the first things that must be done in treatment is to face the inevitability of pain:

“[T]hey tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain…. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.” (p. 446)

There will be pain associated with growth, but focusing on the pain to come is counterproductive. Instead, the emphasis is on living with the present moment’s pain. It’s the AA slogan “Take one day at a time” broken into even finer portions, as in Ennet House staff member Gately dealing with the pain of withdrawal from opioids:

“He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down to like one second–less: the space between two heartbeats.” (p. 860)

Accepting the pain and the need to participate in meetings and daily routines that are associated with recovery (though these are always offered as suggestions, not as requirements), the addict is encouraged not to look for the causes of his or her addiction, but simply to remember that they are indeed under the influence of that addiction:

“The Boston AA ‘In Here’ that protects against a return to ‘Out There’ is not about explaining what caused your disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back Out and eating your heart raw and (if you’re lucky) eliminating your map for good. So no whys and wherefores allowed.” (p. 374)

Recovery–Keep Going to Meetings. Image from brickjest.com

The new residents often think the program is simplistic; they have trouble believing that it will work. The staff encourage them to put aside their doubts and simply do the things that the program recommends. One aspect of the program that many residents resist is turning  to God. The agnostics and atheists especially have trouble doing this. However, Wallace offers the following wry observation in the list of things that new Ennet House residents are likely to learn:

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.” p. 205

Several months into his recovery, Gately has been praying every morning and evening–and has found it helps him maintain sobriety through the day. Nonetheless, speaking at an AA meeting, he admits he still has no sense of God:

“He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing–not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with.” p. 443

After the meeting, one of the attendees, a biker named Bob Death, tells him “the one about the fish.” Wallace told this story in his well-known 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. An old fish meets two young fish and greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As the two fish swim on, one turns to the other and asks, “What the f*** is water?” Gately listens,

“And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.” p. 449

For Wallace, God is like the sea, surrounding and supporting all of us, his/her very pervasiveness preventing us from recognizing his/her presence. Our growth towards wholeness doesn’t depend on believing in God so much as on acting as if we did. Practice matters, ideas mostly tend to trip us up rather than help.

So, then, some strategies that characters in IJ find helpful in living meaningful lives relatively free from addiction include accepting the pain, acquiring (but not analyzing) regular habits that interfere with unhealthy attachments, and putting trust in God, whether or not you believe his existence. I’ll reflect a bit more on the reasoning behind this approach to life in my final post on the book.

I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful–So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.