Break down, it’s all right

1 08 2017

When I was 22 I gave up hope.

It was necessary, a way to keep myself alive, but I don’t know that it was a conscious decision so much as a fait accompli.

Almost 30 years late, and I’m still snagged on that word, hope: hope you’re feeling better; hope it goes well; etc. I didn’t use it at all, for years, but sometimes there’s no good way to avoid the word without drawing attention to its avoidance. So, I use it, sparingly, and always with a mental reservation.

I gave it up because I was broken, as a person. I may or may not still be broken, and perhaps I won’t ever get past those breaks without at least a handshake with hope, but I have managed to put together a life without it.

It’s hard, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to anyone, but if you have to abandon hope, you can, and live.

The loss of hope is, or can be, less a tossing-away than an uncovering: you’ll see things, in this hope-less life, that you wouldn’t otherwise. I can’t say if this new sight is worth it, relatively speaking, but, again, there is a kind of clarity, here.

This is how I’m coming to see my response to the 2016 elections. Something broke inside of me, and I couldn’t get a handle on it. Now, I’m thinking that I had a kind of hope in American politics, a hope I never really considered, never really recognized, and that now that’s gone.

Again, a hard thing, but not the worst thing. Again, I gain a sight, a sense of the meanness of this country, which, however maddening, is useful to have.

The differences between the personal and the political hope-loss are that I didn’t know I had any left to lose, and that I thought I already knew how the US could be; that’s what made election night so unbelievably painful.

A more significant difference is that I ended up in a place where there are already a hell of a lot of people—mostly, people of color—who had discarded hope long ago. They haven’t given up; they just don’t expect that everything will somehow turn out right. No, there is work to be done.

This work would be easier, I’d think, if there were hope; or maybe it would just be easier to avoid the work. (I have evidence from my personal life to support both possibilities.) Regardless, there is work to be done.

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You’re taking one down

17 11 2016

After an extended period of sparse posting, I spurted out a bunch of political posting because, well, it was going to be allllll right and then it allllll went very, very wrong.

But that ain’t the only reason.

My life has gone to shit, and writing about the country going to shit gave me something else to focus on. That there are concrete things that one can do to try to avoid being completely flushed away politically gave me a kind of steadiness.

My life, however, is still shit. I’ve love to blame this on Trump—I look forward every time I miss a train or stub my toe to screaming FUCK TRUMP!—but nope, even had Clinton taken the Electoral College, I’d still be navigating the doldrums.

This is not as bad as it gets, thank christ nowhere near as bad as it gets, but a shitty time is a shitty time. Yeah, I’m working, halfheartedly, on dragging myself up, but it’s tough to really get anything going on half a heart.

Still, I’ll do what I can.





Rage against the machine

20 03 2013

*Update* Check out Conor Friedersdorf’s review of anti-anti-war commentary.

I don’t even remember why I was against the war.

It’s easy, now, after the lies and mess and blood and money and vengeance and torture and horror and exodus, to say What a monstrous disaster.

Did I see all of this coming? I don’t know. I was skeptical, fearful of the what-ifs, but did I foresee the monster we would become, the disaster we would inflict on ourselves and the people of Iraq?

I doubt it. I doubt it.

I don’t feel vindicated for having been right. I didn’t have to argue myself into skepticism, didn’t have to fight my way past the shiny objects dangled in front of the American people in order to arrive at the summit of wisdom.

There was no summit, and I claim no wisdom. Is it really that hard to be skeptical of unnecessary war?

This is why I rage and despair in equal measure at those pundits who say “I was wrong, but I could have been right, so. . . .” They couldn’t be bothered to perform the most basic act of citizenship: to think, to think beyond one’s desires and sorrows and glee—and you betcher ass there was glee at the prospect of war—about what we were, truly about to do. Could they not be bothered to wonder at their own anticipation?

I am ungenerous in my interpretation of the commentators who supported the war, ungenerous in my reception to their ex post facto “soul-searching”; I read their apologies as justifications.

This is unfair (at least to John Cole), but I don’t care. They lost nothing by being wrong, suffered no consequences for whooping it up as the Congress and the Bush administration led us into destruction. They are sorry only that the destruction was inglorious, rather than shockingly awesome.

Again, this is unfair, I know, I know.

And it puts too much on the sideliners, not enough on the Congress and the Bush administration. I vent my rage at the pundits because I despair of influencing the politicians.

Once a president decides to go to war, that’s it, we’re going to war.

Pundits make the pitch easier; protesters are, if not ignored, a useful foil. But, truly, nothing any of us says, matters. We don’t matter, except, perhaps, to ourselves.

If a president wants war, war is what we get.





Ring the bells that can still ring

24 12 2012

Merry happy peaceful, by way of Leonard Cohen:

Anthem

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring …

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.





We might as well try: Can you hear me?

27 11 2012

I almost turned off the radio.

I’m not a big fan of This American Life as it is—I don’t hate it, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to it, either—but this story, ohhh, I couldn’t stand it:

The Dakota War of 1862, the lead-up to and aftermath which led to decimation of the Dakota nation and dispossession of their lands.

The entire episode is devoted to the war, how it’s taught in Minnesota today, what it means in Minnesota, and by extension, the United States, today. If you don’t know the history, listen to it; if you do know the history, listen to it.

I half-knew the story, and made myself listen all the way to the end because I thought, Goddammit, you can’t turn away. You can’t stop listening just because it’s hard.

I used to have such a strong stomach for atrocity. It sickened and horrified and angered me, but I was driven by the twin senses that if others could live through it, I could at least read what they lived through, as well as the notion that maybe, somehow, such witness could be turned to good use. If attention were paid to genocide and abuse and injustice, such attention might lead to survival and protection and justice.

There’s something to that, I’d guess: The whole world is watching! is meant both to exhilarate and to warn. Amnesty letter-writing campaigns have apparently altered the conditions or lengths of sentences for many political prisoners. Human rights activism from afar can embolden those near, and efforts to get the State Department or the president to express concerns about this person or that group can make a difference.

At some point, however, I lost my stomach for atrocity, and whether as cause or result of my turning away, lost the belief that witness—or, at any rate, my witness—mattered. I turned away.

I can beat myself over this. After all, there’s a self-absorption in turning-away, a kind of thinking that my despair is the point, but, honestly, there was a self-absorption in the attention as well, a kind of thinking that my involvement could lead to justice. Kantian abstractions might appeal on the page, but as a practical matter, motives for even the most altruistic act are often mixed.

No, the problem with the despair is less selfishness than the closing out of possibility: doing nothing leads to nothing. Writing letters or e-mails or making phone calls or even just paying attention might not accomplish anything, but is anything accomplished without action? To act may be to fail, but the possibility of failure is not its certainty.

If I accept that as a general matter, for others, then why not accept that for myself, as well? I may not be a Kantian, but there are worse standards than act as if your will were universal law. Or, to bring it down to this cracked earth, if others can do it, why shouldn’t I?

Can I do anything about the Dakota War of 1862? Almost nothing. But if I think it mattered, if I think it matters today, for who and how we are as an American people, then I can do the one thing that is available to me: I can pay attention.

I can listen.





Stigmata

21 02 2011

I watched Stigmata again.

It’s a dumb movie, but I find it irresistible. I used to watch it whenever it showed up on t.v., and now that it’s streaming on Netflix, I watch it every few or six months or so.

Okay, so there’s Gabriel Byrne, who is always watchable, with those dark eyes and. . . well, I’ve gone on about Mr. Byrne before, so there’s no need to repeat myself.

Anyway, irresistible: It opens with an old man writing in a notebook, then cuts to Andrew Kiernan (GB) walking through the town of Bel Quinto, Brazil, on the way to a church with a statue weeping blood. The church itself is holding a funeral for the old man we saw in the opening scene: Father Alameida. A kid swipes Alameida’s rosary from the coffin, then sells it the street to an American tourist, who then sends it to her daughter, Frankie.

Frankie (Patricia Arquette) is 23, lives in Pittsburgh, cuts hair, and parties. After receiving the rosary, however, she begins receiving the stigmata: puncture wounds through her wrists, then lashes across her back. A local priest witnesses the lashings and contacts the Vatican. Andrew Kiernan—Father Andrew Kiernan—is sent by his Cardinal (Jonathan Pryce in full evil mode) to investigate, even though Fr. Andrew would prefer to go back to Brazil. No dice; Pittsburgh.

He meets Frankie, finds out she’s an atheist, says whatever it is she has, it can’t be the stigmata, sorry, see ya. Frankie is like, yeah, whatever, screw you, goes out to her clubbing, and ends up collapsing on the dance floor as she bleeds from a crown of thorns. She runs out of the club, pursued by her best friend (Nia Long), nears her apartment, sees Fr Andrew (come to make nice), then takes off. Her friend and Andrew find her scratching something on the hood of a car, then bring her to the church of the priest who first notified Rome.

And on and on. More stigmata, more scratchings and speeches (in Aramaic, natch), more machinations by the cardinal, brief discourses on the non-canonical gospels, and. . . well, watch it yourself to see how it all turns out. Like a said, not a great movie, not by a long shot. Good priest, bad church, gnosticism, gnostic sayings, candles, dripping water, doves, wind—you know, the works. I should be laughing as I watch it.

I don’t.

I don’t believe it. Oh, I mean, I don’t have any problem believing that the Church has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect its power nor that it would suppress any documents which threatened its standing. But I’m not a religious person, and am not particularly inclined to believe in the power of faith.

Actually, it’s better to state that I lack faith. I actually do find it easier to believe in a god of some sort than I do to have faith in that god; I like to joke that on the days I believe, I tend to think of god in nominalist terms: the great and powerful Other who doesn’t have much to do with us. No personal Jesus, no angels, no love. Just god, who does whatever he or she or it sees fit.

When, then, the draw of this movie (besides Gabriel Byrne, I mean)? It’s the gnosticism, the hidden knowledge, the secret sayings of Jesus:

The kingdom of God is inside you and all around you. . . .

Split a piece of wood, and I am there. . . .

These are both from and variations on a theme found in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (although, it should be said, that not all scholars agree that all non-canonical texts ought to be categorized as gnostic gospels—but that’s another issue). This was among the gospels found in an earthen pot in Nag Hammadi in the mid-1950s; some of the scrolls were burned, but others made their way to market, where they were scooped up and translated.

Elaine Pagels, probably the most well-known of the scholars of these gospels, has written two books on them: The Gnostic Gospels and The Gospel of Thomas. The Nag Hammadi Library, as edited by James Robinson, contains translations of all those surviving Nag Hammadi scrolls: 12 codices, a fragment of a thirteenth, and 52 separate tracts. The Catholic Church and most Christian institutions tend to discount the importance of these texts; as a result, they have not had much of an impact in the institutional church, bible study, or seminaries.

So. The two sayings, as mentioned, are from the Gospel of Thomas (sections 3 and 77, if you want to look them up). More famous, perhaps, is the saying (as translated by Pagels) from sec. 70:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

I would like to dismiss this, but do not. Perhaps I could call this a koan and thus regain my a-gnostic philosophical cred, but, as koan-like as many of the sayings in the G of T are, I don’t think this one is particularly paradoxical.

I think it’s quite clear, and, to me, quite powerful. And I am chagrined that I do find it powerful.

But there it is. I came across this in my endless avoidance of my dissertation, and while losing a battle to despair. This made sense to me then and it makes sense to me now: if I am to live, live, and if I am to die, die.

It doesn’t mean just that to me anymore, but that was and remains the essence of this saying: there is life, and there is not.

This saying didn’t save me, any more than a Beth Orton song or my therapist saved me, but it was with me when I saved myself, and I’ve kept it with me ever since.

Does it matter that the saying begins Jesus said? Perhaps, perhaps not (here’s where my agnosticism comes in handy). Perhaps the kingdom of God was within me that night ten years—oh, man, it was ten years ago this month—that I sighed and said, Okay, I’ll live; perhaps it was just me. I think it was just me, but if not, then. . . okay.

I’m fine with the not-knowing. I prefer the not-knowing—that is kind of the definition of agnosticism, after all—which leaves open the possibility that there is something beyond knowledge, as well as the sense that it’s all right if there is not.

I feel a little silly for admitting this possibility, the possibility of, I guess, faith. Belief, to me, is not necessarily problematic, but faith? I wrinkle my nose; it makes no sense.

This movie, Stigmata, doesn’t really make sense, either. But it doesn’t make sense in a way I understand. I don’t understand why, that night ten years ago, the leaf blew this way rather than that; I see no miracle.

But I am here. Sense or not, I am here. If I am to live, live.

And so I live.