Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Simply being present"

The past month and change has been one of deaths, some personal, some better known, some metaphorical and emotional. Thus, this seems a perfect time to post this reading from Parker Palmer's A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

When we sit with a dying person, we gain two critical insights into what it means to "be alone together." First, we realize that we must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationships--the arrogance of beleiving that we have the answer to the other person's problem. When we sit with a dying person, we understand that what is before us is not a "problem to be solved" but a mystery to be honored. As we find a way to stand respectfully on the edge of that mystery, we start to see that all of our relationships would be deepened if we could play the fixer role less frequently. 
Second, when we sit with a dying person, we realize that we must overcome the fear that often distorts our relationships--the fear that causes us to turn away when the other reveals something too vexing, painful, or ugly to bear. Death may be all of this and more. And yet we hold the dying person in our gaze, our hearts, our prayers, knowing that it would be disrespectful to avert our eyes, that the only gift we have to offer in this moment is our undivided attention.
When people sit with a dying person, they know that they are doing more than taking up space in the room. But if you ask them to describe what that "more" is, they have a hard time finding the right words. And when the words come, they are almost always some variant on "I was simply being present." 
We learn to "practice presence" when we sit with a dying person--to treat the space between us as sacred, to honor the soul and its destiny. Our honoring may be wordless or perhaps mediated by speech that the dying person cannot hear. Yet this honoring somehow keeps us connected as we bear witness to another's journey into the ultimate solitude. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

My John Ashbery Story

Lost in the bustle yesterday of both Labor Day weekend and Walter Becker's death (and that is tragic; I am a closet Steely Dan fan) was the death too of American poet John Ashbery. Ashbery is eulogized quite nicely by the New York Times but I want to add my memory too.

My friend Rick Robbins has a collection titled Famous Persons We Have Known and I've often thought about writing a book with just such a title. My John Ashbery story would be one of the best, in my opinion, because I've rarely met anyone as full of grace and politesse as John.

In the late-80s, between my divorce and last marriage, I spent a lot of time spooning with many, many people (sorry, none of them were famous), and one of them was Shelley. I've spoken a little of what's become of her since but she's not the focus here. Anyway, Shelley came from money and she knew a lot of moneyed people, most of them through her dad, a nutrition guru. One day she was driving me back from somewhere up north we'd gone, Vermont or the Adirondacks, and we passed through the town I'd grown up near, Hudson, New York, in those days just becoming a tourist mecca, and as we drove down Fairview Avenue, the main drag into town, she pointed at a pretty, older home  and said, "My friend John lives there. Let's go see him."

Now, keep in mind two things. While I had grown up near the town I knew almost nothing about it or the more well-heeled people who lived there. And that this was 12:30 at night and we had been drinking wine since probably 3 the afternoon before.

Shelley swung into the driveway--there was almost no traffic on the street--and we noisily got out of the car and giggled our way to the door, where she rang the bell. The bell's sound was mellifluous, less like a buzz summoning the host and more like a relaxed chime saying, "Hello, I've come to see you." A light came on in the hallway and the curtains covering the window on the door parted a bit to admit a white, questioning face, that became more questioning as it recognized who had rung the bell.

The door opened and John Ashbery asked, "Shelley? Is something wrong?" And she said quickly, "No, we just dropped by so I could introduce my friend Bobby to you." I was a dabbler in poetry then, writing some and reading more, and while I hadn't read any of his work, I had heard the name John Ashbery, so I knew if I'd heard it then it must have been a well-known name. We shook hands and he said, "Well, come in, please." He led us to a small cozy room that I could probably remember if I'd been more sober, but I was not. He offered us something to drink, and we wisely asked for water as we had at least an hour's drive ahead of us.

So the three of us sat there in his little sitting room in the town near where I'd grown up, the so-famous-I'd-heard-of-him poet, the drunk girl from money, and the drunker me who didn't need fame or money. The two of them carried the conversation, which was good, because it mostly revolved around Shelley's family and other wealthy people they knew, and my head was reeling at the recognition we'd just rung the doorbell of a famous person and waltzed in during the middle of the night when by rights we should be sleeping our drunks off and he should have been let alone. His water I can describe in detail: It was wet and cold, probably Poland Spring and doubtless kept cold in the refrigerator, and the glass, which was the same heavy, dull glass my parents had, sweated in my hand. It tasted lemony and clear, not like the water I'd grown up with around there. John asked me some polite questions--"What do you do? Where do you live? How do you know Shelley?"--none of which really had the sorts of answers I wished I could have told him.

But I mentioned his politesse and I can describe that, if not as completely as his glass of water, then nearly so. The word I would use about him was attentive. I felt as if he was completely there in the room with us, which again remember were two people who had invaded his home in the middle of the night for no better reason than an introduction. That he should be that way with Shelley, the daughter of a friend, didn't surprise me. But that I should be treated the same way did surprise me. I remember thinking, "This man is paying attention to me, an overfed, long-haired hippie who showed up on his doorstep out of nowhere to drink his water and take up his time, and who really has no claim on that time beyond sharing his sitting room for a little while." (This is in retrospect. I think I thought more in pictographs back then as I was rarely coherent enough for words.) I never felt, either, that I was being watched closely because of what I might do or break or steal--a sort of watching I was very familiar with in those days--but because this was how he sat with everyone. This attention I think came from his being at peace with himself and with the world, an impression that he knew what his place in life was and how he was to live it. I have since tried to emulate that peace, and if I have, it's a tribute to how well John Ashbery treated me.

After about 20 minutes, he said, "Well, if it's all right with you I would like to go to bed," which sounded from him less like an invitation to leave and more a straightforward telling us of his plans. I drank the rest of my water--Shelley had gulped hers down in a quick, impulsive way, the way she did everything--and we stood up and he walked us back to his porch and bade us goodnight. We got back in the car and drove the rest of the way talking about mundane things. At one point she asked, "What did you think of John?" and I said, "I liked him. I really liked him. He was a real human being."

Here is a poem by Ashbery. I like to pretend he might have written if he'd known what my meeting him had done for me.

"My Philosophy of Life"

Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will.Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on.Not a single idea emerges from it.It's enough
to disgust you with thought.But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.

It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler.Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they'd do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again.Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
something's blocking it.Something I'm
not big enough to see over.Or maybe I'm frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I'll let
things be what they are, sort of.In the autumn I'll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won't be embarrassed by my friends' dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that's the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn't even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he's
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
this thing works both ways, you know. You can't always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time.That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don't know.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That's what they're made for!Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don't come along every day. Look out!There's a big one... 

Friday, August 18, 2017

The liminal redemption of Donald Trump


I believe strongly in redemption, the idea that anyone can redeem himself or herself with the good of society no matter what evils he or she may have done. Anyone. This includes racists and Donald Trump.The things we do, little things that we may not think about, big things we give a lot of thought to, affect other people and radiate in ways we don't understand fully. We call such things liminal, the confusing, often unconscious transition point between acting and not acting, a doorway between "Someone should do something about that" and "I am someone."

Can this liminal redemption happen? I don't know, but the butterfly effect is real. It's given us the ends of the Soviet Union, American institutional slavery, and South African Apartheid. It's given us smaller, more personal things like the cousin who checks in to make certain you're okay, the employer who gives you a second chance, the busy driver who helps you cross the street. These small acts of compassion demonstrate our humanity. They are what we must do to build us up against those who would tear us down.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It's gone too far

The past couple weeks have been maddening, chaotic, not only personally but, more importantly, nationally. It can't be mistaken that I'm in any way a Trump supporter or apologist, but I couldn't have wished on him the clusterfuck he has brought on himself.

I don't think I have to explain much of anything about what happened this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA. By now just about everyone knows at least the basic facts: that an event calling itself Unite the Right obtained a permit for a march on Saturday, ostensibly to protest the removal and relocating of some local statues to the Confederacy. That the Friday night before, various groups there for the march held a pre-march march through the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting slogans like "You will not replace us," "Jews will not replace us," and "Blood and soil." That this encouraged more counter-protesters to appear the next morning; that the rally was declared an illegal assembly after there were violent outbreaks that included beatings of counter-protesters by Unite marchers, in one infamous instance using poles (warning: not only a brutal scene but very annoying ads to get through for the video). That in one related instance a helicopter crashed a few miles from the rally, for as-yet-unknown reasons, killing the two VA State Troopers inside; but not before, tragically, a car driven by a rally attendee rammed into several groups of counter-protesters, injuring nearly twenty and killing one.

At least it used to be that just about everyone would know that back when we had three channels with nightly news. With innumerable sources claiming to be collectors and disseminaters of what they call "news," some of it legitimate, most of it conjecture if not outright wishing, a reasonable commentator can't assume everyone is up to speed in the same way. Trump, famously, is primarily a consumer of a single network that provides news entertainment and a few websites, most of which present him in as positive a light as possible. Most recently, we have learned that he may be given a twice-daily set of memos detailing nothing other than "screenshots of positive cable news chyrons..., admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful."

Which may be why Trump reported in his initial statement on the violent events as the deaths and injuries were something that could be blamed on "many sides," a statement that defies analysis. We don't say that a mugger or an arsonist has "a side." Beyond his version of events, he doesn't have a side for having done what he did that we need to pay attention to. Barring exceptional circumstances, robbery and arson are bad acts unto themselves, not to be addressed as if they have a "side." Similarly, assault and intimidation by self-identified Nazis and KKK members against unarmed protesters don't have a side. 

If we had thought Trump had reached his nadir, then we weren't prepared for what was to come. Having made a further statement on Monday making more explicit his condemnation of racism, naming "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups," on Tuesday night he made what one supposes he hoped would be a final word on the subject. Naturally, being Trump, it will not be. At least not by commentators and, one hopes, by Republican lawmakers. 

His comments were nothing less than offensive and accusatory. “I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” he began, before going on to do exactly that. In the ensuing days somehow the counter-protesters had become armed attackers. “You had a group on one side and group on the other and they came at each other with clubs – there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group." That defies verified videos of the events, although Trump explained to reporters he had watched videos "closer than you did." 

He made the further argument, "You had people that were very fine people on both sides...Not all those people were neo-Nazis, not all those people were white supremacists. Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee." There is an argument to be made that not everyone who joined the National Socialists believed in their policies or their actions. That argument can be made for members in the 1930s and 1940s. Not for members in 2017. There is no parallel argument to be made, by the way, for members of the Ku Klux Klan at any period of history. Both groups and their auxilliaries have, by their words and actions , put themselves beyond the scope of society, and while their right to exist and to present their "side" is protected by the Constitution, it is only so long as it is done peacefully, not with guns, poles, and torches, and certainly not with hurtling cars. So far as the comment about people there to protest the statues' removal, yes, they are probably "fine people," but it isn't their argument about the statue that's at contest here, it's their actions of rushing the counter-demonstrators, hitting them, and intimidating them with guns and ersatz riot gear intended to make them look like official police. 

We are at an important moment in history. Trump and the thirty-five percent of Americans who somehow continue to think he is doing a job worth approving are at the end of their influence on the important policies of American governance. I've often pointed out that more people believe in ghosts than believe in Trump and we don't allow them to run the country. 

Trump has reached his sell-by date; in fact, in the fact that it's cost at least three Americans their lives, he's passed it. The sooner he resigns (preferable because we don't want the martyrdom that might come with impeachment), the sooner the reconstruction of American political life can begin. I don't like Mike Pence as the president, I think in some ways he'll be worse than Trump. But he'll be consistent, he'll play by the rules. And he'll know not to confuse self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and members of the KKK with voters whose endorsement he wants. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

a little hope

I have, as some might imagine, much to say about the burning dumpster fire which is the situation in Charlottesville, VA, and I will say it. But today, as I've been reacting and texting, I came across a short ad that fills me with hope.

I say an ad because it's a trailer for a BBC show. Amazing Humans, and the episode is subtitled "Every Child Deserves the Right to Play." It chronicles a group of people who had an idea to help, tried it, were absolutely stunned at the realization they had no clue how they were going to accomplish it, and discovered that being there is sometimes all the planning you need. Watch it.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

My Sam Shepard Story

With all the mishigas of the past week, national and personal, I've held back on this, my Sam Shepard story. This was, maybe, twenty years ago. I was working for a company  that parceled me out like a paid friend to a number of people, most of whose caregivers needed some kind of time off. One of them was a retired farmer named Lamoine. His wife needed three hours a week to herself on Thursdays for shopping and sociability. One afternoon I arrived and there was a red truck with Minnesota plates in the drive, and a big red lab in the bed. I said, "Hey, bud!" to the dog and he came to the gate wagging and sniffing my face and mouth. We bonded real quickly, and I went over to the house and knocked on the door. Sam Shepard opened it. 

Now I knew he was buying land from Lamoine but hadn't expected he would be there visiting. I stuck out my hand and said, "I'm Bob." He stuck out his and said, "I'm Sam Shepard." Now at this point there were several different things I could have said: "Buried Child. Wow No one saw that coming."; "Fool for Love; what the hell was that?"; even, "I saw King Kong, Jessica has great tits." But I ended up saying what struck me right then and there. 

"Wow. Sam, you got bad teeth."

Because he did. His whole top row of front teeth were set back like a firebreak line of trees to protect his palate; he wore false teeth when he acted or was in public. He smiled a little and covered his mouth. We got along okay.


Cut to a week later and my wife and I are in a nearby WalMart. It starts raining and we're wandering around the place, not looking anymore for anything in particular. And suddenly Sam Shepard is standing in front of us. I went up to him and said, "Hi, Sam." And he put out his hand and said, "Bob, right?" He had his falsies in. I introduced him to my wife and we talked for a little bit about the area, the horses he planned to stable on what used to be Lamoine's land. And then the rain let up and he said, "Well, gotta go." We said goodbye and wandered around a little longer because we didn't want to seem to be following him. 


A few minutes later we were checking out and the cashier was all agush, pointing to another cashier a few rows over, saying, "She just checked out Sam Shepard!" And we said, "Oh, yeah, Sam. Nice guy. Bad teeth."

Friday, June 30, 2017

Should the president be a role model?


Short answer: Absolutely.
Slightly longer answer: Abso-fucking-lutely.

Much longer answer: Since he's assumed office, Trump has gone out of his way to rudely respond to anyone registering the slightest grievance with his policies, his choices for officials, his use of his weekends, even the tweets with which he communicates with the country (and apparently with his staff, since he often announces new and different opinions daily).

But even within his large list of offensive tweets, it's understood that his most recent offensive message heralds a new low point, and probably a new difficulty for those Republicans foolish enough to continue trying to negotiate a channel by which they might actually govern.

In trying to defend his ever-increasing nastiness, his deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Americans might be better off looking to God for behavior modeling than to the POTUS.

Setting aside that God's behavior, unlike Trump's, can't be articulated (some people get long, painful, lingering deaths, others quick ones; some places receive wave after wave of decimating environmental and economic disasters, others simply do not; there is no theology that explains that, only several suggesting we get used to it), there's also the important command, imperative to Christianity, that all adherents try their best to emulate Jesus. Trump claims and has had claimed for him that he is a Christian. Perhaps Huckabee Sanders can explain to us: What aspect of Christ's behavior is he modeling in this most recent tweet?