Friday, March 29, 2013

"kryon on line 1"

A few days ago a friend in my class on Unitarian Universalist history and polity did a presentation on the mid-19th century confluence of Universalism and spiritualism and it brought up many things for me.  My own experiences and history with spiritualism, by which I mean contact with the dead, ghosts, possession, in effect the supernatural, and so separate from spirituality, is complicated.  My history is studded with the supernatural and now I have a deep, abiding faith that there is nothing super-natural--that is, there is nothing that is outside nature--in our experience, up to and including god and spirituality.

My mother considered herself a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, and while she kept the Sabbath holy--outside of attending church in the morning, our Saturdays were usually homebound--she was also a fervid reader of Fate Magazine and books by and about Edgar Cayce and for decades she visited mediums and seers, sometimes dragging me or my sister along.  She spent untold thousands of dollars on an ultimately frustrated search for contact with Something Else.  When she died I don't think she was any closer to feeling satisfied with her search than when she started.  She fully, almost desperately, believed in both an afterlife and a supernatural world that existed alongside this one and that collided with it.  She taught me to use a Ouija board and divination pendulums and to read tea leaves and tarot cards.

(For his part, while he believes in a personal god and a redeeming Christ, my dad never had much truck with anything otherwise supernatural, and shortly after my mom died he left the Adventists to return to his childhood Methodism.  He says he feels more at home with the people there.)

I read mom's Fates and Cayce books and a ton of others about UFOs and communication with the dead and reincarnation and yetis and ghosts and all manner of other phenomena.  I believed I lived in a world where mysterious things happened and where I was one of the few who saw or experienced them.  For the same reason I was eventually drawn to Gnosticism, the Rosicrucians, Santeria, Gurdjieff followers, the Sufis and other secretive groups.  I wanted to draw breath in a magical world where there was something large outside myself that existed parallel to daily, mundane reality.

I question one historical assertion my friend made, that Universalism and spiritualism divided in the late 19th century each to its own camp.  They may have done so publicly but I am convinced spiritualism simply went underground into what eventually became UUism.  Nearly every congregation I've come in contact with has multiple members who cross whatever bridges Unitarian Universalists would claim they burned.  My initial experience with a UU congregation came about because of my involvement with a group of followers of Ramtha whose fringes I was on in Woodstock.  I made contact a year later with a larger UU fellowship through members of Eckankar.  (It shouldn't surprise any of my friends that I was involved in both groups because of women I dated.)  When I served a UU congregation in Wisconsin there were several closet followers of Kryon. There are members of UU congregations I've met in the hub for whom fairies are a real presence, as well as others who quietly admit to leaving out offerings for the "little people" who help them with their gardens or who protect their homes.

I will admit it now:  I am guilty of listening quietly and respectfully to each person who relates to me his or her belief in these things, smiling beneficently on the outside and inside thinking, "You are fucking nuts."

I feel that way, not despite my own experiences--because I have had brushes with something Other; I've seen ghosts and spoken with the devil, heard unearthly music--but because of them.  In each of my experiences, I've realized on meditation and reflection, that I can't be certain I wasn't dreaming or mishearing or seeing something that can be explained in some other way.  It does not, despite my earlier dread, make the world a duller place but a more exciting one because the deeper mystery is how to parse out the way my senses and my eagerness to accept something at face value has fooled me.

Does this mean, because I am certain I've hallucinated these experiences, that everyone's experiences can be explained away likewise?  Of course not.  Other people have different experiences than I do.  But I've never experienced anything I couldn't eventually accept as a naturally-occurring event and I suspect neither has anyone else.  It's not as if I don't want to believe this:  I've often said I wish I could be an evangelical Christian, not for the certainty but for the comfort.  I'm convinced there is something bigger than me but I'd call it, after Thomas Lewis et. al., limbic resonance, the beloved community being greater than the sum of our parts.  This is, for me, God, the tapping into something like the Cloud, I suppose, or Jung's collective unconscious.

I can't begrudge my mother her search and I'm self-knowing enough to recognize I'm on a similar one.  I followed her path for some distance and it eventually petered out.  This one may too, or I may round on myself and end up rejoining her.  William Blake and C.S. Lewis and Rumi and the compilers of the Zohar found their spirituality liberally dusted with language, terminology and concepts they could only articulate as magic or super-natural, and it is presumptuous to suggest I'm more advanced or a better observer of humanity than they are.  But I'm also aware how deeply uncomfortable I'm left hearing the words, "I received communication from Kryon for you last night."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

the banality of enlightenment

One of the most profound bits of information to have an impact on the way I view the world was an article I read in the late 80s that reported that scientists had calculated that there was exactly as much matter present in the contemporary universe as there had been moments after the Big Bang.  This suggests that there is no destruction, finally, that everything continues in one form or another.  A kind of reincarnation, if nor exactly as the Hindus or the Buddhists have it.

This morning I started violently from a dream that was all Japanese characters and and symbols and requires I think a Japanese imagination to parse it, but I understood it all in my dream.  The upshot was that I was a harbinger of some sort, an icon who recognized in others their specialness and my touching them brought that specialness to fulfillment.  It was very comic book influenced and full of allusions to icons that I knew in my dream and that made sense there.  Ultimately, the icon I was at the beginning of this dream, a daughter killing her father, I became at the end, my daughter killing me.  I don't remember the personifications between those two but it doesn't matter.  I woke with a sense of both the impermanence of life and the permanence of--well, I don't know what to call it.  Existence?  Being?  Soul?

It all seems very banal now, drinking cold coffee and typing like a fiend, my head down and recalling my finger exercises from 10th grade's typewriter training in order to put this down.  Even minutes after waking, splashing water on my face and noticing the birds eating the seed I leave out for them, it didn't seem to matter.  That may be the thing about it, though.  We are always expecting epiphany to have life-altering consequences and a booming voice out of the clouds and it may be that it is the mirror image of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil":  call it the banality of enlightenment.  It comes, not with a mighty wind or a cracking like an inner egg opening and the chick of new information peeping out, but with cold water across the face and the familiar tired, unshaven face staring back, and the gentle words "of course."

Monday, March 18, 2013

homily on leadership

In connection with the post I added earlier this weekend this is the order of service I wrote up for an opening worship I conducted last Tuesday for my course in Unitarian Universalist Polity, specifically on leadership and (yes, the need for) meetings.  All numbered references are to the hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.

Chalice Lighting (#473--James Vila Blake)
Hymn (#318--"We Would Be One")

I always thought of myself as comfortable in chaos.  As most of you are aware, I was homeless for three years and that is often the epitome of becoming comfortable with chaos.  I sympathize with anarchists, understanding the pull for tearing down a corrupt order to be reconfigured by new, more humane means.
But even within my chaos I’ve sought regularity.  While I was homeless I had two fixed acts:  I had to shave every morning and I had to brush my teeth twice a day.  These were unalterable.  I never knew who I might meet.  While protesting the 2008 Republican National Convention with the anarchists I got into a screaming match with a black mask over his upending a newspaper kiosk into the street, insisting, “This is not what we do!”
And I have dogs and cats.  There is little more appealing to allowing chaos to reign than dogs and cats.  Everyone knows the iconic figure of the crazy cat lady.  Less well known perhaps but similar is the dog hoarder.  We read stories about these people—dozens of cats, many of them dead, removed from a house reeking with ammonia; packs of dogs kept in a basement whose floor is inches deep in feces.  Both of these accept or maybe give in to the call of chaos but there is nothing healthy about either them or the animals they presume to help.
I understand the large hearts of people who would let their animals “just be.”  Just be a pack, just be alive, just be animals.  But imagine feeding time, even among animals who have among themselves created their own effective way of governing themselves as a body, because unless they’re free to roam outside at will there must be someone who provides them with food.  Imagine letting them outside, because unless there is a flap allowing them instant access to the outdoors at all times there will be a constant stream of ins and outs and a Three Stooges-like pileup of several trying to get through the door together.  Imagine when one gets sick, because unless there is someone to minister to that animal or take him to the vet it is very likely that the animal will die.  Or if he has standing in the pack torn to pieces by the other members sensing weakness and a chance to move up.
Within chaos there must still be order.  There must be agreement, there must be rationale, there must be a sense that someone is in charge.  While there is great disorder in the universe—we don’t know that anyone is in charge in the larger scheme, and many days it seems that if anyone is she has a nasty streak a mile wide—there are also pockets of certainty.  When we come together as one body we know that someone will greet us with a smile and a kind word.  When we confess our fear or weakness we know we will receive an open ear and a hug.  From the chaos of congregational life a group will come together to make certain the lights come on when we flip the switch, the heat comes on in the winter, the floors get swept, the dishes get washed, the grass cut, children given something to learn, an ad appears in the local paper, sick people are visited,  injustice is addressed.  To make certain that when we come together as one body there will be someone there to stand and lead us and who we will listen to and whether we agree with her or not whose wisdom we consent to.  For the sake of something greater than ourselves we come together.  We would be one, dwelling together, seeking truth, helping one another.  Within the chaos order is struck. 
Silent Meditation
Responsive Reading (#591)
Benediction (#698)  

"Our service together is at an end.  May your individual services continue."

Saturday, March 16, 2013

step off, I'm doin' the hump!

I Just Like It:  "The Humpty Dance" by Digital Under-ground

I heard this on the radio while driving home this afternoon from a meeting with two people who are marrying in June and was reminded why I like it so much.  It's all about "gettin' busy" no matter what you look like--Shock G says of himself he looks funny, he's too skinny and his nose is big, and calls out women who are fat, saying he likes girls with the boom--and that the dance itself is so idiosyncratic "no two people will do it the same."  It's a song about being who one is and reveling in it, and I especially love the closing call outs to "black people...white people...Puerto Ricans...Samoaans..."

church isn't 1 hour a week

Carl George, a widely read theoretician of a small-group method of promoting church growth among evangelical Christians, has written:
"Some denominations, like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, have become captive to the upper middle class.  How does a church keep these often materialistic, high-power people interested and involved?  One solution is to offer them a seat on the church board, or after that's filled, to place them on a significant committee, giving them veto-making authority in order to meet their power needs.  In some smaller churches, up to half the adult membership is involved in one of these groups."
Perhaps this evangelical leader's words raise our defenses with their mention of class, values, and power.  It may bother us to read his sweeping, even accusatory, dismissal of what has become conventional wisdom about new-member retention...I find myself agreeing with Carl George's observations.  People come to our congregations looking for bread.  We tend to give them the stones of busyness and pseudo-power.  Sometimes they return the favor by holding onto that power for dear life, squeezing the stone for blood in all the petty, power-driven ways so familiar in congregations.  They turn the attention and expand the resources of religious community on the wrong concerns, and they damage their own and other people's spirits in the process.  All the while...they keep everything the same...

--from Letting Go:  Transforming Congregations for Ministry by Roy Phillips

There's an old academic phrase that committees are where good ideas go to die, and that the politics of them are so bloodthirsty because the stakes are so small.  Both these are perfectly apt when it comes to congregational boards, maybe among UUs even more so.

I've seen many fine ideas full of wonder and excitement dwell in board limbo for so long and, if they emerge, do so in such a watered-down form, the person who initially suggested them and who might recognize them will have already left the church for somewhere (she hopes) more accommodating.  The sad truth of it is nowhere else will likely be more accommodating:  moving from one UU congregation to another, or even to another liberal church, is no less likely to end up sucking the fresh idea dry.

This is because our boards work best on a representational democratic principle.  While it avoids the excesses of direct democracy--everyone gets to have his say, no matter how long it may take--it nonetheless still requires everyone to speak on it, find issues with it, make suggestions to it, and hack it into portions to suit as many factions as possible before it's funded or agreed to.  To paraphrase Churchill, this is the worst way of operating a board except for all the others that have been tried.  

But for me the meat of the quote lies in the evangelist's description of liberal faiths' having "become captive to the upper middle class."  To determine the truth of this look no further than the time a majority of churches offer services.  Is there anyone outside the traditional power base for whom Sunday morning services are best?  Between the needs to work, to drive kids to school activities, to shop for groceries, to spend some quiet shalom time alone or together, to sleep in an extra couple hours, or simply to negotiate the chaos of getting children ready for church, most adults find getting to Sunday services at best hectic and at worst impossible.  I don't know how many times I've brought this up at board meetings at different congregations I've served or visited, only to be told, often in so many words, "This works for us."

Which is precisely the point.  Self-selecting criteria advantage the selectors.  If only men had the right to vote on it, there would have been no women's vote.

That we need boards and people to serve on them is undeniable.  Boardwork is often thankless and necessary.  But we equally need those people to look beyond their personal comfort and the needs of the current members if we want anyone else to attend or to show up more than a couple times.  If we want younger people and families we should meet later in the day.  If we want people who work in retail or service we should meet some day other than Sunday.  If we want people for whom church service is a full-on opportunity to connect with their community we should meet for two hours or more and have a meal together.

What we must not do is continue to pretend church is a one-hour-a-week, Sunday-morning experience that satisfies more than a fraction of the people in a community.

Monday, March 11, 2013

the end of alice review

The End of Alice Review

(Fair Warning:  The following includes disturbingly graphic descriptions of violence on a child.)

This is a horrible, horrible book. It is disturbing, pessimistic, misogynistic, angry, flush with anger and a lust for destruction.

Which is exactly what it should be. You should not write a novel featuring child molestation and murder without breaking a whole carton of taboos. Such a novel must be written because pedophiles are our fathers and brothers and sons and, as we’re coming to increasingly discover, our mothers and sisters and daughters as well.

The End of Alice is famous, or more accurately, infamous for its portrayal of the unnamed narrator who has been imprisoned since 1971 for the rape and murder of twelve year old Alice Somerfield. The novel is told primarily from his perspective, although he has a correspondent, a nineteen year old girl, who also narrates some of the story.

More on her in a bit. Some reviewers have called A.M. Homes’ third novel a page-turner, but it wasn’t that for me, either my first time reading it, nearly a decade ago, nor my recent rereading. And again, the acts it describes and the mind Homes tries to mirror shouldn’t lead a reader to flip pages (except maybe in self-defense, the way some people hide their faces during gory horror movie scenes). But those scenes are just as important as any exposition and, in some ways, may be even more important because they present us with a safe way of seeing the world from a very different, skewed perspective.

Here is a short, less graphic scene to suggest what Homes is getting at in these stabs at an unsanctioned perspective. The narrator is telling us of his responses to many of the letters he receives in prison, “Requests on university letterhead for an interview, an extensive study, a few questions to be answered, research papers, a book.” He is uniformly dismissive in his written response.

However, if you are open to suggestion, I would wholeheartedly recommend several men here, in particular my buddy Clayton, who allegedly—and more than once—fucked men on the Christopher Street pier and then pushed them into the Hudson River…To hear Clayton [who is also the narrator’s sex partner] tell it—and he rarely does tell it—the men he fucked were so taken with the events, so absorved with the back and forth of the in and out, that when it stopped, when Clayton breathed a sigh of deep relief and shot high into their asses, the men surged forward, flinging themselves into the water. And Clayton, so suddenly drained, so recently depleted and a nonswimmer himself, would go to the edge and simply scream, howl at the water, at the night, offering his arm, his hand, his fist, to the men, who were already dipping under, flailing far from Clayton’s reach…[Good] luck with the project

Similarly, his victim Alice is viewed by him entirely differently from the way we expect a twelve year old girl to behave. She flirts obsessively with him, says “You’re my captive, my prisoner,” is stronger than he is and can pin his arms behind his back. She ties him to a tree, “surprisingly…adept, if not practiced, at the art of knot tying.” She prefers not to wear underwear because she likes “to catch the breezes.” She calls him a dolt, wears patent pumps and a black velvet dress or meets him naked in her room or in the woods, threatens to kill him.

Alice is no Lolita, a metaphor for a young, intoxicating America. She’ll never grow up to be an overweight housewife and mother. She’s a real twelve year old girl but she is not a real twelve year old girl in the narrator’s imagination. She is a temptress who knows exactly what she is doing to him, every moment, up until the moment she forces him to kill her.

Forces him, because what he remembers is that when they have finally given in to the sexual tension of their relationship in a motel room, is that, having lost her virginity, she is of course bleeding and blames him for having “done something awful to me.” He tries to explain to her it’s menstruation but she won’t hear of it, saying “Your words get in my head…Don’t try and humor me…You’re making excuses for yourself…You cut me with the knife…You did this to me…I’m in pain…” In the novel’s final pages, this is how he remembers the scene as a cacophony of images and shouts, some his own creation and some probably real.

Her hunting knife is in her hand. It’s out of its sheath. She’s flashing it at me, all the while holding her stomach…”Put it down,” I say. “It’s perfectly normal…” She cries, puts her hand over the spot, clutching herself, as if she can hold it in, push it back inside her…

The storm. Lightning crashes. The lights go off, then on again, punctuating our dialogue…I don’t know why, but I reach for the knife, take it away…

“I didn’t touch you with it,” I say. “I didn’t touch you. This is touching you,” I say, touching her with the knife. “This is fucking touching you. I didn’t touch you here.” I poke at her skirt with the blade. “Don’t you understand? I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Then why did you do this to me?”

…”Why do you make me?” I’m crying. “Don’t make me.”

The first time it plunges in, there is resistence, but I’m angry, full of fire. I force it into her gut. The next one goes into her neck, a bigger splash, bright spray, the hiss of an artery. A hot, sticky fountain of blood douses everything. She makes a face and falls back on the bed, gurgling like a little girl…Again I plunge in. She looks surprised. Again and again. I can’t stop myself…

She’s in pieces, splattered around the room. Rivers of blood form small tidal pools. I don’t know which blood is which, from whence it came. The scent is meaty, the putrid stink of slaughter. I’m embarrassed by the vigor, the extent of my outburst. It is as if I’ve lost myself, broken away.

Have I made my point?

This question, seeming at first look to be addressed ironically to the dead Alice, and then to the parole board with whom he’s meeting, is finally revealed to be addressed to the reader. While the narrator is as untrustworthy as they come, he is also absolutely convinced that he has an audience. He does of course: “[If] you are anything at all, you know who I am—and find my disguise the silly childish senility of the long-confined, of the good mind gone sour [unconvincing]”. In the final paragraphs he echoes other unreliable narrators:

To you alone I’ve told the tale, do with it what you will. That’s all there is, there isn’t any more. I’m out of breath.

The deal is done…It is summer, the end of summer now…There is sky and trees, a high wire fence, a long road, and at the end of it you are there, waiting for me.

So glad to see you, I say. Missed you so much, thought about you every day.

Finally, the narrator is addressing not only “herr reader,” but Alice herself or the Alice of his imagination, the Alice who did not end up “decapitated, her head positioned between her legs, weapon…jammed in victim’s vagina…Accused apparently continued relations with victim after her death. Victim’s face and body covered in kisses. Accused dipped his lips in victim’s blood and then kissed deceased repeatedly.” This Alice will be more like the unnamed girl correspondent.

The girl correspondent, the nineteen year old who sends the narrator letters. She is important. As I said, she narrates alternating chapters of the novel, explaining her choice and subsequent seduction of twelve year old Matthew who is, unlike Alice, absolutely a flesh and blood boy. He smells. He is sweaty and hangs out with other nasty boys. He eats scabs. He talks back and calls what the girl reveals to him her “clip.” The letters, we are told, are not as full of information as the narrator would like, so he fills in what’s missing with fantasy.

After her successful seduction she is bored with Matthew, finds she’s bored with what her life has become, tries to kill herself, and is sent by her parents to Europe where in Paris she eventually leads a blind man and his dog up to her room. “When the girl brings the man to her bed, the dog grows excited and jumps up, joining them. ‘Couche,’ the man orders the hound. ‘Couche,’ he says, and the dog waits for his master on the floor.” She sends her final letter from the airport returning to the US. She tells him, “I’m not afraid of you anymore, I’m more afraid of myself.” This is the final lesson she’s learned from him.

Except that the girl really doesn’t learn anything from the narrator. There is no girl.

That there exist such girls, nineteen year olds compelled to work up a seduction of a twelve year old boy, coeds who write to famous child murderers to brag about both their crime and their having gotten away with it, this I don’t doubt. That the two might converge is part of the suspension of disbelief we give to fiction. And that at some level Homes intends for us to take the girl as a real character, I don’t doubt this either. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that Homes is setting us up for a fall.

My reasons for thinking the nineteen year old doesn’t exist except in the narrator’s imagination are these: she is just on the cusp between teenage and adulthood, and may even be the age the narrator was when he began molesting children (we know he molested many, many girls but he has only been charged with Alice’s rape and murder); the age of her victim is the same as Alice’s; Matthew is as mundane as Alice is idealized; the girl lives an upwardly mobile, upper middle class life, significantly different from the narrator’s own childhood growing up either traveling with his seductive mother (to whom he may have lost his own virginity) between bouts in sanitariums or staying with her mother; we know the narrator is unreliable, dealing with mental illness beyond pedophilia, and there is not a page where he doesn’t remind us of that; no one ever uses her name, even in his fantasies, just as no one uses the narrator’s name, even in his “reality.”

Finally, she gets away with it. What better fantasy is there for someone who says of himself he is “finally free” only upon being returned to his cell after being denied parole?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

the most heartfelt prayer I've ever heard

I'm not big on prayer and neither is my denomination.  But on reading this morning about the relation between prayer and the sense one is part of a community, I was reminded of the greatest prayer I've heard.

It was in my last years serving the Menomonie UU.  The adopted daughter of some friends had been killed accidentally in Florida--she'd been struck by a car while walking on the side of the road, a stupid, meaningless accident that leaves a giant hole in the gut because no one, outside maybe God, could be blamed in such an event--and I'd been asked by them to co-officiate her memorial.  My friends and most of their family are UU while the girl herself had been pagan, so the other officiators were representatives of one of the local pagan communities.

It was a good, solid memorial during which many people said many good, solid things.  The melange of faiths, pagan and UU, mixed well (as one would expect since there are many UU pagan groups like CUUPS to help that along) and one by one her friends stepped up to the mic to speak about her.

The mix of congregants was good.  My friends' are deeply involved with the local homeless and punk communities and they were out in force.  Much of the memorial, in fact, was punk-flavored, from the music and the dancing to the clothes many celebrants wore, torn and shredded, reminiscent of the ancient Jewish ritual of rending garments in grief.

One kid, who had dated her years earlier and who had stayed friends and close with her, stepped up to the mic.  He was disheveled and had arrived late, and had been drinking for days.  He was, maybe, 17 at the time.  I'd been warned by my friends that he might be inappropriate because of his drinking, but I agreed that he should be given his chance to have his say.  There had been others, also drunk or stoned, who'd had something to say and their words were no less powerful for being slurred or rambling.

He came up to the alter and sort of gathered into himself.  For a moment I feared he would cry and cry so hard he couldn't get anything out and I would have to lead him away after a moment.  But then he threw up his head and screamed one articulate word:  "Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!"

It went on almost 20 seconds and many of the others joined in.  I'd like to say I did too but I was too surprised at the word, the vehemence, and the appropriateness of it that I simply stood there, and looked at them all.  It was like ululation, a wave of "fucks" drawn out and shrieked, and in that moment it was a desperate question put to the universe and a cry against injustice.  It sounded perfectly right.

His rage spent, the kid went back to slouching against the wall in the back.  Another kid walked up to the mic and said more things but I don't remember who it was or what that kid said.  The kid's prayer was still ringing in my ears.

I've kept up with that kid.  He's got an apartment now, a job, got his GED and given up drinking mostly.  I check in with him and he says he's doing okay.  we don't talk about the memorial because we don't have to. he said everything he ever needed to say.

Monday, March 4, 2013

the "white marriage" of cunigunde (cunegonde)

An Entertainment
Delivered to DUUC
March 3, 2013

            Sit back.  Relax.  This is a long one and we’re foregoing our practice of community dialogue after this.  This isn’t a sermon, by the way, but something I’m terming an “entertainment.”  So don’t worry about thinking too heavily about it.
A stereotype is a sort of mental shorthand for how to think about someone when you meet him or her for the first time.  You base your impression of someone on the experiences you’ve had with similar people or on the actions you’ve seen someone similar take.  It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the way we think when we’re faced for the first time with somebody new or a unique situation.  Thus, there is often a measure of truth to a stereotype if only in the sense that one person I’ve seen behaved in this manner when faced with this situation.  And so long as we leave it there, as an example of a single experience, it remains true. 
            There are, however, times when whole peoples behave the same over and over again, with little change.  Then the stereotype becomes something more, something like a truism.  Thus, the truism I have often heard repeated in my Unitarian Universalism class and many of us have heard in religious and spiritual discussions:  UUs are guided by the head more than by the heart. 
            Today, we will operate as if that truism is not true.  But we aren’t going to be led by our hearts.  Actually, where much of the following will lead us is about two feet below our head.
            Among our Catholic brothers and sisters today is the feast day of St Cunigunde, the patron saint of Luxumbourg.  A descendant of Charlemagne, she marriedHenry II, then King of Germany and Italy—separate countries even then, it was possible to rule several at one time, at least in a titular way—and eventually the last Ottonian Holy Roman Emperor.  Supposedly, Cunigunde and Henry had what was called a “white marriage,” an unconsummated marriage, a union without union, what many today who have children have called “marriage.”  She is said to have died on this day in 1040, making today the 973 anniversary of her death.  It’s said they wed for companionship and by mutual consent did not have sex, although there is no evidence either was a virgin, and I suspect that when one is Emperor such niceties as an official wife who does not want to sleep with you makes a good cover for whatever else you might want to get up to.  Be that as it may, apparently both Henry and Cunigunde died childless.
Cunigunde was quite politically active during her marriage to Henry, serving as advisor and confidant while he was King and Emperor.  After his sudden death, she and her brother ruled the Empire together as co-regents until the ascension of Conrad II several months later.  She had apparently always wanted to be a nun—the dreams of girls I guess were very different then—and after Conrad’s succession she retired to a Benedictine monastery in Hesse and took vows.  She remained there until her death.  She was canonized in 1200 by Pope Innocent III in reaction to multiple miracles ascribed to her.
There were three.  The first is that, having been accused by enemies of the Emperor of having lovers, she walked across “hot irons” to prove it was not so, doing so without the appearance of even a blister.  How the one proves the other is not explained.   The second relates that both Cunigunde and her maid, having fallen asleep and allowing a candle to set fire to the linens, woke from the heat, and saved by the saint’s quick thinking:  she made the sign of the cross, which put out the blaze.  If you have been following news about the sequestration talks you know congressional Republicans have suggested that fire departments consider doing something similar in the face of municipal cuts.
Lastly, there is this: 
A final legend tells of one of Cunigunde's nieces, Judith, the abbess of Kaufungen Abbey. A frivolous young woman, Judith preferred feasting and carousing with the young sisters to the Sabbath rituals. Cunigunde remonstrated with her, to little effect. Finally the saint became so vexed with her niece that she slapped her across the face; the marks remained on her face for the rest of her life, serving as a warning to those of the community who would not take their vows or observances seriously.
This sounds suspiciously like a snap, or a “yo mama” joke:  “Yo mama so greasy when someone slaps her they leave skid marks.”  Given that “feasting and carousing” are the issues that the saint took with her niece’s behavior, perhaps celebrating her day with a feast is not what would make her happiest.  Perhaps all-day scouring of the flesh would be better appreciated. 
Now it’s not known, by which I mean he never said, whether the saint’s name provided the model for Voltaire’s near-virginal character Cunegonde from his masterpiece Candide—there are multiple famouswomen named Cunigunde, some, like Cunigunde above spelled with a “c,” most of them spelled with a “k”—and one of the other St Kunigundes (there are three) was beatified by Pope Clement XI 45 years before Candide was published making her at least as likely.  But this Cunigunde is a near-enough fit for our purposes.
It is a certainty all of you have heard of Voltaire’s novel, Candide.  It is possible some of you have even read it.  It’s very short, 130 pages of brief, almost terse paragraphs, many of which are recapitulations of what has happened previously.  Each chapter is about 2 or 3 pages long.  It took me roughly 3 hours to reread the whole novel, although admittedly, I’ve taught it in the past and know its plot pretty well, so I was able to go quickly over many parts. 
In the event, however, you don’t have the 3 or 4 hours to give to it, let me summarize its action for you.  We are introduced to our four primary characters, Candide (whose Latin, candidus, means “white” in the sense of simple or unadorned), Cunegonde, and her brother the young Baron, and Dr Pangloss (or “All-Tongue”), who live a nearly perfect life in a castle in Westphalia in northeast Germany.  Pangloss is the tutor to the three young students whose primary philosophy is that they live in the best of all possible worlds.  It is after watching Pangloss having a sexual romp with the chambermaid Paquette that Cunegonde imagines having such an interlude with her young, illegitimate cousin Candide, and when she takes advantage of the opportunity her father discovers them and throws Candide bodily from the castle.
This turns out to be a good thing although we don’t know it for a while.  Candide is quickly conscripted into the Bulgarian army where he witnesses a battle, trembling like a philosopher, and hid himself as well as he could during the heroic butchery. 
He escapes in the chaos and in Holland discovers “a beggar all covered with scabs, his eyes diseased, the end of his nose eaten away, his mouth distorted, his teeth black, choking in his throat, tormented with a violent cough, and spitting out a tooth at each effort.”  It is his old tutor Pangloss who tells him of the deaths of Cunegonde and her family at the hands of the Bulgarian army.  His own condition has come about from contracting syphilis from Paquette (whose name means “parcel,” specifically of firewood or kindling).  The syphilis, he explains, is “a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not in an island of America caught this disease, which contaminates the source of life, frequently hinders even generation, and which is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should [not] have...chocolate...”
Candide returns with his teacher to the home of the Anabaptist James who has taken him in and helps to rehabilitate him.  The 3 of them set sail for Lisbon on business, but there is a storm as they make the city and the Anabaptist and everyone else is drowned.  The event is the famous Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which nearly 40,000 people were killed.  The Inquisition rules in Lisbon and after the earthquake Candide and Pangloss are taken prisoner, Candide to be whipped while Pangloss is sentenced to be burned, as “it had been decided…that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great economy, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.”  Pangloss is hanged instead because it rains that day, and the sniveling, wretched Candide is rescued by an old woman who secrets him to an abandoned house, bandages his wounds, and feeds him.
After several days she leads him to another house and presents him to a veiled woman “brilliant with jewels.”  The veiled woman is Cunegonde.  Candide says, “You live?...Then you have not been ravished?  Then they did not rip open your belly as Dr Pangloss informed me?”
“’Yes, they did,’ said the beautiful Cunegonde; “but those two accidents are not always fatal.’”
Her family killed before her, Cunegonde had been raped by a 6 foot tall Bulgarian soldier who was himself skewered by his captain on finding him in flagrante.  The captain takes her in, and she becomes his concubine.  But after 3 months he tires of her and sells her to Don Issachar, a jeweler who trades in Holland.  In turn, she has been spotted by the Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon who lusts for her.  He arranges with Issachar (whose name, meaning “man for hire” in Hebrew, is the same as the son of Jacob and Leah) to share Cunegonde between them, Issachar the Jew visiting her Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, and the Grand Inquisitor on the other days.  She had witnessed Candide’s punishment and Panglass’ hanging and sent the old woman to help him. 
While they are embracing Issachar and then the Grand Inquisitor enters the house, and Candide runs each through with his sword, explaining to Cunegonde, “When one is a lover, jealous and whipped by the Inquisition, one stops at nothing.”  The old woman shoos them onto conveniently waiting horses and the trio ride to Andalusia.  Unfortunately, they are robbed of Cunegonde’s jewels and money.  They sell one of their horses—the old woman, who has only one buttock, rides with Cunegunde—and continue to Cadiz, where Candide is recognized as a soldier and given command of a ship. 
Aboard ship, they entertain themselves with stories.  Cunegonde and Candide, finding the old woman’s claim she has experienced greater loss than they amusing, listen to her story.  She is, it turns out, the daughter of Pope Urban X.  On her wedding day her husband is poisoned by his mistress.  “But this,” she says, “is only a bagatelle.”  The young woman and her mother embark by ship to Gaeta but are swooped down upon by pirates who intend to sell the ship’s company into slavery in Morocco.  Her virginity is taken by the pirate captain, and when they reach Morocco the pirates are themselves raided by a rival faction, who rip apart the women and kill all the men.  She is left on a heap of dead bodies, but found by a eunuch who was once her mother’s chapel musician. 
The eunuch makes plans with the young woman to return to Italy but instead of course sells her to an official in Algiers.  There is a plague in Algiers.  “You have seen earthquakes,” she says to her companions, “but pray…have you ever had the plague?”  The official and the eunuch both contract it and die.  She is sold off to a merchant who takes her to Tunis and begins a procession of sales of her until she ends up owned by an Aga whose city is besieged by Russians.  The warriors are starving, and after eating their own eunuchs look at the women with hungry eyes.  Their imam, however, exhorts them in a sermon to “Only cut off a buttock of each lady…and you’ll fare extremely well.  If you must go to it again, there will be another buttock.”  The deed is done but the Russians overrun them anyway and she is taken by them back to Moscow.  After her latest owner is executed, the young woman, now growing old, makes her way across Russia until she reached Lisbon, where she became a servant of Don Issachar. “I waxed old in misery and disgrace, having only one half of my buttocks, but always remembering I was a Pope’s daughter.”  They agree she is more miserable.
Candide and Cunegunde intend to marry in Buenos Aires, their destination, but when they arrive the Governor is smitten with Cunegunde, sends Candide elsewhere, and proposes to her on the spot.  The old woman counsels her to accept, and meanwhile another ship enters the harbor, this one containing officers of the Inquisition seeking the murderer of the Grand Inquisitor.  When she hears this information, the old woman convinces Cunegunde to remain in Buenos Aires, where she’ll be safe, and tells Candide “Fly…or in an hour you will be burnt.”
He does.  And we now take a moment in our summary to pass over the details of the next 10 chapters.  My reasoning is this:  they have nothing to do with Cunegunde who is the subject of this discussion.  But I will tell you that Candide during this time is befriended by his servant Cacambo; discovers in Paraguay that the Jesuit commander of military forces is Cunegonde’s brother, the young baron, who was not quite dead yet; kills said young baron when he attacks Candide for wanting to marry his sister; makes his way to fabled El Dorado whose king sends him on his way with great quantities of their “pebbles,” which are gold and emeralds and rubies, as well as 100 red sheep; finds his way to Surinam where he dispatches Cacambo back to Buenos Aires to ransom Cunegonde and meet him in Venice; is robbed of much of his fortune and finally makes his way to France with a companion, the pessimistic scholar Martin.
A moment here to pause within the pause and tell you something about Martin.  Another truism about Unitarian Universalists is that we often take into our fold famous people, like Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman, who displayed Unitarian principles but never actually said they were Unitarians.  One such person is Voltaire, who never, by the way, said “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”  His biographer said it of him.  If only, we say, Voltaire had known about Unitarianism he would have been a Unitarian. 
But Voltaire, the “brain on sticks” as a contemporary called him, did know about Unitarianism.  The word had been around at least 100 years by then.  And Martin is accused of being a Unitarian, or at least one type of Unitarian.  His accusers call him a Socinian which was a type of proto-Unitarianism that rejected the Trinity, original sin, the Fall of Man, and atonement.  They were also pacifists which is why of all of them Martin never harms anyone.  For his part, Martin explains he is a Manichean since “I cannot help thinking that God has abandoned [this world] to some malignant being.”
In Paris, Candide and Martin discover Paquette who had left the Westphalian castle immediately after Candide.  Retaining her beauty despite having syphilis, she has become a prostitute whose primary lover is a Friar.  Voltaire gives her what is perhaps the most impassioned defense of women written by a man at this time, two animated pages ending “if you could only imagine what it is to be obliged to caress indifferently an old merchant, a lawyer, a monk, a gondolier, an abbe, to be exposed to insults and abuse; to be often reduced to borrowing a petticoat, only to have it raised by a disagreeable man; to be robbed of what one has earned from another; to be subject to the extortions of the officers of justice; and to have in prospect only a frightful old age, a hospital, and a dunghill.”
We now rejoin our summary.  Candide and Martin are rejoined by Cacambo, now slave to another master.  He leads them to Constantinople where he has found Cunegunde.  She “washes dishes on the banks of the Propontis, in the service of a prince, who has very few dishes to wash…”  She has become a slave herself; but what is worse:  she is ugly.
“Handsome or ugly,” Candide replies, “I am a man of honor, and it is my duty to love her still.” 
On the final leg of their journey, Candide, Martin and Cacambo board a galley which takes them up the Propontis.  The galley is staffed by slaves, two of whom row very badly.  These two slaves are, of course, the young baron and Dr Pangloss. 
Yes, the young baron survived Candide having run his sword to the hilt in his chest.  He was taken prisoner by Spaniards but released to return to Rome where he became chaplain to the French ambassador.  Unfortunately, he took a bath with a Muslim, which is illegal in Constantinople, and sentenced to the galleys.
Pangloss, on the other hand, was hanged badly.  His body was sold to a surgeon who resurrected him.  He ended up hired to a merchant who took him to Constantinople.  There he enters a mosque where he picks up a bouquet of flowers dropped by a young Muslim woman and returns them by stuffing them into her cleavage and then arranging her breasts around them.  That’s how he ended up on the galley. 
They arrive at their destination and are welcomed by Cunegonde and the old woman hanging towels out to dry.  Cacambo was correct:  Cunegunde has indeed grown ugly.  She is brown, “with blood-shot eyes, withered neck, wrinkled cheeks, and rough red arms…”  Candide is repulsed but steps forward to embrace her out of good manners.
Ransoming both the old woman and Cunegunde, the group determines to persevere.  “At the bottom of his heart Candide had no wish to marry Cunegunde,” but there really is nothing for it since, as he points out, he is a man of his word.  Similarly Pangloss, as he is a philosopher and can’t change his mind, has retained his optimistic view that everything is for the best despite having syphilis and being killed. Once the recalcitrant young baron, who remember has been killed twice, insisting to his future brother-in-law, “You may kill me again but you will not marry my sister!”, is kidnapped and smuggled back to Rome, Candide  marries Cunegunde and with Pangloss, Martin, Cacambo, Paquette and her Friar, now a Muslim, and the old woman, settles into an estate where they are equally miserable and bored.
The group makes the acquaintance of a Muslim farmer whose “labor preserves us from the three great evils—weariness, vice, and want.”  They take his example and, as Martin puts it, “Let us work…without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”  Or as Candide puts it in the famous last words of the novel, “All that is very well…but let us cultivate our garden.”
Well.  What are we to make of all this?  Sex, death, murder, gore, resurrection, pirates, the Inquisition, Muslims, South Americans, burning alive, hanging, venereal disease, cannibalism, El Dorado, women with monkeys as lovers (I left that part out), popes, chocolate, wine, philosophy, disputation, all served up in a magilla of the human condition.  Candide is famously a picaresque, a novel of fanciful characters in which impossible things happen and fantastic characters appear and a great lesson about life is learned.  What is the great lesson?  I’m unsure, perhaps that it’s better to be alive than to be dead.  Perhaps that work sustains life better than thought, an odd lesson for a philosophical novel.
But all that is, as the old woman says, a bagatelle.  Consider:  Cunegonde is unaware that she’s become ugly as no one has ever told her.  There’s surely a great lesson somewhere in there.  Martin’s mantra is “That is the way men treat each other,” and there’s a great lesson somewhere in there, too.  Candide, while repulsed by her, nonetheless marries her and settles into something like contentment, and surely there’s a great lesson somewhere there.  It might be, as the original Cunigunde’s union, a “white marriage,” but there’s no suggestion that Candide and Cunegonde do not make good on their intent to make the beast with two backs, although perhaps not as lustily as they’d expected to.  It has been years, after all, and they’ve been very, very busy. 
     What is certain is that this is the great lesson I’ve taken from the novel:  that if we have anything like a responsibility to life it is to leave the world in a little better shape than we found it.   Whether it is by gardening or adding laughter to the music of the spheres or feeding the birds or the homeless, it should lead inevitably to the culmination, in Judy Chicago’s words, that “everywhere will be called Eden once again.”

Friday, March 1, 2013

I remember rock and roll radio

One of the greatest pleasures when I was an adolescent growing up in rural upstate New York was listening to the radio.  Not so much during the day; we lived in the foothills of the Berkshires and there were only a few stations we got in clearly enough, and most of them were country music (made up of the likes then of Charlie Rich, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, and the Oak Ridge Boys, although my folks listened often enough that I was aware of Jerry Reed and Charlie Pride and Hoyt Axton) or bubblegum and disco (although one of my favorite songs is disco) or easy listening (nope, there's nothing I fondly remember of that.  Except that my dad would hum and whistle along to the songs while driving).

But at night I could pull in stations from far, far away on my little clock radio.  At first I had one that was only AM but I managed late at night--after 10, when the local stations had signed off--to catch WNBC (where I first heard the non-"Angie" Rolling Stones and Al Green) and WKBW (whose edited-in station ID--"KB15, music machine"--I can still hear listening to some of that era's songs) and WLS all the way in Chicago (where I first heard Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" and David Bowie).  But then I saved my money after working the neighbor's farm for a summer and bought an AM/FM one whose dial stayed on frequency more reliably.  I could receive more stations but I'm shame-faced to admit I listened most often to WRVE "Rock 99," a contemporary hits station that played commercial-free all night long.  While it had more than its share of bubblegum--Sean Cassidy and The Pointer Sisters and Richard Harris (!)--between them I could reliably hear Led Zeppelin and Bowie and Stevie Wonder and my beloved Al Green.

When I first saw this Ramone's video I identified with the lines "do you remember lying in bed, with the covers pulled up over your head, radio playing so no one can see?"  That was exactly how I experienced rock and roll radio.  And while admittedly I listened to a lot of crap during that period--how could one avoid it?--I also heard enough to buy Devo's Are We Not Men? and John Lennon's Rock n Roll and Bowie's Diamond Dogs and David Live and Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? and nearly everything ever recorded by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

If it sounds as if I'm declaring my bona fides, I suppose that I am.  I'll own it--I am part of the reason rock and roll sucked the big moose (a local high school phrase) in the mid and late 70s.  But I was also among the first in line when Rock N Roll High School opened at Allston Cinema.