Saturday, June 28, 2008

A lessoned learned too well

Random Irishman #2 returned to the table with refills of our pints and hopped in to catch up with the banter between me and Random Irishman #1 (or rather to force the conversation back to banter if we had moved on). Right about that time, “the ladies” showed up to the table, finished with their shopping.

“She’s actually from Cork,” Random Irishman #1 indicated about the woman who had just sat down, “so she has that terrible accent. Show her your imitation of a Cork accent!”

Having urged many a foreigner to imitate an American accent before, I recounted a gentleman’s words to me in a park the previous day. The Random Irishmen rolled in laughter and the Random Irishwoman rolled her eyes.

Eager to get the attention off of my poor imitation of a Cork accent, I turned my attention to her silently smiling friend. “Where are you from?” I asked.

“Poland” she answered in her quiet voice.

“Oh really?” I brightened. “I’m actually a quarter Polish! My grandmother is from Poland.”

“What is it with you Americans?” Random Irishman #1 cut in with the urgency that alcohol induces. “You’re always obsessed with these fractions, as if it gives you some kind of credibility if you can say you are five-eighths Irish or something. What does that even mean anyway?”

“I was just making conversation,” I said innocently, taking another swig of my Beamish, “finding some commonality to draw her into the conversation. What should I have said?”

“Just say, ‘Oh really? My grandmother is Polish.’ You are American. No one cares about the fraction.”

* * *

The next day, when my previous conversation with a bookstore owner on Wednesday led to dinner with an English/Canadian/American family on Thursday which led to hanging out with a French woman on Friday who passed me off on her French-African friend who was in the process of passing me off on her native-Cork Irish friend, I was given the chance to redeem myself.

The native-Cork man who seemed to know the whole city stopped and gave a young woman a hug. He introduced us, and included our nationalities in the introduction. “She’s Polish,” he said of his friend.

“Oh really?” I interjected with an eagerness to learn from my cross-cultural mistakes. “My grandmother is Polish.”

“Oh, that’s great!” the Polish woman said with apparent delight. “If your grandmother is Polish, that means you’re part Polish too, right?”

* * *

There’s a lesson out there, I’m sure. It has to do with learning from mistakes, but holding the lessons lightly. It has to do with listening to people who tell you you are wrong, but not as if they are the absolute right. It has to do with recognizing your errors but not taking them too seriously.

There are too many people in the world for me to turn the pet peeve of two drunk Irishmen in a pub as a general rule of thumb for my interactions with humanity.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Home from the soaring

Most poetry does not translate well. But from the exposure I’ve had, I think Rainer Maria Rilke is a translatable poet. As I crossed the Atlantic on Tuesday and nodded off into a delightful 6 solid hours of airplane sleep, I read this from his Book of Hours:

I come home from the soaring
in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the
refrain which is God
is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still
and plain:
no more words.

To the others I was like a wind:
I made them shake.
I’d gone very far, as far as the angels,
and high, where light things into nothing.

But deep in the darkness is God…

Somehow, though Ireland is a new country for me and though I am here alone, Rilke’s words resonate in my spirit this summer. Being alone in a new country is an interesting kind of solitude, and if it is a green country inhabited by people who sing their English (after all, isn’t that what an Irish accent is? It’s not a pronunciation; it is notes and rhythm), it is a beautiful solace.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Beware of the Romans!

In addition to being seduced by Plato, I have found myself somewhat smitten with Ovid. After reading a few books of the Metamorphoses for the first time, I found myself musing that a sense of loss and sorrow is woven into the stories of humanity, and that the Gospel is not a rival to paganism but an answer to it. I still find Ovid a pretty charming fellow.

One of the most striking examples of a story that could almost be included in the Bible is that of Baucis and Philemon in Book VIII. Jove and Mercury walk through the country of Phrygia disguised as mortals, and knock on a thousand doors looking for shelter. Finally, a poor old couple open their cottage doors to the strangers, and serve them with the most elaborate hospitality their poverty can provide. The gods reveal themselves to the astonished couple, and warn them to leave the country and follow them to a nearby mountain. The inhospitable country is destroyed by a flood, and Jove and Mercury create a grand palace on the mountain for Baucis and Philemon.

Can anyone say Lot and the visitors?

Fast-forward a century later. Paul and Barnabus heal a cripple in Lystra (a city in Phrygia), and the Lyconians declare “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Why not? Everyone knows that happens sometimes; we’ve all heard the story in Ovid. They assume Barnabus is Zeus (Jove) and Paul is Hermes (Mercury), and bring oxen and garlands to the gates of the city. Paul and Barnabus tear their robes, and declare to the people that they are mortals as well, but “even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.”

The Romans had learned the lesson, but it was the wrong one. Their story had a ring of truth that even a 21st-century grad student like me could identify, but perhaps the resemblance made its seductiveness dangerous.

I don’t know if I will ever know the Great Story so well that I will never find myself seduced by the smaller stories. Like a good English major, I like to hope that these stories are so seductive because they contain pieces of the Truth, and that the Gospel is so rich because it consumes them within its redemption. But in the mean time, I am left navigating a sea of stories that seem pretty convincing when I’m in the middle of them.

To the Lyconians who live in Ovid’s world, I do not have any advice. I too am so often seduced by a good story, and when repentance turns into a story of guilt or dignity turns into a story of arrogance, I rarely have a clear idea of where exactly I went wrong. I once lived in a house of people who were determined not to be seduced by stories of the American Dream, but most of us (me at least) had stories of martyrdom and prophesy that we had to keep reigned.

All there is to do is listen, I suppose, allowing the Gospel to correct the ways I’ve gone wrong, allowing Paul and Barnabus to correct the mistakes I am bound to make along the way.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My new milk cow

In one of my favorite scenes of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye is obliged to visit Lazar Wolf. Tevye assumes that Lazar Wolf is going to ask him to sell him his new milk cow. We the audience know that Lazar is really after Tevye’s daughter. It makes for a hilarious scene.


I suppose you know why I wanted to see you.

Oh, yes, I do. But there is no use talking about it.

Tevye, I understand how you feel. But after all, you have a few more without her.

Ah, I see. Today you want one. Tomorrow you may want two.

Two? What would I do with two?

The same as you do with one.

Tevye. This is very important to me.

Why is it so important to you?

Frankly, because I'm lonely.

Lonely? Reb Lazar, what are you talking about? How can a little cow keep you company?

Little cow? Is that what you call her?

But that's what she is!

What are you talking about?

Don't you know?

Of course I know! We are talking about my new milk cow. The one you want to buy from me.

A milk cow! A milk cow so I won't be lonely? I'm talking about your daughter. Your daughter Tzeitel.
It’s hilarious in the scene. I’d like to hope that there exists a perspective that makes the similar misunderstandings we encounter in life funny as well. There are times I have stood back and watched competing sides fight each other down without realizing they are talking about two different subjects. There are times when I have hurt and been hurt, and discovered months later that I and the person in question were talking about different things.

I used to think that the way around that problem was to keep a balanced perspective. But maybe, since our perspective is always more tilted than we realize, we are in a more detrimental position when we imagine we are searching for balance. Maybe, as a humorous anecdote from French class once indicated, the only viable approach to the situation is to expect it, admitting that our own perspective and judgment may be faulty. (Speaking of French class, La Rochefoucauld could contribute his delightful cynicism to this discussion: “Everyone complains of his memory; no one complains of his judgment.”) If we expect these sorts of misunderstandings, the only appropriate reaction to our frustration in the middle of them is grace.

Grace… and, as Fiddler on the Roof may suggest, a good hearty laugh afterwards.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Driver Bearing Down Behind

I don’t really experience the sensation people call “road-rage.” But I have nevertheless experienced what this poem describes. In the prologue to Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets, a mostly unrhymed sonnet begins with the fury of Donne and the humility of Herbert (sorry of that was esoteric). I read it this morning after a fairly frail night, and I had my first moment of connecting with a living poet. Maybe Jarman will be my man.
Please be the driver bearing down behind,
Or swerve in front and slow down to a crawl,
Or leave a space to lure me in, then pull
Ahead, cutting me off, and blast your horn.
Please climb the mountain with me, tailgating
And trying to overtake on straightaways.
Let nightfall make us both pick up the pace,
Trading positions with our high beams glaring.
And when we have exhausted sanity
And fuel, and smoked our engines, then, please stop,
Lurching onto the shoulder of the road,
And get out, raging, and walk up to me,
Giving me time to feel my stomach drop,
And see you face to face, and say, “My Lord!”
Somehow it was a comfort to learn that others out there experience road-rage with God. It was also a comfort to imagine the road-rage is actually part of the redemption, a redemption with the vulnerable tenderness that can only come after a struggle.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Raid on the Inarticulate

I don't know how many of my readers are also writers or may be interested in thoughts about writing, but at this point in my 20th century American poetry class, most of what I have to listen to is about the topic of writing. From what I can tell by his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T. S. Eliot is the writer I want to become. Here are some highlights:
Tradition involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
For now I can't say it any better than he does, and if I did it would not be in keeping with a listening-blog, so I'll just include another fragment of "East Coker" that touches on some of the highlights of a writer who is in conversation with the heritage of writers who have come before.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Long Wait

Some friends of mine and I went kayaking and camping on an island off the coast of North Carolina last weekend. It sounded like a great idea.

Among the many well-conceived, ill-executed adventures, the camping escapade is the primary reason we classify the trip as a great experience we would never repeat again (“nor wish upon our worst enemies,” my brother added). We all drifted off to sleep sometime around 10 or 11, the four of us in sleeping bags lying side-by-side on a tarp we placed over the cacti and other prickly brush that carpeted the island. The stars were brilliant, satellites and meteors moved, and the Milky Way shone in its full splendor.

I don’t know how long I slept, but eventually I woke to the pain of needles piercing my face. I rubbed my skin with my sandy hands, but whatever manner of carnivorous insect inhabited the island remained. I tried to suffocate myself inside my sleeping bag to find refuge, but to no avail. I told myself that perhaps if I didn’t think about the pain it would prove only a minor annoyance, but my skin kept twitching with startling stings. There was no going back to sleep.

I finally got on my feet (blistered from a previous ill-executed adventure) and walked along the shore. I found that if I kept moving quickly enough, the bugs would not bite me. It was clearly going to be a long night.

So my friends and I, before an exhausting day of sea kayaking, wandered the beach for an ambiguous number of dark hours, waiting for the sun to bring relief. We felt like we were in purgatory.

As we waited and walked on our tired and blistered feet, we watched the stars and horizon slowly fade outside a thick shield of fog. By the time the longed-for sunrise would have come, we could only guess its existence from the blue glow that finally allowed us to see the red welts that covered our skin and the air thick with tiny gnats that continued to torture us. The sun had risen, but we were still waiting.

Like a broken record, I find myself repeating the truth that the Christian journey is one of waiting. We spend Advent waiting for God to bring redemption, and when he finally arrives he is a baby in a stable—so we keep on waiting. We spend Lent preparing our hearts for redemption, and when we are finally made to believe it has arrived we find the Romans are still in power and the resurrected Messiah leaves us with a promise that he will return—so we keep on waiting. I have always been ready for faith to be an adventure, but sometimes it feels more like a long wait.

Let us take heart as we wander the shore; the sun has risen, and the fog is not forever. Sometimes faith is not a glorious adventure; it is a long walk that we wouldn’t have the option of quitting if we tried. But, to repeat T. S. Eliot’s lines from East Coker,
there is yet faith,
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.