Friday, May 29, 2020

Remembering an Old Friend

I have never wished to kill anyone but I must admit it would give me great pleasure to read of certain person’s demise. But that’s not why I’ve gotten in the habit of reading the obituary pages. If I don’t spot my name I proceed to cut the morning melon and burn the toast.

Last week I did see a name of an old friend, Nick Seidita, which set in motion an album of memories. He was 98 years-old and it’s been over fifty years since I last saw him. Nor have I ever heard a voice like his. Either he was a vanishing breed or that is a measure of how far I have strayed from the path of the righteous.

Back in the late fifties and on into the sixties I was a very involved member of the Valley Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship. Most of us in the congregation were in flight from orthodoxy along with a need for some community of kindred souls. The new minister fresh out of Harvard Divinity School was Paul Sawyer. He devoutly believed in the transformational power of the Arts. It was said that the last time God was mentioned in the church was when the janitor fell off a ladder. No Bible, No Jesus. Hymns were replaced by the words of Whitman, Frost, Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olsen et al.  Poetry, literature and visual arts along with social action was our agenda and it was, for me, a perfect fit. Indeed, the Arts became central to my sense of a religious experience. It has never wavered.

Nick was all about social action. He possessed a high level of vehemence but I never heard him raise his voice in anger. He was a model of creativity in terms of moving from mere rhetoric to concrete steps for effecting real change. He moved me from bystander to player. It was Nick who started telephone trees for protests, composed and circulated petitions, organized sanctuaries for draft-resistors, led vigils in front of defense plants, arranged to supply food for the needy and he brought together diverse agencies and churches for a common purpose. 

I was part of the Fair Housing Initiative in the late 50s driven by Nick Seidita. And later I went on to bring in monthly speakers from Civil Rights advocates to black listed writers to Vietnam War resisters.

There was no issue too remote for Nick. He had a messianic urge to level hierarchies and redress grievances. He started the Nuclear Freeze movement. I understand he even pushed for the Pope to proclaim for a universal free-lunch program for children.  Nick and his wife Mary Jo were the conscience of our congregation. There must have been a way to say NO to him but I never found what that was. Every cause was more worthy than the last one.   

It never stopped. Nick was relentless. At times I secretly regarded him as a pain in the ass but I also had great affection for him. He had a certain sweetness in the midst of all this outrage. He must have been driven crazy by these dark days in which we now find ourselves. I guess he also knew when to drop the curtain down and leave this stage. For every Nick Seidita in this world there are thousands of guys like me. We talk a lot mostly to ears already persuaded. Nick never gave up. He told them what to do. And did they listen? Sorry Nick, I’m afraid they did not.

When I read his obituary I contacted his eldest son, Michael, who had a different take. He left me with the impression that his father’s words were received at a different pitch than those I heard. At least they generated a resistance within him and he turned away from politics. It must not have been easy living with a god.

I am left wondering what all of Nick’s exhortations amounted to. Perhaps a few minds were aroused. For him there was no alternative. Social action was the continuing mural which demanded his attention. He heard the anguish of the under-served and made of it a kind of music to be sounded at the barricades. It was his art form.

Monday, May 25, 2020

That Fearful Symmetry

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake wrestled that metaphorical Tiger with his bright menacing eyes and the beauty and terror it signified. Call it Evil as opposed to the Lamb in his Song of Innocence. Call it Coronavirus. Or call it mankind in the garden of good and peril. Welcome to the forest of the night and the Song of Experience. We’ve got to take the good with the bad.

The Lamb and the Tiger are the fearful symmetry in whose midst we have come to live or die. Lamb chops and fleece or a carnivorous meal? From the point of view of the virus this is The Golden Age. They are just doing what we do; as their tribes increase so they survive.

Why would God do such a thing? A temper tantrum?  Punishing us for our transgressions? Just showing off? Reminding us we share this orb with other tenants invisible even in this year of 20-20 vision?  I wouldn’t know; I’ve been truant from houses of worship since I was thirteen though I have vivid memories of stale wine and sponge cake.

Maybe this is the reckoning. We are at the tollbooth paying the price for shrinking geography and hyper connectivity via the information highway. Add to this the search for cheap labor to supply an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. Erase China from your map and gone is Costco, Amazon and life as we know it.

It took the First World War to bring us the previous pandemic as if the colossal stupidity of European monarchs wasn’t enough to fertilize Flanders Fields. God is reputed to act in mysterious ways. Does he/she really ask us to congregate? Does the great puppeteer require the hymn on page 37 and the top of page 38? To get through the night?  I doubt it. Faith is an inward many splendored thing. No edifice complex. No checks in the collection box. No Hail Marys or Baruch’as.

William Blake was an early Romantic. He lived with angels and Satanic figures in his head which he etched and engraved. I’m not so sure I’d have wanted my sister to marry a man like him. But, then again, I never had a sister. He regarded the imagination as the greatest gift of human existence which would have endeared him to me and made him a good lunch partner as long as he doesn’t order roast tiger, medium rare.

I take him to mean that our lives are precarious, a fragile marriage of heaven and hell, beauty and terror, innocence of the sheep and ferocity of the feral cat even when it is no longer visibly reduced to droplets. In our mindless rapacity we must make room. Call it symmetry. I call it the human predicament.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Out of this World

What better transit out of this world of pathogen-Trump and virus–Corona than to crawl down the rabbit hole or into the looking glass provided by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll?  His pen name derived from the Latinized scrambled letters of his first and middle names (Lutwidge). The man was a polymath of the first order.
His right and left brain spoke to each other They stammered and pondered and jostled and romped. He contained Euclid and Dionysus, axioms and word-play, in equal measure. There existed within Dodgson his mirror image, Lewis Carroll. The one, a man as exacting as solid geometry alongside the other, unfettered in flights of fancy. 

Dodgson illustrated his first book and was a well-regarded photographer exhibiting at the Royal Academy as well as author of eleven books on math, an ordained deacon and a prodigious inventor. Most of all he delighted the world evermore with his several children’s books which are all the more remarkable in their layers of meaning for adults.
While professor in mathematics and logic at Christ Church College at Oxford in mid-Victorian England he gave full voice to his imaginary life with stories told to the Liddell girls, especially, Alice, age 7-11. It was an oral gift he had, creating his own universe. Only later did he put the tales to paper.
His found the elasticity of words along with the absurdity of convention, through language. I can use a massive dose of that right now. Of course Trump butchers the English language daily but he doesn’t know it. Dodgson’s tongue is in his cheek, Donald’s foot is in his mouth. And my mouth is masked when here comes the Jabberwocky, burbling as he ambles, slain by the vorpol vaccine blade going snicker-snack and off he goes galumphing.
There is a menagerie out there in the garden. Of tiger-lilies, snapdragons and dandelions. I can hear them growl as they prowl. But it’s a peaceable kingdom in pre-Raphaelite England. And there is Gertrude Rose(n)Stein thrice declaring the flower as a three dimensional thing to be gathered now in May, tomorrow we may be …….no, not dying.
(I notice from the obits nobody dies anymore. They pass away. They go to the other shore. They are taken by the Lord. They cross over or go to a better place. Yes, there are days of despair when one (not I) is ready for that proverbial better place.)

It could be worse. We could be in some pestilential prison in a deep dark dock awaiting the sensation of a short sharp shock.
Tis brillig, says the White Knight, tea time, before o’clock. A ceremony ripe to be mocked. And we're in fine fettle so put on the kettle. Where is my hat, gone mad? Can this be the millinery-industrial complex? We shall under go to overcome.
Humpty's been dumped and I'm here with my runcible spoon. So we steep in this cup of madness yet for old land’s sake. The dormouse is stirring. Beware.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Nostalgia and History

Nostalgia has a bad name. Always has. Longing for the imagined past is an exercise in wishful thinking, at best. It is usually a sentimental journey.

In the 17th century it was regarded as a sickness, a form of melancholia suffered by seaman who couldn’t wait to return home. What greater punishment for the ancients than exile, banished from the city-state, the tent, the familiar. Ulysses, he of great turnings, left for a cup of coffee and took twenty years to return. When he finally made his way back to Penelope home wasn’t quite as he remembered, nor was he the same guy.

That’s the problem. The world doesn’t hold still for a minute and we are part of that flux, ever evolving, ripening here, rotting there. The older we get the more past we accumulate. Of course we embellish it, disremember our follies, construct composites from the shards and create a myth of ourselves which might bear only a faint resemblance to the actual. But what fun.  And there may be no witnesses around to fact-check our narrative. That home run I hit in the school yard is still traveling, last seen orbiting in a distant galaxy.

But history is actual. Never quite objective but closer to it. Genocide, slavery, the Holocaust happened whether or not we care to acknowledge it. Those abominations can be viewed from different angles but not erased. If we ignore history or contort those events we become intellectually impoverished.

The potato famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century was a man-made tragedy of stunning proportion. A blight killed the potato but British imperial cruelty wiped out a quarter of the population; one million died and another million emigrated to the U.S. In an unexpected gesture of solidarity with their plight the Choctow Nation of five tribes reached out to assist the Irish. Destitute as they were, having recently endured the Trail of Tears, they raised money equivalent to thousands of dollars in today’s currency. All the more remarkable since it was Andrew Jackson, son of an Irish immigrant, who ordered the forced march which killed half the 21,000 Native Americans.

Now, 173 years later, the Irish have donated two million dollars to the Hopi and Navajo tribes in their fight against the Corona virus. History is all about not forgetting. Grievances are redressed. Good deeds rewarded.

Attorney General Barr‘s shenanigans and the Trump White House are attempting to re-write the treachery of their tenure in office. History shall note his malevolence. Whether he is a high-functioning ignoramus or a genius of deception may be up for debate but his usurpation of the Justice Dept. carries the stench of a monarchy.  

Nostalgia sees through a rosy lens. History is less forgiving. The chronicle of these past three years is a litany of soulless malfeasance and deceit. While posing as a Populist Trump is the darling of the privileged who are now scrambling to concoct a moral justification for the naked greed he has granted them. Let it be noted.  
There are, perhaps, two distinct orders of Truth. The one is personal memory. The story we tell ourselves which cannot be verified but we are sure of it. It is our epic poem, each day another stanza, our journey. 

The other is History, elusive but more or less irrefutable. Certain events did happen. Our stewardship on this planet is being called into question. We are living in one of those historical moments of epochal change, tragic because the man in charge, the scribe has merged the two, fabricating the narrative into an agreed-upon lie.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

House Arrest

If this were a prison movie from my boyhood, Jimmy Cagney would be plotting with George Raft about making a break for it. Both were sent up the river for a stretch as lifers or maybe even the Chair. (No, not the chair!) They might crawl through the pipes or hide under the sheets and towels when the laundry truck leaves every Tuesday or maybe the priest would be found in his underwear and gagged while one of them walks out, Bible in hand.

But this is just a house arrest of indeterminant length even with good behavior. My only other reference goes back to the time I had the Grip (Grippe?), circa age eight, when Dr. Schildkraut was summoned to my bedside. I remember hoping my temperature was high enough to make it worth his while. I believe he prescribed Argyrol swabs for my throat (worthless), along with Neo-Silvol nose drops (worthless) and Compound Tincture of Benzoin in the vaporizer (also worthless but it smelled pretty good). At least leaches were no longer in style by then. I was probably quarantined for 3-4 days till my mother pronounced me fit, not to return to school yet but to take the sun and fresh air cure for one day. My mother possessed an extraordinary insight into the nature of wind. She could blame the dreaded draft for all illness and then distinguish that miasma from the curative fresh air. 

We have some eminent men and women in history with whom to share our penal servitude. Noble souls so prominent home confinement was deemed the ultimate punishment for fear of popular insurrection. In at least a couple of cases the Stay-At-Home order turned out to be a good career move. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, of Myanmar, was placed under house arrest, on and off, for twenty-one years during which time she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Upon release from her extended sentence in 2010 she was elected Head of State. However, as if to demonstrate how power corrupts she blemished her name with her indifference to the plight of up to one million Muslims in a forced exile to Bangladesh. The road to Mandalay, once known for where the flying fishes play, later became a treacherous road out of Mandalay.

Vaclav Havel was another one ordered under house arrest. The great Czechoslovakian playwright was imprisoned from 1979 to 1989 for his subversive writings. When Prague underwent their Velvet Revolution he was elected President, an office he held for twenty years. As far as I know he did not suppress dissent. In fact he released hundreds from incarceration, particularly political prisoners.

Galileo didn’t fare so well. He was remanded in his house for nine years for the heresy of not positioning this planet in the center of the universe around which the sun orbits. He would not recant nor would the sun and certainly not the mother Church. It took the Vatican another three hundred years to get around to it. They were too busy reassigning predatory priests.

Nikita Khrushchev was another one consigned to four walls at home. His sentence was seven years, enough time to become part of the furniture.  It could have been worse. He could have been sent packing in his thermal underwear to the Gulag communing with Siberian Huskies. 

All things considered house arrest is not so bad at this age. We don’t get around much anymore these days even before Corona. Slowing down and staying in place doesn’t come easily for some. Irving Berlin found it impossible to sit for long. He once lost a $50 bet that he couldn’t sit still in a chair for five minutes. I’m willing to give it a try, even to shut up for a while.