Monday, December 30, 2013

THE YEAR IN REVIEW AND THE YEAR AHEAD

MAN LOOKING OUT OF TOP FLOOR WINDOW
EDGECLIFFE AVE., SILVER LAKE
DECEMBER 26, 2013

I'm ruminating on the year past and the year to come

One thing I see is that we cannot afford the slightest bit of resentment, bitterness and/or hatred. And I, for one, am utterly powerless to get rid of any of that on my own. No use trying to assert my "willpower," which only wants to win and will convince me that NOT loving the person in question is the goal and some kind of twisted triumph.

To that end, 2014 promises to be a learning year. A year with a lot of travel and a lot of people..

"Today, listen to the voice of the Lord
Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness
when at Meriba and Massah they challenged me and provoked me
Although they had seen all of my works"...

--Psalm 95



Saturday, December 28, 2013

THE LAND OF COUNTERPANE



WHEN I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

--Robert Louis Stevenson, 1913

Here's a youtube my friend Phillip sent along called The Theology of the Cross and Walking With a Limp. Like Jacob when he wrestled with the angel, we are going to acquire a limp. Still, we keep walking.

And sometimes--we get to lie in bed and read.





Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"AND THE BABY?": A CHRISTMAS STORY FROM CHRIS HEDGES

FOLLOWING THE STARS
Illustration from the
LIVRE DES MERVEILLES (compiled in 1351)
Christmas seems a strange day to turn to a book about war.

But in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, journalist Chris Hedges tells this story about new life and a lowly cow and an old man who sacrificed so that the light shine for someone else. I read the passage months ago and instantly thought: Christmas...

“I sat one afternoon with a Bosnain Serb couple, Rosa and Drago Sorak, outside of the Muslim enclave of Goražde where they had once lived. They poured out the usual scorn on the Muslims, but then stopped at the end of the rant and told me that not all Muslims were bad. This, they said, was their duty to admit.

During the fighting in the bleak, bombed-out shell of a city that was Goražde, where bands of children had become street urchins and hundreds of war-dead lay in hastily dug graves, a glimmer of humanity arrived for the Soraks in the shape of Fadil Fejzić’s cow. The cow forged an unusual bond between Fejzić, a Muslim and his Serbian neighbors, the Soraks.”

Hedges goes on to describe the internecine fighting. Muslim police took the Soraks oldest son, Zoran, away for questioning. Zoran never returned. Their next eldest son was struck by a car and killed.

“Five months after Zoran’s disappearance, his wife gave birth to a girl. The mother was unable to nurse the child. The city was being shelled continuously. There were severe food shortages. Infants, like the infirm and elderly, were dying in droves. The family gave the baby tea for five days, but she began to fade.

'She was dying' Rosa Sorak said. 'It was breaking our hearts'…

'On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door,' said Rosa Sorak. 'It was Fadil Fejzić in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia.'

The Soraks eventually left and took over a house that once belonged to a Muslim family in the Serbian-held town of Kopaci, two miles to the east. They could no longer communicate with Fejzić.

The couple said they grieved daily for their sons. They missed their home. They said they could never forgive those who took Zoran from them. But they also said that despite their anger and loss, they could not listen to other Serbs talking about Muslims, or even recite their own sufferings, without telling of Fejzić and his cow. Here was the power of love. What this illiterate farmer did would color the life of another human being, who might never meet him, long after he was gone. In his act lay an ocean of hope.

'It is our duty to always tell this story,' Drago Sorak said. 'Salt, in those days, cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious, all the more so because it was hard to keep animals. He gave us 221 liters. And every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes, we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and the sound of Fadil Fejzić’s footsteps on the stairs.'

Fejzić fell on hard times after the war. I found him selling small piles of worm-eaten apples picked from abandoned orchards outside the shattered remains of an apartment block. His apartment block had been destroyed by artillery shells, leaving him to share the floor of an unheated room with several other men. His great brown-and-white milk cow, the one the Soraks told me about, did not survive the war. It was slaughtered for the meat more than a year before as the Serbian forces tightened the siege. He had only a thin, worn coat to protect him from the winter cold. When we spoke he sat huddled in the corner of a dank, concrete-walled room rubbing his pathetic collection of small apples, many with brown holes in them, against his sleeve.

When I told him I had seen the Soraks, his eyes brightened.

'And the baby' he asked. 'How is she?' ”

ANGELS APPEARING TO THE SHEPHERDS,
JACQUEMART DE HESDIN (1350-1410)

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!! THANK YOU FOR THE YEAR-LONG GIFT OF YOUR PRESENCE AND READERSHIP.  AND TO ALL A GOOD MORNING, DAY, AND NIGHT....

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

DUST MOTES AND CIGARETTE SMOKE: A PAINTER WEIGHS IN FROM BROOKLYN...


From a reader:

Heather,

Painted some snow-filled pots two days ago in my icy backyard.
Beforehand I was thinking about the capitalism that is grinding up all
social cohesion and about the american-led war against all the
little/ancient societies of the globe. Thinking, what in god's name
can be done? How to fight back?

Then, during painting, how I would never want painting to be part of
any political struggle except on its own insignificant terms - just
observing/participating-in whatever little corner of existence I find
myself in - a fence, some brown reeds, steaming humps of snow.

And after: how it's really just us, the devil, Mary, and the child in
her womb in whatever little corner of the world we're in. And she
seems to know almost nothing, just a little corner of Palestine, not
even about sex. While the evil one seems to control everything, know
everything (is probably reading this email), twist everything…

But her victory is so obvious, so utter. Even the brilliant, huge
counter-refomormation paintings seem to miss how _completely_ she
crushes him (she's the one we call "terribilis," not him). Yet the
truth is shot like radiation through everyday material: the warm
shadow in the folds of a crumpled tissue, the broken pencil point left
on a church pew, dust motes in light, the microclimate of a hot
sidewalk. In short, our millennia-old, common existence, which we're
now mostly too busy to notice, but which menaces us and loves us
still.

Then again, there is a dull horror to the everyday - old wounds that
should have healed but haven't. STUPID misunderstandings that no
amount of explaining seems to be able to overcome. Anger buried and
exhumed. THe sudden awareness of lost years.

We don't live on light and dust motes alone, as much as I sometimes
wish we could. There is the whole social dimension. THe need for
justice. The need to keep talking, keep trying to understand and to
make clear. The Not Yet.

Anyway, here is a painting of a plant and some objects in my studio at
night. Thanks for your openness, your willingness to talk to
strangers, your beautiful photographs, and for LA (never been there
except to smoke a cigarette outside the Amtrak station - I'll never
forget the thickness of the light, smell of the plants and the heat of
the sidewalk!).

I'm also attaching the snow-filled pots mentioned above.

Merry Christmas!

Matt (brooklyn, ny)
See more at http://mkkirby.wordpress.com/.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A COURSE IN CHRISTMAS MIRACLES



"For some extraordinary reason, there is a fixed notion that it is more liberal to disbelieve in miracles than to believe in them. Why, I cannot imagine, nor can anybody tell me."
--G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

A friend recently asked my take on a passage that began: "One of the keys to survival is to know deep in one’s heart no one is coming to save you. Because as long as the person who is in a dire situation thinks that is so, then they sit and wait. They don’t go on about the business of living in that place. Rather, they wait for someone to save them so that then they can resume living."

"Because obviously," my friend continued, "we all have to come to grips with the fact that no-one's coming. No-one's going to save us."

I thought about how the mark of a follower of Christ is to believe in miracles, in magic, in angels and prophetic dreams and saints. I thought about which is more sublime, more clear-eyed, harder: to stop waiting, to harden your heart against waiting; or to wait in hope, your whole life, for someone you know will never come. I thought about how the greatest story ever told ends with a wedding.








FROM THE NORTH SIDE OF THE SILVER LAKE RESERVOIR.
I PARKED ON SILVER LAKE BOULEVARD
AND DASHED ACROSS THE STREET AGAINST TRAFFIC TO TAKE THESE
LAST TUESDAY NIGHT,
JUST AFTER 5:30 MASS AT HOLY FAMILY IN GLENDALE

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A POEM FROM DANA GIOIA: THE GODS OF WINTER

HAPPPY WINTER SOLSTICE!




ROUGH COUNTRY

Give me a landscape made of obstacles,
of steep hills and jutting glacial rock,
where the low-running streams are quick to flood
the grassy fields and bottomlands.
A place
no engineers can master–where the roads
must twist like tendrils up the mountainside
on narrow cliffs where boulders block the way.
Where tall black trunks of lightning-scalded pine
push through the tangled woods to make a roost
for hawks and swarming crows.
And sharp inclines
where twisting through the thorn-thick underbrush,
scratched and exhausted, one turns suddenly
to find an unexpected waterfall,
not half a mile from the nearest road,
a spot so hard to reach that no one comes–
a hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies
and nesting jays, a sign that there is still
one piece of property that won't be owned.

--Dana Gioia, from The Gods of Winter, 1991



Thursday, December 19, 2013

THE L.A. ARBORETUM




We're enjoying our annual "five days of winter," as my gardener friend Judy puts it. The other day, in the rain, I visited the L.A. Arboretum

It was cold, raining, and quiet. The very few folks wandering the 125 acre-grounds besides me were swaddled in down parkas and scarves.



















Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.

By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing back
one sees the path
that must never be trod again.

--ANTONIO MACHADO (1875-1939)


COOKING FOR CHRISTMAS

photo:
bill brandt
parlourmaid and underparlourmaid ready to serve dinner.1933
Christmas afternoon I will lift the roasted radicchio aloft, swirl the butter for the flageolets au gratin, mince the black oil-cured olives for the tapenade, and slip four thyme-and-rosemary encrusted racks of lamb into the oven.

Yes, I'll be cooking. Meanwhile, my room is tricked out with so many lights, candles, and tinsel-draped icons that it could double for a minor grotto at Lourdes.

The pepper tree outside my window is dripping with festive pink berries.

The first camellias are in bloom.

The O antiphons are about to begin in Evening Prayer.

God came into the world as an exiled baby, a mentally ill person, a drunk.

Some of us--often the best of us--embody all three.



Tuesday, December 17, 2013

LIMB FROM LIMB: A CHRISTMAS STORY, PART 2

DAD WITH ALLEN JR. AND JEANNE,
c. 1952
COTD. FROM PART 1...

The next morning, the doctor called to say Dad had very slightly improved. Giddy with relief, Ross, Tim and I got up early and headed off for the hospital. In the car, we turned the heat on high: it was twenty below and Ross had on a windbreaker that would have been appropriate for Maui. We passed the Post Road Cemetery, its stones decorated with miniature pine wreaths or brown, frost-stiffened bouquets. A few years ago, my father had bought four plots here--two for him and my mother, and a couple of extra so as to spare at least two of us from being laid to rest in Potter's Field.

Coming into town, the anesthetic detritus of Christmas--the styrofoam snowman in the window of Dunkin' Donuts, "Season's Greetings" spelled out on the Rite-Aid marquee--seemed coarse and out-of-place, like a stripper at a funeral. As we pulled into the parking lot of the hospital, I could hardly speak: I'd never seen my father in a hospital before. What if I didn't recognize him? I wondered with mounting panic. What if he had yellow skin and sunken eyes? What if I fainted?

We filed in past a silver aluminum tree, buzzed the ICU desk and then we were crowding into his room and there he was, lying in bed with the blanket pulled up to his chin. A forest of tubes sprouted from the direction of one wrist, concealed beneath the bedclothes, and his face was gaunt. Still, he looked happy in a dazed sort of way, drinking us in with his faded hazel eyes.

"What the hell have you got that on for?" he greeted us weakly, zeroing in on Ross's windbreaker. "Take my down jacket from the hall closet, you'll freeze to death, for God's sake."

My stomach stopped churning for the first time in three days. He was still alive. He was still worrying. He was still ours.

"How're you feeling, Al?" Tim asked.

"A little tired," he admitted--A little tired! He was practically dead--"but Jeez, isn't this a treat. Can't remember the last time I got so much attention."

"So what's wrong, anyway?" I asked, leaning over to kiss him. "Have you talked to the doctor?"

"Who knows?" he replied, dismissing the whole bothersome subject with a wave of his frail hand. "Kidneys are fouled up or something,"

This might have been exasperating, except for the fact that after a minute or two I realized he had very little idea of what was going on. Programmed to keep up his end of the conversation at any cost, he kept repeating the same questions about yesterday's flight and the wind chill factor. While one or the other of us corroborated that yup, it had been a 747, or agreed that no two ways about it, we were definitely in the middle of a cold snap, I studied his mouth and eyes and banged-up bricklayer's hands, as if the exercise of sheer concentration might keep him alive indefinitely.

Every so often his old self glimmered through the fog. "Ran into Pearl Tibbetts at Demoulas' last week, must be twenty, twenty-five years since I saw her," he announced at one point. "Boy, is she fat. Looks like someone stuck an air hose in her rear end and pumped her up like a balloon." We all guffawed like a bunch of third-graders, while Dad giggled slyly: an air hose stuck up someone's "rear end" is the type of image calculated to send my entire arrested-development family into uncontrollable laughter. Beneath the white cotton blanket, his own body looked like the body of a puppet, a tangle of sticks and string.

"Time to check for blood clots," the nurse announced cheerfully, wheeling in a refrigerator-sized machine elaborate with gauges and tubes.

"We'll just wait in the hall till you're done," Ross said, as we hastily gathered up our coats.

"Oh, hang around, for Crimey's sake," Dad said graciously. "How often do we get to visit, anyway?"

Ross and I exchanged incredulous glances, unsure of the protocol for this novel situation. I snooped through the bedside table, checked out the bulletin board and trial-flushed the toilet, trying to look nonchalant. The whole time, though, my peripheral vision was glued to the nurse, who was slathering green gel on my father's right leg and running what looked like the end of a computer cable up and down his calf.

"It's showing up on that camera monitor," she said, gesturing to a grainy image in black and white by the bed. "Go on, take a look."

I glanced doubtfully at Dad. "Go ahead," he motioned casually, as if it were no big deal, as if we had all been hanging around in hospital rooms for years checking out the inside of each other's bodies on TV screens. I approached gingerly. The monitor displayed a mass of undulating waves, the spongy tissue a flow of molten lava, the veins dark pulsating holes.

"Wow," I reported. "There's stuff moving around in there I bet you never even knew you had."
It was mesmerizing but, out of the corner of my eye, I was straining, nervous but excited, to get a look at the real leg, exposed at last after all those swaddled years.
My heart turned over at the sight of it, bent at the knee and veined with pale blue, laid out on the white sheet like a cut of baby lamb. There was something holy about it, that flesh enfleshed again in my brothers and sisters and me. For the first time I understood those reliquaries in Italian churches: tiny glass caskets housing fragments of saints: a fingernail paring, an eyelash, a swatch of bloody shirt.

"Chrissake," Geordie marvelled that night at dinner, "when I helped him to the bathroom this morning, his nightie hiked up and I got a glimpse of his thigh. Coupla more inches and I could have seen his privates."

We all agreed that would have been going too far: a shock, like seeing the face of God, that none of us could survive.

Over the course of the next few days, there were more sightings: a forearm, a shoulder, a foot. We reported back in detail, each of us avid with curiosity. The physical aspect was fascinating enough, but what really thrilled us was that he was letting us see him. It was as if his suffering had burned away a lifelong layer of modesty and fear, exposing a more vulnerable, fully human father than we had ever imagined.

After three days they moved him from intensive care, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. They had him on massive amounts of Lasix, a diuretic, but his kidneys were functioning at only ten percent of their capacity and he still wasn't "voiding." This would have been bad enough by itself but, coupled with congestive heart failure, it was especially serious.

Luckily, there was a solution, at least to the kidney problem: dialysis. This was a concept to which I had never devoted a moment's thought other than that it was some vague procedure undergone by other people's relatives. Now it seemed a beautiful word, like wisteria or lullaby. Dialysis. Three times a week, the doctors informed us, he would have all the blood pumped out of his body, detoxified and pumped back in. Each session would take four hours. None of us knew how my father felt about what would, under even the most optimistic scenario, be a major physical, psychological and lifestyle change: as usual, he kept all that hidden away to spare us from worry.

"Beats the alternative," he shrugged, then turned to Skip and asked him how his wife was doing.

He had his first treatment in the hospital, two big plastic tubes coming out of his neck, one pushing the bad blood out, the other pulling the good blood back in, attached to a giant humming machine with an artificial kidney that filtered out all the toxins. He was hooked up like that for two and a half hours. He would have preferred to be alone, but the dialysis people said someone should be there with him. Meredith and I relieved Joe for the final forty-five minutes.

"They just wanted us to come sit with you," she told him. "You don't have to actually talk." Still, he valiantly kept up his usual running patter about the weather, the Celtics, the cost of gasoline. Outside the window, clouds scudded across a lowering sky and black branches were lofted with snow. "Crimey's sake, they better let me out of here pretty soon," Dad winked feebly, "I've got chores to do at home." One ghostly arm supported his head--a bruise bloomed near the wrist--and a pallid foot drooped over the lower end of the bed.

"Only twenty more minutes to go," the nurse said.

He had three days' worth of stubble on his face and he looked exhausted, the tubes hanging out of his neck, pumping blood. For a moment, he fell uncharacteristically silent and stared into space. He must be wishing the hell they'd unhook him, I thought. He must be dying to get back to his room and go to sleep. He looked up at Meredith with bleary eyes.

"You need some money to get that transmission fixed?" he asked.

*****


The black dress I'd packed was superfluous now, but beneath the sense of reprieve flowed the aching thought: how much longer can he last?

When Tim and I went in to say goodbye Wednesday morning, Dad was sitting up in bed in his johnny and a cotton kimono that made him look like a Japanese monk. He took a sip of coffee and his hand trembled, but only slightly. The occupational therapist, a felt Santa pinned to her lapel, came in to check his balance. She made him bend down and pick up a magazine off the floor, then held it in the air just above his reach and had him grab for it.

"I'm still a little shaky," he apologized, but they told him he was doing fine. They were going to release him that afternoon.

"That's great, Dad," I said, wiping away a crumb from the corner of his mouth, "you'll be home in time for New Year's." Now that it was time to go, I was filled with big adrenaline-fueled jolts of emotion so overwhelming I was afraid I'd do something weird, like drop to the ground and kiss his feet or cry so hard I hyperventilated.

What if we never see each other again? I thought wildly, and I knew he was thinking the same thing, because when I sat down on the edge of the bed to say goodbye, he started crying, too. His hair smelled of Vitalis, the way it had for forty years, and his thin shoulders looked as delicately virginal as a young girl's. He would never yield up his secrets, never let on how he truly felt, but I finally saw it didn't matter. For one incandescent moment, I was so grateful for the whole heartbreaking miracle of existence that all I could say was "Thank you." "Thank you," I kept saying, his bony frame trembling in my arms, and I was thinking of the strange, grace-filled way that out of all the parents in the universe we get our parents, and our parents, out of all possible children, get us.

From the doorway, where Ross and Skip were waiting, I turned and waved one last time. He was perched on the side of the bed, his hand raised in farewell, his smile luminous, his shins--waxy, hairless, the translucent white of those glow-in-the-dark icicles we used to hang on the tree each December—[wrong word] triumphantly exposed.

By the time we got back to California, it was time to take down the tree, wrap the crèche in newspaper, throw out the cards. In one way it seemed as if Christmas had passed my family by that year: it was only afterwards I grasped in a whole new way that Christmas never ends. Those disembodied limbs floated back to L.A. alongside our 747, hovered in my mind's eye, assimilated themselves into something deeper than even my bones and blood.

They are hidden away again now, shrouded in the mystery of love made perpetually incarnate in eyes that will one day go blind, hands that will falter, hearts that will stop. They are in that place within my deepest core where it is Christmas all the time.

THE KING FAMILY (MINUS ALLEN AND JEANNE),
c. 1964

THE LAST RUN, JUNE, 1990
MERRY CHRISTMAS, DAD AND MOM!

Monday, December 16, 2013

LIMB FROM LIMB: A CHRISTMAS STORY

DAD IN THE KITCHEN OF 108 POST ROAD
CUTTING A LOAF OF HIS HOME-MADE BREAD,
LATE 80'S

Part I of a story I wrote about the Christmas of 1998.

LIMB FROM LIMB


My father is so obsessively modest that, until recently, it was a standing family joke that the only parts of his body my five brothers, two sisters and I had ever seen were his hands, neck and face. He kept the rest swathed, even in the midst of a New England heat wave, in a long-sleeved chambray work shirt , Sears jeans and a pair of construction boots. For our father to have walked around in shorts or sandals or even a T-shirt would have been tantamount to a regular father parading around the house in a jockstrap.

The way he hid his body was a paradigm for Dad's whole wary approach to life. If one of us wanted to learn how to swim, he reminded us of the boy who pitched over the side of a boat and drowned when his feet got tangled in fish line. If we wanted to climb a mountain, he had heard of someone who wandered off the trail and froze to death in a snowbank. In the parking lot of a grocery store, he railed against careless shoppers who left their carts on an incline where they could roll, pick up momentum and barrel into unsuspecting motorists.

I, for one, so carefully heeded his warnings that I was not only afraid to swim, climb mountains or drive, I was also afraid to hold an opinion, speak to other human beings or, this was many years later, venture more than a few hundred feet from my fetid room and bottle of gin. Not that any of this was my father's fault. If I inherited all his anxiety, he also gave me a sense of humor to deal with it and, because we are so temperamentally alike, we have always been especially close.

When I was a teenager, for example, we prided ourselves on being the first ones up in the morning, not so much, as we claimed, to listen to the birds and watch the sun rise, but so we could sit around over pancakes passing judgment on the rest of the world. "Is it me--or is she wacky?" he'd begin a diatribe against my mother, so notorious for her stubborn streak that my father always held that while the rest of mankind was descended from the apes, my mother's ancestors had been mules. "Hey, I'm no genius, but..." was another favorite opener. We weren't much, we agreed, and the unspoken subtext was, But we're just a little bit better than everyone else.

Dad's personality was a potent mix of sarcasm and sentimentality. He jeered at the corny Waltons plots--"Homo!" he once sniggered when John Boy appeared clutching a dog-eared book of poetry--but by the end of the show, when everyone else had walked away bored, he was still glued to the screen, furtively wiping away tears.

In fact, my father was partial to poems himself--one of his favorites ended, "Some of us call it autumn/And others call it God"--and for sheer dogged loyalty to his offspring, my old man would have put Mr. Walton to shame. Dad's approach to child-rearing was to deprive himself of every luxury and, when it came to us, act like he'd just won the lottery. Even when we were well into adulthood, no blunder was so great my father couldn't overlook it, no lapse in common sense so moronic he wouldn't ignore it, no mistake in judgment so insanely misguided that he didn't get out his checkbook and try to cover it.

For years, we waited with bated breath for him to crack under the pressure--first from the sheer stress of raising eight children on a bricklayer's salary and, later, the horror of watching most of us develop severe substance abuse problems--but he sighed, shook his head in an occasional fit of silent despair and plowed  on, bloody but unbowed.

We are all crazy about him, but Dad has always been reticent about his past and I often wondered what really made him tick. I probed for clues to his childhood, hoping to psychoanalyze him, but he always stuck to the same tall tale: the way he told it, he had started farming at the age of six, smoking at eight and driving a truck at ten. "Yeah, right, Dad," I scoffed, but privately this revved-up chronology always bothered me. I pictured him a middle-aged man by fourteen, hairline receding, teeth rotting, shoulders prematurely slumped beneath the burdens of the world.

The older I got, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know his inner thoughts, his secret sorrows, his regrets. I wanted to know if he had ever lain in bed at night and wished that he'd been "blessed" with different children than the ones he got, if he regretted making so much time for us and so little for himself, if he had ever mulled over the idea of packing his shabby suitcase, telling my mother he was going to the store for a gallon of milk, and disappearing into thin air.

My own failures had been public, cataclysmic. I wanted to know him the way he knew me--and then I'd realize that I had never even seen his bare arm.

*****

Nine years ago, my husband Tim and I moved to Los Angeles. I talk to my parents every Sunday morning, go home a couple of times a year and worry about them in between. They bicker constantly--whether the nectarines are ripe, how many potatoes to cook for dinner--but they are completely united on one front: keeping my father's deteriorating physical condition a closely-guarded secret. Whether he has just fallen asleep and crashed his truck into a telephone pole, had a series of strokes--my mother, typically euphemistic, refers to these as "spells"--or been told his blood pressure is 200 over 110, Dad's response to any query about how he is feeling is always the same: "A little tired. How are you?"

Then, last Christmas afternoon, my sister Jeanne called with the kind of news you dread your whole life and that, when it comes, feels more apocalyptic than your worst nightmare. They'd rushed Dad to the hospital after dinner. He was in intensive care with congestive heart failure and deteriorating kidneys and it looked like he might not make it. When even my mother--who thinks anything less than twitching around on the floor with blood foaming from your mouth constitutes faking--got on the horn and admitted he seemed "low," I knew it was serious. I let the turkey get cold and spent the rest of the day on the phone consulting with my siblings and making flight arrangements. Lying sleeplessly in bed that night, I couldn't stop thinking of the irony of the Christmas birth juxtaposed with the possibility of my father's death.

The next morning, Tim and I met the rest of the West Coast contingent at LAX's US Air terminal. My younger brother Ross, a six-four, cadaverously thin second-grade teacher, wandered in late sporting a blood-soaked Band-Aid on his chin from a botched shave. Allen (Jr.), the oldest, regaled us with a description of a friend's bout with rectal polyps.

On the plane, Tim slept, Allen and Ross discussed their cretinous childhood friends and I tried to read. It was too late to go to the hospital when we arrived, so we rented a car and drove straight up to New Hampshire. Christmas lights shone forlornly through fir trees and the turnpike was banked by gritty mounds of snow. We stared out at the dreary winter landscape saying "Man, am I glad I live in California" and "God, I hope he's all right."

An hour north of Boston, we pulled into the driveway of the family homestead, a perfectly serviceable four-bedroom ranch that I insist upon recalling as an unheated Dickensian poorhouse where we bravely spent our entire deprived childhoods subsisting on bread and water and wearing clothes made out of flour sacks. That night, however, it looked safe and welcoming, the windows ablaze with light, smoke wafting from the chimney and a few rogue strands of tinsel clinging to the Astroturf of the breezeway floor.

Mom threw open the door, while the rest streamed into the kitchen to greet us: Jeanne, the chain-smoking, Coca-Cola-guzzling family nurse; Meredith, a fiddle-player and song writer; Joe, the 41-year-old front man of a punk-rock band called "The Queers"; and Geordie, a fishing boat captain who, having never detoxed, undergone therapy or been divorced three or more times, is known in the family as "The Normal One." The only one missing was Tim, a kickboxer who lives in Bangkok.

"Dad's holding steady," someone said, and someone else said, "He knows you're all coming," which was all I needed to know for the moment. While everyone talked at once, I took a quick tour. Everything was the same, I noted with satisfaction: the laminated place mats with autumn scenes of Lake Winnepausaukee; the dent in the living room door where, thirty years ago, Joe had tried to bludgeon Ross with a hockey stick; the L.L. Bean birdfeeder, held together with duct tape, hanging outside the picture window. These days, Mom and Dad only bought a four-foot tree, but it was still surmounted by the same angel we'd always had, a doll with blond hair for whom my mother had sewn a tiny winged gown of silver brocade.

"Sit down, sit down," Mom urged and, after bringing out bowls of lobster stew to the dining room, sat beaming over her motley brood with the contented smile of a Renaissance Madonna. The fact that we had somehow managed to orchestrate our collective presence on such short notice threw out a comforting kind of heat, like a human hearth. First, we established that we had the same basic personalities we did when we were ten: "I just read about this terrible illness where you have uncontrollable flatulence," Allen offered and Ross replied, "That's an illness?" After exhausting that subject, we turned to herpes, then breast cancer and then I made Tim, a psych nurse, describe one of his patients, a teenage boy who walked around all day with a pitcher in his hand because he had a mental block about swallowing his own spit.

Finally, Jeanne delivered the latest medical update, using nursely jargon we made her translate into layman's terms. He was on Intake and Output, he was taking oxygen, he couldn't void on his own, she informed us.
"Void? What the hell does that mean?" Geordie asked.

"Take a piss," she sniffed.

It felt almost sacrilegious to be discussing my father's intimate bodily functions, but this was nothing compared to the bombshell Meredith dropped next.

"I saw his leg today," she announced reverently.

A collective gasp went up. Our attention was riveted.

"All of it?" Ross ventured.

"No, just the left shin. The blanket fell back for a second and, between this little brown sock he had on and his johnny, I actually saw part of his leg."

"Wh-what did it look like?" I breathed.

"White. Really, really white. And waxy. And totally hairless."

Exclamations of wonder rose around the table. "White!" "Hairless!" "Never been seen before!" It was as if a group of paleontologists were discussing the excavation of a new type of dinosaur bone.

"I've seen it before," Mom protested, but that hardly counted.

"He didn't try to hide it?" Allen inquired, astounded.

"Not really," Meredith replied. "The nurse was changing his sheets and he just let it kind of...hang out."

We digested this news in silence. A massive wall was crumbling. Nothing could illustrate the critical nature of the situation more clearly than the fact that, after 76 years, my father had let one of us see part of his body without dying of shame.

TO BE CONTINUED...

ME, DAD, AND JOE,
c. 1957

Thursday, December 12, 2013

REDEEM THE CHRISTMASTIME




"Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian church in human history might be simplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible to forget how Jesus lived.” In both life and death, Jesus was opposed by the most respected institutions in the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, the prospects of institutionalizing either the Sermon on the Mount or the revelation of the Cross are not great. "The Church," wrote Karl Barth, "sets fire to a charge that blows up every sacred edifice which men ever erected or can erect in its vicinity." In every instance, the institution in closest proximity to the gospel's explosive charge is the institution we call church. As Andrew McKenna put it, "The breakdown of institutional Christianity is the legacy of the crucifixion narrative, which is one with the Hebrew Bible's denunciation of overtly sacrificial institutions, indeed, of all forms of victimization." Fortunately, however, the breakdown of institutional Christianity is not the only legacy of the crucifixion narrative. Peter's Aramaic name should serve as a perpetual reminder of the lingering lure of sacrificial thinking in Christian history, but it should not obscure the fact that the name means "rock" and that, especially in a world as radically destabilized as the one in which we live, we should not casually dispense with the few forms of stability that survive. The church, like Peter, is both a stumbling block and a cornerstone. It is the latter only when it is consciously contrite for being,and having been, the former. The inherent contradiction with which institutional Christianity is always faced was perhaps best summed up by T.S. Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday, where he wrote:

                              Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The gilded hearse drawn by jewelled unicorns is Eliot's Dantesque image for the ridiculous pageant of Christian pomp that has sometimes been the only access people living under the weight of history have had to the unread vision of the gospel revelation. Lampooning the pomposities and hypocrisy of the gaudy pageant has its place, but in light of the present urgencies such things hardly deserve top priority. The real challenge is to redeem the time and to do so by redeeming the unread vision in the higher dream. Jesus, we're told, was born in a squalid little barn. The institutions that bear the Christian revelation through history are as seemingly inadequate to the task they've been given as was the feeding trough in which the newborn Christ was laid. The fact that we are less offended by the smelly manger than by the "jewelled unicorns" and "gilded hearse" is proof that the latter haven't prevented the spirit of the gospel from having its effect on us after all."

--Gil Bailie, from Violence Unveiled, pp. 274-275