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School’s In

It was the first day of school. Sherry Hanson always looked forward to the first day with a new group of students. The town was small, if she didn’t know the student or the student’s family, she knew of them. Her class had some of the brightest, gifted students in the 5th grade.

Except for one name she didn’t recognize at all. “Patrick Flannery”. She looked a bit further down and frowned. He was one of the children the Touffers took in as foster children. Sherry and everyone else in town knew they only took these kids in because of the stipend the state and county offered foster families. She also knew those children rarely lasted more than a few weeks. She shook her head, tucked her brown hair behind her ears, and looked up.

The children were all seated at their desks. She’d put their names on big pieces of construction paper so there wouldn’t be any question about where they should sit. They looked at her, their faces all question marks, waiting for her to begin the new school year. Except for Patrick. His face, freckled by the sun, a small dirt smudge on the side of his nose highlighting his pale skin and straw-colored hair, was grinning from ear to ear. Sherry took that as a good sign.

After the introductions and first necessary work to get the students acquainted with her classroom, her rules, and her expectations – all spelled out on the chalkboard as well as in a packet she handed out for them to keep in their notebooks – she sat on the edge of her desk, folding her hands over her right knee. “So, class, what are your expectations for this year?”

She didn’t expect anyone to raise a hand. This always caught the children off guard. So she was surprised to see Patrick’s hand shoot up in the air.

“Yes, Patrick?”

“I heard this is the friendliest school. I’ve been excited about coming here. I hope I can make some real good friends.”

Part of Sherry winced at the naked desperation. Another part was so happy that, whatever circumstances had brought him to this town and this school, he still had that childlike honest and innocence that too many children lost in similar circumstances.

She heard Brad Adams whisper, “Good luck, weirdo,” as he turned his head away from Patrick. She was about to say something when Amanda Knox kicked him in the shins from across the aisle. A little classroom justice worked quite well sometimes.

The morning was uneventful as the routine first-day rituals passed. At lunch, she went outside to keep on eye on her students who played in the schoolyard at recess. She noticed Amanda, her friend Barb Jameson, and little Terry Peterson sat and talked with Patrick. She smiled. Sherry knew Amanda was from one of the more prominent families in town. Sherry had worried that would mean she might snub the boy’s wish to be friends. Instead, she and the others sat and talked and laughed. Sherry’s worries about Patrick making friends subsided.

She moved from one spot on the playground to another. A group of boys from her class and Ted Dawkins’ class were huddled around the monkey bars. They kept glancing over in the general direction of Patrick and the others. Prominent among them was Brad Adams. Without any question Brad was the smartest child in the 5th grade. He might be the smartest ever to go through their small town school system. Along with being smart, Brad was amazingly talented in sports, was usually easygoing, and made friends without too much effort. Today, though, the whole group seemed a bit too conspiratorial for Sherry’s liking. She walked over.

“What are you boys up to?” she asked.

Most turned their heads away, mumbling sounds that didn’t approach being words.

“It’s that new kid, Mrs. Hanson,” Brad said. “He doesn’t belong here.”

Sherry was surprised Brad had been so direct. “Why do you say that, Brad?”

“Look at him! His clothes don’t fit him. Everyone knows he’s one of the Touffer’s kids. I heard his Mom died and his Dad’s in prison.” Brad’s expression was firm. “He’s just not one of us.”

“One of whom?” Sherry asked.

“Us,” Brad replied. “He’s from Bakersfield, not here. Everyone knows what kind of people live in Bakersfield. Plus, he’s kinda dirty and he smells funny. I just don’t like him.”

“Maybe you should try to get to know him,” Sherry said. “You might be surprised.”

Brad shook his small head. “No I wouldn’t. I don’t have to get to know him.” With that, Brad turned and walked away. Sherry was left not knowing what to do when the bell rang and she had to line her students up to go back inside.

—–

As that first week of school went on, she noticed some odd things. Of that first group who had tried to befriend Patrick, Barb had been replaced by Tom Smith. She also noticed that Amanda and Barb, whom she knew had been best friends since kindergarten, were no longer talking to one another. She saw Amanda shooting Barb nasty looks, while Barb only looked sad, rarely lifting her head. On Thursday, she’d had to break up a scuffle between Brad Adams and Terry Peterson. Terry was such a small boy, but he seemed to be holding his own against Brad until she walked over, broke up the fight, and escorted the two boys to the principal’s office.

“What started this?” Sherry asked.

The two boys glanced at each other. Silence.

“You can tell me now, or tell Mr. Roberts after he calls both your parents in to join him.” Sherry had never expected this kind of behavior out of either boy.

Terry sighed. “It was Brad that started it,” he said. “He was telling us yesterday we had to stop being friends with Patrick. I told him to get bent. So he jumped me today when I wasn’t looking.”

“I did not!” Brad shouted.

Sherry turned to Brad. “Brad, why are you picking fights with people over being friends with someone?”

“Like I said, Mrs. Hanson, he doesn’t belong here.” Brad shot Terry a nasty look. “Maybe if people stop being nice to him, he’ll leave.”

“Bradley Adams, that is no way to speak or act! Ever! That’s just not acceptable!” Sherry was angry the young boy was so open in his refusal to accept Patrick.

“I asked my Dad, and he said Patrick’s Dad got drunk and hurt a little girl. In, you know, a . . . well, he hurt a little girl is all.” Sherry realized the boy was trying to avoid saying “rape”. “Like father like son, my Dad said.”

“His old man may be a creep, but Patrick isn’t!” Terry’s face moved between Sherry and Brad. “He’s smart, he’s funny, he knows a lot more about football than I do. I mean, sure, he’s worn that shirt he wore yesterday, and he kind of smells bad, but that’s not his fault.”

Sherry had noticed Patrick’s lack of hygiene. If things didn’t improve next week, she would talk with the school nurse.

“It’s his fault he’s from Bakersfield!” Brad shouted.

“That’s enough,” Sherry said. She took them each by the arm and marched them in the principal’s office.

—–

The second week, Patrick’s hygiene seemed not to have improved. That small dirt smudge on the side of his nose was still there, along with dirt on his wrists and hands. His hair looked as if it hadn’t been combed since the week before. His clothes were dirty, body odor rising off them in waves. She made the decision to talk to the school nurse at lunch.

As she walked toward the school infirmary, she heard what sounded like someone crying from around a corner. There, sitting against a wall opposite the infirmary, was Amanda Knox. The girl’s face was streaked with tears, her curly brown hair hanging down.

“What’s the matter, Amanda?” Sherry asked.

Amanda looked up, surprised. She wiped her hose on her sleeve. with her other she brushed her tears away. “Nothing, Mrs. Hanson,” she said.

“I’d hardly call it nothing if you’re spending your lunch time crying in a hallway.”

Amanda sniffed. “It’s Barb.”

“What about her?” Sherry asked.

The girl sniffed again. “She’s telling everyone I like Patrick.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “And I don’t!”

“What do you mean you don’t like him?” Sherry asked. “I’ve seen you with him plenty of times.”

Amanda shook her head. “No! I mean, I like him. I just don’t Like-Him like him.”

“Ah,” Sherry said. “So Barb is telling lies about you?”

Amanda nodded. Tears spilled out of each eye and rolled down her cheeks. “It’s more than that.”

“OK,” Sherry said.

“Well, like, last Monday, Barb and me were getting to know him and stuff? Then some of the boys started saying that we shouldn’t be friends with him. Barb stopped talking to him.” Amanda sniffed again, wiped away another tear. “She told me I had to stop being friends with him. When I asked why, she said because Brad and his friends said so.” She wiped both eyes. “I told her she was being stupid.” Her eyes welled as she let out a sob. “I’ve been friends with her forever. Why should I have to choose?” She broke down again.

“You shouldn’t have to choose,” Sherry said. “Who said you have to?”

“Brad and them,” Amanda replied. “They say it’s either them or him.” Amanda wiped her nose, then her cheeks. “I told them they’re all being stupid. They keep telling me I’m the one being stupid.” The girl shook her head. “Then Barb started telling everyone the reason I won’t stop being friends with Patrick is because I Like him.” She sniffed. “Why can’t people just be friends?!?”

Sherry wasn’t sure what to say. It seemed like everyone was taking sides for or against young Patrick Flannery. She wasn’t quite sure why the boy was such a lightning rod, but there was little doubt he was. “I tell you what,” Sherry said. “I have to talk to Mrs. Gibbons, then we’ll walk back to class. Does that sound OK?”

Amanda nodded.

After chatting about possible approaches to Patrick’s hygiene, Sherry wondered why the boy seemed to attract so much attention.

—–

Sherry was never quite sure when things got completely out of hand. Through the third and fourth weeks, it was evident that, while still having one or two he could call friends, most of the students’ free time and energy was spent arguing over why people should or shouldn’t be friends with Patrick. Old friendships ended. Kids who would never have associated with one another became close. Notes were passing at such a furious rate Sherry had a difficult time keeping up with them. Lunch recess saw more and smaller groups huddling together, exchanging dirty looks, sometimes harsh words. More scuffles broke out. One of them involved Barb and Amanda. Sherry had to lift Amanda off her former friend. If she hadn’t, Amanda might well have smashed Barb’s face in to the asphalt, breaking her nose or worse.

The tension in her classroom grew worse and worse. Terry and another boy, Evan Moss, both friends of Patrick, were no longer speaking to one another. Friendships and alliances came and went and Sherry had no idea one day to the next, one hour to the next, who might say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and the whole class would descend in to chaos.

Finally, on a Friday afternoon just before the final bell would ring, she called the class to attention. “Boys and girls, is anyone willing to tell me what’s going on? There’s just to much fighting, too much of some of you saying mean things about one another, spreading lies, telling people who can and can’t be friends.” She scanned the room. All the heads were hanging down. Except Patrick’s. “No one wants to tell me what’s going on?”

Patrick’s hand went up. Sherry was quite sure no one noticed. She nodded at the boy.

“Everyone is so busy arguing about whether or not they should be friends with me, no one seems to want to be my friend.”

Not An Immediately Impressive Character

Mozart always had something to say, and he said it. But we should not complicate and spoil the impact of his works by burdening them with those doctrines and ideologies which critics think they have discovered in them but are in face an imposition. There is in Mozart no “moral to the story,” either mundane or sublime. – Karl Barth, “Mozart’s Freedom”, in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p. 51

—–

Mozart’s music, like the teeming drama of the Bible and like good crisis theology, gives us permission to live. “With an ear open to your musical dialectic, one can be young and become old, can work and rest, be content and sad: in short, one can lice”; thus Barth speaks directly to Mozart, in a tone of profound gratitude. Those who have not felt the difficult of living have no need of Barthian theology; but then perhaps they also have no ear for music. – John Updike, “Foreword”, Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p.12

—–

Karl Barth began each day of his very long theological career listening to Mozart on his phonograph.

Karl Barth began each day of his very long theological career listening to Mozart on his phonograph.

I felt I would be remiss, commenting as I have been on Barth’s shorter writings, if I didn’t at least mention the tiny collection of four essays on Barth’s favorite composer. Reading through the pieces, ranging from just a couple pages to a dozen or so, the most delightful feeling I had as a reader was encountering a Barth one hardly imagined existed. The combative, serious, elder statesman of European theology is transformed in to . . . a fan. I use that term pointedly. There is a joyous, childlike quality to Barth’s writings on Mozart – as he points out again and again, the same qualities expressed in Mozart’s music – that would be impossible to find in his theological writings. He sheds his theological cloak and is just Karl Barth, the now-old man (the four pieces were written when Barth was around 70 years old) who still remembers the joy he felt as an eight-year-old, hearing his father play on the family piano just a few lines of Mozart. To be captivated and captured this way – Barth’s description is similar to those we read from people talking about love at first sight – is a special gift. Barth clearly recognizes this, celebrating all that Mozart has given him over his long life.

I would also be remiss, however, if I did not note that themes that appear in Barth’s theological writings appear in these essays. Along with them, of course, is the kind of blindness, or at least myopia, Europeans then had about classical and symphonic music over and against both folk music and non-Western music. To say, for example, that Mozart’s music is “universal” is to make a claim that just cannot be justified. Despite its beauty and power, I would hazard a guess that non-Westerners might hear it and enjoy it, yet also find it lacking something their own music offers them. Which is not a criticism, but an observation. That Barth was famously against making such statements about the universal nature of theological language, hard pressed as he was to emphasize again and again that theology only says one thing, one specific thing, and then falls silent. In much the same way, despite calling Mozart’s music “universal”, Barth says in the quote above that Mozart says what he says, and only what he says, then moves on. In other passages, he talks about Mozart’s utter lack of interest in political or religious controversies of his day; his ignorance of art, literature, and poetry; his supreme dedication only and ever to his music, even to the detriment of his personal life.

At the same time, Barth says that all the eighteenth century is on display in Mozart’s music. Not just the music of the times – Barth notes that Mozart studies everything from older contemporaries like Haydn and Handel to folk and bourgeois tunes – but the times themselves. In the midst of his personal ignorance, Mozart’s ear was so attuned that he expressed life without preaching. The best music, of course, always does this. The Beatles, for example, were always their best musically, socially, and politically when they weren’t playing their instruments from a soapbox. Marillion, a band contemporaneous with U2, is far more interesting theologically than the a-bit-too-twee U2. Tool’s songs are far more interesting social commentary than anything from Rage Against The Machine precisely because Tool isn’t revolutionary. The best music contains politics, religion, and social commentary without being self-aware. In this way, Mozart’s music transcended the limitations of his own ignorance, offering listeners all of life without ever shouting about it. In the same way, the complaints that Barth’s theology was thin on the ground when it came to ethical and political matters misses the point that, for Barth, all theology was ethical and political. It just didn’t scream it in people’s ears; like the revelation upon which it reflects, theology deals with the one thing. That one thing, however, contains all the most needful things, as does our human reflection upon it.

In much the same way, Barth remarks upon Mozart’s freedom as a composer, yet a composer free always within the musical and compositional constraints of his time. No revolutionary despite his commitment to Freemasonry, Mozart rather used the discipline of the imposed constraints as boundaries within which he could fly. Freedom is an enormous theme of Barth’s theology. God is defined as the one who loves in freedom. Grace in the form of the Incarnation is the free choice of the Son. Faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, is the acknowledged freedom to love God. Unlike the Divine freedom, however, human freedom as the gift of our loving God is always a freedom limited and constrained by the content of the revelation of who God is. Thus, as Barth is at pains to define in Church Dogmatics, Vol II, Part 1, God is the one whom we may freely love because must fear God. Our love for God only truly free when it springs from the necessity of our fear of God. Our proclamation of our faith in this God necessitates as a presupposition our fear of God; our proclamation, however, is always free precisely because this God we fear is the God whom we may freely love. Human freedom is neither absolute, nor able to be our free faith unless it is bound by the God to whom it testifies, in the necessary fear of this God who chooses to reveal the Divine Life to sinful humanity.

For Barth, then, Mozart’s music – setting to one side Mozart’s far too short life of dissipation, naivete, and carelessness in matters of life and love – is an exemplar of the kind of freedom Christians have in the Church. As such, Mozart serves as a witness to how we are to live in the Church, doing the one needful thing because it is the one thing we can do. I don’t believe these observations are accidental. Nor do I believe them to be a case of Barth reading in to Mozart that which is not there. It demonstrates, rather, how powerful a tool music is, offering the devoted listener the possibility of insights to all areas of human life and endeavor. One need not be a lover of Mozart to recognize the power music has to shape how we think and believe; to reflect back to us our highest hopes and deepest despair, sometimes at the same time. For Barth it was Mozart, sine qua non.

If nothing else, these short essays offer a possibility. In the church’s ongoing life, there are all sorts of resources at hand that have a theological voice to which we should – perhaps – give a closer listen than we might. Whether it’s Mozart or Mos Def or Metallica, paying closer attention might offer rewards we hadn’t known were there before.

A Logistical Note

As of today, I am allowing comments. When I began this site, it was in no small part due to my previous site being overrun by two commenters in particular who . . . well, they were assholes, arguing for the sake of arguing. Emotionally exhausted by mental illness, the last thing I needed was more of the same, particularly while I was trying to do something very, very different.

It’s been well over a year, and while I’m sure they’re still out there – actually, I know they are – WordPress has a marvelous tool: One can ban particular commenters. As of right now, there are only two upon whom my benevolent banhammer of love shall fall. The only criteria that will bring a ban are: spam; personal attacks; excessive foul language. Disagreement is not and will not be a basis for being banned from commenting. If you are belligerent about it, or become a jerk about it – then, yeah, upon your head shall my benevolent banhammer of love fall. Otherwise, you can comment on posts up to a week old. After than, comments are closed.

I know I have readers. I have subscribers, after all, and I hope some at least are still reading. I have had a few complaints about my no commenting policy, but for the most part, I think what really gets me is the lack of feedback. It’s one thing to toss these missives in to the great digital ether; it’s another, however, never to know where or how they might land – on rocky soil, amongst weeds, or perhaps on thick loam where they can sink deep roots and grow strong.

So have fun, play by my rules, and don’t take me, or yourselves, too seriously. It is the topics that matter. These are of utmost importance.

Judas With Strings

The darkness around [Charity and Roy] had taken on the hue of blood. As Charity stared, numb with fright, the blood resolved to a smoky, ingernal scarlet. With a deafening whoosh the room seemed to implode. The light went garish fire engine red as the far wall spranc up in a solid barrier of flame.

Charity screamed. Roy tried to.

Against the wall of fire, amid the choking stink, two nightmare images were silhouetted. One of them Charity knew in every detail from God-fearing childhood: the horns jutting from the narrow, saturnine head, the pointed beard, eyes like hot coals. The lashing tail and hooves. Her deepest fears incarnate.

“Heel, Damocles!”

The huge figure of Satan jerked at the chain wound on his wrist. Straining at its check, something scaly with large bat wings gurgled uncleanly and slavered at Charity. As she and Roy cringed on the bed, Satan stroed his bears with the back of one claw and smirk at his leashed minion.

“I call him Damocles because, like the mythical sword, he hangs over wretches like you..” An exquisite sneer. “Just waiting to fall. And you yourselves have cut the thread.” – Parke Godwin, Waiting For The Galactic Bus, p.67

—–

Imagine for a moment awaking from death and finding yourself precisely here. Then imagine (a) a symphonic soundtrack fitted to the ambiance; (b) the presence of well-lit exit doors with signs encouraging their use.

Imagine for a moment awaking from death and finding yourself precisely here. Then imagine (a) a symphonic soundtrack fitted to the ambiance; (b) the presence of well-lit exit doors with signs encouraging their use.

It was spring, 1990, and I wanted something to read. I found this book among so many others, just piled up. I liked the cover – a chimpanzee with something like the Divine Hand from the Sistine Chapel ceiling descending toward it – and the title was just too interesting to pass it by. So, I picked it up to see what it might be about.

I had no idea my life would change forever.

Mixing science fiction, fantasy, religion, politics, sex, violence, ethics, and human destiny is difficult for any author. To do so in 244 pages sounds impossible. Yet fantasy author Parke Godwin did just that. Filled with humor and death, with terror and two very different brothels, a cast of characters including John Wilkes Booth and Judas Iscariot, a talking dog who used to work on Wall Street and two stranded aliens mistaken for God and the devil, this book offers a simple yet profound parable on what Christian orthodoxy calls “original sin” and what might well constitute true redemption.

Godwin is both subtle and not-so-subtle. The three main character are Charity Stovall, Roy Stride, and Woody Barnes. As I pointed out to my brother at the time, Godwin’s smacking the reader across the face with these names: Charity [S]to[v]all; Roy Stride – King or Cock-Of-The-Walk; and I do so hope that “Woody Barnes” needs no explaining about reliability and solidity. This hardly detracts from the beauty and power of this novel; in fact, it sets expectations for the reader, expectations that aren’t disappointed.

The novel begins with a graduation party. Students from a distant galaxy arrive on earth several million years ago, drunk, exhausted, and filled a bit too much with themselves. Two among them aren’t graduates. Brothers Barion and Coyul, sophomoric in so many ways, are left behind in a moment of vindictive pettiness by their fellow partiers. Stuck, the two decide to indulge their species’s basic task: life and intelligence seeding. There is abundant life on earth, including Australopithecines wandering the African plains. Barion decides too give them an intellectual boost, resulting in moroseness. Coyul, angry because what his brother has done is both unethical and illegal on their home world, decides to help out this proto-human, offering yet another boost in a slightly different spot, which alters the morose primate to one who can both laugh and find joy.

Over time, however, this basic dualism in our emotional make-up creates, um, problems, particularly after life. Because energy can neither be created or destroyed, as Coyul says, they just keep going. This results in what Godwin wittily calls “post-existent energy pools”. One, called Topside, is overflowing with the self-righteous, those brimming with the joy of a salvation usually purchased on the cheap. Among the more annoying denizens is Augustine, whose insistent demands for the beatific vision pushes Barion over the edge, offers a glimpse of how it might be possible to create an ulcer in a being who has no physical existence. Coyul, on the other hand, offers a wide variety of entertainments and scenery for those who arrive Below Stairs. After reading Dante, he even offered something like Dore’s bleak hellscapes. Still, as he tells Barion, he at least has far more colorful residents.

In to all this come Roy and Charity, two nothings from nowhere, whose coupling could, according to Coyul, create something even far more horrific than the National Socialists: A child with Charity’s intelligence (an intelligence not challenged; yet) and Roy’s fear, envy, and hatred. In a country like America, knowing it is in decline and both fearful and enraged at the prospect, such a child could very well spell doom. Deciding to intervene for the first time since that fateful afternoon at an African watering hole, Barion drags Coyul along on a well-planned conspiracy to separate Charity and Roy, allowing Roy the opportunity to destroy himself while offering Charity something she never had – a challenge.

Their adventures Below Stairs, from something like Dore’s interpretation of Dante through high rise luxury apartments (offered in a chapter entitled “This Can’t Be Hell, The Plumbing Works”) to a bar/brothel with the best food in the after life near the special hell for bureaucrats , Charity experiences it all. In particular, she experiences “The Late, Late Show”:

The child was her at age ten. She remembered the picture her new parents took when they adopted her, before her hair darkened to brown. But undeniably her in the picture, screaming for help from her dead mother.

And then not screaming at all.

The child looked up at the guard, mute. The only sound came from Charity herself, a wordless whine of empathic terror as the Paladin pointed his pistol at the tiny face. Her own child face but changed forever. More than horror in those wide yes, a terrible knowledge that there was no help anywhere, no pity or escape. For those few slow-motion seconds, the child was not mad but her eyes knew madness, swallowed it whole and recognized it as the truth of existence. Knew it as her head disintegrated and spattered blood and brains over the twisted flesh bad of her mother, and – . . .

Faster and faster the loop ran: Charity at ten, screaming, then no voice left to scream, only her own eyes lifting to the gun, knowing what a child shouldn’t have to know but so many did and had and would. . . .

Until at last the film froze on the eyes and their final recognition of horror. The child, with one second, one century or an infinity to exist, would never again look on anything or anyone unshadowed by that terrible knowledge.

Obscene . . . I never used that word, always thought it meant dirty movies. But this is obscene. I could scream from now until the end of time, every dirty word I ever knew, they wouldn’t be as obscene or dirty as this. No that you kill a child, but that you could put such a knowledge into her. (pp.127-129)

This is the heart of this book: A naked look at the truth of existence, a truth we deny at the peril not only of our own sanity, but at the peril of all existence. In that moment, Charity sees in the eyes of this child – herself as a child – a truth she recognizes but had refused to acknowledge or name. In that moment, she assents to this terrible truth, knowing that the only real security we have are the tenuous ties of love, ties that are so fragile yet so necessary. Ties that defy our all too human need to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad. Only when we see ourselves in the faces of the victims of our collective desire for security can we ever begin to realize how fake that security really is, and at what a terrible price it is purchased.

Now Roy has a bit of a different revelatory moment, courtesy of Barion.

Reeking of smoke and burrito, Roy Stride booted open the door to Coyul’s salon and invaded with Drumm behind him. He’d left his Luger behind, not trusting any weapon that read BANG instead of doing it. Right now his fury was a more formidable threat.

“Where is he?” Roy fumed. “Where’s the Devil?”

“Ah, Mr. Stride. Just a moment.” Coyul paused to feed a notation to his computer with two fingers, orchestration with the remaining three. “We were expecting you. Good of you to be prompt.”

Roy dismissed the ineffectual little man with one contemptuous glance. “I got no time for you, pussy. Wanta see the Honcho, you got it? The Devil.” . . .

Two men entered the salon – one dark, about Roy’s size, who looked like he didn’t have a single spot in his body without steel springs, the other big as a Redskin lineman in jeans. One of those blond college jokers he always saw in soft-drink commercials, making out with prime tail. Fucking big fag with muscles. He sat down across from Roy. . . .

“You said I ain’t dead,” Roy blurted. “I don’t get it. What’s all this about?”

“Shut up. You’ll get it. Believe me, you’re going to get it.” Barion’s tone chilled Roy to the bone. His skin began to crawl under that merciless scrutiny. The son of a bitch looked like . . . eternity. . . .

. . . “Like higher math to that monkey at the water hole. His whole cosmos is drama, magic, fable. A vision of Christ and salvation awash with melodrama, God as a white man, himself as hero. Minorities for villains. But he’s going to believe it.” . . .

Coyul ran an arpeggio into a Gershwin phrase. “I did this with a snake once. Ready or not, Mr. Stride – it’s magic time.” . . .

[Roy] was pure mind, pulsing in space, no division between sight and comprehension. He saw the solar system, then the galaxy dreaming through its eon-slow revolution. His view pulled back and back to encompass the unimaginably vast, wheeling universe, video-split with the movement of atoms within a molecule. Clear, painful intellect himself, he saw everything Coyul or Barion had ever seen – world men would not contact for thousands of years, if ever. Civilizations, concepts of God undreamable by humans. He knew horrors beyond simple brutality or destruction, complex beauties, a peace in being one with the universe, and the loneliness of being inexpressible small, apart and insignificant. . . .

Roy’s cry of horror filled the universe, more horrible for the indifferent silence that swallowed it up. He wept with double pity, for himself and a knowledge of tragedy too huge for expression; whimpered in his smallness and fear, shrieked through the soundless void –

– put his hands to his face, shattered in the chair while the Devil played Gershwin and God spoke quietly to him. (pp.206-212)

The novel winds down with Barion going back home to face punishment; Coyul stays behind, trying desperately to hold Topside together; Judas is left behind to run Below Stairs, only to have his Second-In-Command arrive, an old friend he hasn’t seen in two thousand years, with a wry smile and a chessboard in tow; Roy chooses the ignorance of death to the madness of life, all the action provided for him to keep him from breaking the furniture. Charity? Well, Charity arrives where it all started, a McDonald’s in her home town, Woody waiting for her, a chance to live a quiet life without too many expectations and certainly no fears other than the banal ones we all face.

We live in a historic moment when the Roy Strides of the world demand a hearing. Some of them are even running for President. So many reject the vision of reality both Charity and Roy come to know. Yet how can we deny it? Our politics, our churches, our world all suffer because far too many would prefer the bliss of blindness to the weight of the light. The deaths of others are the blood sacrifice they make to keep the truth from shattering their own fearful lives.

Godwin offers that most rare gift – something that both offends everyone yet can enlighten everyone if given half a chance. It’s available at Amazon. Treat yourself if you dare. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Letters From God Dropped In The Street

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?

It is not chaos or death. . . . it is form and union and plan. . . . it is eternal life. . . . it is happiness. – Walt Whitman, Leaves Of Grass

—–

All that ever was or ever will be is right here.

All that ever was or ever will be is right here.

Some folks think “mysticism” is a bad thing. The idea that there is some connection between what is seen and what is not seen; between all things that are seems, to such people, a bunch of nonsense.

Except, alas, even science has its mystics. They’re called quantum physicists. There’s this notion of “quantum entanglement”, what Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance”, even though Newton had already offered “spooky action at a distance” with gravity, a force we still aren’t sure is a wave or particle, but connects every elementary particle in the Universe. Quantum entanglement just takes it a step further: a change in state in an elementary particle, say, in my finger can directly effect change in the quantum state of an elementary particle in the Andromeda galaxy. I know that probably sounds like nonsense, but the math says it’s so (at least those who know the math say that’s what the math says). Recent experiments affirm it. That affirmation is the basis for experiments in quantum computing and practical teleportation.

Everything, indeed, is connected.

There are cells in my body made up of atoms that were forged in the heart of a star millions of light-years away. All that organic food you’re eating is nourished by death, by feces, by bacteria that relish decay as a delicacy. We are, whether we know it or not, creatures born from death; we are constructed of stuff made a very long time ago very far away. Identity is . . . well, identity is at best a fluid concept.

It shouldn’t be surprising there are a whole lot of hard-headed religious types who distrust mysticism. Even when mystics have had established roles in the Church – St Francis founded a missional order; St. Teresa was an adviser to kings and Popes (and carried on a chaste love affair with fellow Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross) – no one is quite sure what to do with them. The things they say all too often are contradictory. They also might well cut against the grain of whatever passes for the orthodoxy of the moment. Mystics prefer to couch their truths in riddles, to offer their visions in words, and refuse to be an authority even as others wish to read and hear more. Being powers without authority, few things are more threatening to the powers and principalities than the honest humility of the great.

Theological debates interest me very little anymore. Contending for “truth” does little more than create confusion and anger, and there is more than enough of that in the world. Rooted in the Bible, I often find poetry far more expressive of the deep reality we experience than anything. And no poet speaks to my experience of the ineffable in the everyday the way Whitman speaks. Living is beautiful. All that is, is beautiful because it exists. Nothing needs any justification; all that is needs celebration. There is no such thing as “ugly” because all that is, is beautiful. There is no such thing as abomination, because all that is, is blessed and holy. The dirt and grime of everyday living and working, shitting and screwing, of the sweat of the woman cleaning house and the child at play are blessed and holy. To fear death is to fear something as much a part of life and our world as to fear clouds or flowers.

When I’m not seeing the world as a thin veil, not so much obscuring as offering hints of something terrible just beyond our ability to perceive (except on occasion; that’s when the nightmares come), I tend toward this kind of mystical pantheism. I see old familiar faces and I smile, because they remind me I’ve tried to live well. I see newborn babies and I think of how soft they feel, how sweet they smell, and how much they will see and hear and do. I feel my wife in my arms and know that love and lust are not different things, just different aspects of the same desire for another that is part of existence itself. I pray and I know my words are nonsense, but beloved gibberish that God enjoys because it is born as much from thankfulness and joy as fear and sorrow. That all that is, is wound together in an entanglement made up of love seems so clear and obvious, I wonder how it is possible others cannot see it, cannot see how beautiful they are, cannot know that deep within their bodies lies an atom that just changed ever so slightly and in response, an atom in a galaxy millions of light-years away just changed ever so slightly, and that connection isn’t about energy.

It’s about love. A love so clear you can see it running between and among the bee and the flower, the spider and its prey, the smiles of a new mother and her baby. It’s the intangible yet unbreakable bond that will not allow anything ever to be lost or forgotten. There are moments all this is so clear, so plain and obvious to me, I’m surprised the whole Universe doesn’t burst out in song.

Experiencing moments like this, I remember that veil of which I wrote the other day, and I call it a lie. The falling leaf outside my window shouts its defiance at such a lie. After all, it has served its tree well and good, and now returns to feed it some more. Nothing can steal the beauty and power of that simple reality.

It Was More Fun In Hell

Graffiti In An Abandoned Mental Hospital

Graffiti In An Abandoned Mental Hospital

I once told a good friend of mine that I am someone who finds nothing uninteresting. And that’s true. Except for illegal and immoral activities, I enjoy seeing and hearing about and reading about and learning about new things all the time. We live this life just once, and there’s far too much in the world to settle for one’s immediate surroundings and personal interests.

I find madness interesting, both for personal and religious reasons. If you read the early chapters of Isaiah, there’s the prophet’s vision of the Divine throne room, with the four cherubim, etc. The book of Ezekiel is chock-full of visions, including the horrific image of a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel ate a scroll on God’s orders, and there’s so much more. Hosea took a prostitute for a wife on God’s orders. The apocalyptic books, Daniel in the Old Testament and The Revelation to St. John, have odd, coded imagery, some of it quite terrifying. In one of his novels – The Stand, perhaps? – Stephen King has a character muse that God drives mad those God chooses; sometimes, this character notes, it is possible some of those visions overloaded the circuits in the chosen ones. Which illustrates, yet again, my oft-stated insistence that while God indeed loves us, God doesn’t care that much about us.

As for personal reasons, well, I suppose you can understand, if you’ve been following along with my rather voluble confessions of living with depression. When down deep in that hole, the world just doesn’t look quite right. Colors are wrong, faded somehow, washed out. Sounds have an odd reverb quality to them, as if echoing, then suddenly dying. Brain chemistry is a funny thing. Messing it up in one spot has effects all over the place, which doesn’t help make seeking help easier. The world becomes a different place, unfriendly and uninviting. Even knowing the road one is traveling is no help; the mad-odd quality of perception endures no matter how hard you try to tell yourself it isn’t real. In the end, real is what we see, hear, taste, and touch.

Many years ago, I ordered a very special music CD.  The name of the band was Dead Soul Tribe, which probably tells you what you need to know. The CD, entitled A Murder of Crows,  is a concept album built around the idea that human souls have guides after death; sometimes, however, these guides fail, leaving our souls behind. One song in particular, “Flies”, offers the oh-so-cheery idea that our world is a thin veneer through which we can see, if we look closely, a truth more horrible than we can stand: We are already dead, in hell, with Satan a viper ready to devour us. I was listening to this particular song when my wife came up to me and asked me a question: Did I really see the world this way?

At the time, I said that in fact I did see much of the world this way. For all my protestations of faith; for all my attempts to be an easy-going man, a loving husband and father, and express hope in both our present and future; despite all this, as Devon Graves sings, “Sometimes it seems a laughing god has played its joke on me.” There is more than enough horror in the world to drive you mad if you think about it too much. As Albert Camus noted, the death of a single innocent child can break a person’s spirit if you dwell on it. To look around the world and see and hear and read things that should make you scream or cry or want to hide away could, if you’re not careful, leave you gasping for straws only to find all of them gone. What would be left?

Madness. The comfort of insanity, it seems to me in such circumstances, would be that the facade we build around our lives, from our parents loving arms through the fake security we try to provide our own families as adults can disappear. The allure of madness is just this pretense that St. Paul’s hazy mirror image will be the beatific vision is not only untrue; it’s that such a pretense is a horrible trick played upon us. To be able to scribble on a wall something like what appears in the photo above demonstrates, if not what seems both horrible and comforting, at the very least a familiarity with a way of seeing the world that creates a clever turn of phrase.

Most of the time, I remind myself that such things as the title to this post – another abandoned asylum graffito – are little more than people with a dark humor trying to unnerve the gullible and nervous trespasser. Sometimes, though, in the quiet, or perhaps when I’m wondering just what is and isn’t real, I see things like this and I wonder if I recognize a kindred spirit. Reality is far too porous to allow ourselves comfortable lies; even God can drive people mad, after all. These tiny windows in to the minds of others interest me if for no other reason than it seems there are many out there who, touched in some way – either through faulty brain chemistry or perhaps Divine intervention – what Ray Miland, in X:The Man With The X-Ray Eyesdiscovered at the end of the film. Miland rips out his own eyes, having glimpsed something terrible beyond the bounds of everyday reality, and screams, “I CAN STILL SEE!”

N.B.: I’m quite sure some are going to read this and think, “Oh my GOD, the guy is off his nut.” In fact, I’m offering nothing more than a perspective on particular things – such as graffiti in abandoned buildings – that occur to me from time to time. Is it a far-out perspective? I readily acknowledge that. Then again, my perspective on most things tends to be far out, so why should this be any different?

Anti-Haters, Kardashian Edition

I would absolutely characterize myself as ambitious. – Kim Kardashian

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The wicked envy and hate. It is their way of admiring. – Victor Hugo

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Kim has been singled out by a British headmistress as a splendid example of all that is wrong with Western society.

Dr Helen Wright, the head of St Mary’s School, an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Wiltshire, made her claim after one men’s magazine branded Miss Kardashian ‘the hottest woman in the world’.

A fuming Dr Wright said: ‘The hottest woman in the world? Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean to them?’

She also accused Kim of making her fortune from ‘meanness, scandal and boundary-less living’. – Claudia O’Connell, “A marriage that lasted 72 days. A TV career built on a sex tape. And a derriere a million times bigger than her brain. CLAUDIA CONNELL explains why this woman is the ‘world’s worst role model'”, Daily Mail, June 22, 2012

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With the possible exception of the special loathing many Americans have for our President, I can't think of anyone who receives more negative attention than Kim Kardashian and her family.

With the possible exception of the special loathing many Americans have for our President, I can’t think of anyone who receives more negative attention than Kim Kardashian and her family.

Among the many things pop cultural form the 1980’s bequeathed to us, it was the emergence of tabloid television. Garish, loud, based around celebrities and their lives, it spawned all sorts of children, grandchildren, and now in the Internet Age, has become a species all its own. Among the first of such programs was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by that shouting Australian Robin Leach. Originally a “reporter” for Entertainment Tonight, Leach was given a chance to declare to the world how marvelous were the lives of the famous. He offered viewers walking tours of their homes. He went along on private yacht trips, private airplane trips, stood to one side during glittering premieres, all filmed so that we the viewers could participate vicariously in lives that were presented as ideal. If you weren’t quite ready to buy that, Leach’s presentation, twenty-two minutes of declarative sentences that pushed the limits of his microphone’s range, certainly attempted to do so through sheer force.

It has often been said that, with the dawn of mass media in the early decades of the 20th century, America was offered something it had never had: royalty in the personages of Hollywood. Followed as much for their lavish, overindulgent lifestyles as the films they made, actors and actresses became targets of obsession among young and old alike, with an expanding industry dedicated to the promotion, celebration, and careful management of the images and narratives of people who, otherwise, wouldn’t merit our attention. They were “famous”, if for no other reason than most people learned their names from going to weekend movies.

While many tut-tutted the burgeoning fixation with film actors and actresses private lives, it was generally assumed that, since some at least had enough talent and a work ethic worth admiring, the attention they received was admirable. It forced some among them, at least, to curb the worst of their predilections for  excesses. Today, however, we live in a time when fame is both cheap and easy to receive. My younger daughter can talk about “a famous YouTuber” without any sense of irony because, well, such persons exist. For what, exactly, are they famous? I couldn’t tell you. Probably no more than having all sorts of people watch their videos on YouTube. Any actual achievement is beside the point.

Yet, that has largely been the case for our celebrities. Actors, musicians, even writers become celebrities not because they have accomplished something unique in human experience. At least, that is not the substance of the reports on them. After all, VH1 doesn’t air a show titled About the Music. The show is called Behind The Music, in which viewers are treated to stories of sex, drinking, drugs, dysfunction, and that ever-popular cycle of collapse, reformation, and sometimes even relapse. We aren’t offered a glimpse of the hours of practice, the arguments in studios over song arrangement and production, or why one brand of instrument is preferred over another. These, the substance of a musician’s professional life, are neither here nor there. We want scandal, we want excess, we want photos of celebrities in bed with the wrong person, or better wrong persons. Do we want to see tapes of Marilyn Monroe’s acting classes? Of course not. We want endless calendars of her barely clothed.

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The notion that Kim Kardashian rose to some kind of fame – or notoriety, if you prefer – because of a leaked sex tape is common. I’m just not sure that’s altogether accurate. Her father, the late Robert Kardashian, was a well-respected attorney who became a household name when he helped defend O. J. Simpson against murder charges. His children, living most of the time with their mother who had married the former Bruce Jenner, attended schools with children of celebrities as well as future fame-holders including Lenny Kravitz and Slash, the guitarist from Guns-N-Roses. Surrounded as they were by the glitz and glamour of the well-off Hollywood life, it seems little stretch to picture the youthful Kardashians trying to find ways to achieve the kind of success that, in their milieu, seemed to matter most. The sex tape itself was of little consequence; if Kim Kardashian and her large family held no interest, weren’t telegenic, and didn’t have some kind of sound business sense, even the proposal for a reality television show centering around her, her closest sisters, and her mother and step-father would have been laughed out of most producers’ offices.

This is more than a simple case of fame following on notoriety. The Kardashians, and Kim in particular, are very canny about how they manage their public lives, while ensuring that a certain measure of privacy be in place. After all, how much of their television program, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, shows her at work in her office, where she heads a multi-million dollar corporation? Like refusing to be interested in which guitar string Eddie Van Halen prefers, no one wants to watch the Kardashians actually do stuff. The show offers viewers what all such programs offer: The chance to live vicariously a life most of us could not ever experience. The root of the show isn’t voyeurism, or perhaps not only voyeurism. At heart, the show is rooted in the producers’ understanding that few things are as powerful as envy. We look upon the Kardashians and simultaneously we want what they have and we do not; and we declare them unfit to hold a position of prominence for everything from the extensive plastic surgery to the alleged moral turpitude in which they engage.

In recent years, Kim Kardashian has done the unthinkable: She rushed in to a wedding for which she wasn’t prepared, leading to divorce within a few months; she became pregnant out of wedlock by rapper Kanye West; she has since married Kanye. The fact that Kanye West is one of the more disliked musicians out there certainly hasn’t helped Kim’s acceptance among the public. That she is a white woman who has married an African-American man is also points against her in a racist society. All of these things are offered up as proof that Kim Kardashian shouldn’t be in any place of public prominence, not even something as harmless as a reality television program.

Except, of course, the very things that attract so much negative attention, from the press and the public, are a combination of common human foibles and mistakes and life-choices and carefully stage-managed image enhancement and promotion. How many among my readers have made a mistake when it comes to affairs of the heart, rushing forward when a bit more caution was warranted? I know several people who ended their marriages quickly for a number of different reasons. As for the sex tape . . . who out there has had sex? Married, not married, with the opposite sex or same sex, perhaps even with multiple partners? Come on, don’t be shy: Who has had sex? Who, perhaps in a fit of devil-may-care arousal, thought it might be fun to take a photograph or two for your own private enjoyment? Maybe even turned on that little video camera in your phone? You don’t have to say anything; I know it happens.

Imagine a woman getting pregnant out of wedlock! How horrible! I can’t believe such a thing happening! Especially to a woman who is wealthy, having the resources to care for herself as well as raise a child! How horrible is that? And only later marrying the father (I detest the term “baby-daddy”, reducing men to sperm-donating turkey basters)! I bet no one out there knows anyone who has done that! And can you believe she married a talented, successful man who isn’t afraid of self-promotion any more or less than she is?

The final refuge for most of those who enjoy denouncing the lives of the Kardashians is that old chestnut: they are role models and should act appropriately.

Seriously? If you’re a parent, and you offer this argument, you might want to consider your own life and how you model living to your children before getting all up in the face of Kim Kardashian. If you’re a teacher, a clergy-person, or otherwise interact with children and youth (such as the school mistress quoted in the epigraph) perhaps you should stop and think before denouncing the lives of others, and turn that hyperactive moral sense upon your own life. At the end of the day, the Kardashians are just people. They’re successful, sure, but many folks in America are successful in their own professions. They have a TV show, but that hardly confers some status upon them. It just means that a lot of people see their faces. They are a family of men and women and youth who are doing the best they can with the tools they have to make their way in the world; that some of those tools include ways of drawing attention to themselves isn’t their fault.

The Kardashians aren’t royalty. Nor are they “famous for no reason”, a phrase empty of meaning. They are famous because they have worked hard to achieve a particular status, using and exploiting both modern media as well as a kind of traditional American sensibility for both desiring and hating those whose perceived achievements might outshine our own. They’re very good at it. Which should make them far better role models than all those people who take the time to ridicule them on social media.