31 January 2010


I’ve been reading (not exactly sure what provoked it) a biography of Jonathan Edwards, by Philip Gura. The book’s subtitle is America’s Evangelical, so perhaps I am drawn to the idea of evangelicism and its dangerous hold on American thought.

Anyway, what intrigues me is the Puritan belief that individuals might have personal individual experience concerning the state of one’s soul, and need not have to rely on the intervention of the Priest (in confession, I suppose), or by the payment of indulgences, or through some other intercession to ensure their being saved. Gura says, “The English Puritans believed that such individual experience is also intimately related to how one joined with others to practice religion and thus sought to reorganize their churches more in line with what they understood as the scriptural injunction for the “communion of the saints.” It was important that one belonged to the proper community, one that has been gathered away from the evils of the world “to pursue a more pure form of worship.” The character of the community was important, and therefore, it was important to ensure that the community remained like-minded and, well, morally and politically correct, which might be understood as identical in this case.

Very clearly this insistence led to not a few arguments about the nature of the community and the constitution of the appropriate Church, but I think the idea offers some insight into America’s bigotry. What constitutes a holy community? Who knows that? The idea that someone knows the character of such a community, and that any corruption anywhere endangers the very welfare of the state has led to horribly intolerant behaviors, starting earlier of course, than the Salem Witch Trials, but leading in a very direct line to the xenophobia which characterizes so much of American belief and practice. We have persistently maintained so limited a view of the nature of community, so rigid a belief in what might characterize purity, and so little tolerance for the beliefs of others that we have practiced abominable behaviors and committed horrible acts of violence in an attempt to keep pure what is inherently impure. So few have been held to be eligible to join the pure community, and their tainted presence threatens, the community says, to draw destruction on it. For the sake of purity, these infidels must be cast out and even eliminated.

At our very core rests our destruction.

23 January 2010

Leaving On a Jet Plane

What is striking about the opening line of the chorus of John Denver’s song is its directness. “I’m leaving on a jet plane.” In an interesting way, the rest of the chorus is superfluous. Leaving as opposed to going, leaving as opposed to traveling. Not on an airplane, that possesses some hint of domesticity, but a jet plane that suggests speed and irretrievable distance. I do not think there is in these lines any hope of return.

And indeed, the second line completes the first: “Don’t know if I’ll be back again.” And this statement explains the leaving and the jet plane. This is a permanent rupture, even an abrupt departure, but done not with acrimony nor from argument, but out of some inner necessity that defines the one who leaves.

But the plaintiveness of the sentiment, “Oh, babe, I hate to go,” tears at my heart. Because the heart is remarkably where these things do hurt, and though I might be interested scientifically why this might be, I am certain nonetheless that phenomenologically this is what I will call the pain’s location. Regret and inevitability, and the latter not cosmic, but quite personal. The leaving must occur. “I hate to wake you up to say goodbye,” and so there is finally, no goodbye, just the leaving.

I always find leaving traumatic, though entertain with delight the anticipation of leaving. Perhaps it is that I consider traveling a sort of disappearance, and the more miles I place between me and home the more disappeared I feel. I wonder if this applies the other way around: when I remain at home and someone else travels out?

17 January 2010

But Life Got in My Way

The blog is not a diary or journal, and as such it serves other purposes. Though I suspect Thoreau’s journal when read today actually sounds at time like a blog, though perhaps a bit more focused than my own, but extensive nonetheless. Finally, Thoreau must have considered that after his death someone would do something with his work, even as Anne Frank revised her own diary expecting to live and go on and become the published writer she desired to be. Thoreau must have written his journal with one eye on the public eye.
     And sometimes when I write I have to transmute the personal to the impersonal. Because the personal is just too uninteresting and particular, concerning no one else but myself finally. Here, at Of Clay and Wattles Made, I mean to take some more general viewpoint, and transmute my own vulnerability to a less precarious, less vulnerable position, and to search within the particular for some grander insight. And thinking that there is some such thing--some grander insight into experience-- must be what the transcendental is all about, and finally, is also proof of the existence of God: there is something out there beyond the particular. This is something I am re-learning from Phillip Roth’s books, most recently in The Counterlife.
     And so this week has brought immense changes; no, the week hasn’t brought these changes but the week served as the stage for them. There have been leavings, and good-byes, and absences and partings. Impending deaths. And more impending leavings. Sadness accompanies this movement.
     Life is replete with loss; loss provides boundaries to life, I suppose, for the loss helps define what is not lost. An emptiness can only exist in a fullness; presence defines an absence. I don’t think this dialectic relieves the experience of the loss, but perhaps it offers some relief from it. I don’t mean this insight to be homiletical: I have grown so weary of the preachy homiletics that lie at the basis of so much public speech and religious sermonizings.
     But I am seeking comfort. And comfort arrives from contextualizing, and discovering the web in which the particular strand has place. Without the web, the strand cannot exist, and without the strand, the web has no integrity. And that always seems to return me to the necessity of my own self-sufficiency. I have to have faith in my capacity to keep on keeping on, which is the opposite of thinking my burdens are too much for me to bear. That the losses I experience do not pull from my substance though they do influence it.
     The complexity of life obviates most accusation, and trying to discover my complicity in events takes great effort, even great strength, and sometimes I am not up to the challenge. I cannot always separate my pains from those of others, and so I end up experiencing both.
     I remember once studying for a final exam in the English Romantic period, and standing on some height, dramtically clutching my hands to my heart and collapsing onto some (softened) surface crying out lines from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed.” At moments such as these, I recall Shelly’s dramatic cry. And sometimes I weep.

13 January 2010

Somebody Else's Troubles

Steve Goodman has a song I’ve listened to for years entitled “Somebody Else’s Troubles.” I own the vinyl, and since I know that Goodman died of leukemia in 1984 at the absurdly young age of 34 years, I guess the presence of the song in my life goes back beyond thirty years. The album was originally issued in 1973.

What I keep hearing is this chorus:
That's cause it ain't too hard to get along with somebody else's troubles

And they don't make you lose any sleep at night

As long as fate is out there burstin' somebody else's bubbles.

Everything is gonna be alright.
Ah, we all suffer, and it our practice to put our troubles out there for others to hear. The process is called complaint. And I suppose this is a natural occurrence, though I believe that some partake in it more than others.

We all have troubles, and it really ain’t hard to get along with somebody else’s; I listen, and I display sympathy, and I head out to the coffee houses and the chocolate bars. It is economical to forget.

It does, however, cause me no end of concern to try to get along with my own troubles, and they do often keep me from the coffee houses and the chocolate bars. In fact, except in death, there is no relief from our plentiful plights, and I suppose they correctly serve to help define the pleasurable moments. For example, the Rabbis seem to define the Next World by their harsh experience in this one. Whatever the next world might be, the Rabbis consider compassionately, it cannot be like this one; it has got to get better, and if these are troubles in this world, then those troubles should be not present in the next. And since we all have our troubles in this world, then none of them should exist in the next. Paradise. I’m not sure it is much of a comfort here.

What I am considering here is that if it really isn’t hard to get along with somebody else’s troubles, then others can get along quite well with mine. Unless we find some way to somehow participate in somebody else’s troubles—not an inviting prospect—then we are really all alone in this world. As I get along quite well with somebody else’s troubles, they certain get along with mine. I think in this case we move about together enclosed in some impermeable, translucent bubble in which we can see but cannot hear or touch each other. I can speak, but am not heard. I complain and they listen and do not hear; they complain and I listen but do not hear.

This is a complaint. You can get along with it.

08 January 2010

Gordon Lightfoot, 2010

I have been listening incessantly to Gordon Lightfoot’s early albums, If You Could Read My Mind (1970) and Summer Side of Life (1971). I owned these two as vinyls, but . . . well, you know, I’ve replaced them with the compact disc versions.

In 1970, on WNEW-FM—the experimental free-form radio new to even New York— the early morning disc-jockey, Michael Harrison, played the albums’s first cut, “Minstrel of the Dawn” every morning as his theme. I dressed for the work day each morning to that song, and I think hearing it calmed me.

The minstrel of the dawn is here
To make you laugh and bend your ear
Up the steps you'll hear him climb
All full of thoughts, all full of rhymes
Listen to the pictures flow
Across the room into your mind they go
Listen to the strings
They jangle and dangle
While the old guitar rings

Even now, these sentiments would warm the beginning of the wintry-est day here in Wisconsin. And of course, “10 Degrees and Getting Colder” has visceral meaning to my life these mornings:

Now he's traded off his Martin but his troubles are not over 

For his feet are almost frozen and the sun is sinking low 

Won't you listen to me brother, if you ever loved your mother 

Please pull off on the shoulder if you're going Milwaukee way 

It's ten degrees and getting colder down by Boulder dam today

There was in these songs a hard freedom, unfulfilled longings and a palpable sense of loneliness. By so many versions of “Early Morning Rain” have I been touched with sadness and regret; how many times I’ve sung that song to myself in my moments of longing and melancholy.

And the honey voice and the baby face.

Why Lightfoot now, and why incessantly? What Desire is being fulfilled here? Perhaps it is in the weather, the time of year, the time of life. Not nostalgia, for I do not long to be back there, but somehow, back there helps define right here now. The complexities were different and yes, I was younger and immortal. And Gordon Lightfoot recovers that for me.

06 January 2010

6 January: Why?

The weather has been so frigid these past six or seven mornings that I have despaired of leaving my cave. I lie awake tightly ineffectively curled up for warmth, and pull the covers back over my head. I can’t imagine Thoreau traipsing down to Walden for his bath at this time of year—of course, Walden was frozen and so I suspect he took the winter off. And I walk with my hot coffee out here to Walden hoping for some physical relief from the frigidity. Alas, this seems months away right now. Today we begin at -6 degrees, which is a dramatic improvement over last Saturday morning’s beginning at -14 degrees. Again, I find Nature’s assault brutal—attributing to Nature a consciousness that it does not have. It just is. I wish the house were warmer, and my bed firmer, and I with thicker blood.

First posting of the new year.

And the news is all bad: an attempted plane bombing, more dead in Iraq, and two Democratic senators announcing they will not run again. I see the Republican leadership licking their wolf chops.