30 December 2014

New Year, 2015

One year ends and another begins: the sun also rises and there is nothing new under the sun. I’m certain that much of what I experience derives from my state of mind, but the world seems darker at the end of this year than at the end of last. Of course, I am a year older, and my vision dims. Planes disappear, our politicians continue to be indicted for crimes against the public weal for which they are supposed to care and for which they legislate, and the climate continues to deteriorate while the blind continue to deny they cannot see.
I was going to use the word ‘fool’ to refer above to those I call ‘blind,’ but in fact the latter are willfully blind and not really sightless: mostly I might say they are clueless. Ah, but the Fool in Lear is so wise. We could stand a bit of the Fool in our world. As the Fool asks Lear who has abandoned all his responsibility, “Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” Remarkably, Lear has already answered the Fool’s question in Lear’s retort to Cordelia who can say ‘nothing’ because her love for her father exceeds the capacity of any words. Lear says to in great anger to his daughter, “Nothing will come of nothing.” And indeed, though nothing can be made of nothing, Lear’s nothing can and does lead to great tragedy. “I am a very foolish fond old man . . . And to deal plainly I am not in my perfect mind,” Lear laments. The deaths of Cordelia and Lear result from his absurdly blind and self-serving actions. At the end of at least Shakespearean tragedy the world is a far darker place than at the play’s opening: in Hamlet Denmark is left to the brash and warlike Fortinbras, and in Lear the weak Albany assumes the throne. On January 1 of this year, the tragedy of the Democratic debacle will usher in the Republican ascendancy, and the world will suffer from far less hope.
The film The Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing’s development during World War II of what has come to be called the ‘turing machine’ that successfully cracked the Nazi’s enigma code and shortened the war by several years and saved millions of lives. That ‘machine’ has led to the development of the computer on which I now write in the comfort and warmth of my home. After the war, Turing was persecuted for being homosexual, and was condemned to chemical castration by a judicial court that considered itself civilized representing a government that called itself modern. Turing died in 1954 at the age of 41 years from what some say was a suicide. Perhaps, and perhaps not. But the cruelties suffered by him from the society he helped save speaks to the nature of this world. His death recalled for me the death of Cordelia in King Lear, an act so cruel that becomes barely comprehensible.
I recognize that the love of Kent for Lear and Edgar for his father, Gloucester; and of even the Fool, offer some alternative to the cruelty the play portrays in the actions of Regan, Goneril and Edmund,, but the play’s end leaves little hope. Indeed, even the Fool has had enough of this world and disappears from the play after the great storm.

I would say welcome to 2015 but I am not certain there would be any sincerity in my invocation.     

22 December 2014


The movie Wild  is not about redemption but about acceptance. I do not believe that we are ever saved; perhaps we are found even when we did not know that we were lost. I think that in acceptance is redemption. Cheryl says about her life, “What if I wanted to sleep with all those men; what if I learned something from taking
heroin . . .” What were once thought of as mistakes, measures of bad judgment were just her life and life only. And acceptance means to have no regrets; to acknowledge that everything that happened had to happen because what happens derives from who at the moment we at the moment are. . Acceptance means that whatever action we have undertaken at the moment derives from who we are at that moment even if we consider that the action is our of character and not representative of the me in whom we have false belief.
It was not her mother’s death that turned Cheryl to sex and to drugs. Cheryl turned to sex and drugs because that was behaviors that at that moment Cheryl sought out; she could ascribe the behaviors later to her mother’s death and to her own grief. But along the trail I think she learned what her mother taught her at the beginning: that she drew her power from the same place as her weakness. That her weakness and power were equal energies that were Cheryl, and that the same drive that led her to sex and drugs also led her to the trail and her effort there. Cheryl was not redeemed by her work on the trail; Cheryl accepted Cheryl on her 1000-mile struggle.
Along the trail Cheryl for the most part remains alone with Cheryl and arrives at the bridge to acknowledge her responsibility for her own life, and perhaps in the writing of the journey can begin to accept the choices she will make in the future: in some part for her decision to again marry and have children.
The land through which she walks is not beautiful though it contains beauty; is not traversed with any ease, but her effort becomes easier as she literally and emotionally lightens her grossly overweight and overstuffed back pack. And along the way she meets others hiking the trail each for his or her own reasons Some of those she meets are helpful and some are not; some are no different than was she: and behave with equal cruelty as had she. Others are as vulnerable and others as wounded. suffering from his own unnamed problems yet sings for Cheryl “Red River Valley” Cheryl’s greatest demons derive not from others but from her own doubts of her own strength: but her power derived from the same place as her weakness. The movie is about acceptance and not redemption. Cheryl is not redeemed nor saved; Cheryl crosses the bridge at the end and is Cheryl.

19 December 2014

Too Much With Us

I find myself lately considering Wordsworth’s line, “The World is too much with us late an soon.” Certainly the sentiment figures prominently in the final chapter of my book, The Classroom: Encounter and Engagement, the latter an unabashed advertisement for an overpriced but much-loved work. Perhaps it stems from my own personal situationas I explained to AR last evening, to my own existential condition—but I find it hard of late to lose the world for even briefest amount of time. Once, access to the world was immediate: it occurred in the daily activity of work and play, with the engagement in relationships, both intimate and casual. The idea of ‘losing the world,’ as perhaps Wordsworth imagined, occurred in Nature, away from the environments of people and their busy environments. In Nature there was no access to the world outside Nature’s solitude, a solitude broken only by the troubled consciousness of the individual. And I could choose to cast off the world if I so desired: to return to the cabin, so to speak, where the troubles and turbulence stemmed from within.
But now there are few refuges from the world too much with us late and soon. We carry our attachments on our bodies, in our overburdened bags and pockets: we are rarely more than a thumb click away from access to everything. So many of the means of bringing the world to us, of immersing us in the world, we now carry with us that the world is always immediately about us. As devices become smaller the world becomes larger not so much in size but in presence. There is, it would seem, no escape from it. Even the effort to lose the world by viewing media on these devices delivers pieces of the world immediately to us and solitude becomes a rare, even an undesirable, event. We choose rarely to be alone—solitary—as if there it were to admit to some personal failing. Thoreau complains (though I lately find that word not at all appropriate to him),  “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value to each other.” We are never alone: the social media drown us in talk and image.  When we do finally meet, what is left to say?  “We should come home from far, adventures and perils and discoveries every day, with new experiences and characters,” but we must be engaged in our activities in the world that is not too much with us late and soon but that remains open for our questions to which the world is the answer. But the answers come not from our quests and studies but from the instant advice of our immediate contacts. There is no space or time for ourselves. “I find it wholesome [and therefore, I presume, healthy] to be alone the greater part of the time.” And perhaps this aloneness prepares him for the time he revels in society. Thoreau acknowledges that he loves society as much as the next: but he desires to bring to society, and that it return the gifts, something of value. He does have three chairs for at the cabin for society, though at times the company must sit at far ends from each other so that their sentences might have enough room to wind out sufficiently.

I am immersed in the media and cannot imagine giving it up, and I regret my immersion even as I crave it. Nevertheless, as Thoreau suggests, “All news to a philosopher is gossip, and those who read it are old women over their tea.” Alas, I drink my tea with honey. But I wonder, when the bell rings, why do I continue to heed it when it is my own music to which I would tend?

06 December 2014

Hamakom Yimachem

I am on an airplane on my way to a funeral in New York. And I have been thinking about the body in death. When a person dies she is no more, but the body until burial remains. There is no consciousness of death in death; the dead do not know that they are dead. The dead do not know anything; they have once known but they no longer know; they do not even know that they have now become merely a body. The dead do not dream from which they will awaken. Once animate, the dead are no longer animated: the body is in death a slab of once-sentient flesh. Nuland writes that the living’s awareness of the death is immediate: all rigor disappears from the body, the skin turns grey, and, no longer warmed by the movement of blood, grows  soon cold and stiff. The body in death ceases to be anything but a body; once it was a person but is no more.
And yet . . . the respect shown the body (the met) in Jewish tradition astounds me. No final autopsy occurs because the body must not be defiled, though it has now become acceptable, even honorable to donate to others whatever organ remains viable and usable.  The body is carefully and ritually washed and dressed in a pure shroud and tallit and prepared for burial by a chevra kadisha, a holy group of people trained in the practice, without removing one iota of any material from the body: the body returns to the ground, even to God, as whole as the day it was born.
And finally, until the moment of burial, the body is never left alone. Over the course of the hours before internment shomrim sit with the body. These shomrim are guards, guardians, who keep the body company. Ah, I am certain that at one time this custom began in order to keep the vermin away from the dead: Jesus was placed in a cave that was then made impenetrable by a large rock. And though I know that in death there is no consciousness, I like to consider now that these shomrim serve to ease even the unknowing dead to its ultimate aloneness, remind the dead that it was (and remains) loved, and until it joins the minions of those who have died before, it will not be left alone. Or maybe, and with equal validity, these shomrim sit with the body for their own leave-takings and spiritual comforts.

I hope that when I come to die, the body will be cared for as if it were still me, and will be protected to its grave by a cadre of shomrim who loved me. Of course, if this occurs I will never know, but it is comforting in life to think that in death I remain cared for and loved though I, no longer I, will be ignorant of the thoughtfulness.