Pathies: Sym- vs. Em-

A friend used to say, “If everyone could throw their problems onto a table in the middle of the room and then listen to each other’s stories, everyone would go crazy trying to make sure they got their own problem back.”

Until this past year, I was unfamiliar with the term “spoonie” or the “spoon theory.” For those with chronic, painful and pain-filled conditions and illness, the term has become incredibly popular in the last half-decade, because it depicts better than most analogies what it is like to live with a chronic illness or disability.

A writer named Christine Miserandino is credited with inventing the analogy on her terrifically-named website, But You Don’t Look Sick. She has lupus and tells a story about how she explained to her best friend what her world is like. She handed the friend a dozen spoons and explained that it is now the start of a new day and that different tasks would cost a spoon each. When she reveals that “getting up and showering” would cost a couple spoons, the point started to become clear.

From “The Spoon Theory” :

I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons.” But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she? I also told her to always be conscious of how many she had, and not to drop them because she can never forget she has Lupus.

People with chronic pain have a talent for analogy that perhaps they did not know they had until they learned that they needed to find a way to communicate what life feels like for them. They become good explainers, because the quality of their life depends on it.

Because pain is one of the most personal of sensations, or appears to be—a burn might feel the same for you as it feels or me, but we only have our anecdotes to compare and weigh against one another; meanwhile, I’m on fire!—because perception is personal and pain is utterly a perception and not a measurable reality, those who suffer chronic pain are left with their own talent for creating analogies to make others understand their day, their night, their world. Anyone who has visited a pain specialist (I have not) is familiar with the range of sketched faces that they must circle to communicate how much pain they are in. I have a friend with fibromyalgia, and I remember her saying things like, “My back is at a 7, but my legs are a 5.”

Good sensations seem to be almost universal; our senses of humor may differ, but a laugh is a laugh. Your feet might be ticklish while my arms might be, but a tickle is the same for us both. (Unless it causes pain, which it might for someone with fibromyalgia.) As much as I love comedy and enjoy making people laugh, I have not yet found myself explaining why I found that one punch-line made me laugh with a barely audible “Heh” (call it a 4 on the laugh scale that does not exist) and another one got a laugh from the back of my throat.

Until July 15, 2010, I did not have much skill with empathy. Sympathy, sure. Sympathy is an “attaboy” given to someone bearing up under a weight without offering to assist in lifting it at all. Sympathy was something I gave to someone with the expectation that I would be thanked by the injured party. “Wow, that sucks,” is sympathy, and before the other person can continue talking and telling the sympathetic person any details, the sympathetic person has moved on, having rescued them with an “attaboy” of sympathy.

Empathy is love. It is saying to someone, “I do not know what this is like. Tell me,” and then listening. Of the two “‘pathies,” it is the one that requires more effort but can bring greater rewards.

If my problems were in the center of the room—my diminished mobility and two hands that are becoming clubs (I can tie shoelaces, but only if I want to eat up a day)—I would take them back. And maybe they have given me a modicum of empathy.

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In answer to no one’s question: Yes. I chose a new layout. I was using “The Columnist” all 2014, was happy with it, but thought I would change things for the new year. I am using the free layouts still, but might invest in this website. Any suggestions? Sympathy? Empathy? Does this layout make my ideas look good?

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 1 asks, “If you could spend the next year as someone radically different from the current ‘you’—a member of a different species, someone from a different gender or generation, etc.—who would you choose to be?”

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Edison’s Happy New Year

Sixteen months of embarrassingly public false starts and failed attempts led to the rarest of things from Thomas Edison: silence. He was going to allow his results to speak for themselves for once. When he and his invention were ready, one hundred thirty-five years ago tonight, on December 31, 1879, Thomas Edison invited the public to his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to witness electric lights being turned on and off for the first time.

In September 1878, Edison had convinced himself that he was so close to an electric light that he announced it to the press. “I have it now! When the brilliancy and cheapness of the lights are made known to the public, illumination by carburated hydrogen gas will be discarded,” he told the New York Sun. Gas lamps inside and outside the house, with their many inherent dangers, were about to be a thing of the past.

Like many great inventors before and after him, Edison was almost as a good a salesman as inventor. He certainly was an inventor, one of the most accomplished in American history, but he was also a self-inventor. To this day, the image we associate with Edison and the image we associate with the word “inventor” are very close: that of an obsessed tinkerer in his garage, testing and refining different materials and different systems until success reveals itself. Think of the quotes from Edison one still encounters when looking for sayings about success: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Or, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Or, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Or, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

When he spoke to the Sun, he was already famous and becoming wealthy for inventing the phonograph and powerfully refining the telegraph, so dozens of investors in his electric light project came forward with enough capital to create the new Edison Electric Light Company, which is now General Electric. They knew what it would mean to be on board financially with the man who would bring electric light to every street and each house on those streets. A new world was about to be created. But not in 1878.

The investments helped. Edison was able to hire technicians and expand his lab at Menlo Park. It might have taken longer than four months for him to realize that a light bulb, a vacuum-sealed glass enclosure, was key. In March 1879, Edison once again announced that he was even closer to success. The historian Mark Essig quotes a skeptical newspaper article, from an impatient New York Daily Graphic writer:

Day after day, week after week, and month after month passes and Mr. Edison does not illumine Menlo Park with his electric light. The belief has become rather general in this country and in England that for once the great inventor has miscalculated his inventive resources and utterly failed.

(And we think the 24/7 news media we live in now is impatient. It always has been.)

When all the experiments and tinkering resulted in a successful product, Edison and his assistants knew it. They had a light bulb that was emitting more energy than was being put into it. For once he remained quiet. He wrote one friend, “It is an immense success. Say nothing.”

He put out the word that he was ready by inviting the public to his famous lab in northern New Jersey. The demand for rail tickets became so great that the rail companies added cars to the routes west. The crowd was estimated to be over three thousand, and no one in attendance was disappointed. Not even the newspaper reporters. Edison did not provide entertainment or work the crowd up with delays and announcements or speeches about the grand era to come; instead, he turned the light on and off, again and again, and allowed the public to do the same. The grand new era was here, and by September 1882, Edison’s company was providing electricity and light to customers in lower Manhattan.

(Mark Essig’s 2003 book, “Edison and the Electric Chair,” does a great job explaining the science behind the false starts; it is also a great work of history about the legal battle between Edison and Westinghouse and AC versus DC power distribution. It and some online articles helped when I noticed that today is the 135th anniversary of the debut of something I will be turning off about two minutes after midnight tonight. Happy New Year, everyone, and may the only tears any of us shed in 2015 be tears of joy.)

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 31 asks, “We cry for lots of reasons: sadness, pain, fear … and happiness. When was the last time you shed tears of joy?”

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2014: Mine, Yours, Ours

I am not the only person to have expressed a desire to see a “Best of 2014’s ‘Best of 2014 Lists'” list, but here are some of the bests of 2014 for The Gad About Town.

First a thank you to everyone who reads this website, even if this post is the first one by me that you have seen: Thank you.

This is a small publication with about 300 subscribers (“followers” in WordPress lingo) and a total of under 10000 views since January 2014. Of those 9000 views, it has received 645 comments and about 2000 “likes” (individuals’ faces and logos appear next to each like, making this feel like a community of sorts) across its 190 posts. Six hundred and forty-five comments out of 9207 visits is a 0.07 rate; I do not know if this is good, bad, an uncommonly high percentage, or so very extremely average and just like everyone else’s website as to be unworthy of even bothering to calculate.

I like to think of myself as a professional writer; a year ago, I built a platform out of nothing for myself, climbed on it, and started typing. Being disabled and with a tiny income means that I no longer need to: voluntarily send my résumé to some publication that I either admire or have never heard of in order to pursue a job that I almost certainly do not understand; hope to be invited to be interviewed; dress up or dress down for an interview in which “first impressions are everything” but when I am looking for a job, I do not make a good first impression; positively envision myself working with this staff for years to come (a silent thought, “I’m going to marry [looks around the office] … her”) but keep my expectations in check and understand that I will probably never lay eyes on any of these people again. Those interviews, many of them, are burned in my memory. They became good anecdotes, some of them; I interviewed for a copy editor job at a porn magazine on Lexington Avenue once.

Of the 645 comments given to this site, most have come from about a half-dozen individuals, none of whom I have (yet) met or even spoken with on the phone. Some readers have engaged me on each and every post for a week or so and then vanished. Some I think of as friends who made 2014 remarkable for me. I’m lucky to have met: Willow, who runs an “award-free” site, which is good, because this is not one of those. It’s a thank you note; Judy, a great writer and versifier who is leading a remarkable life, and I am grateful to be along for the part of the ride she shares; Mary, a fellow “spoonie” who has helped me open up in writing about my own condition; Leigh, who sometimes writes as many words in a response to one of my columns as some of the columns; Rebecca; Martha; Mrs. Anglo-Swiss; Catherine Lyons. I think I owe each of these readers a few comments in return. Please visit their sites.

The most frequently viewed post on this site in 2014 is “‘So It Goes,'” a brief reflection on Kurt Vonnegut and time’s passage. I have published some thoughts on the poet W.H. Auden five times: W.H. Auden.”

A Christmas Tree Story” received more “likes” than any other piece. “A Conspiracy Theory of Conspiracy Theories” received national attention because I am a jerk and posted a link to it in the comments section of an article on the same idea on Slate magazine, which led to me being called names. “Matt Coleman, Some Memories” and “Requiem for a Sponsor” were difficult to write. Readers wrote kind things about all of these columns. (I continue to insist on calling these posts, “columns,” because I used to work for a newspaper and I resist change.)

I am fond of three columns about equality and inequality: “Guilty of White,” the publication of which led to the end of a personal friendship when one friend revealed that they think that any person wearing a badge (especially if that badge-wearer is white) is always right, no matter what; “Inequality for No One“; and “Ice Water in My Veins,” about being disabled.

The company that hosts this and many other websites took the time to send each one of us and end-of-the-year round-up, which inspired this end-of-the-year round-up. The introduction to the letter reads:

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt: The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,176 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Click here to see the complete report.

Thank you all for a remarkable 2014, Mark Aldrich.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 29 asks, “When was the first time you really felt like a grown up (if ever)?”

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Inglorious Grown-up-ness

This morning, I became a grown-up: I attempted to remove glasses from my face that were already in my fist.

For those of you who are lifelong glasses-wearers (it is almost 40 years for me), you know that there are several distinct methods of removing eyeglasses and several messages that are communicated in the manner of their removal. Off the top of my head, there’s Two-handed and Thoughtful, One-handed and from the Right and Angry (I usually drop or accidentally fling my glasses across the room with that one), and One-handed and from the Left and Trying to Get to the Heart of Things. There are others. Putting them on in front of people communicates pretty much one thing and one thing only: Enough Fun, Everyone. Back to Work.

I do not remember right now which message I was going for this morning, but both hands were heading for my face, so it must have been Two-handed and Thoughtful or maybe simply Pensive, but like an indecisive ASL translator, I saw the glasses in my left hand as they came towards my face, so I doubled-down and confused everyone including me by improvising this: I scratched my face with the folded-up glasses, moved them from my left hand to my right, opened them, put them on, and then removed them with my left hand—One-handed and Getting to the Heart of Things. All in about five spastic seconds.

It was like semaphore, but with glasses.

It was also such a complete set of mixed messages that I should not have been surprised if someone threw a grenade at me. In some cultures, I probably requested that. It would have almost completely relieved my red-faced embarrassment.

And it was all because I was surprised. I do not do slightly forgetful things. Strike that. I believe, deep down where I know me better than anyone, that I do not do slightly forgetful things at all ever. Misplacing my glasses is something that rests just this side of awful. I had laser surgery earlier this year, which transformed me from a wearer of Bible-thick lenses from my teen years until I had the surgery to a far-sighted person who can now wear cheap, dollar store reading glasses for reading. Thus I have actually left the house without my glasses. Why? I do not do slightly forgetful things. Not me. Not someone so organized I would arrange my pens alphabetically if I could decide on an issue that this would address or simply figure out how to do it.

And simple, insistent, rigid organization has always prevented me from forgetting things: Keys in the same place every night. Wallet, too. Glasses on my bookshelf. Check, check, and check. And I have left the house minus each one of these in turn recently. I need to re-organize the role of organization in my life.

So there it was this morning: Grown-upitude in all its vanity-defeating ingloriousness. In its lapses and gaps. “Mind the Gap” isn’t just a sign for British rail passengers; it should be stamped on my forehead.

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In “Losing the Marbles,” James Merrill calls memory lapses “dreamy blinkings-out.” It is a passage of life in which, ideally, one learns to forget. It is a frustrating one more thing to be balanced against the pleasures of life in the moment, the eternal moment, the always now. Thus, memory lapses are a sort of grace in that they place the forgetter firmly in the present.

Losing The Marbles
for John Malcolm Brinnin
I
Morning spent looking for my calendar—
Ten whole months mislaid, name and address,
A groaning board swept clean …
And what were we talking about at lunch? Another
Marble gone. Those later years, Charmides,
Will see the mind eroded featureless.

Ah. We’d been imagining our “heaven”s.
Mine was to be an acrobat in Athens
Back when the Parthenon—
Its looted nymphs and warriors pristine
By the early light or noon light—dwelt
Upon the city like a philosopher,
Who now—well, you have seen.

Here in the gathering dusk one could no doubt
“Rage against the dying of the light.”
But really—rage? (So like the Athens press,
Breathing fire to get the marbles back.)
Those dreamy blinkings-out
Strike me as grace, if I may say so,
Capital punishment,
Yes, but of utmost clemency at work,
Whereby the human stuff, ready or not,
Tumbles, one last drum-roll, into thyme,
Out of time, with just the fossil quirk
At heart to prove—hold on, don’t tell me … What?

—from The Inner Room (1988)

Merrill develops a connection between the commonplace expression “losing one’s marbles” and needing to find an acceptance of this reality of life and the centuries of rage at the theft from the Parthenon of most of its sculptures, its “marbles.” One can rage or one can find grace and acceptance and … I lost the thought. Sorry.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 29 asks, “When was the first time you really felt like a grown up (if ever)?”

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‘Hindsight Is 50/50’ Sunday

[In 1997, the following column, “The New Wave,” won the New York Press Association’s “Best Column: Humorous Subjects” award in its “Best Newspaper” contest. I was the assistant editor, sports editor, schools page editor, and copy editor for a small-circulation weekly in Sullivan County, New York, which means that I acquired a lot of experience for very little pay. It was mostly worth it.

It is one of the very first columns I ever wrote, which is a fact that I hated for years after—”It was only ‘beginner’s luck’ that won me that award,” I complained silently to myself. (For years, I lived my life as someone who could think of an award or reward as a denial or a subtraction. And then I would spend some more time ruefully rueing the things I rued.) I was 27 at the time, and I think I also assumed more awards were coming my way. Until I started this blog on WordPress, there were no more awards.

The date of June 1996 is a bit of a guess from me as to its publication date. It might have been earlier that year. My family found a copy of the clip recently, so I have typed it up and included it here, back-dated and with some 2014 interjections, because I can not help myself. From 1996, “The New Wave.”]

The line at the local bakery for this morning’s hearty breakfast goodness was a long one. Some people arrived after me and were recognized by others ahead of me. These friends were all about the same age, 20 or so, and they politely took turns saying “Hey.” Eight “heys” rat-a-tatted out before they settled into their “what are you up tos.”

One friend waved to another behind me. The wave was one that has become popular in the last year or so [this was written in 1996] in this age group. Instead of the usual “Hi! How are you doing!” side-to-side shake of the hand next to the head, which has satisfied people in all their hand-waving needs since we first noticed there were people to wave at, it was cool, reserved. The traditional wave is too frantic, just another thing mom and dad do to embarrass us.

He raised his hand to half the height of the traditional wave, crooked his index finger above the rest, jammed his thumb into the crook of this finger, and passed the knot of fingers side to side four or five times. It was more of a grip than a wave. The expression on his face did not change.

To picture this new wave, imagine a baby swinging a rattle more vigorously than needed merely to make a noise, but not hard enough to hit itself in the head. Now imagine the baby without the rattle, but not crying because you took the rattle away. This is the wave. Now picture someone else, say your 20-year-old, doing it. He is sullen, but not so sullen that he cannot wave hello.

There are times when I think this is a valid wave. There are times when friendliness feels conventional, like something people do because they are supposed to. Why bother waving if you do not feel like it?

Conversation revealed that these friends had not seen each other in months. Their joy at seeing one another again after a semester away at college was not palpable. The wave, the greetings, and the conversation were all expressed with the emotional intensity of a lawyer representing a slightly unfriendly witness before a Congressional subcommittee.

People cannot commit even to saying hello to friends with emotion. Emotion is so … old. Their only solid commitment us to its non-expression.

Teenagers’ telephone conversations are traditionally perfunctory: [2014 interrupts: “Why ‘traditionally’? Maybe ‘similarly’?” And why telephone conversations? Oh, right, 1996. Life in the land before texting.]

“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“You home?’
“Yeah.”
“You want to do something?”
“Yeah. You?”
“You want to come over?”
“Yeah.”
“Bye.”
“Bye”

But this mode of conversation is extending way past adolescence into adulthood, middle age [2014 again: Ha!], and old age, which is new.

Walk around your town. Notice the other residents doing their shopping and browsing. As you and someone you do not know very well or even at all come upon each other, you may both smile, but it will not involve any teeth. The smiles will instead be grim little grins. You may both even say “Hi” as you pass, but you will wait for the other to speak first, and his faintly whispered “Hi” minus the “i” sound will be returned with your own clipped “Hi” greeting. One of you may even manage a “How are you?” but so inaudibly as to render the question silly.

I have been greeted by, and have returned this greeting to, people I know very well. Family members, even. We both appear to be in such a hurry, even though we are not, and we both know we are not. We cannot commit any emotion to the exchange, because we do not want to look silly. One never knows when interpersonal disaster will strike, apparently.

It seems if we are too warm with each other, we think the other person will walk away muttering to himself, “Drunk.”

A suggestion: The next time you see someone give the new wave, drop him to the ground, pin him, flatten his waving hand against the pavement, and make him greet you. Make him express how truly happy he is to see you. The world should be more friendly, damn it.

Copyright 1996 TRR

[The award citation said some very nice things, as it was an award, about how the column expanded its scope from something small to a larger thought. I guess I still try to do that.]

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 28 asks, “Now that you’ve got some blogging experience under your belt, re-write your very first post.”

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Clichés Made E-Z

A very long time ago, in a country very far from here—France in the 1820s—people were alive and kicking. They lived their lives only but dimly aware that things they did and said might be remembered and still used by people two centuries later. In other words, to turn a phrase, to not take matters lying down, and to put it bluntly, French typesetters of the era came up with the word cliché, and the world as we know it has not been the same since.

Once upon a time, I was a technical writer involved in content creation and document management. But enough about me. When one is creating manuals and finds that certain instructions and specific illustrations will be of use in more than one manual, it is time-saving to create those passages and illustrations only once and use them as needed in other documents rather than create each one afresh each time. (Which tended to be my method because I am very good at wasting time in what one might call an "office.")

In professional circles, this is called single-sourcing, and I will not get more technical than that. When writing a document that is going to include a basic series of instructions or a standard illustration, one writes, "Insert A here" and whatever software one is using will insert "A"—that piece of prose or drawing—in that spot in your document. It is conceivable that one could write an instruction manual that is merely a series of tags referring to text from lots of other instructions that were written for other things, and a document will be created that will be ignored by building contractors across the country or dads next to Christmas trees everywhere.

The concept has existed since soon after the printing press was invented. Printers know that there is no good reason to spell out each word every time when setting a press. Certain words recur ("recur" is not often one of them, oddly enough). The printers would order up—or forge for themselves—plates with commonly used words.

By the 1800s, printers were making plates with entire phrases on them, however. Idiomatic expressions, commonplace exclamations, trendy words—you know, the best of the best, the cream of the ...

The most commonly heard sound in a printer's life is the sound produced when making the plates that will be used in the books that are made. It is a click. French pressmen coined a verb, clicher, to imitate that sound. Some particularly witty printer turned the verb into a noun, cliché, to refer to a plate that he seemed to use and overuse again and again, ad infinitum.

When a writer employs a common expression seen one too many times, a long-dead anonymous French printer is making a clicking noise from the great beyond. Spare this long-suffering soul and avoid clichés, please.

It is a bit of a cliché to remind writers to avoid them. The late William Safire, a writer for politicians who later wrote about politics for the New York Times, authored several bestselling books about writing. In one, he offered what he called "fumblerules," or writing "mistakes that call attention to the rule." One rule is, "Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague." He certainly did. His most famous written expression came in a speech for his boss, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew. In a passage in which he complained about the media and a perceived liberal bias against his Republican president, Richard Nixon, Agnew called members of the press corps, "nattering nabobs of negativism."

All clichés can be delivered with feeling, however; sometimes le mot juste is merely a commonplace phrase. Here is Mr. Safire's gravestone, for example:

safire

Is this William Safire's final "fumblerule"? I hope not. No, William Safire's last message to all and any who might find themselves gazing upon the stone above his dust is a cliché, "Keep The Faith," and that is A-OK. He said it, he meant it, thus there will be no tongue-clicking from me at what might have been his truly final rule for writers: A phrase is not a cliché if you mean it deeply enough.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 27 asks, "Clichés become clichés for a reason. Tell us about the last time a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush for you."

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‘For the Time Being,’ Part 3

The concluding sections of W.H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio continue his blend of the contemporary and everyday with the mysterious and eternal. All of modern philosophy is briefly made to vanish in a blur of the mundane world:

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays.

The fact of faith—not what one has faith in, but that faith exists, is a reality itself—that is the miracle of the day, is what Christmas is about:

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

“For the Time Being” was published in 1944. It is found in Auden’s Collected Poems. Section III is perhaps the most often reprinted part of the poem:

III
NARRATOR:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—
Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

IV
CHORUS:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 26 asks, “Have you ever managed to paint yourself into the proverbial corner because of your words? What did you do while waiting for them ‘to dry’?”

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‘For the Time Being,’ Part 2

During World War II, the poet W.H. Auden wrote a book-length poem entitled “For the Time Being.” It is subtitled, “A Christmas Oratorio,” and it is a retelling of the Christmas story, but with a 20th Century sensibility. His Herod, for instance, is a technology-loving king who loves that he lives in an Age of Reason and is ever-perplexed by faith and irked that he must hunt down and exterminate the baby Jesus.

An oratorio is a type of composition that was popular in the Baroque period and in churches and has not had many comebacks as a poetic or theatrical form because it never had a period of dominance. It never went away but it was never the first choice of writing mode for many writers. (Paul McCartney produced a quite famous one, “A Liverpool Oratorio,” two decades ago.) Auden was a poet of structures and forms, though, and he produced an attempt at almost every style and poetic structure in his body of work (about 400 poems and several full-length verse plays).

Oratorios are not often staged because the form resides somewhere between performance and recitation. The piece will have characters, but the characters only address the audience and rarely each other. Music is not necessary but can supply punctuation and help telegraph and amplify the intended moods of the work. There is only one full-length recording of Auden’s Christmas oratorio online, from a performance in 2007 by the St. Peter’s Cultivators in Chicago:

By 1940, Auden’s personal spiritual journey saw him rejoin the Anglican Church of his youth in the form of the Episcopal Church. It was also around this time that he had emigrated from England to America. As Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, describes it, “Auden returned to the Anglican Communion in 1940 after seven years of thought about the moral content of Christianity, about what it means to love—or not to love—one’s neighbor as oneself.” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 2007.) More Mendelson:

Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To the extent that they became ends in themselves, or made it easier for a believer to isolate or elevate himself, they became—in the word Auden used about most aspects of Christendom—unchristian. Church doctrines, like all human creations, were subject to judgment. […] Auden referred to himself as a “would-be Christian,” because, he said, even to call oneself a Christian would be an unchristian act of pride. “Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.” [Emphasis mine.]

After a decade in which he personally witnessed the Spanish Civil War and watched Europe move into two philosophies—fascism and democracy—and gird itself for a war over them, Auden removed himself to New York City and developed for himself a personal faith that to some might sound a-religious and to others like he had become born again. It is in that mode that he wrote “For the Time Being,” a work that uses both verse and prose and toys vertiginously with setting (it is simultaneously urban and contemporary, 1940, and the Roman Empire in its Judean outposts).

For Christmas Day 2014, here are two sections, a verse by the Star of the Nativity and part of a long monologue by Herod on the subject of Faith versus Reason and how Reason must triumph (but won’t). The full poem is found in Auden’s Collected Poems.

The Summons
STAR OF THE NATIVITY:

I am that star most dreaded by the wise,
For they are drawn against their will to me,
Yet read in my procession through the skies
The doom of orthodox sophrosyne:
I shall discard their major preservation,
All that they know so long as no one asks;
I shall deprive them of their minor tasks
In free and legal households of sensation,
Of money, picnics, beer, and sanitation.

Beware. All those who follow me are led
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

If you will recall, the Three Wise Men visit King Herod to ask if he knows the location of the newborn king of the Jews that they have heard about. In response, Herod requests that the Wise Men find the baby Jesus and report back to him, ostensibly so he can travel and worship the baby but in truth to eliminate the child who might usurp his crown. In Auden’s oratorio, Herod is given a four-and-a-half page prose speech, because a man of reason would not be represented in verse. And Herod is above all a man of reason, a technocratic king with building projects throughout the land and an ongoing war against what he calls witchcraft and idolatry. He is also a bit of a fusspot:

The Massacre of the Innocents
Herod:

[…]To-day, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”
One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions—feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces.
Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o’clock in the afternoon.
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged. And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance.
[…]
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. […] Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better?

A conclusion tomorrow. Thank you for indulging me. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 25 asks, “You wake up one morning to find a beautifully wrapped package next to your bed. Attached to it is a note: “Open me, if you dare.” What’s inside the mystery box? Do you open it?”

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