‘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

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

[…]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.

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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Santa and Me

I know Santa Claus, which I know sounds like a tall tale …

I do not remember the moment I learned that the many Santas that we encountered in person or saw on TV were “not real”; the fact that there was no “a-ha” moment leads me to assume that I never bought the story. Maybe so; maybe not. There is at least one photo of my sister and me in a “portrait with Santa,” and I remember the typical session. I knew the fellow was not Santa and I did not feel betrayed by this; I knew it was a guy overheating indoors in a snowsuit. It did not make much sense to me, to be a grown-up wearing a snowsuit indoors, but I did not envy adults the many things that they did, said, claimed, acted as if, and always eventually insisted made sense.

The nonsense things of the grown-up world were of no interest to me. From what I could determine, grown-ups were there to tell cover stories to kids to keep us in the dark about vitally important things, such as when we were getting presents; beyond that, I thought the only other thing one needed to be a grown-up was a wallet. And I had one of those, so my journey to adulthood was halfway done by age 10. It was a blue nylon wallet with a Velcro close. It was also always empty, or had the same few singles in it for years at a time. (“Empty” also describes my current wallet.)

My desires for Christmas were always selfish. I wanted “stuff” for Christmas, but really I had fun imagining the life I could be living … if only I could get the things I wanted from the many catalogs we received in the mail. I lacked imagination otherwise. Rarely did I get what I wanted, or what I convinced myself that I wanted.

I do not know why or how my family received so many giant Christmas catalogs from the various department stores (a dozen or so) that then dominated the retail landscape; perhaps every suburban family received them in the ’70s, but I knew my way around the catalogs like a medieval scholar rereading a saint’s life.

Did my parents wear pajamas? (Photo from eBay.)

Did my parents wear pajamas? (Photo from eBay.)

The holiday catalogs—Sears called its Christmas offering the “Wish Book”—were hundreds of pages long, and at least one of them per year would top 1000 pages. They were printed on thin paper and weighed many pounds apiece, with pages so saturated with color ink that their smell was unmistakable. I could always sniff out whether the magical books had been taken out and consulted during my day away from them at school. I would search them for any new tell-tale creases left behind by my parents in the pages. I never found new creases—never!—in the toy pages.

Some of the books had color bars along the side so one could quickly find one’s favorite section. As I got older, I graduated from coveting model cars and not very movable action dolls to desiring electronics. I did not dream of clothes for Christmas, nor did I understand why there were pages devoted to clothes at all—those struck me as a waste of space and ink and my precious time while searching for the toy pages (ignoring the helpful color codes on the side).

There is a nostalgia market for copies of these vintage catalogs, as can be seen by my illustrations. A copy of the 1978 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog was available last year for just under $20 on eBay. If my parents had held on to every copy of each store catalog we received every Christmas, well, I would have different parents than the ones I have. The epic, cuboid-shaped retail books were usually gone from our home shortly after the “order by” date had passed every year. 

A vintage Steve Austin doll. See the hole in the head? The push-button on his back 'controlled' his bionic left arm, which meant that his left arm was in fact useless. (Photo from eBay.)

A vintage Steve Austin doll. See the hole in the head? The push-button on his back ‘controlled’ his bionic left arm, which meant that his left arm was in fact useless. (Photo from eBay.)

My desires went through phases, from action dolls to Matchbox cars to magic kits to a brief fling with fully functioning model trains, to video games. (The most “useful” action doll was “Stretch Armstrong,” which was the one doll that lived up to its name and moved like the cartoon character. Thus, it was “realistic.” A friend had one of these. The least useful was the “bionic man” Steve Austin doll, which was easily broken but thoroughly indestructible. His bionic eye was not a telescope but instead a simple hole drilled through his head with a glass tube inserted. The tube was cloudy with dust within months of receiving the doll. Thus, it was “real” as opposed to “realistic.” That was the doll I owned.)

The pages that I really loved in the catalogs sold the model car tracks. Not the model cars or radio-controlled cars. The tracks. (See illustration at the top.) Mind you, any track that I ever actually owned myself was a simple oval, and, left to my own construction, I would somehow have sections unfinished and unfinish-able and unmatched leftover pieces of track. (Later in life, I wrote instruction manuals.) But I desired a multiple-lane highway of a Matchbox track, a complex of exit ramps and traffic circles. Some of the kits even came with stop signs, and I aspired to be the Robert Moses of my bedroom. Look at this page from a Montgomery Ward catalog, at the top of this column, with its huge illustrations and dense, descriptive copy. The track depicted on the bottom right, with its merging lanes and underpass, has me envious all over again. “Wish Book,” indeed.

The one time I played with a radio-controlled car on one such elaborate track was at a friend’s house; he had it set up on his living room floor, which made little to no sense to me, and the moment he handed me a controller, my car flipped off the track, rolled under a couch, and re-emerged for a split-second just before falling off the landing to the hardwood foyer floor below. (This may explain my lifelong hatred of split-level houses.) We looked at each other during that two seconds of loud silence that always precedes the unmistakable sound of irreversible destruction. I do not remember being invited to his house again.

I wanted the ultimate magic kit, too, and as with anything advertised in the catalogs, the magic kits grew more complex with higher prices. They all included a “magic wand,” a wooden dowel painted black, or, in the more expensive kits, painted with a white tip. In all the kits, from simple to pricey, the tricks were easy to follow, both for the performer and, unfortunately, his audience. Most of the tricks in magic kits are the basic shell game and some variations—balls and cups—or include a set of pre-marked cards or a dummy set of all aces or jokers.

The lesson in kit after kit, year after year (my parents are patient people) was an easy one that I rejected time after time: that real magic is only possible through cheating or hiding the fact you, the performer, are cutting corners. This seemed like more nonsense from grown-ups, like a fake Santa. As a result, I would lose interest in each magic kit within weeks or months, but I wanted a new kit every single Christmas.

For me, most magic kits emphasize the word “trick” and lose that word “magic,” and I think what I wanted out of a magic kit was to learn a trick that would take its performer for a ride as much as it did the audience. I did not want to learn how to perform the tricks; I wanted to perform them. I wanted to be astonished, too.

I believed that such magic existed. And every Christmas, I believed that it would arrive in a cheap cardboard box of tricks with easy-to-lose balls and cups. Somehow I was never disappointed; the magic simply wasn’t in this particular box, it may have been in the one next to it on the shelf, I told myself. Maybe next year. 

Ah, well. Life’s magic does exist. And it astonishes its performer and takes him for as much of a ride as it does his audience. The magic may in fact be in the next moment or the one just behind it on the shelf. Because I know Santa Claus. Always did. He’s always a few doors down the street, just out of sight and sound for the moment.

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Happy holidays, all of them, from my family and friends to you and yours.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 24 asks, “Who’s your hero? Tell us a story about why that person plays such an important role in your life.”

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‘You must learn to bluff, too’

2014 was (is) the Unpredictable Year in The Gad’s house. For one thing, I had resolved to not start a sentence with a number this year (I just failed that right there in front of all of you) or address myself in the third-person using the amusing name I gave to this blog (fail numero two).

There is an expression, “The only constant in life is change,” and the person in my life who used to utter this expression every single day that I saw him died in May. What a terrible way to illustrate a notion. There were “I love you’s” spoken in the hospital, so that friendship ended as a completed thought for us both.

At this time last year, I was living in a different house in a different town altogether and even though I had plans to move house in 2014, it was not to where I am living on this December 22.

So it goes,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, many times. Often it was a sigh spoken by one of his characters, a philosophy of acceptance in three words and not one word more because there was nothing more (for them) to say, and at other times it was uttered with a tone of defiance: Acceptance as defiance. “You want me to fight back? Don’t hold your breath.”

From the birth of the calendar, in the year before counting, cultures have connected two opposite modes of thought to the new year. It is a time for reflection and even atonement, for clearing the wreckage of the past year if there is any, and it is a time for resolve, for aspirations and plans for the coming year, which are usually desires to make plans to be somehow different than one was in the immediate past.

No one resolves to perform deeds for which they will have to atone the next new year, at least no one that I know does, but the coming year is the territory in which one will make mistakes or cross people the wrong way. So it goes.

There were other goodbyes in 2014. Because I moved to a town that is forty-five minutes from where I lived for the last several years and I do not drive, there are some friends I have not seen in eight months. Sometimes friends who live a cross-country flight away can seem closer than those who live an hour drive away. Do not feel sorry, or anything, for me: I’m not exactly using up anyone’s phone batteries.

One goodbye was a surprise, and I wrote about it a few months ago: “Requiem.”

Because I work at living my life in the moment, expecting success, this year has in fact been a great, interesting, love-filled year. If I had even tried to make a resolution at the start of 2014, it would have been something like that statement: Accept the year to come as great, interesting, and love-filled, but also work hard at presenting life as great, interesting, and love-filled to those around me. I have no clue if I achieved that second clause, other than the working at it part. I worked at it. As a result, most of life is a pleasant surprise and those things that aren’t are that way for a reason I will figure out. (Anyone reading this who is a parent can probably tell that I am not one.)

I keep returning to a charming story about Auden (more from him later this week) that was published last year, an anecdote about his kindness. I want to work at being more like this:

Sixty years ago my English teacher brought me to London from my provincial grammar school for a literary conference. Understandably, she abandoned me for her friends when we arrived, and I was left to flounder. I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself. Auden must have sensed this because he approached me and said, “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff, too.”

So it goes. Let’s bluff our way together into 2015.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 22 asks, “We’re entering the final days of 2014—how did you do on your New Year’s resolutions these past 11.75 months? Is there any leftover item to be carried over to 2015?”

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Connect the Colors

For those with synesthesia, the world seems no more interconnected than they assume it always is for the rest of us, until the person with the condition casually mentions how lively and bright blue the letter K always is to a playmate, who then reacts in a baffled way.

It is a condition that an unknown number of people have, but it is a condition to which the modifier “suffers” can not be added, because it does not often have negative effects on an individual’s life. It is not known how many people have or might have some form of synesthesia because not many people take the time or are offered the opportunity to describe the way they perceive how they perceive the things they perceive.

A person who is color-blind usually learns at a young age that there is a color that everyone else sees and can name that they do not see. (I am a person who does not have color-blindness, so I have difficulty describing it. I have had color-blind friends, and one, a great writer, made it sound like something I wanted to experience, too, which was not his aim.) Opportunities do not present themselves very often to mention that when they see blue they taste sweet, and when the first opportunity comes and the synesthete takes it and is met with a puzzled look that they interpret as criticism, most do not mention it again.

It is a world of connections that the synesthete occupies, with sounds presenting colors or colors tastes. At its most benign, it is not an intrusive sensation; there are not many reports of individuals avoiding specific words or numbers because of a foul taste or harsh sound, or vice versa. But there are some. Most people with synestesia report that the experience is an awareness that, for instance, a color is involved with the letter or word they are looking at. It is something that can be ignored or enjoyed.

Somewhere in my school days, I must have mentioned seeing words as I speak them, and the classmate to whom I told this must have made me feel terrible. What remains in my memory is a ghost of a thought that I was somehow a bad person for this and needed to tell on myself to the teacher the next time we had a spelling bee: I thought I was cheating whenever I “saw” a spoken word and could spell it out loud as if it was in front of me. (I think I did try in my eight-year-old way to tell her and was met with a baffled look.) Maybe I am simply a very good speller and that’s that. Maybe everyone sees their speech. (It is always word by word, not whole sentences and they are always white letters.) If it is a form of synesthesia, it is the most boring case of it anywhere, ever, and all it ever did for me was earn me a lot of 100s in spelling tests in elementary school.

To this day, if I concentrate, I see the words I speak … somewhere in my perception. Not so plainly that they block what I am looking at in reality, but they are somewhere, usually to my left. This was the case when I studied foreign languages, too, the spelling just came naturally. There are words that never show up, though, and those are the words I always need to look for.

How does one describe one’s perception? Perception may be the most unique and personal portion of human experience—or it may be the most identical; either way, we do not have a means of testing it, except based on anecdotes from individuals. Perhaps strawberries taste the same for you as they do for me—in which case, Hooray for us! because “strawberry” is the best flavor, period—or they do not. And there is no boundary definitively marking the areas in which a “blue always seems to cheer me up” casual causality that most people express and the areas in which a child can spell, not because of an “i before e” rule, but because red always goes to the left of green, which tastes better anyway.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for June 7 asks, “If you were forced to give up one sense, but gain super-sensitivity in another, which senses would you choose?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 21 asks, “You can singlehandedly create a causal relation between two things that are currently unconnected—a word and an emotion, a song and an extreme weather event, wearing a certain color and winning the lottery. What cause would you link to what effect, and why?”

And please visit and participate in the Alterna-Prompt, “The Blog Propellant.”

‘Being There’

Contemporary accounts make it sound like watching the man perform on stage was like watching a man possessed: Fascinating and frightening, but a genius. He became world-famous and theaters billed him as the “Funniest Man on Earth.”

A later performer became an international superstar and said many times of himself, to interviewer after interviewer, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.” Watching him was like watching a man possessed by the accents and mannerisms of any character. He also said, “There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” His questioner in this particular case was Kermit the Frog.
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‘For the Time Being,’ Part 1

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 he desired that it be set to music; because it is fifty-two pages long as is, before the addition of music or stage directions, he could have easily subtitled it, “The Longest Christmas Oratorio: Bring Snacks.” Benjamin Britten decided that composing music for the full work was too difficult so he set two short sections to music.

“For the Time Being” was published in 1944. I will explore it a bit more tomorrow. It is found in Auden’s Collected Poems. Here is one section:

At the Manger

O shut your bright eyes that mine must endanger
With their watchfulness; protected by its shade
Escape from my care: what can you discover
From my tender look but how to be afraid?
Love can but confirm the more it would deny.
     Close your bright eye.

Sleep. What have you learned from the womb that bore you
But an anxiety your Father cannot feel?
Sleep. What will the flesh that I gave do for you,
Or my mother love, but tempt you from His will?
Why was I chosen to teach His son to weep?
     Little One, sleep.

Dream. In human dreams earth ascends to Heaven
Where no one need pray or ever feel alone.
In your first few hours of life here, O have you
Chosen already what death must be your own?
How soon will you start on the Sorrowful Way?
     Dream while you may.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 19 asks, “The holiday season: can’t get enough of it, or can’t wait for it all to be over already? Has your attitude toward the end-of-year holidays changed over the years?”

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Expect Success

It was my least favorite question in school. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

On one occasion, I remember being forced (forced!) to draw what I pictured my life to look like. If I had had the sense of humor I claim to have now, I would have drawn someone who was capable of drawing. Maybe I would have drawn someone holding a board with many colors on it. The person would be wearing a smock. (That was how Mr. Volk, our art teacher in elementary school, dressed. It was almost a parody of a cliché of someone’s idea of an artist.) The caption to my drawing would have stated that I hoped I would be able to draw when I was a grown-up.

Or maybe I could have drawn something representing a desire to be funny someday. A “Tonight Show”-type desk or a microphone in front of a brick wall. But no, as when I was asked to verbalize what I wanted to do when I was a grown-up, which I reacted to like it was a trick question, as if there was a perfect answer that I could glean by reading the cues from my questioner (“Mrs. Arms wants me to say that I want to be an … astronaut! I’ll draw an astronaut.”), I could only draw a stick figure wearing a tie. I want to have a job. Isn’t that what I am supposed to say? It’s already afternoon and there’s an Abbott and Costello movie on, so can I go now?

Except I would never say out loud to anyone that there was something I would rather be doing, like watch a movie. As a kid, I think I saw adults as something to be tolerated. They did not know more than me, and those that I conceded did know more were pushy about it, which is I why (I guessed) they were teachers. My stick figure with a tie (red, in my memory) was basically my dad, the only adult with a job that I was aware of. (Teachers? I am sure I wondered how that was a job. The freakiest thing in life—ever!—came whenever we saw a teacher in the grocery store, in the outdoors life. They shop? Doesn’t the janitor just fold them up and put them in a storage closet at the end of the school day, once the last detention bus has pulled away and a ride had been found for the last kid whose parents were divorcing and screwed up the daily negotiations over who was supposed to pick her up?) My stick figure with the red tie represented my eight-year-old’s deep inner knowledge that I was destined to be someone’s employee, probably working with or on numbers instead of what I thought I wanted, which I did not think anyone wanted for or from me: to work with words and sentences.

I also never imagined, neither out loud nor on paper, in writing or in stick figures, a family life. My imagination was that limited. Marriage and family appeared (in my limited view) to be things that people seemed to fall into upon arriving at a certain age. For me, something never envisioned became something never worked toward. One does not live to be 43 and single without some effort at failure devoted to the cause; the wonderful news is that I am now 46 and not single, and life has opened up for me.

As a kid, I simply did not see the point to imagining something in the far-off future. Why bother when it is going to be so different? My gosh, I wish I had had the foresight to say something like that out loud to my teachers. I just tried to read their prompts for what they seemed to think I should say I wanted. “Draw your dream house.” I drew the house I then lived in, a three-bedroom, single-level ranch, the only home I’d known, but in a different color. With a swimming pool. Within a year, in real life, the house had been painted (not my imagined color) and a swimming pool installed. See? The distant future, my distant future, would take care of itself.

It has taken care of itself, I guess, in that I am still here. The only distant date that caught my imagination was 2000. In the 1970s, that year always came with a preface: “In the year.” “In the year 2000, I will turn 32 and … perhaps have a more detailed and creative imagination than the one I have now, in the year 1979.” But ever since then, in adulthood, every time I have written out a five-year plan, I have veered completely off from it within six months. The one time I started a 401(k), I lost that job within a week. Eight months ago, my housemate and I were supposed to move to a new apartment and the very day that I officially changed my address with the post office, a task that nowadays is more of an official-sounding representation that one is moving than it is something totally necessary, that very day, thirty minutes after filling out the post office’s online form, I was told by my housemate’s mom (of all things) that I was not a part of the move and that my housemate had been lying to me about the move for six months. Two very positive things resulted: I moved in with a part of my girlfriend’s family and my girlfriend and I are closer together; I no longer live with a sociopathic housemate or the mother. Life has taught me to retain my lack of a detailed and creative imagination and yet be open to possibilities.

Because I did not have an idea of adult life, my life so far has been nothing like what I imagined. There is a difference between being a grown-up and an adult. For much of my life, I have been a “grown-up,” that stick figure with a red tie that I drew long ago. On good days, I wore a tie and looked like I was an adult, but was not. I would hold a job for a while and become bored or distracted by what could come next or stressed that I was expendable (the perpetual worry of a stick figure) and move to the next part of life. I remained open to possibilities, but sometimes the possibilities grew narrow. They no longer are.

I wanted life to be interesting. I wanted to be kept interested, interesting, and entertained. My life has been all of that and still is. It really is an adventure.

(This is an edited version of a column from July, “Adults and Stick Figures.”)

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 17 asks, “Tell us about the object of your dejection—something you made, a masterpiece unfinished, or some sort of project that failed to meet your expectations. What did you learn from the experience? How would you do things differently next time?”

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Words and Things

The only message worth devoting much time and effort to communicating is love. Today, a sad news day, is a good day to remember that.

A few months ago I wrote about two artists who played with the question of whether what they are depicting is anything more or less than words on a page or paint on a surface. Both George Herbert and Arcimboldo (and Andy Warhol, in his own way) make art of the question, What is art? Is it what it depicts, an idea about what it depicts, both at the same time (which makes it a third option), or something less than? Is art, by definition, always a misfire, in that a depiction of a thing is not the thing and never can be?

Arcimboldo painted portraits of character types rather than individuals; for instance, a librarian composed entirely of books or a gardener made of vegetables in a bowl. That latter painting depends on the viewer to decide to see the bowl filled with veggies or a human “face.”

When is a face a face and when is it a bowl of root vegetables? When is a painting a painting and something greater than a collection of chemicals on canvas?

Vegetables In A Bowl, Or, The Gardener

George Herbert wrote poems about the only idea that he deemed to be worth considering: The eternal love of his Christian God and man’s time-and-space-and-language-constrained attempt to return that love. Two of his poems are written in the shape of what they are about. Like Arcimboldo painting a root vegetable for a nose, Herbert uses words to build an item; in one, “The Altar,” each word is a “stone” making up the altar that the poem is conceived as being:

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

One word, a single syllable, too many or one word mislaid or deleted, and there is no altar there. It is an altar made of words but no less central to the life of a church than an altar made of stone. The poem appears in the only book of poems that he compiled himself, a book titled “The Temple,” which walks the reader, a “dejected poor soul,” through a church. Thus, his altar, “The Altar,” is central in the book. (At Herbert’s request, the book was published posthumously, with his stated desire that it might bring “consolation of [to] any dejected poor soul.”)

It is probably an untranslatable poem, in fact if not sentiment. (Indeed, an admittedly brief survey has not yielded one.) The shape of the poem is dictated by the number of syllables in his choice of words; it is a translation of an object, a real thing, into words anyway, and as such is forever a failure. It is a “broken altar.” The human heart is the only perfect, unbroken, stone for worship, is the only true altar. All that his mind can make is something out of these pieces of meaning, words, and if he can get out of his own way (“if I chance to hold my peace”), these words as assembled here only exist to worship and love. They are what they are, words, and the words each on their own are not an altar, and a spoken version of this poem is not an altar, either. When is an altar an altar? At what point is a poem something other than, more than, words on a page?

However well-constructed it may be—it looks like an altar, for crying out loud—it does not matter. It is no altar. Not even a photorealistic painting of an altar would be an altar. Further, no altar is truly an ALTAR, as no earthly object is made of the only stone of faith that exists: the human heart “cut” by God.

Herbert’s faith was that of a man for whom questions about faith were a part of it. His worship and his poetry exist in a space of failure, where a poem of an altar is not an altar but is a sort of altar, an attempt at one. His poetry depicts a figure who is struggling in every way to comprehend and return eternal love and who is met every time by a figure who replies that it is all a bit easier than he is making it. But all I have is language, Herbert’s speakers proclaim: “We say amiss / This or that is: / Thy word is all, if we could spell.”—”The Flower.”

Herbert often describes the moment when the perceiving of love comes easily, and it is always sensuous, often reads as if it is written to a new love:

Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown
—”The Flower”

But Herbert’s worshipper is always doubting himself, his faith, whether his faith is correct or not. In “Love (iii),” Herbert’s speaker is an unworthy guest in God’s (Love’s) home, but his host is gently persistent:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungrateful? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

So if poetry is always at best an approximation of True Love, why not try to sing this struggle, as well? The “cheerfully agnostic” (which pretty much describes me, as well) English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams created five songs out of four Herbert poems a little over a century ago. The suite is called “Five Mystical Songs,” and one, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” is a setting of “Love (iii).” Some churches use the last song, “Antiphon,” as a hymn sung by the congregation.

Here is Sir Thomas Allen performing the set (in two sections) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra:

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 16 asks, “You have to write a message to someone dear to you, telling that person how much he/she means to you. However—instead of words, you can only use 5-10 objects to convey your emotions. Which objects do you choose, and what do they mean?”

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