NO SUCH ALIEN TO US IS DEATH

The flat, stale smell of death is on the curtains
In my room, and on my trousers too
As if I’d been there, standing near her arm
And gotten splattered when she fired the gun
It’s like the scent of brains and dark despair

Death in our time stays apart from us
Hiding, though the dead are known and near
But someone has to find it in fresh sleep
When coldness comes, invited by our hands
Or steals upon us sudden, as we walk

It was her husband found her, I was told
Husband, lover, one who shared her bed
One who knew her smile, her warmth, her care
But knew her darkness too, had felt her anger
Sometimes aimed at him, or aimed at her

I imagine finding love in blood and tears
Below the stars that witnessed its demise
A tightness grips my heart with that same cold
As if a part of me had passed there too
Or somehow felt the bullet blasting home

I imagine being him, enduring pain
That no known voice can give a proper shape
Wishing my blood ran into her veins
Or my heart beat within her chest for her
Or my head took that missile in her place

I feel all this from distance safe, and time
That runs along a different axis here
As though the shot were in another world
The blood upon another planet’s soil
But no such alien to us is death

The smell still clings, and haunts my home and work
I’m guessing it will fade across my years
But do I want it so to fade?  Perhaps
Or maybe I would keep a hint of odor
To keep my blood from clotting in my limbs

Perhaps I’ll keep a hint of her with me
That I might always find my love in time
Before she puts her hand to steel and fire
Before she puts a dagger to her soul
That I might bleed before another dies

Every Night I Pull My Tears

Every night I pull my tears
From pockets of my pants or jeans and
Toss them in the laundry hamper.

There they sit, for one to seven
Days (depending when we wash) in my
Room of rest (but not always sleep).

They never sit alone as they wait,
Soaked in the cotton/poly white that I
Carry for mucous, sweat… and this.

Mornings I take one, neatly folded and
“Clean,” the tears all rinsed away
(meaning merged with other liquid,
Diluted to indiscernibility).

But that they’re gone is no mere absence, their
Trace still haunts the washed white cloth
Invisible, unlike occasional blood.

Sometimes tears of others mix when
I’ve a cloth and they’re without. It’s
“Clean,” but still they mix therein. So

At night, when I tiredly pull my tears
For washing, it’s more than just today’s
And more than mine, aware or not.

That “clean” is never purely so can
Irk one. But with tears I’d guess
It fuels the soul to carry such traces.

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“It was strange how some of childhood’s words and ways fell at the wayside and were left behind, while others clamped tight and rode for life, growing the heavier to carry as time passed.”

(Stephen King, The Gunslinger)

Nothing Doing

Re-blogging this from my old, formerly “secret” blog.  It was originally posted on May 11, 2012.

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Nothing Doing
(or I Should Be Glad Of Another Death)

 

At some sorry times a paralysis crawls
Out across the tarmac of my day
With no sufficient reason (pace Leibniz)
And no sense of the shrill urgent mundane
Clearly without why and
Frustrating as hell

Sure, one queries medicinal regimes
Or blames the food, the drink, the exercise
Neglected. Nothing can account for it.

Nothing;” if ever there were a pregnant word
Haunting the door of a clinic of dark purpose
Agonizingly wanting its abortion
Rather than the wait, the weight, the wait.
Cut it loose! Flush it from my gut!

But this dark clinic, closed and quiet, darker
Than its normal merely moral darkness,
Gives no answer to my wimpy whinings.

Nothing dwells there.  Nothing answers me.
And Nothing says that I must wait some more.
It’s hardly any Biblical cityscape
To which the slouching Nothing now draws near.

I must wait.
I must
Weight

“Held out into it,”
As Heidegger would have it

(Nothing)

 

Zeno’s Basement

How did I get here?  I can’t stop asking, that’s how.  It seems as though there should be a point when one is done asking, but I haven’t found it.

I’m in the elevator again, staring at the panel of buttons.  The button for floor 2, the one I just left, is lit.  The elevator waits patiently for me to press another button.

I found only a few things on the second floor, which makes sense given how difficult it seems to be for me to commit to a belief, to take something as true with no further questions.

But here is the disturbing thing:  Floor two is where I found the fundamental gestures of my Christianity.  The “sinner’s prayer” in high school.  The several crisis points in life where I said “yes” again, when it came down to what seemed the bottom.  It isn’t supposed to be that way.  It’s supposed to be on floor one, isn’t it?

But I haven’t been to floor one yet.  Taking a deep breath, I press the button.

The elevator descends, quietly and obediently.  The doors open on floor one.

A paneled foyer.  A terrazzo floor.  A counter, only about four feet from the elevator.  I step out.  The counter is occupied by a single person, young and androgynous.  I’ll go with ‘she.’  She looks up at me and smiles warmly.  “May I help you?”

“I want to know what’s on this floor.”

Her smile fades only slightly, as befits a serious answer.  “Sir, you should know that I can provide what will be answers of a sort, but you are at a level where language almost always fails.”

I’d heard something similar before, but I ask anyway: “Fails?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fails how?”

“It misses.  It fails to track whatever it is that language tracks, even more than at the levels above this one.  And I think you are aware that it fails to some extent even above this.  And this failure applies to the answer I am currently providing as well.”  Her face becomes fully serious.  “I’m very sorry for any inconvenience, sir.”

I pause to digest this a moment.  She appears to be as patient as the elevator.  I turn to glance back at the elevator, which remains open.  There are both up and down arrows above it, and the down arrow is lit.

I turn back to the receptionist.  “This is the bottom floor, isn’t it?”

“No sir, it is not.  That answer actually does not fail too grievously.”

I’m now in one of those states where several tracks of questioning present themselves with equal urgency.  I choose one.  “What is on this level?”

“What is on this level cannot be counted or inventoried in any stable way.  But I think there is an answer that would be most helpful to you right now, if you are willing to trust my admittedly fallible judgment.”

I nod.

“What you usually call ‘belief in God.’  Insofar as that is something that can be somewhere, it is on this level.”

The pit of my stomach begins to complain.  “Is it also found below this level?”

“The least misleading answer to that question would be ‘no.’”  She looks slightly sad.

So many more questions, but my stomach takes over.  I turn abruptly and go back into the elevator.  As soon as I enter, the doors slide shut.

I look at the button panel.  When last I was here, the button for floor one was the bottom numbered button, just above the buttons for opening and closing the doors.  Now, underneath it, there is a button labeled “0.5”  I am not surprised by this.  I press it, and the elevator descends again.

When the doors open, I am surprised.  I seem to be on floor one again.  The receptionist looks up at me and smiles.  I find that I am afraid to leave the elevator, so I speak to her from where I stand. “You again.”

A puzzled look.  “Again, sir?  I have not seen you here before.”

Of course.

I swallow and moisten my lips with my tongue.  “What is on this floor?”

She brightens a bit at being able to provide something akin to help.  “I’m sure you’ve already been provided with the disclaimer about language on the floors above.  On this level, it is best to say that it is not a matter of ‘what.’  It is only a matter of it still, in some sense, being ‘you.’”

I stare for several seconds into her patient eyes.

I’m eventually able to choose another question.  “Is this the lowest level at which it is, in some sense, me?”

Though her expression does not change discernably, her face seems to darken.  “Yes and no.”

“That doesn’t seem very helpful.”

“I know, sir.  But it is as true as I can manage.”

Still standing in the elevator, I look over at the button panel.  With dread but little surprise, I see that the bottom button is now labeled “0.25”.

I look at the receptionist again.  “There is no limit on the decimal places, right?

She looks down at her hands, as if answering is painful for her.  “That is correct, sir.”

June 12, 2016

Only the tiniest portion of your pain
Have I known in my “straight” life

It’s there in my memory from early schooling
Where “schooling” was so much more
Than just what came from the teachers
When I couldn’t be male in the ways demanded
When the prescribed hatreds didn’t fully take root
When none of their niches felt like home
When I couldn’t “BE A MAN!” as they wanted
They called me “QUEER” with the same snarl
That cut their pale phallic idols off sharply
From anything black, or female, or otherwise Other
And even from Amish, that being the only real Other
Actually living near our whitewashed town

I’m white and cis-male and hetero, privileged
I know, though I forget, and then know again
And I have only wails today, not words
But if I try any words at all, when none will do
I’ll say that I accept that stabbing word with you
I’ll remember those peers and their discursive knives
I’ll be Queer, damn it all, I’ll be Queer with you

I want to risk going to Hell with you
Hereafter or here

It’s only the tiniest portion of your pain
But I want to endure it with you today
Today and always

 

“On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, United States. Orlando Police Department officers shot and killed him after a three-hour standoff.”  (Wikipedia)

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Remembering

I shared the following remarks on Remembrance Day (November 11th) in 2015 to the student body of Conrad Grebel University College (University of Waterloo).  I am deeply grateful to Trevor Bechtel for inviting me to share them, and to the students at Conrad Grebel for their warm response.

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Remembering.

A lot of people are remembering today.

Remembering is something that we do in different ways, for different reasons.

Remembering can be difficult to do, for various reasons.

Remembering can be difficult NOT to do, for various reasons.

Remembering is sometimes comfort, sometimes intense pain, sometimes indifferent.

Remembering is sometimes trustworthy, but sometimes not so.

I’ve been reading Sigmund Freud a fair amount lately.  He wrote about the memories that one has of early childhood, and why those memories have a character so different from our memories from about the age of about 7 to 10, and after.  Those memories of early childhood, he believed, are often “covering memories.”  They are memories of things that seem mundane and not very important, but they become associated with something important that a part of our mind does not want to remember.  His German word is often translated as “screen memories.” They are memories that screen out the more important things that are repressed, while still serving as a kind of stand-in for them, like a projection of them, but very distorted.

phoneIt might be better for us to hear it as “covering memories,” since we now so often use screens to remember, rather than to cover.  Or, if the screens bring us video or games, perhaps they do help us to repress too.

Anyway, Freud found that it is possible, at least sometimes, to get back to the repressed memories, to the important stuff.  But it is hard, and often takes a long time, and isn’t guaranteed to turn out right.

Remembering Freud on this matter can help us to remember how complicated it might be to remember, or to not remember, or to get a hold on what it is to remember.

I have a complicated memory that I’d like to share with you today.  Before I share it, you need to know a little bit about me.  I have been a Mennonite all of my adult life, basically since late adolescence, but I did not grow up Mennonite.  When it comes to the kind of remembering a lot of people are doing today in Canada (and a lot of people do in the United States every May), Mennonites are often in a rather uncomfortable place.  Our tradition has generally held that military service is not compatible with being a disciple of Jesus.  I do see myself as in that tradition, and most days I’m pretty sure that’s what I think too.

But my father was in the US Army Air Corps at the end of World War II.  The only reason he did not go to Europe was because the war ended.  I’ve always had both family members and friends who serve.  My son-in-law, whom I love as a son, has been deployed twice, first in Iraq and then in Djibouti.  In that situation, I have long struggled with how I should respond when we are called to remember those who serve in this way.  I’m very aware that such service is offered at great risk.  Consciously.  Bravely.  It’s made more difficult, I think, by the fact that I have never been in a position where I had to worry about the possibility of conscription, and I was never in a place where it seemed like an option to me, such that I had to struggle with it in the first person, so to speak.  I worry about being a convinced conscientious objector when I don’t know the measure of my own courage and readiness for self-sacrifice.

But here is the memory I want to share:  It’s from about fifteen years ago, or a little more, I think.  At the time, I was in a singing group, a barbershop quartet, with three men all of whom were older than me, and two of whom had served in World War II, and were active in the American Legion.  As part of that group, I was sometimes asked to sing in settings where we were honoring veterans, and especially those who died in action.  I did so, though not without some strong Mennonite guilt.

One Memorial Day I sang with the quartet for a ceremony at a cemetery, which was attended by a fairly large number of people.  After the ceremony, one of the members of our quartet, one of the veterans, asked if we could go with a small group to another smaller cemetery on the other side of the town we were in.  We went.  Just the four of us in the quartet, and the honor guard, the men who fired the salute.  That’s who went.  There was no one else.  We sang, the guns fired, and we were silent.  We were not there for anyone else.  We were not there for ourselves.  We were there for the dead.  We were there because, for my veteran friends, it was the thing to do to remember.

I was struck that day by how important it was to my friends, not to put on a show for the living, but to remember the dead.  To not forget.  I remembered that day despite all of my hesitations, despite whatever misgivings I had about what military action had been applied where, to whom, for what reason.  Not because of what the dead had done, but because it was important to remember.  I think I will always remember that time, in that cemetery.  It’s made me more likely than some of my Mennonite friends to thank those who have served for their courage and willingness to do so, and to remember those who came back in bags, or coffins, or not at all.

I also remember Anabaptist-Mennonite fallen, who have at times accepted suffering and death rather than serving such that they might have to kill.

But I do remember both.

Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn captures some of the tension I feel, though differing some in the experience behind it, in his song “Each One Lost.”

Each one’s loss is everyone’s loss, you see.
Each one lost is a vital part of you and me.

Cockburn knows that this is true, not because we agree politically, but because we are all in this (whatever “this” is) together.

I share this with you today, hoping that you can see that remembering is not agreeing.  Remembering is not endorsing.  Remembering is…  Remembering.

And if remembering is hard, that often makes it more important that we do it.

Thank you.