Sunday, March 3, 2013

I Just Had to Laugh...

I just feel so stupid...

It's actually been a busy and, I think, productive day.  The first portion being spent at Combat Paper, where the artist currently showing in the Print Center's upstairs gallery, Dr. Eric Avery, was on hand, to talk about his work.  He'll be back next week too, to do a work demo, but (alas) I've got to do a play reading in Montclair.  Drat.  It was wonderful to meet him, and to get to ask him up-close-and-personal questions about the works on exhibit.  He was very self-revealing about his process, and completely undefensive in explaining some of his technical processes.  I was completely charmed, and the work is extraordinary.

Then, about an hour earlier than usual, I had to wrench myself away from Branchburg, and drive like the proverbial bat escaping Hell, to get to New Brunswick, to change clothes and prepare for the readings I'd been assigned, as part of John's 'Passion' concert, that started at 4 pm.  I was so in the zone, speed-wise -- most of the traffic lights en route were green, and I think I made the trip in about twenty minutes.  Plenty of time to change into a dress shirt and tie, and mosey over to Starbux for a small coffee, just in case.

I was one of five readers, and there were three choirs participating, and two organists and a saxophone player.  John constructed an intriguingly layered program, alternating readings from the Gospel of St. Luke, with appropriate music, from a wide range of styles and time periods.  I especially appreciated hearing the readings echoed in the music.

It also interested me, to hear this familiar story, of the time between Palm Sunday and the Crucifixion, told from just one Gospel source.  John assures me that I've heard St. Luke's version before, and maybe it was just the juxtaposition of the music, but a certain amount of this version seemed unfamiliar to me.  But there was definitely a distinctive 'voice' in the text, and a sense of a particular point of view to the retelling.  Many of the more harrowing details of the Passion weren't as explicitly spelled out -- but I found that effective, in that it made me recall the other versions, and encouraged me to fill in the picture myself, as it were.

And there was what I found to be an unexpectedly moving final musical selection, with the guest choir, Vox Fidelis singing and Benny Barksdale Jr. playing one of his saxophones.  The free, jazzy echoing of the more traditional music caught me off guard -- the restraint of the singing being pulled at by the emotive wanderings and wailings of the sax.  I listened with my eyes closed, and couldn't help tearing up -- not blubbering, thank goodness, but deeply moved for reasons I don't fully understand.  

And then it was over, and nobody attending seemed to know what to do -- I think we in the audience were left more or less out of breath, and frankly, it seemed a little weird, applauding the retelling of such a harrowing tale.  But finally, some clapping broke out, and John was able to have various soloists acknowledged.  The usual chatting ensued; John had some cleaning up to do; I drove home in the van, and he followed a while later in the Prius.   And we've just gotten back from a kind of celebratory dinner.  As they say in the South, I'm as full as a tick.

And you have now heard the good part.

Here's the not-so-good part.

As sometimes happens, usually at the least opportune moments, I was sitting in the front pew with the other readers, and someone else was at the podium, and I didn't have to worry about making an entrance anytime soon, and the music was flowing over all of us, I had one of those jarring existential insights that are never really as helpful as one might hope.  I was looking up into the blue barrel vaulted ceiling, and suddenly I felt as though not only was I made of a thin, thin external shell of papier mache, but so was everything and everyone else.  The music flowed, and I felt a tremendous anxiety and despair that was just short of dizzying.  I felt that giddiness that comes over me when I'm at the unprotected edge of some tremendously high place, and I can't decide, for a moment, whether I'm going to step back, or lean forward and let gravity do the rest.  It's an acrid kind of thrill that comes from my gut -- but this afternoon, it was less transient than usual.

A thin shell.  That's what I saw, in my mind's eye -- layered scraps of brown paper, to be precise, coated with glue and stuck together into a kind of dome-like structure, perhaps three layers thick -- just strong enough to hold its shape, if it wasn't touched.  And, frankly, everything around me seemed gradually to be subsumed into this shell-ness -- the choirs, singing, the music that had been composed centuries earlier, or just a few years ago -- all thin, thin, thin, and completely inadequate to act as much of a defense against the overwhelming nothingness over which I feel tenuously suspended much of the time.

This feeling fascinated me.  After my second reading, when I'd taken my seat again, I actually tried to locate this sensation again, so I could savor it more consciously.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not difficult to do.

And then, I'm afraid, I realized what was at work.  Here I was, participating in a retelling of one of the first stories I ever heard, about a special figure in human history, onto whom I innocently and completely pinned the fervent hopes I had, the desperate needs I felt, the dreads I was facing all alone, as an eight- or nine-year-old boy.  I was listening to promises of paradise, of some kind of posthumous existence, delivered in the spoken word, and through deeply-felt musical compositions.  What an unimaginable treasury of creative energy has been expended, in support of the Christ story, in the Western world!

They're all quite beautiful, the Vittoria, the Bach, the van der Weydens and Michelangelos.  But for me this evening, and in spite of their exquisiteness, all these works seemed just as flattened and insubstantial as that papier mache shell I saw in my mind's eye.

And of course, on the drive home, I thought about this some more.  Here's where I went, as I sped way over the speed limit on the Garden State:

When John and I are going on a trip for a few days, we call our neighbors, and ask if someone will be free to come over and give the ungrateful beasts the food they'd actually be better off doing without for a day or two.  I make sure the kitty cannister is filled, and that there's at least another half-bag of food in the hall closet.  John writes up a detailed list of where we'll be, and how we can be contacted. I make sure to leave the tap in the upstairs sink dripping ever so slightly, so stupid Buster can have his fresh water while we're gone.

These are cats we're talking about.  Cats for whom every day is probably indistinguishable from the last.  Cats without expectations beyond filled food dishes and relatively clean litter pans.  Cats incapable, that I've seen, of composing an oratorio or painting a triptych in honor of either John or me.  Even though, without us, their lives would be immeasurably altered, and they might even be sent to a shelter and put to death.  I doubt that there's ever a moment that such a concern could cross what passes for a mind in any one of them.

Now, I have to admit that I'm still enough of a cradle Christian to be somewhat afraid to write what I'm sure you've already guessed I'm going to say, but here goes: if I can treat my cats this way, making sure their basic needs are met (I also leave the classical music station on, and a light in the stairway), then what am I to make of a Savior who promises to come right back, and then leaves me without any realistic guidance or even a forwarding number, for... 2000 years?  To me, there's something very disappointing about this.

And, of course, there's the whole question of death/is there/isn't there anything afterwards.  Now, to possibly push the cat parallel beyond its usefulness, it would be impossible for me to explain to the cats where it is that John and I go -- as I know I've already said, the reality of the ATM machine alone would frazzle what few synapses the average kitty brain supports.  But... if I could, I certainly would. Thus, again, leading me to an uncomfortable skepticism that, more and more, crops up and won't be quiet and go away.

Of course I know that, no matter how bitterly, or how plaintively, or even how eloquently (I wish) I complain, there is no answer forthcoming.  I can't find myself believing even in a God Who provides handy parking spaces, let alone explanations of what His favorite creations will face, at death's door and beyond.  I'm reminded, of course, of that section late in the Book of Job, when the poor blister-covered punching bag of a man dares to ask God -- um, exactly... why is this all happening, again?  And God scolds Job for raising the question, because of all the wonderful, terrible things God did long before spines and neural systems were even thought of.  But you know, that's really not relevant, is it?  That, to me, is a cheap, evasive rhetorical device, to deflect attention from the topic at hand.  Were Job's new children really better than the dead ones?

Well, here I am, back to the papier mache, the thin thin thin shell of illusion I struggle mightily to keep operational, over the well of uncertainty in the middle of which I'm dangling by the thinnest, least reliable possible thread.  Would I be better off, if I could convince myself that at least one these stories, whether of Isis and Osiris, or Jesus and Mary, or Buddha, was true, and that I really could pin all my hopes and dreams and fears to this central tenet, and breathe a sigh of relief, because I'd think I was safe?  I really have tried, maybe more than many, to find some solid place onto which to anchor myself, some central seed around which to grow my own pearl of belief.  Is it a deep character flaw, that none of these places seems proof against a really clear-eyed examination?  (With the possible exception of Buddhism, which I think of as less a religion than a set of recommendations for ethical behavior.  Goddiness being a later veneer which might make the original Buddha laugh...)

Laughing.  There.  That's the place I keep wanting to get to -- that, I think, is the silly, useless response I've been thinking about lately -- there being no remedy for the existential emptiness, I think I would really like to be able to make myself, and as many other people as humanly possible, laugh.  As long and as hard as is bearable.  Laugh and laugh and laugh, until breath runs out.  It's the only pathetic, useless thing I can think of, that might serve as a huge flipping of the bird to whatever might or might not be out there.  Doing the divine Fingernails, watching the divine Soap Operas, while trying to remember, what was that thing I was supposed to do, again?  And where was I supposed to do it?  Oh well, tomorrow's another thousand years.  I wonder what's on The Existence Channel...

©    2013                  Walter Zimmerman                   

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