S2E07 Memory

Joe is losing his mind, one memory at a time. Plus, he talks Augustine, Moby Dick, twenty-first birthdays, and Heaven.

Transcript:

For most of the Plague, I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. It remains one of the glaring omissions in my study. For the first chapters, it was fascinating. I thought I would blaze through. Expecting a quick finish, I even ordered a few other books, which are now in stacks, waiting their turns. But I’ve been buried, for a month now, in a repetitive and meandering part. It’s the dull and apparently aimless rambling that makes me think of Moby Dick—how it took me years of false starts until finally, in an act of willpower that may have been better applied to training for a marathon, I finished.

My poor wife thinks it’s her obligation to read Melville now. She has my copy on her bedside, bookmarked in the early chapters just as Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck, and Queequeg leave Nantucket. She’s stranded. Just as I, now past the juicy parts about Augustine’s youth, feel like the Pequod stalled in windless waters.

My stepdaughter turns 21 in three weeks. She’s not excited about it. My wife and I talked with her about twenty-first birthdays. This, for some reason, is an American right of passage. And my stepdaughter is, rightly, saddened that she will miss out on hers. She will mark the day with her mom, her sister, and her mother’s new-ish husband. In our house. No friends, no bouncers, no illicit regrets. Perhaps she will, by nature of the disappointment, remember the birthday. Twenty years from now, she will talk about the quarantine birthday. It will be memorable for its context, even if its actual events are forgettable. Though, perhaps, she won’t really remember it. Because that Monday night will seem so much like the Sunday before it or the Wednesday after it—the same texture, the same Netflix browsing, the same furniture. She will—as is the nature of adult birthdays—not even be excused from her online classes.

My dad never had a twentieth birthday, though it’s the only of his birthdays he’s ever talked about. He boarded a plane for Vietnam on June 15 and arrived in Thailand on the 17th.

I am thinking these days about memory. Since January, I’ve risen early most days and scribbled into notebooks, attempting to form something of a theological memoir. I know I have no chance, without exhaustive research, of building a typical autobiography. I can’t get facts straight. I have few direct quotes. But by attaching my recollection to developments in my religious life, I seem to find some narrative—how I got here—how I drifted from a Catholic through Evangelicalism through other stops until my current homelessness—a Lutheran in most doctrine, but not quite sure what to do with that. This attempt to remember—to create a memoir—was why I finally got around to reading Augustine’s memoir.

The hard part of trying to remember a life is that most of life in unmemorable. Most of it blends into other parts. People enter out of order. I mix up where I lived, when I lived there, and who my friends were. I can’t seem to pinpoint the moment when my family stopped being Catholic and switched to baptist, or why I went along with it. My best resources are corroding memories of conversations with my mom. My grandparents are gone. My aunts and uncles are dwindling or distant. So, I write what I can recall. But the memoir that emerges plays loosely with its historical framework, like how Moby Dick blurs Melville’s time as a sailor with the historical case of the Essex, a ship attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. Or like movies based on historical events—how I watched the 2003 Luther movie with my wife and had to keep pausing to say, “Well, actually.”

I have no hope of being truly historical because memory is a terrible tool for recording history. When my daughter, now 19, was a child, I deferred my memory to hers. If she said, “No, dad. Grandma wore a pink dress,” then whatever memory I had that her grandma had not been there, let alone never wore pink dresses, would adjust to her account. My daughter was my pure camera. She recorded events without processing them. Though, around her twelfth birthday, this changed. Her memories, like mine, became interpretations. She had a harder time accessing an objective raw feed and tended to recall events based on how they affected her.

This brings me back to something I’ve been plodding through with Augustine. He’s been concerned, for the last week or so, with the nature of time, the essence of God’s relationship to time in contrast to how all of creation experiences—exists in—time. For me, I’m usually bored with theologies that focus too much on God’s perfections—how he is perfectly perfect in his perfectness: eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging. This theology, as orthodox as it may be, makes God abstract, a philosophical ideal. And it tends to contrast with the God who barters with Abraham, wrestles with Jacob, and rages at Moses.

Augustine, in explaining God’s eternalness, points out why, as an aspect of this, God must be unchanging. He writes, “[God] doesn’t will different things at different times, but instead wills everything that he does will only once, but at the same time and for all time—not over and over, and not differently now and then.” For Augustine, change is an element of time. Only created things—people, pencils, trees, universes—change because they are bound to time. He writes, “periods of time can be perceived and counted off, because periods of time arise from changes in things, given that their types… diverge and diversify.” To Augustine, time is that principle by which we detect and measure change. Change is imperfection. Perfection is unchanging. Perfection is beyond time.

I have two responses to Augustine. The first is more of a question: I can say that God, as I’ve gotten older, appears to have changed. So, how can I be certain that I am changing but God isn’t? My children change, my wife changes, people in relationships change. How do I know that God isn’t changed by entering time and experiencing it with me? Of course, Augustine and St. Thomas and the good Reformed thinkers have answers for that, so I won’t press the point. I try to choose my heresies wisely.

The second is about this present moment and how utterly forgettable it is. This, I think, is one of the illusions of the Lenten-Plague and one of the reasons I keep writing about it. I don’t want to write about this. I want to write about movies, love, cats, and the city. But I’m trapped here. I’m stuck. Or maybe I know that just as I’ve already forgotten what I ate two days ago, I will forget the individual days of this period unless I chronicle them. The further this presses on, the more I’ll mash all its parts into one, just as I blend second through fifth grade into something called “childhood.” We all think we’ll never forget something this big, something this historic. But the featureless and uneventful present moment feels like living the process of forgetting.

I remember parts of my twenty-first birthday. I remember it because it was my twenty-first and that’s something you’re supposed to take note of. So I have a spot for it. My wife’s daughter will likely remember hers because there’s a spot for it—like a picture frame waiting for its photo. And because, over time, she will rehearse and replay her memory—“My twenty-first was the worst because….” She will tell that story until the story replaces a memory, the interpretation replaces the raw footage. For the record, I’m starting to wonder if Naser Al-Hajeri really gave me a Pearl Jam CD on my twenty-first birthday. Maybe that was a different day.

This, perhaps, is what I am understanding about the Plague. I will remember the Plague itself, but not the days within it. The longer it extends, the more inseparable the days are. Had all of this run its course by Easter, then, probably, I could think of the parts. But this is not ending soon, and the gap between memorable moments is increasing. This is the dull and slow part of Moby Dick, the meandering pages of The Confessions. I understand, of course, that not everyone is having the same experience—healthcare workers and essential personnel are going through intense hours. But even this intensity is, in itself, a way of confusing memory. It is a type of hypnosis. It’s like this morning, as I tried, again, to find something in a newsfeed that didn’t ultimately come back to the Plague. But all of it does. The blurring of time, the repetitiveness of story, the meandering uncertainty, the loss of calendar and interaction. It makes us as drowsy as a husband and a wife, on separate sides of the bed at 11:00, attempting to read Augustine and Melville.

Which leaves me with another question about God and eternity: a slow horror that emerges when people mention Heaven—another orthodox idea that I admit leaves me cold. Heaven, in my mind, no matter how much pastors smile when they say it, no matter how much I’m told to imagine it as better than anything I can imagine, is Narnia’s always-winter-and-never-Christmas, or this year’s always-Lent-and-never-Easter. The best description of Heaven I know is not in Augustine, though it seems to have come from reading Augustine. It is, instead, David Byrne, in lyrics from the band, Talking Heads:

“When this kiss is over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same
It’s hard to imagine
That nothing at all
Could be so exciting
Could be this much fun
Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens.”

I don’t know if there’s something on the other side of Heaven. Honestly, I hope there is. But I still believe something waits on the other side of the Plague. And when that other side comes, perhaps we will long for this, the season without seasons, the days without days. Because, often, the things we remember most are the things we wish we could forget. Maybe that’s what Heaven is: the process of forgetting.

In the meantime, I will finish Augustine. Maybe I will miss it when it’s done, just as, at some level, I felt more sadness than triumph when closing Moby Dick. A few days ago, my wife said she might miss the Plague when it’s over. Yesterday, she changed her mind. She wants it gone. Her daughter won’t miss it. It’s taken a day that was supposed to be memorable. Though, if it’s anything like most twenty-first birthdays, it would have been disappointing anyway. So rarely do our expectations match reality. And so few things are really remembered.

S2E06 Constancy

Joe marvels over the constancy of nature in a post-Easter essay.

Transcript:

Among the many controversies of the early Christian church was the date of Easter. In the first centuries, many Christians celebrated it on Passover. If Easter fell on a Wednesday, so be it. But a Pope began excommunicating those who followed this approach. As the years passed, the date of Easter varied by region and bishop until the Council of Nicea in 325. The council decided that Easter should always take place on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. Simple enough. Except that because of the eventual split between the Eastern and Western churches—and how each division uses calendars—the ideal of a unified Easter celebration happens only sporadically. In 2020, for example, Western Christians (Catholics, Protestants) marked Easter a few days ago. Much of the Orthodox church will celebrate next Sunday.

In setting Easter, the church tied itself to something constant—the cycles of the moon and the crossing of the sun into the northern hemisphere. This cycle is predictable, though our attempts to mark it—in the Julian calendar or Gregorian—or in the calendars of Babylon, Islam, and Judaism—we make a mess of something simple. We sometimes struggle with aligning ourselves to constancy.

For those of us on the Western calendar, Holy Week coincided with Passover this year, mimicking the New Testament timeline of Jesus’ Passion. Thursday night—Maundy Thursday in the Christian Holy Week—happened on Passover. And yet, whatever cycle or moon or calendar we followed to mark these celebrations, none of us celebrated in the usual way. Apart from those rogue churches or synagogues doing drive-in services, Jews and Christians stayed home. Our family, for example, celebrated Passover with the YouTube feed of JewBelong. We celebrated Easter with a Portland church on Zoom. On our couch. With a dog.

The church’s pastor, one Brady Bunch square among dozens of others, noted the unusualness of a broadband Easter. This Easter without choir, hugs, or sacraments ran counter to every Easter he—or we—had known.

These peculiarities, though, helped the pastor illuminate the generally overlooked peculiarities in the Gospel of Mark. The disciples at the first Easter didn’t run out singing and proclaiming to everyone who would listen, “He is risen,” expecting an echo, “He is risen indeed.” Rather, they responded with fear, bewilderment, and trembling. They hid. They cowered in confusion and terror. In fact, it may be that our usual celebratory Easters have less in common with the first Easter than this year’s muted, anxious, sheltered one did.

This sheltering in place—in the first Easter and in this last one—brought the pastor to offer solace in something that feels somehow lacking at the moment: constancy. That God, in the resurrection, was constant. The resurrection happened regardless of whether the disciples expected it or celebrated it. Whether anyone believed it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone understood it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone rushed off evangelizing or hiding, Jesus rose. The resurrection was an act of the constancy of God, running on its own calendar and pattern, indifferent to human consent or circumstance.

This constancy, though, ran counter to the natural constancy—that, usually, dead people stay dead. The living people, then, who heard that story had to choose between which constancy to follow: the constancy of nature or the constancy of God. Humans have a unique ability to choose between such things.

During this Lenten-Plague I’ve developed more appreciation for the flexibility of humanity and the constancy of the natural order. We humans are adjusting our lives, upending our societies and customs, changing our normals, jettisoning so much of what we believed defined us. Cathedrals that have never closed are now closed. Restaurants and factories that survived the wars of the Twentieth Century are abandoned. Eons of routine and constancy have, through government policy and citizen cooperation, been interrupted. All because we, humans, are inconstant—or, to say it more affirmingly, because we can adjust to new constancies.

There is, outside my quarantine window, a Japanese maple tree, a petite tree with the distinctive leaves that resemble the leaves of every other maple. Except the leaves are small. At full span, they are roughly the diameter of a plum. For most of the last few months, the maple has been barren, even weeks after the magnolia across the street bloomed brightly in pink and white. Even now as that same magnolia has dropped most of its petals. The Japanese maple is full. By some process, some act of constancy, it has returned to the form it had when I first met it. It looks alive. But if I keep watching out this window, by October, those leaves will turn red and orange and look like flame and, finally, fall. Because this is what Japanese maples do. They are constant.

I drove my sons back to Washington on Easter Sunday, and the corridor between Portland and Biggs, Oregon was greener and bolder than it had been on the Sunday before, when I had picked them up. Multnomah Falls flowed, as it always had. Yet, with the parks closed, it seemed both beautiful and sad, like an actress performing to an empty room. Just as all the earth, in its constancy, flows and blooms and dies and comes back regardless of whether anyone watches. There are, of course, interruptions—fires and droughts and earthquakes. But these, unless through human intrusion, are often acts of constancy—the constancy of tectonic plates, the constancy of storms. And the constancy of trees compel the forests back to life.

The pastor’s idea of constancy brought to mind one of my favorite poems, “The Hound of Heaven,” by the nineteenth-century Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. In that poem, Thompson likens God to a pack of hounds pursuing a man. The man, hoping to evade the hounds, calls out to nature to hide him. He cries out to the dawn, to the evening, to the forces and creatures of nature. But they fail him because they are constant. Instead, he says to the night, the “he/his” of this passage referring to the pursuing God:

Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!

I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constancy….

Nature, whether a Japanese maple, a waterfall, or a virus, is constant in its indifference. Nature has a blind and unending loyalty—albeit a mindless one—to the god of Nature. Nature carries on in its cycles and instances, apparently unaware or uncaring about whether it has an audience. The great sequoias of California stood here long before there was a camera to film them. And, in this, they show their greatest strengths and weakness. Their constancy, their indifference, means they never squabble about calendars. It means, too, that they cannot adapt so easily to how we change their environment or introduce predators. The koalas, victims of the great fires in Australia, are also victims of their diet—they eat only eucalyptus just as pandas eat only bamboo. When the eucalyptus is wiped out or the bamboo destroyed, they will pass. They are constant, and their constancy preserves them until their constancy fails them. Though, too, as Thompson’s poem notes, nature’s constancy means it can never rebel; only humans are capable of this. Rebellion is a form of adaptation.

Before the Plague, I was invited to Pascha, the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Easter. As we got closer to the date, inevitably, news came that Pascha would not be held next weekend as planned. The church, though, had received permission to celebrate after the shutdown ends. The ceremonial aspect of Easter, apparently, was too significant to cancel; so the church suspended it. I have conflicting feelings about this re-scheduling, as I have had about most adjustments and suspensions and substitutions brought on by the Lenten-Plague. On one hand, I find this hopeful: that the church expects things to return to the old normal, which, I guess, is the essence of being Orthodox. And yet, maybe, in forcing the celebration—on moving the date—it has done a deeply inconstant thing. To me, adapting a celebration away from the method of Nicea or the constancy of the moon and the vernal equinox is the most unorthodox thing to do. Though, maybe, I get some little joy in watching the Orthodox—the people who advertise their constancy—doing something deeply human: adapting.

I wonder if, at least for now, it is best for us to adapt to the current constancy of the natural world. Typically, we fight against it. We turn forests into lumber, meadows into housing developments, mineral deposits into fuel. When the Lenten-Plague began, I thought it was our obligation to fight against hiding, to fight against governments and scientists who wanted us to close our churches. I, still, am not sure that closing so easily was the right thing. But, perhaps we are asked to do what the witnesses to the first Easter were asked to do—to accept that one constancy overrides another. In that first Easter, the constancy of God overrides the constancy of death. In this one, the constancy of nature—in the form of a virus—overrides the constancy of our economy, our habits, and our celebrations. The virus, following its structure, will spread until it can’t spread anymore. It has no other choice. It cannot choose to not be a virus. It cannot choose to show mercy or justice. It is as indifferent as Multnomah Falls or the Japanese maple.

But we can choose. We have choices. We can recognize when constancy is interrupted, even by a constancy. We can understand lightning igniting a forest, a volcano engulfing a stream, or a dead man leaving a tomb. And in our ability to recognize, in our ability to adapt, we show our wisdom and our greatest strength—or perhaps our greatest weakness—the thing that will either save us or destroy us: the constancy of our inconstancy.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S2E05 Frost

Joe is done with Lent and the Plague. Instead, he wants to talk Passover and Robert Frost.

Transcript:

I had drafted a long essay on a strange dream I had about cats lurking in the bottom of a pond, like the ancient floating knights in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes. These cats, beneath leaves and in jade green water, waited for unsuspecting ducks to land. The essay was not nearly so interesting as the dream. It was another ponderous entry in my ramblings about the church and Lent and the Plague. I am bored with the Plague now, just as I am bored with Lent. Also, I don’t know that the world needs any more writing about these things. There is, already gestating, countless books, memoirs, poems, and PhD dissertations waiting to be birthed in the decade to come, assuming we don’t all die. And I feel for the science fiction writers: the Plague has made reality more fantastic than Dune or I Am Legend. Just like the last presidential election made political satire nearly impossible—reality eclipsed fiction in its scope, absurdity, and destruction of norms.

The truth is that none of this feels normal. And I’m not resigned to this being normal any more than I think the current world of politics is normal. Instead, I’m more convinced that it’s all unsustainable. It’s the anomaly, not the new norm. We can live this way for a while, but, at some point, we will want adults running countries again, just as we will want—need—live sports, concerts, and high school graduations. At some point, doctors will be bored again, teachers will count the days until summer. Churches will stop trying to convince me that online communion is communion—or that a Facebook livestream is worship.

This fracturing—the way the illusion of control isn’t convincing—makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” That poem, like so many Frost poems, is easy to misunderstand or to remember sentimentally: good fences make good neighbors. But the line that calls to me is the first one: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s a subversive little idea: that the things we build are somehow undone by the ground we build them on. In the poem’s case, the wall is undermined by the ground beneath it freezing and swelling with the natural cycle of seasons—the very foundation rejecting the artifice built upon it. I wonder if there is, in me, something like this: “Something there is that doesn’t love a webcam.”

Perhaps it is the nature of being a Gen X-er, that generation with one foot in the analog, one in the digital. Computers and devices were easy to adapt, but my fingers still trust books—the textures, the weight, the way I remember where an idea is located on the page even if I can’t quite recall the idea.

To my surprise, I’ve found, lately, that my best writing flows when I apply pen to paper. Most of these essays I’m reading originate on screens. Writing with a computer and keyboard is efficient and practical. It allows me to log things, make quick corrections, and keep consistent. I can build a structure quickly and then prune and finesse it. But in a closet in the next room, I have a stack of notebooks. And each morning, I let my pen move across them and I discover things—the slowness and tactileness and unpredictability of the process—that, in using the keyboard, I do not find. Perhaps it is efficiency: that the better I get at typing, the less I hear or the less I’m surprised. I just move forward. I follow the first idea that comes to me. It forms the structure. I add or subtract ornamentation. When I handwrite, sometimes there’s room for a second or third option because it takes me longer to finish the current thought. Or maybe it’s that my right hand, when given full control, is a better and more imaginative storyteller than my two hands, delegating alternating digits, attempting to coordinate in some finger-to-finger popcorn dance.

Yesterday, after a morning of despair and turmoil, I found a glimmer of peace. Perhaps it was simply the result of a nice nap. But somehow I understood that the world would either end or it wouldn’t. And there wasn’t much to be done about it. The quarantines and distancing and economic engineering would, at some point crack. I understood, at some level, that this was either one in a long string of apocalypses or it was the final apocalypse. I am not romanticizing destruction or loss. Instead, I’m aware and awed and terrified by its scale. It awakens something primitive in me. Like in those summers on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University when the sky was free of every particle and Mount Rainier stood monstrous and omnipotent, and I hid behind trees and in buildings to avoid its view. It could have killed me on a whim. I knew it. I felt it. And anytime that I think that this current Plague can take everyone and everything from me, I tremble.

At the same time, perhaps I am a Romantic—it’s all about the sublimity and scale. I am, at some level, excited to be part of a human story, one that connects me to old stories—like the ones that become epic movies. Like the book of Revelation or the story of Passover.

Speaking of Passover, my wife is, in the enviable flexibility of the word, Jewish. We will keep Passover this year, our second together. Last year, was my first non-Christian Passover, by which I mean that I had participated in Passovers, hosted by Christians, pointing to Jesus in them. Christians do to Passover what we do to everything else—look for the secret message and, like me typing rather than handwriting, move so efficiently that we miss what is begging to be discovered.

That first Passover, Hope and I were invited to a family gathering in North Portland. Everyone, except me and Hope, knew one another. The hosts’ parents flew in from Pittsburg to lead the Seder. The food was entirely vegan. It was everything I hoped Portland would be when I got here: perfectly strange and inviting and vulnerable. I drank homebrew kombucha rather than wine. And they invited me, an omnivore Christian, to read along in a story I thought I already knew, but had never quite heard.

This year, Hope and I will take part in Passover through a remote meeting. My boys are here, three Christians among the four of us. Despite that, and the virtual nature, we are going decidedly traditional foodwise: matzah, wine, a lamb shank scheduled for delivery. And I’ve been listening to rabbis lately, talking about apocalypses. How they come and go. How the plagues in Moses’s Egypt are coinciding, in 2020, with the Torah readings—the locusts in Africa, the hiding as if the day had become black as night.

In some strange way, I’m over my disappointment that Easter won’t happen and am embracing Passover. Not that I am rejecting Christianity or Christianizing Judaism. Only, I am accepting that the world ends, which is not exactly the message of Easter, nor is it the tone of Lent. The world ends. Some people know and remember that better than others. It is, of course, good and wise to act in a way that stops the world’s end—or that minimizes the severity and violence of its ending. But when the world wants to end, it ends. If it wants us to stop polluting it, it knows how to shut down our factories and to make oil a burden. It would, of course, be wiser for us to moderate our production, moderate our lives, moderate our ambitions before we have to be reminded that we are not larger than the world, that we are not immune to apocalypses. But, in the end, the world is bigger than us. Just like it is in Frost’s poem, in Creation’s quiet but insistent dismantling of our structures.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The world ends. Then we work to build a new world. Over and over. We build our wall, the ground dismantles it, then we build again. Each time, perhaps we learn to become better builders. Or maybe we find a way to allow the ground to swell and breathe without it needing to topple us. Maybe the world we build, this time, when the ending ends, will be a little better than the one we are being told to leave behind.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com