|Jul/Aug 2016 Salon|
Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady
To live outside the law you must be honest. I know you always SAY that you agree. —Bob Dylan, 1966
I was walking down the Plymouth Road, and it was me and the Rabbi, and we came across the silence. It rolled like fog on a Southern Tier morning. Upstate New York. I stepped out into the silence and disappeared. The Rabbi came with me. And we disappeared.
The silence became visible. It was like fog. When you're venturing beyond your range of knowledge. Like you're driving your Ford Escort in the fog. And your headlights reflect. And there is white out.
I remember driving between Waterloo, New York, and my folks' home in Rochester. This would have been in the late 80s-early 90s. Upstate New York. Finger Lakes Region. I remember driving my old Ford Escort. Lake effect snow. On one side of the New York State Thruway there would be a foot of snow, and on the other, nothing. Driving. Snowflakes as big as the reflectors on poles on the Thruway.
The driving was like dancing. I knew every curve and turn of the road. I knew when to accelerate in the curve and when to change lanes.
Silence. Sounds absorbed. Homecoming. In the silence. In the white out. We were always driving blind and always blind to arrivals. I was only just now coming to really understand that. In the fullness of my dialectic.
Me and the Rabbi.
"You crack me up, Pilgrim," the Rabbi said.
"Yeah. I'm glad I amuse you."
"You see far, but are blind to what is close up."
"Well, I don't make any apologies for either the fog or the snow. I mean, isn't that what you taught me? You've just got to ride these things out?"
"You ride out what you don't create. You own what you do."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"There is no silence, just a great refusal."
"You really want to go there? You really want to take that away from me?"
"I think you credit me with too much."
"No. I don't." The fog grew thick and then thicker. The silence deepened. I careened on the Plymouth Road in my old Ford Escort through early morning fog in the hills of the Southern Tier. Through snowstorms on I-90, trying to get home, the snow blotting out the road.
"You want to make me responsible for all this."
"I want to make you responsible."
"I can't handle the guilt."
"I just want you to handle the road; you're going to kill us if you keep on like this."
"The great refusal took everything I had. I've got nothing left."
"I got nothing to say."
"Never stopped you before."
I was so angry I couldn't even look at the Rabbi. But he looked at me. And I melted. "I can't do this."
"It doesn't really matter, Pilgrim."
I didn't say anything for a real long time. Silence. And then: "Yeah."
"You mad at me?" he said after awhile.
"Yeah, but you'll be there on the other side, right?"
"Like water going down hill."
"I love you, Rabbi."
"I love you, too, Pilgrim."
"This is going to suck."
The silence deepened. Snowflakes fell. Fog rolled in. The great refusal loomed on the blank horizon. As I parked my old Ford Escort on the side of the road. And just got out.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi, and we came to an exit for the orchard.
Four pilgrims sat on the exit ramp and would not take it. Would not take the exit. We fell in with them. Thick as thieves. Me and the Rabbi. They just sat there as if in protest. Four pilgrims. A
sit down strike. At the exit ramp. And they wouldn't exit, or enter, the orchard.
We sat down with them at the gates of the orchard. Me and the Rabbi, trying our best to swallow a bad case of the giggles. We sat with the four pilgrims at the gates. And there was nothing funnier than these guys. Their ridiculousness. So close to home and perversely refusing to enter therein. Dying of thirst, two feet from the well. Funniest thing I ever saw.
Then the first pilgrim stood up, entered the gates, saw the orchard, and died.
The second pilgrim immediately stood up, entered the gates, saw the orchard, and went mad.
He returned to us, but he wasn't there. We chained him up for his own protection, but in his lunacy he broke the chains and made his dwelling in the caves and tombs. His body was wracked and rent by great sobs and the heavings of a sea of sorrow, like a herd of swine panicked over a cliff.
The third pilgrim stood up, entered the gates, saw the orchard, and cursed God.
He found an axe and chopped down each and every tree in the orchard. In his labors, his hands became stained with the sap of the trees of the orchard. And the sap of the trees of the orchard turned to blood. And it would never wash out. Stained for the rest of his life. His hands. Stained with blood.
While he watched, one by one, the trees he had cut down, return and sprout, and grow and bloom.
Finally, the fourth pilgrim stood up in peace. And entered the gates in peace. And looked at the orchard in peace. And departed in peace.
"You saw that, right?" the Rabbi asked.
"Yeah, I saw it" I said.
"What lesson can be learned?"
"Wait your turn?"
"Very good, Pilgrim. You're making progress."
"Don't mention it."
We sat at the gates of the orchard, longing, waiting, and fearing the coming of our turn. The inevitable and inexorable coming of our turn.
"Well," I said, "at least we can go together."
"What do you mean 'we', kemosabe?"
It was funny in the way that it healed as it cut. It was funny. But it wasn't that funny.
Michigan. My mother called Thursday afternoon. It's Springtime. I'm up North in Ludington on the lake, for a week of study leave. Got elected to be a reader of Ordination Exams for the Denomination. Theology exams, to be exact (there are five total exams required for Ordination). Turns out that this time there was an abnormally low number of exams to be read. Lots of time to think. To be. To breathe. Up North.
So anyway, my mother called me up North. My mother never calls. She called because my father has been diagnosed with early stages of dementia. There is short term memory loss. Irretrievable words. Houston, we have a problem. Seems my father neglected to pay a certain very important bill. That was the last straw. So off to the VA they went. Had scans and such. Sure enough. Early stages of dementia. And all that means.
My father is a proud man.
My mother is prouder and more terrified. Quite out of character for her, she is openly operatic in her fear. Sharing her dirty laundry for all to see. Almost enraptured in her debasement, like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel.
My sister is blooming late. Really coming into her own. After having withered in the shadow of our mother. She's divorced now and the kids are all grown up. Two out of the three have moved to Denver and the third is on his way—once he gets out of the Navy. My sister's selling her house in Rochester and moving to Denver. To be with the family. Family is everything.
Who gets to define family? Who gets to draw boundaries? Who is authorized to draw maps? And why do we all just keep getting erased?
My mother is shamelessly guilting her. My sister is resisting. My mother called to get me on her side. My sister is standing up. My mother wants me to tell my sister to move to Idaho. I am proud of my sister. Run, sister, run! Beat the shadow. Wants me to tell my sister to do her duty. Honor your Father and Mother.
My mother and my sister have been calling. Each one trying to get me on their side. A weapon against the other.
I have spent most of my life carefully sculpting all edges so that no one could get a purchase. I understood early on, with my father's approval, that if you didn't get out, they would suck you in. The shadow permeates and kills.
My father doesn't have any edges. Smooth. Like Turtle Wax.
A good guide. Role Model. My father never got sucked in, but left the women in the family resentful and barren. He lived the life he needed to live. He left Grangeville, Idaho, and made something of himself. Never looked back. Turned his back. Cold. Decisive. Don't look back. (Except that you always do.) There is a virtue in leaving the family and the land for a higher calling.
It's the women who pay. Like Dido.
Of course, after having turned his back on Idaho, my father needed to return for the last chapter of his life. Mom and Dad. Insisted that they return. Retired there. Idaho. Scene of his earliest memories, but not my mother's. First Lewiston and now Boise. Left my sister and the grandkids back in Rochester. Upstate New York. And cursed the city and the state on their way out. Rochester. New York State. Where they lived for over 20 years. Made it her fault that they had to leave. Her fault that roots must be ripped. Out. Again. Abandoned my sister and her kids.
Here's the long and short of it: In order to leave, my mother had to foul the nest. Cursed the land and all of its inhabitants. Deliberately hurt my sister. Demeaned her. Broke her. Just like when we were teenagers. Before she left with her man. Again.
The women in the family. Those two. They do things to each other that...
They betray each other for the men. Make each other pay for the price they pay. To be the women. I don't want to be a man in this movie. I don't want to be a man to these women.
My father and I have not spoken of it. His dementia. We both know that the women have kept me informed. You don't have to say everything out loud. My father only wants to hear details about my success here, in Michigan. He triumphs in my triumphs. He relives his own in mine. Apart from the women.
My father is a proud man. He abandoned everything to become who he was created to be. Ripped out the roots. And turns out, it was the women who ended up paying.
Somebody always pays.
I'm weary. Like my father, I turned my back on it all and made my way in the world. And like my father, I fear that it is my wife who pays the price. Not in the same way, mind you. But the sins of the fathers...
Well, they are mine.
When my father's parents were dying, he wouldn't let either my sister or my mother be involved. Wouldn't let them help. They raged and rioted. He wouldn't let them in. They howled and keened and roamed the night with violence. They never forgave him.
I understood immediately. He couldn't trust what he loved to the women. They would drag it down. Make it ugly. And they would have. It's true. But I've lived long enough to know that he engineered that, too. He fixed their roles. He left them nothing and drove them mad with love.
Absence and the great refusal.
I am more like my father than I like to admit.
As I watch him turn his back to the land. And leave. White out. Belligerently cheerful. In slow motion. Always already having gone. Going, going, gone.
(Did you see me wave, Dad? Do you feel the weight of my standing upon your shoulders? Are you scared? Will you let us hold the string to your kite? Will you fly away? I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away/When I die, Hallelujah, by and by/I'll fly away. But you won't just fly away, will you, Dad? Are you scared? Dad, I'm scared. Will you let us be strong for you, like you were strong for us?)
I always dreamed I could be a bridge. Thought I could be different. But here we are. I'm not any different. And I don't want to be a man to the women. I want to apply the Turtle Wax. I want to be my father's son.
I wanted to be a new creation.
Good luck with that. I'm my own man now. The sins of the father are now mine. I signed the promissory note. I'm on the tip. Yeah. It's my turn to decide. Just like my father before me.
Let them make it ugly.
Or hook my wagon to a star and just keep passing through. Unscathed. Unencumbered. Rambling, gambling man.
Or bleed inconsolably with the women.
It's my turn to decide.
My father is a proud man. But a kind man. He has caused so much suffering. As have I.
If the women make me a man, can I find a way to be to them the man I actually am, or must I put on the mask of the father, the mask of the one who hurts them, yet is not destroyed by them? The women.
And what if the mask of the man I actually am is the same as my father's mask?
My grandfathers, on both sides of my family, left their mothers to broken fathers, and rode the rails during the Great Depression, uprooted, unmoored. Their ability to survive was their ability to leave no edges, Turtle Wax, lest anyone should get a purchase.
This America with all its promise and all its heart break. All these American men and the women who paid the price for being American. The price for being free. Uprooted. Unmoored. In a never-ending now.
All these women in the American silence.
May God grant me the strength to be a son and a brother. And a husband.
I was a sophomore in high school and wrestling on the Junior Varsity team at 98 pounds. In Plymouth, Michigan. The land to which I am always going. Fleeing repression. Seeking the New Jerusalem. A real Thanksgiving. Pilgrim. I was small for my age and in my freshman year I had to gain weight to make 98 pounds. By my sophomore year I had to watch my weight, I was inching up toward 103.
As Junior Varsity, at practice, you wrestled with the Varsity guys in your weight class. There was this guy. Sophomore year. We're talking late 70s here. I can see him so clearly, but can't remember his name. I keep thinking "Joey." But Joey was this other guy, captain of the team, feathered hair and a Smokey-and-the-Bandit-Trans-Am on his 16th birthday. You never said it out loud, but everybody knew that Joey's Dad was Mafia. Joey almost went to jail when guys from our wrestling team beat the shit out of a rival team before a meet and Joey had a baseball bat. Boys will be boys.
Anyway. There was this guy on the team I used to have to wrestle in practice. It wasn't Joey. I can't remember Joey's weight class, but it was something like 130. 135? They've all changed now. All the weight classes.
Anyway. I can see this other guy. Guy I had to practice with. But can't recall his name. It might have been "Jeff." He was mean. He was Varsity and I was Junior Varsity. After practice he would pee on your leg in the communal showers. To show his dominance.
I remember thinking at the time how bizarre that was. How lamely transparent. Lights went on in darkened and unexplored rooms of my mind. There are people who need to humiliate other people. I was afraid of him but suddenly aware of his limitations. I had not understood before this the potency of the cards I was holding. My need to strike back and the willingness to do so.
I don't want to be defined by humiliation.
Anyway. This guy I used to wrestle in practice was mean. Nobody wanted to practice with him. There was an unwritten rule. In practice with your teammates, you didn't fight dirty. We all knew ways to turn a block into a hidden punch. Hell, the coach taught us how to hide a dirty wrist bone to the jaw. Unwritten rule. You didn't do that shit to your teammates, only guys from the other team.
Anyway. This guy I wrestled with. He wrestled mean. In practice. I spent my entire sophomore year with a black eye. Hit someone in the nose hard enough and their eye turns green and purple and black. He beat the shit out of me, and I was afraid of him.
But like I said, I knew I was smarter than him. I knew I had the meanness, and at the same time, more colors on my pallet. Still, he scared me. Made me see my own physical cowardice.
And I don't believe that, even to this day, I have entirely forgiven him for that.
Anyway. One Michigan afternoon. In the dullness of winter. After school. When the shadows began to grow long and you knew you were going to wait in the dark in snot-freezing cold to be picked up by your Dad after practice. (I feel the rush now that accompanied the hope, and then the fear, fear of disappointment, and then the recognition, the recognition and joy, of familiar headlights on a dark road. My Dad!) Anyway, one day in practice this guy. This Varsity guy. 98 pounds. With pubic hair and everything. Was really giving me the business. He was hitting me hard. Not like all in good fun, you understand, but like he wanted to hurt me. I had reached my limit. I was afraid of him. He hit me one too many times, and I fucking broke his nose.
In half-sobs he turned to my fellow Junior Varsity lightweights. This guy. He was Varsity, you understand. And he was fighting back the tears and bleeding profusely. Bleating like a lamb. Just another sacrifice. And I was Junior Varsity. And he turned to my people, my fellow Junior Varsity lightweights, blinking back the tears. And he said to them. This is what he said: "This is what I'm talking about, Jenkins is the only one of you who has the guts to wrestle."
His bravado fell short. Hollow. The coward in the bully revealed. And I saw my comrades shrink back from him in contempt and look at me differently. I was so proud. He never peed on my leg again.
I saw the fear in his eyes.
Anyway. What I remember most is the disgust I felt having wasted so much fear on someone who turned out to be so weak. Even weaker than me. I felt contempt for him. I enjoyed the contempt. And then I felt sick. And felt contempt for myself. All the sorrow and rage.
I quit the wrestling team after that year. Stopped all sports. I became someone else.
Still, sometimes I remember that punch I threw that broke his nose. I remember how good it felt.
The memory is tinged with both shame and pride. Never to be resolved. In The Night of the Hunter there is "L-O-V-E" tattooed on one fist, and "H-A-T-E" on the other. Robert Mitchum. Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Anyway. This memory. This memory of rage and sorrow and blood. This memory tinged with shame and pride. It stands outside the law. I always have one foot in that place. Outside the law.
But just one.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. —Hebrews 11:1
I do not believe in utopia, and yet I am animated by utopian dreams. I am compelled to reach for what I do not believe in. What I know to be a contradiction in terms. An impossibility.
And yet I believe. And bear witness as the walls of hostility that I myself have erected, come a-tumbling down, tumbling down, in my belief.
Do I create what is not in my longing, in my hunger, in my conviction? In my need for it? Is to reach, in and of itself, somehow, some kind of license? The proof of the theory that gets the fly out of the bottle? Does my desire provoke a response? My longing invoke the very word of God? As it is written in the prophet Isaiah:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
Are we our own messengers, and why didn't Moses get to enter the Promiseland?
Have I been so stupid for so long? Form is content is form is content is... Have we been living in utopia all along and not known it? Dying of thirst, two feet from the well? Is the Kingdom of God in our midst? Is this hallowed ground, and we failed to take off our shoes?
Have I been wasting my tears? Could it be that we are not only exiles, but creators? And that the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God is in our hunger for it? One foot in this world. One foot in the other.
Have I missed the love up close in seeking the love from afar?
Have I been loved all along? And been blind to the truth, while seeing it all along?
And at the very least, can we distill ourselves into a holy remnant when the tree of life is cut down and the root of Jesse is exposed?
And when the very stones cry out in joy, do we even have a choice?
I was walking down the Plymouth Road, and my right hand didn't know what my left hand was doing. My left hand was shaking in fury, and my right hand was reaching out. Seeking hands to hold. Not wanting to be alone.
"You damn fool!" the Rabbi hooted, "you're going to get us killed!"
I hit him as hard as I could with my left hand.
"Got that out of your system?" he asked.
I reached in love for his hand with my right.
"You done now?" he asked.
"It's both/and," he said. "Not either/or. Got it? Both/and, not either/or."
I wanted to kill him. I wanted to kiss him.
And his eyes flashed. Nothing but the facts, ma'am. And in the flashing was reflection. I saw myself. And slipped out of my skin and walked between my left hand and my right. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last. Through the great refusal.
And I walked. One foot in front of the other. Grace made concrete. Arms a-swinging back and forth. Not either/or. I walked. Between my left hand and my right. Both/and. Through the great refusal.
Just like a saint. Just like a sinner. Simultaneously. And I walked.
All punch-drunk and justified.