So What Do We Do Now?

In his poem “The Second Coming,” Yeats says it best, and most succinctly ~ “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

If you’ve been around here more than a minute or two, you’ve seen it, breathed it, felt it settle deep into your lungs and bones – the bent quality of things here – the bent quality of being. One never forgets the acrid taste of brokenness, long-lingering on the tongue, like a bitter pill or a bite of chalk. We all know things fall apart, and will do so again and again, and if we live long enough, then yet again.

So what do I do when things don’t go the way I expect or want, when my something falls apart?

I tried stamping my foot and arching my shoulders back and throwing my chin Heavenward (is there anyone listening?) and shouting and shouting, What do I do now? How shall we now live? But so far my tantrums, even my tears, have not yet straightened the bent, not even one little bit.

Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy says we have landed on “a blighted star.” He’s not the first to think it.  I must ponder yesterday before I can consider today. History startles me every time.

Yesterday an election was lost and won.  Yesterday somewhere between 50 and 80 million people died in a second world war.  Yesterday a brother slew his brother and then hid from God – Cain, where is your brother? 

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Yesterday a mother would not forgive a father, and he left, moved away.  Yesterday 15,891 people died in a tsunami in Japan.  Yesterday six parents died in an airplane accident, leaving eleven children behind.  Yesterday another young girl was sold into sex trafficking.  Yesterday a baby girl was born with a deformed arm and hand.  Yesterday my husband died after a hard bout with cancer. Yesterday two airplanes flew into two tall towers.

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.

So what in the world are we supposed to do now? What in the Sam Hill is going on here?  It seems God knows, but He doesn’t tell.

We need help.  Who among us shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? Whom shall we send?

Who among us shall ascend? I scan the Internet but find no takers, no one suitable. There is no one to send, no hand or heart clean enough, no body courageous enough, not one innocent enough, and there never has been. We are so busy. We think yesterday was somehow more wholesome and honest, easier, and certainly less busy. We seek our saviors in voting booths, and then riot afterward in the online streets, realizing (yet again) that women and men live among us, not gods. We are surprised every time and always have been.

We think our hour is unique in time and space. And so it is. And so it isn’t. It’s simply our turn, our day, nothing more. There will never be another day like this one, until tomorrow – ah, the paradox of time.

Whom shall we send? Who among us shall ascend?

Yesterday Abraham was the chosen one, but in a human moment of raw weakness, he lied, calling Sarah his sister and giving her (in his fear) to a neighboring king.

Yesterday Moses was chosen, but wasn’t it he who smashed tablets in anger, who literally broke God’s word into dust, to blow away into the hot desert sands and to the ends of the earth?

Yesterday David was chosen, but it turns out even giant-killers are mortal, mere men, with hearts grand for God and wills fragile as ice.

Abraham Lincoln was the man chosen for his time, but I read he was known for sacrificing principles in the name of expediency. Can I believe everything I read?

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In a letter estimated to be from 1961, Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—” Even Mother Teresa.  Alas, now on what shall I stand?

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So in my weakness I shout again, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?

To be human is to become accustomed to the sour after-smack of pain and fear lying on your palette, yesterday and tomorrow. To know the slap of disappointment (especially of self) and to bear its subtle sting on the cheek like a numbness, post-op. To remember the bent-ness of things and people, to remember that Life is curvy.

But that is not the whole of it. Turns out, the sum is greater than its parts. Could this be the definition of hope?

Whom shall we send?

Alas. There is no one but us, and no time but now. Bent us, crooked now. What an odd system.

Yeats’ poem concludes with this terrifying question, apocalyptic in tone, its breadth of scope enormous and eerily ever-relevant:  “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”  Yeats asks the question on everyone’s lips, then and now, whether we realize it or not – Who is next? What is next? 

What rough beast will rise up next, heading even now toward his town to be born?

But again I say, that is not the whole of it. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a Heaven for?” asks the poet.

If I dare to change one small word in Yeats’ text, I have an entirely different question. One word indeed makes that much difference – maybe that’s why Christ’s metaphor for Himself was the Word.  If I replace the word rough with benevolent, the poem is hopeful.  If I replace the word rough with kind, the poem is confident.  If I replace the word rough with loving, the poem saves me. The hour has come at last!

What a difference one word makes. So for Heaven’s sake, replace the word!

Is it as easy as that? Are kindness and grace and humility and goodness born and reborn like the sun, new every morning? Can I really choose to put these on like a mantle, re-clothe myself in this character?  Am I allowed these sartorial choices even here on this messy planet in my messy life?

Yes. And yes. Like salve on a wound, like oil on the head, there is indeed a balm in Gilead.  Put it on!

Whom shall we send? Who shall ascend? Who can make a difference today, small or otherwise, you ask?

Me, bent and broken me. You, crooked and splintered you.  So what do we do now?  Get up and put your clothes on. Let’s go to work.

I may slouch a bit. But I will head toward Bethlehem to be born.

I pick up my crutch and walk.

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Fighting the GOOD Fight (in Room 374)

Friday morning, a mere four days before the Presidential election of 2016, and a growing heap of poetry analysis papers has set up camp on my desk, begging to be read.  I’m trying to decide if I’ll cart the papers home with me for the weekend or let them settle in on my desk until Monday. We’ll see.

We are all exhausted.

It’s the end of what’s been an excruciating election season – our entire nation feels it.  United are we, but united in an odd, hard-to-name distemper. We are all tired of talking about it, all tired of listening to the worst episode of He said/She said in modern history. My senior girls are worried and sad, wishing they could be a bit more optimistic and excited about voting in their very first Presidential election.

Wondering what our world will look like on Wednesday.

At the moment, it is quiet in my corner of the world, classroom 374, and I look up from my work. Students are always in here – studying, debating, working out ideas, trying to write them down. St. Mary’s classrooms are filled with girls all day long talking with their teachers, constant conversations and grappling and learning to voice their opinions, every day, all day long – it’s what we do. Today, three girls sit together on my couch, hunched over quiet computers, writing. One writes of the abuse of women in Othello, another writes of the crippling nature of indecision in Hamlet. A third examines how T.S. Eliot’s late life religious conversion affects the tone of his poetry.

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Young women doing good work. Good, hard work. Scholars are these, girls who think. And for people who think, this election cycle has thrown us all for a loop.

My AP classes are reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the moment (apropos, thinks my cynical alter ego). We are at the point in the novel where the murderer Raskolnikov returns to the scene of the crime to admire his own bloody workmanship, only to find it cleaned up and freshly painted – whitewashed. Genuinely astounded that his handiwork has been erased, the killer screams with fury at the painter, “Where’s the blood, what happened to the blood?” Dumbfounded, the lone painter shakes his head and steps back to examine the man Raskolnikov, to really take a good long look, and then whispers in astonishment:  “What sort of man are you?”

Indeed, this is the question of this day. My students, young women I love, I want to ask you a question. What sort of person are you? What sort of person are you becoming?

Before I dare to ask you to consider this question, though, I feel the need to apologize on behalf of the many adults in your lives who have failed you, failed to give you worthy role models, failed to be honest. Shakespeare’s Falstaff said it like this ~ “Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying … every third word a lie…”
Alas.

World leaders and entertainers and politicians (Lord, help us!), CEOs and professional athletes and the media. Sometimes teachers, sometimes parents. People who may or may not have ever asked themselves this question – What sort of person am I?  We have not been examples of goodness for you.

Sidebar ~ Ironically there seems to be a great deal of Millennial-bashing these days (as if Baby-Boomers have the right to be judgmental about anything), but let me tell you something I admire greatly about Millennials – you guys don’t tolerate nonsense, and we have certainly thrown a lot of nonsense your way. Add the fact that we all spend so many of our waking hours with noses stuck in screens, we can so quickly become drenched in the muck of disappointment, I fear, and it seems easier than ever to lose the hope of goodness.

So, with that caveat acknowledged, I ask you this ~ Ladies, can you (we) set your (our) blaming mentality aside for just one quick second and ask ourselves to think honestly and vulnerably? If you can, then ask yourself this question – go ahead and say it out loud:  What sort of person am I?

Try to resist asking this question ~ “Well, what about everybody else? What sort of people are Hillary and Donald and Anthony Weiner and Soulja Boy and Lord Voldemort and Iago and Beelzebub and Nurse Ratched and the Wicked Witch of the West? What about them, huh? What kind of people are they?”

I’m not talking about them. I don’t know them. Ladies, this isn’t new, you know. The list of ne’er-do-wells stretches from the dawn of time to the edge of eternity. Always has, always will. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about you. It is you I love. It is your character and happiness that compels me to ask you to consider:  What sort of person am I? 

And a second, follow-up question, as important as the first ~ What about goodness? What has happened to goodness? Am I trying to be good?

What will you do or say on Wednesday if your candidate does not win? Not what your classmate or your neighbor or your parent will say, but you. This question is indicative of our character and who we really are as human beings.

A reversal is what we need. A turn from bigotry and noisy clamoring and shouting and name-calling and fear-mongering and lying.  A return to good. 

You may have to do the role modeling, my dears. It may be the children who lead us toward civility – you are the hope. You might remember that the Book says just that, “A little child will lead us.”

Will you consider a path of goodness on Wednesday morning? As our friend Prufrock asks, Do you dare? 

So Tuesday we vote. And Wednesday we will have an answer. Do not look for good role modeling on the news on Wednesday morning – I fear you will not find it there. Wednesday’s news cycle will be filled with all sorts of individual, acting as they will act, saying what they will say. But as I said earlier, I don’t know them.

I know you. 

So let us gather together and fight the good fight right where we are. Someone must do it. Someone must start.  For me, it happens in room 374. I’ll see you there tomorrow.

Until then, be good.