Heaven at the Holidays

I don’t read pop psychology very much and when I do I avoid the more treacly kind—Leo Buscaglia’s “The Life of Freddy the Leaf” or Mitch Albom who blithely imagines people he’ll meet in heaven. I’m confident I’ll find no one in heaven as that’s of course what makes it heaven and one is better off admitting the afterlife is essentially nothing more than the first stirrings of social desire in the infancy of imagination. (Of heaven I’ve always liked Christopher Hitchens’ view that the Christian model is a kind of spiritual North Korea.)

Heaven is the original dull book, a composition which, rendered as music, is hardly more interesting than Gregorian chant. There’s no harmony in it. If Christianity is without sophistication, well, one might say, its hard to listen to. Mark Twain understood the problem better than anyone when he pictured heaven as a place where no one knows how to play the harp, hence it offers a cacophony of child like pluckings.

Why am I “on” about heaven? In part because I prefer mine in musical form, Josquin Desprez or Palestrina. I like it when, in Handel’s “Messiah” the voices move from bass to soprano. Heaven is best when heard and finest when complex.

In keeping with musical paradise, it’s good to recap that Beethoven believed his third symphony the “Eroica” was his finest accomplishment. It’s musically ambitious, structurally sophisticated, and it has plenty of early Romantic idealism. That is heaven.


Well, It’s a Living

So you’re disabled. You get a job after years. You plant seeds in snow. It’s not much of a job but it turns out to be steady. The seeds are small and blue—a friend jokes, says they look like “viagra tablets” and then you see they do like like viagra tablets though you’ve never actually had first hand experience with the stuff. The supervisor looks like a malevolent version of Mr. Rogers and he comes around periodically on one of those All Terrain Vehicles and says you’re not pushing the seeds deep enough into the snowbanks. So, “ahem,” you say, adding: “I can’t really reach deep into the snow because I’m riding a wheelchair you see…” Mr. Rogers says, “I’m riding an All Terrain Vehicle” and I can push blue seeds into the snowy sod, and he leans over and pokes two or three viagra into a snow man’s belly button. Then he whisks away in a cloud of exhaust. You never get the chance to explain that the average wheelchair bears no resemblance to an ATV and that most wheelchair users can’t lean to their sides to touch the ground. For Mr. Rogers, it’s enough that you both have wheels. And you never get to point out that planting blue seeds in snow is non-productive work. Talk about alienation! You’re separated from the means of production, planting fungal seeds above the arctic circle.

A Hymn, A Notebook, Poetry Business, etc.

A student talks about how hard it is to write. (Pronoun withheld) is mindful of politics, subjectivity, privilege, all proper “outsicles” as I call them—one is out about difference, disablement, race, manifold historical wrongs—so many—and so (pronoun withheld’s) politics transform into something beyond scruple they become a grid iron of self-inflicted shame.

Carl Jung said shame is a soul eating emotion and I think it’s true. What Jung meant is the shame that makes you stuck, as opposed to propulsive shame which is the incitement for growth as any alcoholic in recovery can tell you.

When (pronoun withheld) feels too much shame to write, one’s forced to conclude academic writing isn’t liberating enough to bust a move. Amen to that.


I keep notebooks the way some collect oddments—found coins or feathers. I cannot say keeping notes isn’t a waste of time. Maybe poems will come or I’ll recognize in the mirror the child still searching there.


The poem must be loved, and eat and drink, sleep like a log, / curse and laugh and cry / humanely…

—Pentti Saarikoski


I spoke with Saarikoski on the phone once. He was in the final stage of drinking himself to death. In life he couldn’t love poems more than poison.

“The end is the way it is made: that’s why it’s pretty stupid to hurry. The book will not change.”

—Saarikoski in adolescent notebook….


Broken skate beside the pond

The children have gone

Something of a dream

In this ordinary evening

I’m sorry for breaking your heart

Long ago now

Lights coming on in windows

No name for this

A hymn really

They Thought They Were Free…

I make mistakes. Have made them. Some were long ago. I’m not sure I’ve made one today but it will happen. I do try and own my failings, not merely as fortuitous cash chips against later circumstances—imagining I’ll be wiser by and by—but because I really want to grow.

Growth is a matter of the soul or conscience and if you can parse the differences between them I salute you. I’m sufficiently Episcopalian to believe in the soul and I imagine it’s loaded with all the colors of Joseph’s coat not just the stains of our squeezed moral senses. I’m talking  love. I mean forgiveness and what John Coltrane called a love supreme.

You see I’m worried. In times of political extremism it’s customary for citizens who remain comfortable to imagine they’re free and that they still live among upright decent people.

In “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945” Milton Mayer and Richard J. Evans described the coruscating bourgeois rhetoric of ordinary Germans under Hitler.  What’s fascinating is the degree to which the ten representative once-upon-a-time regular Joe Fascists interviewed portrayed themselves as loving humans.

In his forward Mayer wrote: “In 1935 I spent a month in Berlin trying to obtain a series of meetings with Adolf Hitler. My friend and teacher, William E. Dodd, then American Ambassador to Germany, did what he could to help me, but without success. Then I traveled in Nazi Germany for an American magazine. I saw the German people, people I had known when I visited Germany as a boy, and for the first time realized that Nazism was a mass movement and not the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions. Then I wondered if Adolf Hitler was, after all, the Nazi I wanted to see. By the time the war was over I had identified my man: the average German.

I wanted to go to Germany again and get to know this literate, bourgeois, “Western” man like myself to whom something had happened that had not (or at least not yet) happened to me and my fellow-countrymen. It was seven years after the war before I went. Enough time had passed so that an American non-Nazi might talk with a German Nazi, and not so much time that the events of 1933–45, and especially the inner feeling that attended those events, would have been forgotten by the man I sought.

I never found the average German, because there is no average German. But I found ten Germans sufficiently different from one another in background, character, intellect, and temperament to represent, among them, some millions or tens of millions of Germans and sufficiently like unto one another to have been Nazis. It wasn’t easy to find them, still less to know them. I brought with me one asset: I really wanted to know them. And another, acquired in my long association with the American Friends Service Committee: I really believed that there was “that of God” in every one of them.

My faith found that of God in my ten Nazi friends. My newspaper training found that of something else in them, too. They were each of them a most marvelous mixture of good and bad impulses, their lives a marvelous mixture of good and bad acts. I liked them. I couldn’t help it. Again and again, as I sat or walked with one or another of my ten friends, I was overcome by the same sensation that had got in the way of my newspaper reporting in Chicago years before. I liked Al Capone. I liked the way he treated his mother. He treated her better than I treated mine.”

Yes, they were upright and decent. They were also comfortable until they weren’t. When the bombs fell on Berlin it was too late to say “what specifically about this Nazi movement goes against the golden rule?”

This is the question average Americans must ask at precisely this moment. How does deflecting and disrupting the truth about fiscal injustice promote equality and lovingkindness?

I’m no preacher but I know what the stakes are. Here’s Mayer again:

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.”

So back to my opening: I make mistakes. But my love-sight is clear.

A Strange Instrument, the Brain, etc.

“A strange instrument, the brain. You never really know what sound you’ll get when you press one key or another. Of course, if you stimulate the occipital lobe with a mild electric shock, the man sitting in front of you will most likely report that he sees colors, just as pressing on neurons in the temporal lobe will probably lead to the illusion of sounds. But, while science is extremely partial to general, uniform rules, people are partial to being distinguished from one another. Two patients with damage to their orbitofrontal cortex will never have the courtesy to coordinate their side effects. One will behave crudely, and the other will become obsessively cheerful. One will make tasteless sexual remarks, and the other will feel an uncontrollable need to pick up every object in his path. Randomness, that seductive little whore, dances among the ward’s beds, spits on the doctors’ lab coats, and tickles the exclamation marks of science until they bow their heads and become rounded into question marks.”

Excerpt From: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. “Waking Lions.” iBooks.

It has always seemed to me that the thing people who do not identify as disabled fear the most about disability is its infinite variability. No two blind people are alike; no two paraplegics or quads. Certainly deaf individuals are alike through language but they are unique as citizens. This frightens the ableist majority for whom a crippled sameness matters, and matters terribly, since with sameness they can imagine that normalcy is also real. It is terrifying to consider how flimsy “normal” ideas of static embodiment are, for the normal body is just a few flickering falsehoods. In this way disablement is truthful like the random brain itself.

BTW, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s novel “Waking Lions” is a marvelous book. A narrative of haunting instabilities. It is the best novel I’ve read this year.


The nights are bigger this time of year

And the moon is in accord

I dream of my father

Whose sorrow

Was Finnish:

The hymn in mind

What to say?

A song he learned early

Standing in darkness


So what of me? A second generation Scandinavian-American who can’t sing away his father’s hymns. In dreams I’m dead on my back. Last night I scared my wife when I moaned at 2 AM.

Ghosts were after me. They didn’t have the home character of America. These were serious fucking ghosts from Lapland.


I ask every morning of the birds how it all was…




The morning is vast

The sun is my beckoning—

Sends the animals

And the green ocean which

The mind calls promise


Then music—

Ordinary bird calls

Joy is so often powerlessness…