Wingeing, Death and Debility

Wingeing, Death and Debility

Years ago, I was in the Australian Blue Mountains, climbing the rockiest, thorniest, steepest wilderness trail that I could ever hope never to find.   We were a troop of philosophers from Sydney University’s Department of General Philosophy, doing a Bush Walk.  My then husband was in “the other department” (Traditional and Modern Philosophy), but what the heck.  Why turn down a chance to explore the Australian Bush?

Actually, I was discovering many reasons to turn down that chance, and muttering about my discoveries as we huffed and puffed our way up the steep mountainside.

“Stop wingeing!” my then spouse said sharply under his breath.  He was an American, but concerned that we fit in with the stiff-lipped Aussies.  Puzzled, I asked, also under my breath,

“What’s wingeing?

 And what’s wrong with it?”

Well, obviously, it can go too far.  But, on the other hand, what’s right with it?  An example of what’s right with it comes to mind from here in Bucks County, years later.  I had a non-Jewish friend in my congregation, Dale, who decided to convert to Judaism.  She did me the honor of asking me to be a witness to this momentous soul change.  Since I don’t think being a Jew is all that much of a picnic, I questioned her as we drove to the mikvah.  Was she doing this under any misunderstanding?  Did she really know the ramifications?  By the intelligent thoughtfulness, thoroughness and wholeheartedness of her answers, it became clear to me that she did.

At the time of her conversion, Dale was beset with multiple health problems.  She was coping with the pain and the trouble, with a stoicism that would have done any Aussie proud.

Not long after, I and another friend, Susan, had a date to meet Dale for brunch.  When she failed to show up, when our phone calls rang and rang with no response, Susan remarked that, if anything were really wrong and we neglected to find out, we would never forgive ourselves.  So we drove to Dale’s place, found her car in the yard and her door still locked.  We alerted the landlord, he alerted the police, they broke in and … they found her.

One night, not long after the funeral, congregant friends gathered to share our remembrances of Dale.  I said that, while I didn’t doubt Dale’s comprehension of the Judaism to which she had converted, all the same, I felt there was one aspect of her new way of life that she had never mastered.  If only she had learned to kvetch, she might be alive today!

What’s the best way to live?  What’s the best way to die?  The Aussie way?  The Jewish way?  Or what?   Socrates said that the study of philosophy is a preparation – he must have meant the best preparation — for death.  The other day, a philosopher friend remarked that she and I ought to get together for the purpose of studying the interesting topic of how to die.  Which leads me to wonder, how do you study that?

There are people, some of them friends of mine, who believe that this vale of tears is the preparation (the antechamber) leading (in the best case) to an incomparably better afterlife.  So, in line with that expectation, we should keep our eyes on the prize and live accordingly.

There are others, also friends, who are pretty sure that … this is IT.  That’s all she wrote, there ain’t no more.  Just make sure you get frequent checkups.  But if you have to die, at least hold up the side.  Do it right.  Don’t winge.

We have seen that Socrates, in the 4th century BCE, described philosophy itself as a preparation for death.  But in the 17th-century, Spinoza, also a great and noble philosopher, said, “The free man thinks of nothing less than death.”  Who is right?

What do I think?  Well, I don’t think the “this is IT” people are right.  Why not?  Because by now there’s a helluva lot of empirical evidence that consciousness survives the body’s death.  Highbrow opinion professes to know nothing of this data, but it’s there all the same.  In a generation or less, I believe the mounting evidence will become undeniable.

If that’s the case – I mean if the soul isn’t just the body – then, on some level, we already know it.  What that suggests to me is that fashionable orientations toward the-dark-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel – so pervasive if you devote a few doom-and-gloom hours to The New York Review of Books or The New York Times Book Review – involve distortions of our experience in the here and now.  These clever writers are bending the evidence of things unseen.  Spinoza writes, “We feel and know by experience that we are eternal.”  We know, we feel, we sense intuitively, that hope is not stupid and death does not have the last word.

What’s the inference, with regard to learning how to die?  The best preparation for death is to live as fully into the present, as truthfully into how it really is with us – intellectually, in feeling, in aspiration, in purpose — as we do anyway on our best days. Which I guess also means, winge or kvetch when you want to, provided you don’t make yourself too obnoxious.  Real life is not a continuous picnic, though one can have fun all the same.

So the view of Socrates, that philosophy is a preparation for death and the view of Spinoza, that the free man thinks of nothing less than death are one and the same.

We prepare for death when we are fully alive.

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Paradigm Shifts

Paradigm Shifts

We live under the sheltering umbrellas of our worldviews.  To the point where we would feel naked if we were caught in the street without them.

That being the case (that we run around conceptually clothed, whether we know it or not) – I’m always fascinated to learn of instances where an individual changed his or her conceptual garments.  How does anyone dare to do that?

Since I have worn a fair number of different worldviews, I keep track of when and why I changed any one of them.  For example, the other day Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, made an appearance in the Doylestown Bookshop to talk about his new book, The Gift of Anger.  I coaxed Jerry to lay down his many burdens and come out with me to hear Gandhi’s grandson.  As it turned out, Arun had known his grandfather well and taken a major influence from him during the formative years of early adolescence.  Arun has a presence of enormous sweetness.  It brought vividly back my days as a  pacifist, when Gandhi was my first love (for someone I did not know personally).

When did I change this lovely garment for the more everyday one I’ve worn since?  Well, it was in Paris.  I was out for a solitary stroll on the beautiful Isle Saint Louis.  Where I was accosted by three or four young Parisian thugs bent on taking liberties.  Without a second’s hesitation I said,

Voulez-vous que j’appelle la police?

and they faded away like the relatively well-behaved young thugs they were.

It’s possible that your average conscientious objector would’ve found a way to rationalize the inconsistency of appealing to armed gendarmerie while professing nonviolence.  But I hadn’t been a pacifist long enough to know how to do that.  So I stopped dead in my tracks, took in the plain fact that I didn’t believe, in practice, what I professed to believe in words, and stopped calling myself a pacifist.  Then and there.  Voila!  Paradigm shift!

Since I was also a young philosophy student, trained to follow the argument where it led, this complete change of conceptual clothes rocked my world but didn’t threaten my identity.

Right now, I’m reading a book by a philosophically sophisticated former Muslim who tells how he was led, by the same Socratic principle of following the argument, to abandon his former faith and turn Christian.  Since I’m neither a Muslim nor a Christian, the book offers me a fascinating case study of a person whose change of paradigm did affect and threaten his deep sense of who he is.

The author, Nabeel Qureshi, is of Pakistani origin.  When this happened, he was a young med student, living here in the States with his devout family and he considered himself a missionary for Islam.  As the story begins, he has a good friend and study partner who is a dedicated Christian.  Each is convinced he is right and neither is afraid of no-holds-barred argument.  I’ll just give one example of the claims on which their disagreements turn.

The Qur’an states that Jesus was crucified but didn’t die on the cross.  The Christian claim that the disciples found his tomb empty is crucial to the Christian creed.  If he never died, then, of course, he never rose from the dead.

The argument between the two friends gets down to blood and gore.  The Christian friend points out that “the Romans used what’s called a flagrum, a whip that was designed to rip the skin off the body and cause excessive bleeding.”  Apparently, if the Romans wanted you dead, you were going to end up dead.  The condemned were half dead by the time they were nailed to the cross.  Then the gospels report blood and water gushing out when the Romans pierced Jesus’ side with a spear.  The Muslim friend argued that this shows that Jesus was still alive since his blood was still circulating.  The Christian rejoins,

“What was the water?  What the author of the gospel calls ‘water’ is either the serum after it has separated [which only happens after death] or it was fluid from around the heart.  Either way, Jesus had to be dead in order for there to be ‘blood and water.’”

I won’t go into more of the argument between the two friends, which ranges over many more particulars recorded in the gospels.  What is striking is that, in this instance, the Christian side appears to both participants to have made the stronger case!

What gripped me about this Muslim/Christian argument was its total freedom from the usual muffled, muted condescension that is so often a feature of interfaith occasions.  In the more frequently found cases, either nobody believes anything much, so they actually share the same faith – in natural science and being nonjudgmental.  Or, each has a real religious commitment based on conviction, which – if the one is true would make the other false – and they’re each too nice to say so!

What would interfaith dialogue be like if the dialoguers said all that they really thought and then sat down to argue it out, each resolved to follow the argument where it led?

Suppose we loved truth more than our worldview?

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In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions

Elmer Sprague in His Prime

In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions 

A friend got in touch Sunday evening a week ago to tell me he’d been scheduled for the gravest kind of surgery in the morning.  My friend has been a colleague and witness to many of my life’s twists and turns, the rough and the smooth. The report after surgery?  If the medical experts are to be credited, he is looking at about a year of “heroic” treatment, postponing but not preventing the end.

Medical verdicts do not negate collegiality.  I feel that we are going through this life-and-death tunnel together, as we went through so much else.

What is death?  And btw, what do we aim for in life?  I think one hopes to have a certain degree of integration of mind and body.  The way a painter, when he paints, doesn’t ask, what part’s my mind and what part is my body.  Since life is not a painting, the real-life “integration” is achieved when what I say is what I really think and a fair guide to what I will do, on fitting occasions.  One wants to get body – or field of action — and mind together in one package.

It takes a good while before one begins to learn how to do that.  But – if such are the great lessons of life — death seems to ask one to undo all the work one has expended to get on good terms with one’s body.

There is a rabbinic midrash [story or lesson drawing out the meaning of a Biblical text] that captures my point.  In the story, God comes to Moses to inform him that it’s time for him to die.  Moses protests.  They go back and forth, Moses advancing one reason after another why it’s a bad idea, and God still insisting that it’s time.  Finally, Moses comes to his last argument:

“I will never have a body as beautiful

as the body of Moses!”

God can only answer with a kiss on the mouth of Moses.  In God’s kiss, the soul of Moses is lifted from his body!

What does the story mean?  We don’t think of Moses in aesthetic terms.  That’s not because the Bible glosses over the plain fact that some people are lookers.  Like Sarah as a bride, the young Joseph or the young David.  All those characters were good to look at.  But Moses is not young by the time he has his last argument with God.  It’s not the beauty of youth that he’s trying to defend.  What then?

He’s trying (my guess is) to protect the beauty of a put-together, grownup life.  It’s a life where he has sought the truth.  His word is good.  You can depend on it.  He will do what he says, so far as he is able.  You can see that at a glance.

Ideally, philosophy should help one get into that condition. Yet Socrates said that all philosophy is the study of how to die.

I am truly puzzled.  If philosophy (or whatever method one finds) enables one to integrate thought and action and thus achieve “the body Moses had,” then philosophy is what helps one to live.  How can it also help one to die?  Wouldn’t death, from the vantage point of such an achievement, be the hardest job you could give to a philosopher?  A nearly impossible, always unwelcome job?

I’m talking about what a dear and close philosophical colleague is facing.  What we all must face.

Wasn’t Socrates wrong?

It’s like going to be hanged when you’re innocent of the crime for which sentence has been passed.  Wouldn’t you think, this shouldn’t be happening!

There are theological doctrines that deem none of us innocent.  Okay, I mean relatively innocent.  Innocent of cynicism, of deliberate wickedness, of not being who you say you are.  Sufficiently innocent so that you can say, “I’ll never have a body this beautiful” – no matter how you look cosmetically.

No.  A body/mind harmony like that cannot possibly want to separate body from mind, or think such a tearing-apart anything other than premature.

If God wants such a person to quit this life without further argument, He will have to spirit him out of it

                          with a parting kiss.

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Shunning

Shunning 

We are social beings, so nobody likes to be shunned.  I first encountered shunning after I wrote a letter to Proceedings and Addresses.  That’s the journal where schedules for philosophic meetings are posted, academic publishers place ads for their books and journals, the editor lines up the obits for the fallen colleagues and the speeches of the recently renowned can be read.

My letter defended a woman philosopher who had publicly complained about certain feminist philosophers who, she claimed, urged the editor of a magazine not to publish her essay critical of their kind of feminism.  It seemed to me that women whose common goal was the liberation of women should not try to suppress views that differed from the ones they happened to hold.

Not long after, I was at a conference on Moral Psychology whose participants included feminists hostile to the woman philosopher I had defended.  At lunchtime they all sat together.  I was fully visible, seated nearby at a table for one.  They pointedly didn’t ask me to join them.

Later I had occasion to tell the story to a student, a bright young woman, as it happens, gay and feminist.

“Well,” she commented, “you didn’t want to eat with those people anyway.”

She had me pegged right.  I enjoy my own company and didn’t mind lunching alone.

Along the shunning lines, I think of what happened to Herman Badillo.  He had been borough president of the Bronx, a congressman, the first Puerto Rican mayoral candidate, and – at the time of this incident — Chair of the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York.  Badillo had an abrasive manner and many enemies, but he was a strong supporter of higher education at the public universities, to which he felt he owed his own career in public service.  Anyway, somebody who didn’t like Badillo got wind of remarks he’d made about demographic changes in New York.  The new groups included Mayans and Incas whose facial features and customs showed no European admixture.  As Badillo described them, they resembled the figures carved on pre-Columbian bas reliefs.  His enemies needed no further ammunition.  They quickly denounced him as a bigot and he was shorn of his former political influence.

I was not a chum of Badillo’s, but I wrote a letter to the New York papers denouncing the gang-up.  I may have been one of his few defenders.  The formerly powerful New York politician called me at home to thank me.

Then there was the drumming out of Larry Summers when he was president of Harvard University.  Summers spoke at a conference convened to determine why there weren’t more women in the hard sciences.  (I can tell you why there’s not Abigail in the hard sciences, but let’s not go there.)  In his speech, Summers canvassed a wide range of possible answers.  Was the cause external, i.e. discrimination?  Or was it internal, e.g. women’s preference for other fields and activities?  The mere mention of the second possibility was all his numerous campus enemies needed.  Women professors in the audience complained of feeling faint when they heard the words of Larry Summers.  (That tells me why these ladies weren’t in the hard sciences.  Hard to concentrate when you have to keep reaching for your smelling salts.)

I got involved because, at that time, I belonged to the American Association of University Women.  The AAUW put out a brochure  explaining to Summers (himself no dummy) his “mistakes.”  Since the brochure had been issued in the name of the membership, this member read it through carefully.  Then I wrote the leadership, pointing out errors of fact and logic that I’d found in their brochure.  As I recall, they didn’t choose to answer.

Irritated, I forwarded my letter to Larry Summers who was soon to be removed from his post at Harvard.  Like Badillo, he wrote back, lonely but grateful.

My goodness! I thought.  You can meet a lot of formerly important people this way.  The way you could have met Parisian aristocrats if you didn’t mind riding along with them in the tumbrils taking them through the streets of Paris to the Place de la Revolution and the waiting Guillotine!

I know more stories like this — touching peers, colleagues and contemporaries – than there is room to tell here.  The tide is beginning to turn, I think, and the thought police no longer have the public space entirely to themselves.  But perhaps a moment of silence is due, to honor those unsung heroes who fought for the right to speak their minds long before the tide turned, and went down in the fight.

In 1933, Stephen Vincent Benet wrote a poem about Cotton Mather (1663-1728).  Mather was the Puritan divine who inspired the Salem Witch Trials, where people were accused of imaginary crimes and  hanged on the strength of the accusations.

Grim Cotton Mather

Was always seeing witches,

Daylight, moonlight,

They buzzed about his head,

Pinching him and plaguing him

With aches and pains and stitches,

Witches in his pulpit,

Witches by his bed.

Nowadays, nowadays,

We’d say that he was crazy,

But everyone believed him

In old Salem town

And nineteen people

Were hanged for Salem witches

Because of Cotton Mather

And his long, black gown.

Old Cotton Mather

Didn’t die happy.

He could preach and thunder,

He could fast and pray,

But men began to wonder

If there had been witches—

When he walked the streets

[They] looked the other way.

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Sacrificial Acts

 

Sacrificial Acts

A review of mine, written in support of an author I greatly admire, was just accepted for publication.  It was written at the sacrifice of long-postponed time and energy that, right now, I really needed to expend on behalf of my own book.  However, come to think of it, I’ve never had an editor accept an essay more readily.  It just slid right in.

It’s occurred to me that, several times in the past, I succeeded better at an effort when I didn’t do it for me.   I don’t mean that I got “ego” out of the way, whatever that means.  What’s ego?  What’s necessary life force?  Which is which?

I mean, I was more effective when – consciously and deliberately – I did it at the sacrifice of my known interests.

Let me give you some examples.  When my philosopher father died, he left his unpublished manuscript on two 17th century philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza.  Everyone I knew advised me to put his manuscript aside “for later.”  I had my own life to live, they said.  Life is for the living.  Rise above your “father fixation” – yeah yeah and blah blah.

The fact was that I had just returned to full-time employment after a seven-year struggle to get back a job from which I’d been fired unjustly.  So there was professional prudence in the general recommendation to rebuild my c.v. with work that had the Abigail stamp on it – rather than take any side trips to bring out my father’s posthumous work.

To me on the other hand, it was unthinkable to turn aside from the implicit commitment to his work that he died assuming I would honor.

To support my efforts in that cause, whenever I could, I would ask to teach Modern Philosophy, which includes Hobbes and Spinoza.  And that was why, when an invited speaker on Spinoza failed to show up before an assembled crowd waiting to hear his speech, I was asked to fill in for him.  My impromptu talk was deemed a great success, saving the college from public embarrassment. The amazing result was that my promotion — stalled till then – suddenly sailed through.

A second example.  A few years later, a different administration decided, God knows why, to completely revamp the college’s award-winning curriculum – around the borough of Brooklyn!  You know: geography of Brooklyn, poetry of Brooklyn, history of Brooklyn?  Now, we had students from all over the world, and they didn’t come to the college to learn about Brooklyn.

I decided, over my dead body!  Allied with one other faculty woman, a distinguished historian, we resolved to fight it through to the finish, win or lose.

In view of the time it would take to fight this fight, and also meet my teaching obligations, my personal life would have to be put on hold.  At the time, my personal life consisted in visits to nearby museums or tea with friends.  Both had to be sacrificed.  Adieu personal life!

Though my colleague and I did succeed in winning a fair amount of faculty support, we knew that the administration still held cards enough to override dissenting opinions from inside the college.  We would need to go outside, if we were to have any chance to win.

I contacted a number of organizations known to care about higher education.  Only one of these responded, an organization in Washington D.C. run by the former chair of the philosophy department at a well-regarded university who had also run a federal agency.  Jerry L. Martin cared about the same issues I did and was obviously a much more experienced strategist than I was.  We talked long distance every day and I would follow through on his advice.

All the same, I was pretty astonished when we actually won. Meanwhile, without ever having met in person, Jerry had fallen in love sight unseen, and I fell in love when we met.  We got married and

my personal life has never been better.

What’s the moral?  I don’t know exactly.  In one case, I sacrificed career advancement and got career advancement back, enhanced.  And then I sacrificed personal life and got personal life back, better than I’d ever known.  It can’t be that sacrifice always brings rewards in the same coin as what you sacrificed.  These happy endings – extraordinary as they are – are just too neat for me or anyone else to take them as typical.  It can’t be right to expect a happy ending as the payoff for one’s sacrificial act.

I wasn’t trying to be sacrificial.  I was only trying to do what the situations seemed to call for.  That’s something to celebrate in itself.

Perhaps Providence simply decided

to join the celebration.

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Kosher?

“Moses and the Tablets”
Rembrandt, 1659

Kosher?

O dear.  This is what you call a “vexed” topic.  A couple of years back, in my temple’s Saturday Torah Study, we came to verses that spell out what you are and aren’t supposed to eat, if you’re Jewish.

Okay, Christian readers … you can stop reading now, with a hat tip to Paul who (possibly Acts 15 and certainly Galatians 2) won the quarrel with Peter and James about keeping kosher and related matters.  And  Secular readers, you too can slip away, thanking God that He made you so free that you are even free from having-to-be-set-free from observance of divine commandments, whether pertaining to food or to anything else.

Since I’ve been to Atheism and found that it tends to have its own substitute gods, I’m less drawn to that form of freedom than I used to be.  But, hey, whatever.

There are, of course, lots of secular Jews but I don’t happen to be in that number.  It’s their indoor atmosphere: too cozy cozy with the secular gods: psychoanalysis? Darwin? self-congratulation about having the right political preferences, whatever those might happen to be?  It feels to me like an apartment with too much central heating.  Stuffy.

Since my father, fed up with institutional Jewish life as he had known it, took us all out of synagogue membership in my childhood, Jewish observance never became second nature to me.  We had idiosyncratic versions of the practices around the dinner table … at the same time that the values of our home seemed to me intensely, intelligently, intimately spiritual.

In adulthood, I tried on a succession of religious and nonreligious hats before noticing how Jewish I was, in essentials.  But I only joined a temple when I left Manhattan and moved with Jerry to Bucks County.  In New York, Jewish identity is not at risk.  In Bucks County, you have to do something about it.  It was a Reform temple because I figured they were the only ones who would have me.   That said, even in the Reform temple, I don’t know what the other kids know and I don’t observe most of the ritual commandments.  Including keeping kosher. The first time, in weekly Torah Study, the verses were read about what not to eat, and the floor opened for discussion, I said, when it came my turn, that I didn’t observe the do’s and don’ts (kashruth).

         “Why do you want to separate yourself from the Jewish people?”

our then rabbi asked instantly.

I froze, having, of course, no reply at the ready.  We were near the end of the hour and it seemed to me that the other congregants were packing up and quitting the study room hastily without looking my way.

Had I just been excommunicated?  I couldn’t find a temple more liberal than this one.  They don’t come much more liberal.

I met with the then temple president to confer about the incident and whether I had any standing to continue as a member.  He was kindly and his advice was mainly practical.  Rabbis are very busy.  They can’t tailor every word to every need.  And, btw, why did I imagine I had to reveal the whole truth every time it came my turn to speak?

We’re in Deuteronomy now, where all the preceding adventures of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers are reprised.  So last Saturday, when we came once again to the verses that concern what you should and should not eat, I had the mother wit to pass when it came my turn.

*          *          *

When I was a child, I asked my grandfather the reason for the prohibitions on food.  He cited the main one:

Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk.

“It is cruel,” he explained in his tender and authoritative voice.

“But what about the rest?” I persisted.  “Separate dishes and separate towels for dairy and for meat?”

“Oh that,” he said.  “That was added by” – he used a Yiddish term – “the old wives, the busybodies.” 

On the other hand, without the busybodies, most people would not fall into line.  The lines give a people its distinctive shape.  God had His own reasons for designating this people as His pilot project, where everybody gets to see the human/divine interaction, and how it goes in history.  By the same token, I don’t sense any guidance to blur my own separate contours, which have their reasons for being as they are.  Some situations are without a solution.

One must just leave them there.

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The Psalms

“The Good Shepard”
Henry Ossawa-Tanner (1859-1937)

The Psalms

The other day, and night, I was having a

dark night of the soul.

It was about A Good Look at Evil again, and the recurrent struggle to get my book shown correctly on Amazon.  My patient readers will recall that, although Wipf & Stock’s expanded paperback edition had a pub date of February 2018, Amazon at first featured, more prominently — and sometimes exclusively — the shorter, hardback Temple U Press edition of years ago.

To correct this error, I had pressed my editors at Wipf & Stock endlessly to prevail on Amazon, pressed them without letup, going way outside my comfort zone to do it.  By the time we left for California, it appeared that the whole problem was finally cured.

I was just about to email my editor to thank him, when I thought to check Amazon one last time.  Et voila!  To my bottomless horror, the problem was B-A-C-K!

Actually, as one of my great research helpers pointed out the next morning, I’d been using the wrong procedure.  The seeming relapse was not one.  But all during the first day of our return and the long, dark first night back, I could see no way out of the maze.  It seemed I had tried everything.  Nothing worked.

We don’t talk politics on this site, so ordinarily, I wouldn’t go there.  But the example that comes to mind is from the pre-presidential career of Donald Trump.  I have the story from an English friend.  Since nobody, not even Trump’s staunchest supporters, thinks him an embodiment of the virtues, no one should take offense.

The story goes that he went up to Scotland to buy a golf course, browbeating and cajoling the locals into selling their properties to make way for it.  At last, he had all the acreage he needed save for a plot of land on which lived a Scottish widow woman, stalwartly holding out.  Possibly her home, which included a waterfront view, had been in her family for generations.  When he could not break her will, he bought the shore strip and erected a barrier on it high enough to close off her waterfront view.

Anyway, that’s how I felt.  Like that widow woman.  Completely blocked.  I had the book, but nobody could see it.  The way the widow woman had her house, but was walled up inside it.

When that’s how you feel, finding “a good book” to read at bedtime is of no interest.  What could a good book tell me?  Good for what?

Some months back, Christian friends had told me that I should read the psalms before turning lights out.  Yeah, I know, but they had leaned forward to say it earnestly, as if it were a packet of letters addressed to me in particular.

Well, I thought, when all else fails …  I’d never really read them sequentially and recalled an orphan in Jane Eyre being admonished by a pompous philanthropist to read the psalms and  answering — with  impudent frankness — that she found them “boring.”

On the other hand, what the heck.  I had no interest in another “interesting” book.  Jerry has a King James Version upstairs.  That seemed about right for my purposes.  I had no inclination to read a translation with a closer match between words in Hebrew and  English.  My father could read the Hebrew all right but, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he used the King James in English, finding its rhythm, significance and weight equivalent to the original, as the modern, more literal translations were not.

I started reading the psalms.  The effect was startling to me.  In three thousand or so years, nothing has changed.  We are still in the same human condition!  We still go through the dark times feeling abandoned, overwhelmed, like a drowning person.  We press to our hearts an invisible God – it’s the strangest thing! – and speak to Him heart to heart with nothing held back because – where? behind what? — would we hide it?

That the civilization we English speakers inherited is threaded through and through with the language of the psalms is an exciting fact.  As information, I’d known the fact, but had not previously come up against it as an encounter.  The last words of Jesus,

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

are the first words of Psalm 22.  So many of the familiar words we speak are likewise quotations from the same source.

The unconcealedness, the truth that we greatly care about ourselves – we are not above it, not detached, not sublimated, not about to be someone else – is what shines forth.  The God one turns to because, What else is there?, the person who turns thither because, Who else can do it? – are wholly recognizable:

long lost intimates.

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