ASH WEDNESDAY, 2022

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn

-T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

To turn our hearts towards God, to be converted, means that we must be prepared to use all means to live as He expects us to live.

Francis Fernandez, In Conversation with God

A pure heart create in me, O God; put a steadfast spirit within me.

Psalm 50

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto thee.

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

FLIGHTLESS AT THREE O’CLOCK

Oh, what a terrible feeling!

I speak, I write — of a gull, probably a juvenile, absurdly walking about, flightless, a wing out to the side, probably broken. Diane said, “he’s been attacked.” There are many feral cats in this world of mobile homes. I emptied a cardboard box from the shed of its assorted tools and gadgets. Diane found a kind of sheet. The wild bird sanctuary said, bring it! Catch it and bring it. After parking the car (we had been driving into the park on the main street when we saw it and were forced to swerve around it), I looked back up the street and saw it crossing back across the street, bewildered by its inability to fly, as vulnerable as a creature can be. By the time we’d gathered the box and sheet, it had gone from sight. I’d seen it turn down a street. We cruised. Diane yelled at me, “you’re going too fast.” I yelled back. I yell a lot these days. Up and down the streets, very slowly, we went. No sign of her. I somehow think it was a “her.” She had a black head, white and gray body. She was small. One does not see many gulls in the park. There are woodstorks, egrets, moscovy ducks, blue heron…then the common domestic, non-tropical birds, the bluejays, mocking birds, grackle by the hundreds, it seems. Sparrows, perhaps, now and then, a migrating robin, crows, of course. And gulls. But so close too the Gulf it is odd we don’t see more.

I felt so sorry for this little gull. But we could not find it. The box remained empty. Her fate, unknown.

Later, after dark, I walked two miles in darkness, cloudy skies, a congenial and cossetting sense of mystery all around me. I felt, for a change, that I was doing something healthy. In the clubhouse they were playing pinochle, a Monday night ritual. Lights on, warm, pleasant gathering. I walked by. Diane was in there. I glimsed her standing, talking, perhaps telling people about the poor gull.

Where did she go?

It was about three o’clock when we saw her. I was not having a great day. They were having the worst kind of days in far off Ukraine. Stopped to tell the parked handyman of our search for the wounded gull and he said, “you have too much time on your hands.” It was an offhand comment (speaking of hands), not intended to wound. It was a man’s world’s quick judgement, one of his typical mordant appraisals as he walked, smiling, back to his truck. I’ll bet he’d have stopped for the gull. The person in the vehicle behind us, a truck, also slowly swerved around it as the flightless creature, used to soaring so high, circled in the middle of the grimy street, is time in the skies probably gone forever. (I think I’m well into what they call the “pathetic fallicy” here — the attribution of human emotions or attributes to animals. I think the handyman, no logician but filled with common sense and used to fixing things, was trying to “fix” me in that regard. Or maybe this is all an act of “projection”. Perhaps it’s me that’s feeling “flightless”now.)

Three o’clock. All that was good about this day, was that hour when time seemed to move more slowly then suddenly speed up toward darkness, and the hours when there would be more LESS “time on our hands” to to have the luxury of thinkinig about the gull; a time when we must parepare to do serious work on serious earth on the coming serious days.

While people are suffering and dying in Ukraine and who-knows-where-else, it is important to be able to — forget. Is this, by chance, what Kierkegaard meant when he wrote, “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much”?

At three o’clock it was neither sunny nor dark. There were clouds and a sprinkle of rain, then muted light.

Where did the little gull go? There are cats, which is to say, danger, everywhere. But they will fall prey, too, too…STOP!!

I must forget. But it must be terrible to be a bird and suddenly find yourself unable to fly. She would not survive.

I’m surviving, thank God. And I’m still in search of my wings.

SNOW, SLEET, RAIN

Sun here on this long peninsula. In the geographical north, by degrees, it grows cold, slick and late February bleak. Here? Well….

The moods, the memories, the tempermental weather of white and gray, the anxieties, the mitigating prayers, the high clouds over the Gulf, the little pieces of caught convertion, the despair, the hope, the search, unrelenting, for the God Who, somehow, destined this journey for us — all this daily sweeps over us in sunlight or in darkness, in waves and gusts, in great oceanic breakers. We stand on the shore….

Words, The Word. Help. Let them, let Him, come to us — on the shore.

“We turn toward the town…the glassy lights….” Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West.

Fragments.

February 25, 2022.

THURSDAYS

Thursdays sit at the edge of things hoped for, even if it be merely a weekend.

Thursdays are the eve of things, dreadful or wonderful, that happen on Fridays. The Last Supper. Holy Thursday.

Oh, that every Thursday could be holy.

Here I sit on a Thursday. 58 degrees. High of 81 expected. Florida’s enigma variations of climate, mood, Gulf waters beyond the traffic, promising so much. But not superior to the world’s or the region’s anxiety. Or mine, however blue-green.

Domestic dilemmas. Without end. Palm fronds waving beyond the venetian blinds. God give me the courage to change the things I can.

The dogs are asleep. I wonder if they dream.

Novel. I write.

I falter on the steps, always sharing too much. People get too mixed up in my — domestic dilemmas. That’s my doing, or undoing.

None of this will make much sense to the chance visitor to this blog.

But I welcome you. And ask you to consider what Thursdays mean to you.

I will go out shortly, on errands, up and down the swarming roads.

Anxiety.

SORROW IS A DOG

The sweet brown aged dog named Annie limps and wanders and comes into the room with me here where I write and stares at me. I pet her on the head and between her long ears. She is part Dachsund, part miniature pincer, sweet and vulnerable and now, yes, very old: 18, according to her papers. She was born in Louisiana in the wake of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina and wound up in a pound where she might have met an early death. This is the third place she has lived. She is still here in the room — now she is gone again, wandering. Now she is back, staring, standing still, confused. Normally she seems to be in an endless search for snacks or for the outdoors but has taken, occasionally, to defecating indoors in her confusion, making our life more difficult though we cannot love her any less. She lets you know when she wants to go out but she always wants to go out and always wants to come back in whether or not she has used the interval as she did formerly to relieve herself. I never wanted Annie. Diane insisted on getting her way back in, was it 2005? Early 2006?There had been the pedigree pomeranian named Jack who lived twenty-one years and had been discovered in the frozen food aisle of the Star Market in Porter Square, Cambridge, Mass. There was no accounting for how he got there before the Cambridge Chronicle ran his seemingly smiling picture in its pages after which it was brought to the attention of Diane who simply had to have him and won out over dozens of applicants for that little guy. He lived in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, North Carolina and then in Massachusetts again and circumstances led to me being the one who had to take him to be put down. And I went from that moment to my job as a television reporter and, as it happened, a story about a young girl who had a malady closely replicated, if you can believe it by the malady of the little dog that was gifted to her by some generous veterinary or animal control or, frankly, I forget who or what agency, but it was a happy story and a good story for me to be covering that day and I could share my experience only hours before of taking a dog I’d known and loved for over two decades to a steel table in a little examining room where, blind and deaf and now plainly in discomfort, she was put peacefully to sleep. And then, after a period without a dog — without the responsibility and expense and inconvenience and worry — I was told I would have another dog over my objections. And I would come home to the little stucco house in Clinton, Massachusetts to find the dog, Annie, tail wagging excitedly, greeting me at the door and then climbing into bed with me and generally causing the very disruption I loathed. She was funny, the way she would see dogs on TV and bark at them, even if it was a dog far down a lane in some western, or the MGM lion roaring at the outset of a cable movie. In time, she would be joined by a second dog over my objections, a truly loveable little mixed breed, spotted, facially expressive and entertaining creature named
Cricket who, like Annie, is a rescue dog. A colleague and dog-owner comforted me in my exasperation at finding myself with dogs and the responsibility and the emotional attachment and the inevitable sorrows by saying two dogs were actually better than one because they were company for one another. But, of course, with one or two or however many dogs comes the expense of pet-sitters and veterinary bills reaching over time into the hundreds or even thousands–and now, the sorrow of watching Annie wander.

She’s left the room. But she’s out there in this unmoving “mobile” home where I sit in Florida. She is the sum of all my sorrows and anxieties, revealing all my emotional vulnerabilities and weaknesses. I love her to death. That’s the problem. Yes, that’s the problem.

WHO HAS THE (GOOD) IDEAS NOW?

Lionel Trilling in 1950:

…it is the plain fact that nowadays,there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation…The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in actons or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

There you have a seventy-two-year old manifestation of liberal smugness, ignorance, illusion and isolation. But perhaps this was, indirectly, a call to arms for the conservative movement which was underground and burst out in full view in the mid-fifties and, happily, struggles on today between the extremes of Democratic radicalism and Republican fecklessness.

But it is not entirely inaccurate to suggest that genuine conservatism, as opposed to Trumpism, etc., has once again lost its confidence or sense of direction.

Academia and the mainstream media treat conservatism as a kind of mental disorder. And they are likely to confuse the rabble that burst into the halls of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 with conservatism. I submit that this is a willful libel, and that they know better. I guess that action would fall into Lionel Trillings curious and wrongheaded 1950 diagnosis of a “conservative” action, or an “irritable mental gesture” transformed into mass action.

But, in the realm of ideas, look out there and see who really look like the crazy ones.

To be fair, look left and right. But don’t just observe the “irritable mental gestures” or actions of one side. Read! We’re talking about ideas here.

Sadly, however, there may be, as I think about it, much truth in British philsopher Roger Scruton’s diagnosis of the crisis of conservatism as stated in 1980, thirty years after liberal Lionel Trilling offered his two cents worth on the subject. Scruton wrote, Conservatism may rarely announce itself in maxims, formulae or aims. Its essence is inarticulate, and its expresson, when compelled, skeptical.

Conservative New York Times columnist Roger Douthat wrote recently, the ossified Reaganism that the younger conservatives intend to supplant is locked into the world of 1980.

Yes, there are, indeed, new brands of conservatism afoot in the land. Among the exponants of one such brand I might be at a loss to label might be counted Roger Kimbell, an art, culture and political commentator and editor of the journal, The New Criterion. And in the midst of a long analysis of the current state of conservatism in the current issue, he suggests that the election of Donald Trump, “unlikely though it seemed at the time” and given the alternatives, might have amounted to a battle for the soul of the country and, for some scholars and voters, in the current polarized state of affairs, may well have represented “the only chance for national survival.”

Which is why Kimball, an obviously intelligent and cultivated fellow, has spoken and written well elsewhere of Trump’s four years in the White House — of how he cut down illegal immigratiion, cut down on witch hunts on campus under Title IX provisions and mandates and racialist attacks throughout the federal bureacracy under the rubric of “critical race theory.” He’s written of how the 1776 initiative, begun under Trump, aimed at reviving in schools and colleges and, in the culture, an appreciation of our founding ideals — over against the tendendcy to blame America first in Academia, the media and corporate culture.

But, properly speak, he noted, this was more the “populist spirit” than conservatism, strictly speaking. (I’d also note that there is a strong strain of libertarianism in it.) And there were those elements of The Strongman, of which I, for one, remain deeply skeptical, if not fearful, when it occurs on the right or the left. In history, fascism, right and left, always seemed to coalesce around a single person and become a cult.

But what is that “populist spirit” as it is manifesting itself on American soil?

It is anti-globalist, prizes individiual liberty, limited government, distrust of the regulatory and administratie state and identity politics.

Ultimately, it is a case of the powerful influence of the elite in academia, the media and corporations versus the rest of us.

It is, I’ll admit, very odd to have cultivated, conservative intellectuals and historians on the order of Kimball or Victor Davis Hanson vouching in any way for the crass Barbarian Donald Trump. Kimball has merely suggested that Trump is “a narcisist who never managed to learn the subtleties of narcisism.” I read in that an implied comparison with the likes of Trump’s presidential prececessors Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama, though I could be wrong.

Keep in mind that the flagship publication of the traditional conservative movement, The Naitonal Review, founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., declared itself in the harshest terms opposed to a Trump presidency even before Trump won the nomination. And that opposition remains in place today. It has been critically suggested, among other things, in the pages of that journal, that Trump shattered the norms of presidential behavior in ways toxic to the body politic. And he’s still out there, aching to get back into power, while Democrats, drifting out to sea in a barque captained by a vain, borderline senescent stooge of those powerful interests enumerated above, pulls out to sea with him.

But, back to ideas. The late conservative scholar Richard Weaver wrote a book called, Ideas Have Consequences. I think I need to read it. Perhaps we all do.

More on all this later. For in 2022, ideas are going to have many consequences.

EPIPHANY MOMENT

Before I and everyone else packs up our creches for another year, some thoughts on the Magi — and that Star.

It’s nearly little Christmas.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the the Star, and the Magi who followed it. How many were there? It’s not known, but legend has it they bore three gifts and they may represent, among other things, the three stages of life, or the three branches of the human race, semitic, white, black (which, of course, omits the Asian and therefore is beyond imperfect). The Magi were a once-powerful priestly caste of the Medes and the Persians, as recorded by Herodotus and others. They studied astrology and the divination of dreams.

How did they know about the blessed event? How far did they have to travel to Bethlehem?

They could have met with a very harsh fate had the brutal and crazed dictator Herod known they had ignored his request to report back to him the birthplace of savior. They could not have known, initially, of his terrifying and murderous reputation.

They were also said to be descendants of the great soothsayer Balaam. Nothing indicates that they enjoyed any great power at the time of the birth of Christ.

What about the star?

Identifying the star — that Star — is a thorny issue. How could these men, working with only the naked eye or the most rudimentary scientific instruments, have made astronomical observations of any precision? This is pretty much, word for word, the observation of that renowned and now mostly forgotten late French Catholic scholar Henri Daniel-Rops, writing in his marvelous book, Jesus and His Time.

It could have been a “nova” similar to the new star that appeared in the Consetllation Aquila in 1918 or that was noticed in 1572 after the massacre of St. Bartholeomew’s Day. But no writers on those times in question recorded such an appearance.

Halley’s Comet, when it appeared on January 10, 1910, was visible in Jerusalem, its light observed to pass rapidly from east to west, becoming difused in the east and reapparring in full visibility to the west, as indicated in the Gospel Story. But Halley’s Comet could only have passed over the sky of the countries in question during the year 12 B.C. and not the year 6 B.C., when it is most often speculated that Christ was born. Other comments recorded by Chinese astronomers in the years 4 and 3 B.C. tell us it would not have been visible in Western Asia. Also, a comet, being subject to their diurnal orbit like other stars, could not indicate a precise location, much less a particlar house in a particular town.

Kepler thought that this celestial pheonmenon might be a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn as occurred again recently. His calculations suggest this could have occurred in the year 6 B.C., even though this date was not yet considered the most probable date for the birth of Christ. Interesting.

And the word “star” as used in scripture does not mean the stars ordinarly visible, but indicates some astronomical phomenon.

On the borderland of science and legend, as Daniel-Rops puts it, is Russian poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s theory that the “star” of the Gospel was a rare celestial phenomenon, an equinocrtial passage of Aries through Pisces which would signify to the Babylonian Magi, haunted by the idea of a recurring deluge, the an announcment of the end of the world and a new age in the history of the human race.

St. John Chrystosom, though pre-scientific, knew that stars don’t do what the star of Bethlehem was said to do — that according to Catholic convert and scripture scholar Scott Hahn.

Stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living cratures, but a kind composed entirely of mind.”

Thus John Chrystosom concluded that this was an appearnace of a Christmas angel. Those celestial messengers are forever being caught up in the cosmic drama, from the creation of the world. Good and bad angels are, to the devout mind, what accounts daily for all that is communicated to us in our universe. They are everywhere in the Christmas story.

My patron saint, Gregory the Great, according to Scott Hahn, accepted the angelic interepretation. He also observed the great difference beween the way God dealt with the shepherds and how he dealt with the Magi. The shepherds, though uneducated members of the lowest rank, were still members of the chosen people. They’d been hearing all their lives the prophesies of liberation destined for the Jews. So it was, says Gregory, that God announced Christ to them with angels.

“But a sign, not a voice, guided the gentiles,” writes Scott Hahn. He quotes Gregory’s homily on the Ephiphany, asserting that the Magi ” they were not prepared to make full use of reason to know the Lord.”

In other words, as Scott Hahn notes, when it came to understand the meaning of Christmas, “the simplest of pious field hands were better equipped than the most erudite scholars.”

But those scholars, to their eternal credit, came in an ardent search for the truth. “That’s something the angels could see — and work with,” writes Hahn.

And, it should be noted, they ultimately got their share of important angelic knowledge: an angel apperared to them in one of their dreams in time to steer them clear of Herod who might (God help us!) have tortured them to extract the knowedge they now posessed of the Infant Jesus’s whereabouts.

Thank you, angels.

And so, like those truth-seeking foreign gentile travelers, we must let the angels work with us and guide us now and to the end of our own desert journeys.

.…This Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death…

T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi

Yet the poet has his lone Magi, reflecting long after that journey and the witnessing of that birth, proclaim that he and his fellow travelers were afterwards no longer at home or at peace in their native lands (w)ith an alien people clutching their gods.

I know how he feels.

And so I say a wistful goodbye for another anxious year to those fellow travelers.

God willing, I’ll see them — we’ll all see them — again next year, in peace and joy.