23 January 2011

Sounds of Presence

I noticed that days are getting longer; that when you wake up these days, you can still precede the sun rising but it is in fact rising earlier.  Last winter was long, dark and cold and this winter I made a personal pledge to myself to embrace the cold and the darkness, to inhabit them, and ride them like waves of time and existence, in order to explore their structure for wisdom.

This morning I woke up thinking about Robert Mapplethorpe, for no other reason I suppose than the fact that I'm finishing up Patti Smith's extraordinary memoir, Just Kids, and as I savored it to sleep last night was ruminating on the fact that I've run into three people in the last twenty-four hours who are also finishing it, approaching its last pages as slowly as I am, for the main reason that it's just so damn good, rooted in her personal integrity, and capturing an era of American cultural history through the honest perspective of one of the age's great artists.

I was thinking about Mapplethorpe's father actually, at least how he's depicted by Smith, and how a closed man can traumatize a boy and continue to perpetuate that trauma as the boy grows into manhood.  I went to bed last night thinking about Mapplethorpe exploring himself fully in New York and then returning to his parent's home on occasion to be anyone but himself, and how awful and damaging an experience that can be.  Fueling great art, no doubt; but stoking the fires of self-destruction as well.

And in the fog of early morning, with faint glows of light beginning to emanate on the horizon above the pre-war buildings on Plaza Street, I thought of Mapplethorpe's traumas, especially those from a silent and unforgiving father, and then the silent and unforgiving traumas of, described so eloquently and truthfully in some of the accounts I'm reading about the US engagement in Afghanistan.  In particular I'm thinking of the silence that accompanies explosion--the "deafening silence" as they say of bombs going off and creating an intolerable violent, silent, life-ending pressure that is nothing less than totally horrifying to consider.   If we had a draft, more of us would know this; as it is, we are voyeurs on the matter, only confounding the crippling silence of war's hell.

I leaped awake.  Suddenly I thought of Moses, who is essentially fatherless, except for the wisdom he receives from his father-in-law Jethro and, one wonders, his palace father Pharaoh, who must have been some presence for the future Jewish leader.  Joshua, who would inherit the mantle of leadership from Moses and lead the people into the Land of Israel, is equally "fatherless" in his scriptural biography.  A theory began to take shape, especially as I thought back on the moments of grave and horrific violence that both Moses and Joshua presided over during their terms of leadership. 

The silence of the leader in the face of the violence.  It's God whose credited or blamed with providing the force, the power, the justification for all the killing; it's God's voice goading them along, empowering them with the task of carrying out *His* mission.  But it's Moses and Joshua's silent assent that woke me with a start this morning.  Their complicity.  Their own destiny transposed onto an All-Powerful entity.  Enacting the trauma of the Absent Father onto the Invisible Father.

If, axiomatically, it's impossible to know what God really wants, we often have to face the fact that if we believe, we need to distinguish between what we believe, what we think, what we know, and how we impose that upon, or project that on to our understanding of God.  And when our expectations fall short of our confused, self-made reality, we lash out against the silence, killing others and sometimes, slowly or quickly, ourselves.  The self-destructive folly of human history, exposed.

I thought of my dad's precipitous collapse in life and wondered how absent or present his father was in his life; I thought of the men who stepped forward and supported me, mentored me in the shadows cast by his death, bringing light and wisdom to bear on the new shapes and forms of my existence.  His own self-destruction, the smokey embers of an absence he railed against, and then me, hearing sounds for the first time, sounds for me, sounds for him.  Birds.  Crickets.  Wind in the trees.  Rain on the roof of a car.

The Sounds of Presence.

My heart beats faster reading how present Patti Smith was for Robert Mapplethorpe; how present teachers were for me; how present others have been for us and we for others, filling in the gaps, the howling cold caves of darkness, with love and light.

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