We are all of us children of a troubled time.
We are surely other things, noble and ignoble things, capable of remarkable goodness, capable of making our ancestors proud.
But we moderns do need to decide and decide again what it means that we could have been born in more favoured times and were not, what might be the mythic and poetic and moral criteria and condition of our citizenship in such times.
Once, such a responsibility was the particular purview of political and heirloom leaders, sanctified pulpit masters, masters of ceremony, court jesters in court, orators with a cause. But the entry requirements and credentials for engagement in such activities have been relaxed beyond recognition, and the standards such as they are are mainly in the technical sphere, in the kind of ‘follow me’ following that is a tag line of so many epistles.
So we are left to discern the obligations as we are able, good faith sometimes at the ready.
Touring a show called Nights of Grief and Mystery in normal times (whatever they once were) might have been an ancillary thing, a peripheral, ephemeral thing, something that was by the way. It may still be. But it’s other things too. It’s standing in the footlights’ glare with an undetermined, contestable obligation to get it right the first time out, and the second and the third, and so on. It’s taking up a good portion of the evening of strangers, living up to that. And it’s knowing in a score of ways what is pervading and waning and waxing in the wider world. And it is utterly done with a hand on the tiller, so that wonder doesn’t turn into a travesty of excoriation, a stand-in for moral perfectibility, a place to lacerate with expedience the ambivalent. Even a cursory, sidelong, bad faith troll through history will suggest that every project designed to perfect the human herd sickens the herd.
When you draw a line, you cross a few others. It tends to go that way.
When you drape the ideological walls in barbed wire, there tend to rise at least three sides of everything, all of them truish, becoming ever moreso convenient truths.
Before I left Canada, in the midst of the last teaching day of the People Who Are So session of the Orphan Wisdom School, before taking them into the bush for a wayward wander in search of wayward ancestors, I was on a call with perhaps fourteen hundred Israelis mostly, at the sorrowing invitation of a palliative care organization that bade me come in the early summer of this year. This was a week into the numbing, short circuiting outrage known to all or nearly all who are reading this. Most of the call was of the q/a kind. There were questions about culpability and conscience, about complicity and compliance and conscience objection, about tribalism and triumphalism, swaddled in grief.
And there was one about the heart. A woman breathless with language uncertainty and hesitation about what excoriation might come her way asked me, as if I would know, this:
How can I keep my heart open?
And my equally uncertain answer to her, then and probably now:
Maybe every attempt and every failure to keep an open heart in a time of inscrutable crisis is a heart, open.
This morning I saw of trio of old men in what’s left of the old town square by the strand. They were so finely decked that I veered towards them with a view to thanking them for the emotional and aesthetic upgrade their shirts, ties and hats lent the rest of us. I included the hope that I’d be able to join their ranks some day, should I be spared. They took the appreciation in stride, as though they weren’t new to public encounters with strangers. Once done with the praise, a minute back into town traffic, my wife quietly noted that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sign at their feet attesting to it, taking a bit of a cafe break from witnessing. I was thrown a bit. but glad I’d been taken with them, even still.
Now I’m in the most recent b/b in Adelaide, an hour before heading downtown to sound check the most recent venue on the tour, a back room in a bar. In a few hours I’ll see if grief or mystery or both can survive the unlikeliness of the venue. Maybe. Or maybe the taverns and the beer halls are the Agora of old, the genuine commons, where loads of contention might be leavened with something like mercy, and a hesitation of that finger on the conversational SEND button.
On the way into town from the airport one us of looked to our left. There, against a slate grey sky, a double rainbow. Maybe a covenant. Maybe a sign of the fire next time. Maybe we’re in-between them.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom