Young American

IMG_0078A couple of months ago, I was on the subway, and in a classic liberal fashion, I was talking out my guilt to some innocent bystander, and I said, “I don’t think we should teach about the Holocaust any more.” What I meant, I realize now, was: “I can’t teach about the Holocaust. I can’t do it.” When you tell me something is hard to do, I am usually inspired.

This places a close second to the evening that, at closing time, instead of going somewhere else to make out with a charming Jewish boy, I instead castigated him for not knowing about both creation stories, and directed him to go home immediately and study Torah.

I can’t do it. I really can’t. I don’t have the balls. Or the guts, or whatever it is you need. I am too without armor. I don’t have nightmares. Maybe if I did, I could.

When I was studying the Holocaust, I shivered and I wandered and there was not enough yoga or prayer and I got too drunk and art was more like food to me than usual.  I could hardly eat, though.

And hearing about anti-Semitic violence reminds me of all that.

I read that some white guy had gone crazy and started shooting outside the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City. It took me a while to feel it. Then I did, and it hit me in the same place where I felt it when my students got shot four years ago. The violent deaths all hit in the same spot with the same kind of sharpness. Cancer and Alzheimer’s and heart attacks are different, an ache.

I was at the JCC for work, most recently. They have a day care center where we did research.

We also did research at the federal building’s day care center, which always reminded me of the one in Oklahoma City, and the photos of the wounded kids being taken out of it.

I’m sure I was also at the JCC to pick someone up, or to see someone perform something, when I was in my Jewish groupie period.

A crazy white guy also shot up the parking lot of my Kansas City Target, ran into the mall where I had gotten my photo taken with Santa and the Easter bunny.  He went in there and kept on shooting.

This is our Christian season of mourning. Three days til our biggest mourning day.  All the sermons, I realized, in the four long days I’ll spend at church, all the sermons will be about this.  The priests are writing them now.  “Our Jewish brothers and sisters.”  They will be in all the prayers.  “The victims of the shooting,” at my old church where we had a candle lit for every person killed by “community violence,” and the candles got lit, one by one, every year.

Yesterday I felt like I was on vacation. It was seventy degrees and I wore a dress. I went into The City for this literary festival. I never bothered with such things in Kansas City, but one funny side effect of being here is that I have all this room in my life, and I get to decide what goes in it. I spent four hours or so listening to people read and tell stories. I thought I hated readings because if you don’t like the work, you are stuck there, unlike an art show. I didn’t mind too much when the work wasn’t great, though, I was happy to be out of the house and entertained and sort of social without having to work at being social.

In line for the bathroom, the woman ahead of me was someone I knew. She was in my session at the conference last week. Small town.

One session was about music venues of New York that have shut down. It seemed very cool, and God forbid anyone should try to be cool, but I was hungry, and that was what was happening at the place with the food. So I ate and listened.

One woman had bleached blonde hair and wore a pink hoodie and said she had gone to Sarah Lawrence. I went to Sarah Lawrence. She was a scholarship kid, she said. I was a scholarship kid. She had to scrounge for money for the train into the city. Seven dollars each way, it was, I think. She had an internship at the Village Voice. I, uh, did not.

And I wouldn’t have wanted one. While she was having these drug-softened and drug-enhanced adventures in a New York club so fabulous that she was asked to recount the tales at a literary festival, I was soberly reading St. Augustine and making pilgrimages to the Met.

At least I did a little underage drinking. At least I wandered into some sex shops, saw some good drag. But goodness, I was so afraid, afraid of sex and all manner of drugs and other people as well as myself. She probably was, too, but I kept cautious, thinking that would protect me, and she acted out, and we were probably more the same than different.

Then I was home again, and New York was no longer mine.

Instead of learning about art and art scene downtown (I think it was still downtown then, though probably creeping to Brooklyn), I learned in Kansas City. Instead of a hungry sort of ambition, there was a haunted sort of impudence. People were still poor and scrappy, but there was much less flow. There were not choices of scenes. If you liked art, or you were a writer, there was what there was.   There wasn’t all this extra stimulation, people from all over, all these places to have adventures. You had to, much more so, make your own. There was a solidity to things, a steadiness, that was frustrating and also, probably, good for me.

Do I wonder if I missed something? I do.

I did sit at those readings and think, a couple of times, I have read at a thing like this, and I could have written something better, funnier, more engaging, for this occasion. That was a nice feeling.

At the end of the nightlife eulogies, the woman next to me said, “Did they talk about Mud?”

“I think it was mentioned,” I said. “But no one really talked about it.”

She explained she was not a music writer, but had been there for another event. “I was in this booth and had this forty-five minute chat with someone and he had his hat down mostly over his face, we had a nice conversation, and then he looked up, and it was David Bowie.”

“That’s a great story,” I said. I wanted to ask her more about it, but I didn’t know what to ask.

I still wish I had danced to “Young American” when I was in London and I was one. It was a minor playlist oversight on the part of an otherwise lovely Nigerian DJ.

I am sorry, sort of, that people flew me out to New York three years ago and put me up and taught me about teaching the Holocaust and I didn’t do much with what they gave me. We all get gifts we don’t know what to do with.

Pictured: Iowa somewhere, I think.  I had no idea how to illustrate this one.

Small Groups

I’ve had to read all this stuff about the Holocaust for some work I’m doing this summer.  Spend two hours with the Final Solution, and you better be careful with yourself. To clear my head, I watched an episode of “The Wire,” in which a man was beaten to death.  Oops.  I had been reading Kathleen Norris earlier in the day, and she was writing about how you fight the vices with the virtues.  Acceptance the opposite of violence.  So I thought acceptance for all those people, they suffered and died and killed, and I could accept that.  And while I was at it, I prayed to St. Anthony for the reappearance of a missing cat, although I can’t really believe in praying to saints, as a result of many years in the Lutheran church.  And I believe St. Anthony knows this.

One section of this agonizing book was about the meeting they had to set up the Final Solution.  The logistics, you know.  Looking over the models of the camps and talking train schedules.  Then they drank brandy and smoked cigars.  There’s only one good thing about reading about the Holocaust: it blows your mind like a Zen koan.  At a certain point, you just have to be like, man, that’s crazy.  You can’t process it.  It’s one thing to say, people are evil.  People are violent.  We must learn from history.  The tsunami of various horrors, large and small, makes the Holocaust go way past those kinds of axioms.  Man, it’s crazy.

This morning I managed to get to noon mass.  They have a noon service every day at my church.  There’s always a priest assigned to do it, and although it’s never been just me and the priest, it’s often dangerously close.  Today there was one guy and the priest, and so I felt like I was really making the party.  They seemed happy to see me.  I read the prayers.  The other guy seemed to know some of the responses, but not all of them, so I covered for us.  We read lessons and the three of us shook each others’ hands at the peace, which didn’t take very long.  We each drank a third of the wine.

A little gathering of Christians always reminds me of the early church, and how goofy they must have been, making it up as they went along.  It also reminds me that although some people try to make church a numbers game, Jesus didn’t do a head count before he consented to talk.  Individuals are precious, small groups are powerful, and attracting a huge enthusiastic crowd is not the measure of the message.  Hitler commanded huge enthusiastic crowds.

Hitler and his cronies were a small group, in their room, with their cigars and brandies, and we were a small group, in the chapel at the cathedral.  While they were agreeing on the worthlessness of the human form, and human religious tradition, and human diversity, we were agreeing to its value.  In the eucharist, the human form is honored as a holy part of our experience, a symbol of how people touch each other, and affirm that the breaking of the human spirit or body can create great beauty and healing.  We kept our religious tradition, and we were men and women and black and white and old and young.  The good is as mysterious as the evil.