Late last winter and into early spring I began doodling. When new life finally emerged from the cold earth I began using color and started painting. Here is a series of drawings I did:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O, Thoughts in Solitude (1958)
If you haven’t noticed, I have been wrestling with the Big Things here lately: ‘God’ and life and death and judgement and hell and mercy and the nature of the Mystery beyond our ken, somehow a Person or Persons, who ‘is’ Love.
This isn’t academic theology. I have done that, and I was pretty good at it. At least my professors thought so.
This is rawer, the aftermath of the deconstruction of last winter, which was a sort of frigid sacramental purgatory, a Polar Vortex of the soul, an elemental wrestling with being and experience and beauty and the mystery of evil.
That sounded way too dramatic. But unexpected changes, when one is pretty settled, are disconcerting, even when they are a blessing. And lately I have become aware that everyone’s life is an epic.
Creatures from the Tilted Planet
It occurs to me that we are so benighted that we do not even know the answer to the most fundamental question about the Cosmos.
Which is: are humans, and the earth, unique? It is evident that humans, unlike every other created being who is not in close association with humans -like dogs or veal calves- from the billion year old dense thing we call ‘a rock’, to the hundred year old still and silent being we call ‘tree’, are alone in feeling inner conflict, alone in spinning narratives to navigate Reality, alone in creating illusory worlds inside our heads.
So the Question is: is the fact that humans are so evidently fucked up in spite of the beauty and harmony we can perceive in What Is, the created world untouched by Humans, mean that this is probably the condition of ‘intelligent’ species wherever they exist, if they do exist? Does the ability to restructure -and distort- creation the way that humans do on earth inevitably coexist with inner conflict and moral blindness?
Or is Humanity unique?
After all, our planet is tilted on its axis: everything is skewed.
Plus, our hearts are off center.
In other words, we have no idea of where we exist within the universe.
We do not know very much at all, in fact, about that universe.
What kind of place IS this?
Knowing so little, from whence come human pride and hubris?
If St Thomas had lived longer he would have burnt the Summa.
I know it sounds racist, but I like black people. I have always had an easy rapport with black folks, especially with black women. I have never met a black woman whom I did not like. And black women like me, the whitest white guy ever.
Not that I knew any black people growing up. As a young kid I lived one block west of North Saginaw Street in Flint. Saginaw was at that time the dividing line between black and white in highly segregated Flint: east of that street was black, west was white. The closest I ever got to black people was driving through their neighborhoods. A single vivid image, from when I was maybe five, remains embedded in my memory: driving by a crowd of black children playing in a circle. There, in the middle of this segregated world, was a little white girl, dancing with the others. This, in maybe 1958.
Later we moved to a small town that was in the early stages of suburbanization. The schools were all white until my junior year of high school, when a black family miscalculated, thinking they were buying a home in the neighboring, integrated town. Instead they were on the wrong side of the district dividing line, and their children went to our schools.
They must have been terrified the first day of school, but they were very popular; sort of the novelty kids. Our town may have been racist in the general unreflected way that was America at that time, but there was room for two middle class black kids, who after all could not have been a threat even if they were so inclined.
And then I went off to college, a white kid from an all but white town, and I was assigned to three, count ’em, three, black suite mates.
There was my roommate, Rodney, who was president of the Black Student Union and a fellow revolutionary. He was serious and studious. I never saw him partying and I never saw him with a girl.
One of the guys in the other room was a jock, a little guy who nevertheless was an excellent basketball player. I often saw him partying and he was quite the lady’s man.
Then there was Reggie.
Reggie was more a street tough than the other two, who were serious students. Reggie liked to smoke pot and he liked to listen to music. I think we were curious about one another, and we spent a lot of time getting high and sharing music. I introduced him to my music, to the Airplane, early Pink Floyd, Hendrix, The Who, the Stones, and to other more obscure artists like the Millenium, Pearls Before Swine, Hearts and Flowers, to the wealth of what was a very creative time in music (we are talking 1971).
He, in return, showed me a whole world of great music of which I had been completely unaware: Sun Ra, Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, Les McCann, and more.
This was revelatory. A whole new world of music opened for me, and I have often offered thanks for what he shared.
Reggie and I both dropped out after freshman year; as far as I know the other two finished college, and I would be very surprised if Rodney is not very successful at whatever he put his mind to.
I did not stay in touch with any of them, however. But I still love all the new sounds Reggie introduced me to, and I am forever grateful; here is a sampling:
Art by Mati Klarwein