Bits and Pieces for Frigg's Day
or Friday Fragments, plus All Things Rhap Phase II
[The Norse/Germanic goddess Frigg]
I sit at Mass, listening to the homily.
It is a good one, solid moral instruction with skillfully-placed wit, but I still find myself drifting a little, as I too frequently do, toward the fifty thousand things that are to be done next, when the Mass concludes, and so my concentration is becoming attenuated against my will.
Out of the corner of my eye, I recognize a man who works at a supermarket that I used to frequent. I stopped shopping there some years ago when another store opened up a few minutes closer to home and, good denizen of the modern world always looking to save a few minutes of time that I am, I switched commercial allegiances.
He has an evident disability, the exact nature of which I’m unaware. I talked to him fairly regularly back then, but always the talk of customers and employees, surface-level stuff, nothing personal. Despite the superficiality of our interaction, I liked him and I felt compassion and empathy for his condition. I was always happy to see him there, cheerfully engaged in work that put him into contact with others and made him know that he was needed and appreciated and he had a solid place in the world.
I remember him looking much younger. As I do the math, I realize it’s probably been close to a decade since I regularly saw him at his place of employment.
As I look at him from my position perhaps twenty feet away, he seems to have aged immensely, much more than the ten years. I imagine it might have something to do with what causes his disability, though I do not know this. He trembles visibly now and he is even more painfully thin than he was when I knew him a decade ago.
As the homily ends and we are prompted to recite the Nicene Creed, he becomes animated and joins in with enthusiasm.
I watch him confidently and energetically proclaim his faith, smiling even as his body shakes beyond his control.
I see the suffering Christ right there in his face. Right there. Before my eyes.
I have to wipe tears from my cheeks as we finish the Credo.
I am putting this memory here to share it with you, but also so that I can easily find it and remind myself of its truth in the moments when the sophisticated Ph. D-ed know-it-all in me starts up again, as he predictably does, with all his materialist skepticism and doubts.
Last week, I posted the text of my AHI talk to the post that contains a link to the video. In it, I linked to Lynn Ahren’s song version of “The Preamble” from Schoolhouse Rocks. (I promise, there is still something on Schoolhouse Rocks in the works…).
YouTube then graciously led me from that to this side-splitting bit from The Andy Griffith Show of Barney showing Andy how well he remembered his encounter with the Preamble from the 8th grade.
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The stunning narrative of the Sager family’s misadventure on the Oregon Trail in the spring and summer of 1844.
Seeking a new life in a new land, they set out from Missouri on the way to Oregon. The father, Henry, contracted camp fever and, near death, asked one of his young children: “Poor child, what will become of you?” He died the next day.
Only days after that, his wife, Naomi, the mother of their seven children, also died, leaving these babies alone in the wilderness, orphaned. Naomi Sager’s last words: “Oh, Henry, if you only knew how we have suffered.”
Every person whose family has been in this country for more than a generation or two has such stories somewhere in their American past, whether they know it or not. We have all suffered. Our task is not to judge our sufferings against those of others; it is to overcome them.
Unamuno: “We are told that human beings seek peace. But is this true? It is the same story when we are told that men seek freedom. No, the truth is that men seek peace in times of war and war in times of peace; they seek freedom when they smart under tyranny, and they seek tyranny when they live in freedom.”
Homeless man in the Paris metro with a small homemade cardboard placard posted in front of his sleeping bag: “J’ai besoin du vin et des cigarettes/I need wine and cigarettes.”
In a house full of finicky females who eat according to abstruse rules and infinitely complex calendars no male of my generation and upbringing can ever hope to understand (“On Tuesday, perhaps some bread is ok, but definitely not on Wednesday, Thursdays, or the weekend,” or “I liked cheese fine yesterday, then I read something online and now I can’t ever eat it again, so please get rid of all the cheese in the house immediately, ok?”), the lone male uses this simple calculus to decide what to eat:
Whatever there is, especially whatever is on the verge of spoiling and having to be thrown out, and with special concentration on the things left on the plates (to be thrown out, naturally) of the finicky females, who are much less concerned with what those things cost than the male, who thinks of nothing but the cost of things, can ever be.
I am the drab family Plecostomus, drifting lugubriously along at the bottom of the tank cleaning up what’s discarded by the more colorful, attractive fish darting around gaily above me.
[“What’s the date on that yogurt container?”]
I have been hearing more and more lately, largely from student-age people but also from those older, of the “injustice” of having to do a job that is not exactly what you want to do with your time.
Today, while the plumber was here to work on the water heater, he and I got to talking about this.
“Isn’t that the situation for everybody?” he asked. “Yeah, pretty much, I think,” was my reply.
So, are nearly all of us living lives of slavery? Does anyone really believe in such a withering interpretation of the world in which we find ourselves? Unless you are being paid to do precisely what you would like to do, you are in a situation of “injustice” that approximates slavery?
And what about the fact that precisely none of us wants to die, and yet this world requires that of us, too?
Follow-up on the previous: And those people, rare though they seem to be, who claim to be doing for a living exactly what they would otherwise be doing because they love it so much—what to make of them?
Some of them are certainly not telling the truth, for whatever reason. Perhaps they believe, with plausible justification, that they do well to give a good example to the young in telling this noble lie. (And maybe I’m a bad person for telling my students the truth, which is that if I won the lottery today, I’d tender my resignation at work first thing tomorrow morning). Perhaps they are making themselves feel better about their fate in the deception that they hope can serve also as self-deception.
But if they are telling the truth, and some probably are, then I feel almost as though we are not members of the same species, so different is my view.
For I cannot think of any one profession that I could speak of in such a way. There are parts of being a professor that are interesting, certainly, and there are parts that are bureaucratic and boring and still others that are next to intolerable (in the last box are mostly those requiring me to sit in a room with a bunch of other professors and listen to them talk about anything). This has to be true of every possible paid form of labor.
I want to do many different things, all on my own schedule and in my own way, and I want to be paid for all of it. Why does the world hate me so much that it refuses me the justice I require?
I’ve had June Carter’s voice in my head for the last few days.
Over the summer, I visited for the first time, and not of my own accord, the King of Prussia mall which is a few hours from the lovely little village in which I dwell.
The mall is big. Very big. Its nearly three million square feet would cover about 20% of the total area of Ohiopyle, the smallest Pennsylvania borough.
Malls have always held something of the surreal for me. Such an unnatural place, where people wander around vacantly staring for hours at things on display behind windows and greedily clutching their bags of newly acquired things as they walk near but not among one another.
Wherever I find myself, I always look for the bookstore. And I was initially cheered to discover that the King of Prussia Mall does have a bookstore.
Just one, we must note. In the midst of all the commercial splendor, the hundreds of places selling clothing and household goods of myriad varieties, there is a single book store.
And the tiny place is a vision of staggering poverty in the midst of all these other stores filled to overflowing with the goods relevant to their trades. The King of Prussia bookstore has perhaps a total of a few hundred titles, perhaps not many more than the number of stores in the mall, and almost all of them are the most trivial contemporary fare. These are the kind of books that people who read books as a daily practice have not read and will never read. Indeed, they are books such people scarcely even consider to be books at all.
I stood there for a few minutes, in a bookstore almost without books in the midst of a commercial megalopolis, doubtless seen as an earthly paradise by many of those who spend time there, and I wondered why I am made in such a way as to fail to find any comfort in this land of plenty.
Glancing through an old journal, I find a long passage from a trip to the Musée d’Orsay in 1996 describing this Gustave Caillebotte painting, Les raboteurs de parquet.
Those were the days before you could simply snap a pic with your phone and so, to recall a work and the features of the work that struck you later and look it up in a book somewhere, you had to bring a pencil and paper and write out your thoughts.
There are days when I am cheered well beyond reason by the simple existence of these old journals of mine. Thank you, God, for not bringing me into the world later, when the need for such things was extinguished by these devilish conveniences that are, yes, so convenient but also so potentially corrosive of traditional ways we would do well to keep.
My daughter had somehow come to be alone for a few hours in the company of several academic sociologists and anthropologists, including a few I know personally. Within those few hours, they had covered my child’s body and face in tattoos and piercings.
I awoke breathless and bathed in sweat.
Yes, I am sensitive enough to a certain kind of cultural relativism to nod my head and show intellectual interest in such forms of bodily modification when they appear, for example, among distant peoples living somewhere in the forest in Venezuela. I’ve not only read Levi-Strauss; I was introduced to him in his office at the archives of the Collège de France when I was working there for a while on dissertation research. I get it.
I am however wholly incapable, when I stop thinking as a scholar and look instead as an encultured human being, of seeing such practices as anything but (at best) unfortunate deformations of something beautiful beyond the capacity of any human culture to improve.
The very thought, even in a dream, of my child’s perfect little face ruined by such a hubristic human intervention filled me with terror and rage.
Here is a song about a life wasting away, a suicide in progress, really, that I find tremendously moving, and not only because of the passionate fury of its musical statement (the pacing, the timbre of that electric guitar, the pathos of the vocal line), but also because the song’s singer extinguished his own life through drug abuse in his 30s, only a decade after recording this, and so he is here performing his own swan song.
And, still more profoundly for me, because I discovered the song during the same years that two deaths close to me nearly shattered my life into the mournful dust the pitiable, misguided Layne Staley is describing here.
Something more uplifting after that: the delightful second movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2, which has been used frequently in cinema (notably in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which I’ve somehow still managed to this point not to see, though I adore Kubrick).
We heard this performed at the Salle Pleyel once, when my oldest daughter was in elementary school, and she still recalls the main melody with primordial delight. As soon as I put it on, she perks up and I see the little girl she was just a few years ago still alive in her eyes.
Strange, strange animal that sits awake all night trying to recall instants that are gone forever, endeavoring to conjure up people, places, events, times that once were, are no longer, can never again be for the remainder of the life of the universe.
Accepting that all this is once and then disappears: That is perhaps the West’s genius and our terrible curse. We banished the past as something that could live always with us, reducing it to a one-time trace on an axis forever receding, and now we long for its lost companionship. But once done, this move cannot be undone.
I’ve been at this project now for a little more than six months. Hardly seems possible, but I just checked the calendar and I believe that is the right math.
So, this is a note to you: Thank you.
I’m tremendously flattered by your interest in what I have to say about life, art, politics, death and I’m grateful that you read my ramblings. Every writer desires to be read (Lovecraft’s letter accompanying his submission to an editor notwithstanding) and thus owes a debt that cannot really be repaid to readers, however much the writer sometimes pretends not to recognize this (it’s part of the persona, you see…).
So that’s something I want to be sure to say and say again: THANK YOU.
Now, the other reason for this little note.
I finally got around to doing the technical stuff necessary to provide a paid subscription option, and so that’s the “phase II” in the subtitle above.
What does a paid option mean?
It means it’s an option. At present, everything on this account remains open to all subscribers, paid or free. Even if I move at some currently unforeseen point to separating material here into paid and unpaid categories, I still plan to always make the great bulk of it available when it’s produced without cost to everyone interested in seeing it. I’m tremendously appreciative that you read this site and want to do everything I can to ensure you continue to be interested in doing so.
I am hopeful though, and I make so bold as to ask, that if you have a few extra dollars rattling around, you’ll consider kicking some of them my way to help make it more feasible for me to spend more time on this project.
Inevitably, and despite my deepest feelings about writing, I think at least a bit about possible material returns when I am allocating time to writing projects. I have two kids who eat and are in constant need of new clothes and a house in which things are constantly breaking down. Add to that the fact that, to my great regret, I do not have infinite time to dedicate to writing, and it emerges necessarily that sometimes the possibility of writing things for pay trumps writing things here. This is so even though I much prefer writing here precisely because it allows me more freedom to engage with the topics I find most interesting.
If I can generate some paid subscriptions, then, I can spend more time doing this writing, the writing I most care about, and the writing that I hope you find valuable. If I generate enough, I may even finally find enough time and energy to get around to dipping my toes into Podcast World, which is professionally speaking probably the last thing I should do, given my tendency to say things that get me into trouble, but YOLO, as I’ve heard they say.
I hope you’ll consider a paid subscription and, whatever your decision on that, I look forward to writing more for you as Phase II gets underway. Should you decide to “go paid,” you need only click the button below and it should lead you in the right direction.
Cheers, and thanks again!
All Things Rhapsodical is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.