John field notes 3c: Sequitur

They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? (John 6:30, KJV)

Signs blind. If you really want to see, Jesus suggests to Nicodemus, you have to lose everything, deny your birth, start over:

“Rabbi, we know that you’ve come from God a teacher since none could do these signs you do unless God is with you.”

“Jesus answered “Amen amen I tell you unless a person is born from above he can’t see the reign of God.” (Reynolds Price, Three Gospels)

Earlier in John, Jesus turns the Jews’ request for a sign into confusion, demonstrating what seeing (understanding, walking) by signs leads to.  Here with Nicodemus he implies that signs will (help) keep one from seeing the way Jesus sees.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

John field notes 3b: Non sequitur

This morning, “You must be born again” brings to mind Pittsburgh.

“By night” is the Allegheny. “We” is the Monongahela. One of those rivers should win out at their confluence.

But Jesus’s response is the Ohio.  A new river.

He addresses neither the loaded setting (Nicodemus’s coming by night) nor Nicodemus’s words (“We know you are a teacher come from God”) nor the tension the setting and words create.

“By night” / “we” is a minor chord that instead of resolving becomes the playground for Jesus’ notes on birth. “You must be born again” only adds to the “by night” / “we” tension.

“You must be born again” may not be a koan plastered over with Protestant doctrine, after all.  Maybe the junction of “by night” and “we” at “born again” is the koan. They say the Ohio starts in Pittsburgh. But how can a river start? It’s the sound of one hand clapping.

Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about birth; he spoke to Nathanael about a fig tree. We don’t pull the fruit of doctrine from Nathanael’s tree. Should we take doctrine home from Nicodemus’s delivery room?

Maybe it’s John’s tenuous hold on narrative that lets us pick doctrine from it like a fruit tree. The setting is the husk or the root and branch, easily discarded.

“You must be born again” coming amid the tension of “by night” and “we” feels like Jacob’s wrestling with the man at night amid the tension of (at the junction of) Laban and Esau. It feels also like “neither,” the reset button the Lord’s captain pushes in the overwrought Joshua at the junction of “us” and “them”:

When Joshua was near Jericho he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua approached him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’

The man replied, ‘Neither! I am here as captain of the army of the Lord.’

Joshua prostrated himself in homage, and said, ‘What have you to say to your servant, my lord?’

The captain of the Lord’s army answered, ‘Remove your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy’; and Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15, REB)

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

John field notes 3a: John’s negative and positive space

Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, comes to Jesus “by night.” (John 3:1-2)

Not “that night,” which would have made the detail another instance of John’s treating setting at first glance as mere overlay. It’s not that way here, even at first glance.

The place-and-time overlay in John is often loose fitting and follows the event, flapping like a cloak behind the event’s rush. (E.g., chapter 1’s “This took place at Bethany” and “It was about four in the afternoon.”)

Not here (or now).

“By night” makes the setting as significant as he earlier makes ambiguity and the unsaid. “By night” feels like “under cover of darkness” (speaking of a cloak). It suggests something about Nicodemus.

In fact, Nicodemus’s two later, briefer appearances in John come with “by night” as an identifier: “the same came to Jesus by night.” (See John 7:50 and 19:39.)

In the later references that include “the same came to Jesus by night,” I expect the reader to react, “Oh, yeah, the coward.”

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher sent by God.” (John 3:2, REB)

But Nicodemus’s first statement here prevents me from concluding that he’s a coward. Nicodemus begins, “we.” Not “I/they.”  Not, “Look, I know you’re a teacher sent from God, but they don’t.” In the visible-brushstroke, impressionistic world of John’s writing, “we” contradicts the “by night” and thereby sets up a tension with “by night.” It’s all we need, or all we should need, or all we’re going to get, to explain the contradictions in Nicodemus and the contradictions we feel in fathoming him. Everything we later learn about Nicodemus, except for his need for time to process (okay, maybe that, too), is in the “at night” vs. “We.”

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher sent by God.”

“We”: Does Nicodemus come as the Pharisee’s representative? Come by night because the Pharisees don’t want the people to know they wish to dialog with Jesus in a less confrontational way? Come by night because he’s not come as a representative and doesn’t want the Pharisees to know he’s come? Is Nicodemus conflicted? Or just busy?

The “by night”/”we” tension makes him rounder, makes him human, makes him more than torn, more than tentative. He chooses to associate himself with the Pharisees to Jesus, maybe even apologizes for them (“they realize more than you may realize they do”) or betrays them (“they realize you’re a legitimate prophet”), but it’s “we,” not “they,” as if he didn’t come by night.

Maybe three brushstrokes, and we have a character as round as any in literature. But the roundness, like the other important information in John, develops in the reader’s mind from what isn’t said.

John builds spaces like a poet.  Or like an architect conscious of the visitor’s movement more than he is of his building or landscape.

Figure-ground theory states that the space that results from placing figures should be considered as carefully as the figures themselves. Space is called negative space if it is unshaped after the placement of figures. It is positive space if it has a shape.

Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (Thing #3). In John, space (the lack of information) feels negative, but I swear it’s positive. If creation argues that God exists, then John’s gospel argues that John exists. Just don’t assume John’s existence too quickly: you’ll miss out.

With “by night”/”we,” the tension and the space that adds to the tension don’t initially create a relationship, as it does with Nathaniel and Jesus and then with Jesus’ mother and Jesus (though we learn about all three from the relationships), but a character. With Nicodemus, John creates character development first and relationship second. And assuming John is not changing his literary ways, what does that say about Nicodemus?

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

(Charity) red

Our AP class is imitating essayists to explore their styles and habits. In our blog posts, we’re quoting parts of essays and imitating the quotes. Then, in comments to our own posts, we’re explaining how we’ve chosen to imitate the essays.

Here’s my latest imitation and explanation. I use the italicized part of my explanation to advocate for imitation as a means of preparing ourselves for the AP Language and Composition exam’s argument and synthesis essay prompts.

My post:

It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving.  There had been jollity and peace and goodness.  The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water. The shouts and cries of the other campers when they saw you, and the trunks to be unpacked, to give up their rich burden. (Arriving was less exciting nowadays, when you sneaked up in your car and parked it under a tree near the camp and took out the bags and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, not loud wonderful fuss about trunks.)

– E. B. White, from his essay “Once More to the Lake”

At the far end of the lineup, as if it were anchoring a rainbow, stood the red Nano. Red always stands out, but this Nano stood out among the other six colors on the web page in another respect: it was engraved with “(Product) Red.” If I bought the red one over the more sensible silver one six colors down, Apple would give half of the sale’s profits to a fund to fight AIDS in Africa.

I first learned about charity in the bosom of the church.  “Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Each Sunday, as Rev. Burke, an ex-Army chaplain who was there on D-Day, intoned those words, my mother reached a white glove into her purse and pressed a silver dime against the palms of each of her three children.  I was the oldest.  I liked dimes: bright, diminutive, and branded with the bust of a pretty lady, or at least of an angel. I remember the slightly metallic smell mixing with the moisture inside the fist I made to protect it.  But my attachment to riches took as long as it takes to repeat after Jesus, “Freely you have received, freely give.” I plunked my dime in a golden plate, the plate was passed to an elderly usher, and the usher, joined down the long, red-carpeted aisle in a kind of pecuniary confluence with three other men, merged his plate with theirs into the hands of a teenaged acolyte.  I felt a certain regret mixed with a strange sensation of freedom as Rev. Burke collected the plates, including my dime, from the acolyte, who had turned from us in a swoosh of his cassock, long and red.

I thought about those early Sundays as I struggled with the red Nano’s implicit argument: pick me, and you’ll help fight AIDS in Africa!  You’ll be charitable! But what would I have given up? The silver and red Nanos cost the same.  Apple wasn’t training me, as my mother had, by letting a coin sweat in my hand long enough for “a dime” to become “my dime.”  Instead, (Product) Red felt more like a nicotine patch against my arm, something to wean me from the charity I had contracted under the aegis of the Episcopal Church long ago.

My comment:

Last class we reflected on our weaknesses as timed essayists.  Of the three common weaknesses the AP readers described, perhaps a plurality of our community picked writing “an exam answer” instead of “a full essay.” But weaving forty minutes into a good article of writing is a tough skill for all of us, even those of us who because of a greater exigency picked “evidence” or “syntax” instead of “full essay.” We all have only forty minutes to write an essay’s rough draft.  How can it be good?  Given the time constraint and the need to convey a great deal of information, how can it be anything other than what it is – an “exam answer”?

Our argument essays, and to some extent our synthesis essays, can take on some of the style of the master essayists we’ve been reading this year.  One way to write something closer to an enjoyable essay is to study, and even to imitate, enjoyable essays others have written.  The skills we’re developing from our reading and writing this year, along with the freedom of knowing that style is just as important as substance, will be with us for those brief forty minutes in May.  Through practice, most of the good decisions you’ll make in your writing this May will be instinctive – instinctive to you then as putting a period at the end of a sentence is to you now.

So in this imitation piece, I wanted to address the same essay prompt blocks 3 and 4 responded to, and I wanted to deliberately do it in something like the style of E. B. White, a famous essayist we’ll read later this year.  I can’t plaster “WWEBD?” on my mind’s back bumper when I write my argument essay this May, but maybe my practice in writing like White will help me internalize some of his approach and (hopefully) some of his wonderful pacing and syntax.

Here’s the prompt, in pertinent part: “In a well-written essay, develop a position on the ethics of offering incentives for charitable acts.”

I don’t write an entire essay here, but I write an essay’s opening, and the opening may be enough to suggest a framework for the other information I’d include to respond to the prompt.

In the rest of this comment, I describe how my piece employs some of the literary, rhetorical, and compositional techniques in White’s essay “Once More to the Lake.”

I want to start with a periodic sentence as White does in the paragraph I quote.  These right-branch sentences always add drama. (White’s tone can be so placid that he needs his syntax to provide the drama his pacing never creates.) I also like the nuclear emphasis White uses in that sentence before each piece of punctuation: “ME,” “THIS,” and “SAVing.” (I used “LINEup,” “RAINbow,” and “NAno.”)

I also borrow the entire golden-past-versus-plastic-present theme White gets across in this paragraph. White’s comparison becomes confrontational at the end, even though he puts it in parenthesis.  I compare Apple’s approach to charity unfavorably with the Episcopal Church’s of my youth, just as White compares his arrival at camp in the present with his arrivals there in his youth.

We both use longer cumulative sentences with some parallel structure to get across the process of travel.  He:

The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water.

And I:

I plunked my dime in a golden plate, the plate was passed to an elderly usher, and the usher, joined down the aisle with three other men, merged his plate with theirs into the hands of a teenaged acolyte.

(He uses more phrases – nouns followed by prepositional phrases, and I use more independent clauses.  But hey.)

White’s chief modes of rhetoric in this paragraph are both description and process analysis, and I tried to achieve that in my piece.  On the descriptive end, he describes a childhood smell (the “pine-laden air”), and I do, too (the sweaty dime). On the process end, he describes the annual arrival at camp, and I describe the weekly collection of offerings.

Both White and I use comparison, description, and process analysis to achieve a greater end.  I intend to argue that the ethics of charity should include sacrifice.  We’ll see what White intended later this year when we read his essay! But you can see from this single paragraph from White’s essay that he feels we lose something sometimes when we make things easier, which would be a big part of my essay’s argument, too, were I to write the entire essay.

Speak the word only

Sweeping judgments can be breathtakingly accurate, and sweeping methods – patterns of those judgments drawn from intuitions over time – are unfailingly so. Bethany, for instance, who reads without ceasing, has always enjoyed books with great covers.  The sorry reading she has discovered in books with sorry covers established the obverse of this theory for her as well, so that now she simply judges a book by its cover.

Harnessing your intuition can help you see things so-called experts overlook. Years ago I remembered that the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had just beaten the Dallas Cowboys in a Super Bowl, had been the looser team along the sidelines before the game’s kickoff, jumping and cavorting like idiots.  I made a point of looking for the looser team before the following year’s Super Bowl kickoff, and I was rewarded by picking the game’s winner.  I have since applied my “Loose-ometer” on at least twelve occasions, and it has always pointed to the Super Bowl winner, including a couple of notable underdogs.

You must befriend your sixth sense and slowly learn from experience how it whispers to you. It’s all Malcolm Gladwell stuff.  Read Blink and rediscover your intuition for fun and profit.

My final example of intuitive method may become more profitable than betting on Super Bowls. I stumbled on it two years ago after helping Bethany pick colleges. I had wasted a lot of time reading through several thick college guides from U.S. News, College Board, and the like.  Bethany finally settled on a great school, and one that I later realized I could have picked for her by going with my first impression gained from simply speaking the college’s name.

Now I’m putting this intuitive system to use by helping several teens of my relation pick colleges during their junior and senior years. I simply ask them to say the college’s name over and over and to describe the impression it gives. At our extended family’s annual beach trip last summer, I gargled the names of six schools a relation had chosen and urged her to give her highest consideration to Bucknell.  I knew (and still know) nothing about Bucknell, but the name conjures a buck – I see large antlers – and the sound of a knell.  Strong imagery. The letter k – the word’s center, assertive in buck but silent and reserved in knell – seems to endow Bucknell with both yin and yang and to spin the word on the k’s axis into a kind of spiritually enlightened chocolate-and-vanilla swirl.  (Armed with these insights, who would waste time reading about the colleges’ more prosaic endowments described in those fat, overweening guides, or listening to those same colleges’ own self-serving spin?)

And Bucknell’s physiognomy? (I believe our words possess us, and that a word’s pneuma animates our faces as we speak it.) If you say Bucknell slowly, repeatedly, your mouth begins to assert itself and your entire face feels fierce: the first syllable fires out your lips with an air blast, and then the second syllable thrusts out your jaw as your mouth widens slowly, menacingly.  Say it three times: you’ll lower your antlers and charge.

I mean, Bucknell’s so Anglo-Saxon that you want to chase it with “Excuse my French.”

Jack Healey speaks the word at Bucknell

Bucknell since fell by the wayside, alas – I may have discounted the knell connotation in my enthusiasm – but I received some good news today about my relation’s prospects concerning a college that wasn’t in our sights last summer. I responded with this email:

Dear C___: Congratulations! Worcester sounds even better than Bucknell, you know.  Worcester is like Leicester and forecastle – words only the British know how to pronounce, words that remain mysterious, beguiling, and befuddling to your country-bumpkin American more used to rorcesters. Shibboleths, in fact, of culture and high standing.  You can graduate from there and roll your eyes when people mispronounce it. Best of all, I’m not paying the tuition.  Go there!

She’ll probably also get into a few public schools with which I’m more familiar – schools with excellent reputations and low, in-state tuitions but also cursed with ominously pedestrian names.  I hope to steer her away from these, and I trust her parents will see fit to remunerate me when the financial spigot twists open full bore this fall. Affirmation along those lines would encourage me to share my intuitive gift as a consultant to anxious high school upperclassmen and their families outside of my limited sphere.

(thus)

If I could ask someone to paint these headaches, I would ask Hieronymus Bosch, channeling Georgia O’Keefe, and working with Mark Rothko’s palette and technique. Something grotesque but suffused in both color and form, fantastic and yet imbedded in the ordinary; sublime, too, but grounded in our physical world.

From (thus).

The Path of Possibility

What if we were to let go completely of the idea that we need a certain amount of bluster or bravado to “promote ourselves” and instead consider how we might let what we love most about our intimate writing lives overflow a bit onto the people around us?

From The Path of Possibility

My Jacob

Borne through all my dreams last night, a date I couldn’t keep: a woman — Diane Rehm, I think — put in for me to play the part of Romeo. But Mike had asked for me to talk the morning of the show. The day arrived. I knew Diane would need to know I couldn’t act the part. Right then I woke, resolved, but never having told Diane about my resolution. I commit to much, and disappointing others makes, for me, a nightmare out of any dream.

But what of this: the dream expresses some desire for both the arts and God: a struggle in my womb that I have touched on many times. And even though it seems to friends a false dilemma now (a misconception, if you will), the day will come, I fear, when I must choose between the two. But then I also hear the smallest voice suggesting that the fight itself will be enough to bond my Jacob and his nightly angel.