These bodies, how they speak. How they signify, the mouth still. How their poise and rhythm scores a city sidewalk, their movements trace meanings on the moist air that separates us.
Womp, brio, alembic, the Albigensian Crusade. Each of these terms was lost on me recently as I tried to read. Each propelled me back to the surface of the page against my will, where I bobbed helplessly, far from reference, cursing my ignorance, the younger self that chose the appearance of intelligence over the disciplined work of reading. How many books did I pretend to read in high school, how many did I skim to glean the keys that might unlock a grade, or the impressed nod of a teacher? Close to thirty years later, I am still paying for those adolescent sins of omission. It was with a jolt, therefore, that the next day I heard my colleague Noah say the following in a faculty meeting at the high school where I work: “The desire to seem is the only thing that’s lessened me in the presence of truth.” He was recalling Camus, he told us. “Love is the opposite of seeming: in it, we reveal ourselves, not to seem, but to give.” We’d been talking about our identity as a school. What was it, we wondered together, that defined our place? Words were offered and considered: service, rigor, hospitality, community. We discussed the term “classical school”— what did that mean, exactly? What about “Christian”?
“Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.”
My brother began listening to Dylan when he was 17. That means I heard iconic lyrics like: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to be so good/They’ll stone you just like they said they would” and “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” drift through the house when I was 14. The guitar and harmonica, Dylan’s sometimes smooth, sometimes raspy voice wove their way through my mind and for years resided in the grooves of fond memory. I was immersed in “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Tamborine Man,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as they spun their familiar sounds from the turntable. Recently, feeling homesick for those songs, I listened to them again. I was surprised to find that the Dylan I knew opened to new and deeper levels.
It happened in the closing days of an expansive week and a half in Scotland seeing the awe inspiring ruins, breathing the thick Celtic air, rambling on the highlands and feasting on their startlingly fresh strawberries and unbeatable spuds. Settling into my early morning flight to London, I saw a ghastly image that has never quite left me: a spiny, mustard-yellow man whose grizzled body displayed with such shocking translucence the clawing effects of a life-sucking illness that the look at his decaying body arrested me with a terror so sudden and thorough that all human compassion was replaced with a gripping horror. I sat debilitated, crushingly ashamed and utterly terrified.
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
These words were written by a gay man—a man who had recently met the love of his life, a man who did not feel safe to speak openly about this love, a man under threat of incarceration and violence because of this love. These words were written by a man facing news of tragedy—a horror caused by politicians’ greed and stupidity and inability to live in peace, a horror which he’d been through before, a horror which seemed to be repeating itself in a nightmarish, unstoppable cycle.
These words are W.H. Auden’s. They are from his poem “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of World War II.