“How was your birthday?” Well-meaning, polite people ask this, and I want to give a response better than “I had sushi” (I actually had Popeye’s) or “I read and made notes on Meno 75b-76a” (true, but for some strange reason, I don’t have the inclination to say this aloud).
I usually ask people if they made a wish on their birthday. You never know if you’ll get what you wished for, and if you don’t, you’ve still spoken your happiness as a priority to yourself. Maybe stating my own wish would be a “better” response when I’m asked about my birthday? I’d like anyone stuck listening to me about anything to be more engaged, happier, more curious, more thoughtful because of it—I’d rather not feel like I was boring them.
Maybe I should more closely consider the bliss of the new—for me, a new year, perhaps a new decade—arriving at last. Is it a bliss in which I can share immediately? Resolve myself to earn? The poem below seems to speak a combination of joy, hope, and wonder, and I wonder:
At Last the New Arriving Gabrielle Calvocoressi Like the horn you played in Catholic school the city will open its mouth and cry out. Don't worry 'bout nothing. Don't mean no thing. It will leave you stunned as a fighter with his eyes swelled shut who's told he won the whole damn purse. It will feel better than any floor that's risen up to meet you. It will rise like Easter bread, golden and familiar in your grandmother's hands. She'll come back heaven having been too far from home to hold her. O it will be beautiful. Every girl will ask you to dance and the boys won't kill you for it. Shake your head. Dance until your bones clatter. What a prize you are. What a lucky sack of stars.
Birthdays call forth not only our past, but our very origin. Like the horn you played in Catholic school—I remember playing an instrument. I was terrified, frustrated, completely unsure how it was supposed to sound. And I might as well have been a newborn in that moment, newborn like the city [that] will open its mouth and cry out.
I assume the cry a loud noise, but confused and innocent. Thoroughly mediocre. Yet it begins to expand into something ever greater. As presented, it reassures itself. What little song there was in the noise generates lyrics: Don’t worry ’bout nothing. Don’t mean no thing. A tune does not magically find words, nor does a pain naturally find reassurance. So does a city truly cry with us in solidarity?
I wonder how “new” the “new” “arriving” is. For the past two months, I’ve only really wrestled with James Baldwin, trying to fully realize for myself how much would change if racism was properly confronted. The change in the moral order, in the way we conceive, teach, and hold moral sentiments ourselves, would be such that it would essentially be the Second Coming:
In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. (from “A Letter to My Nephew”)
In a similar vein, this poem asks me to believe my private pain can be expressed without shame and I can find reassurance through the public. This is not a small undertaking: this is the kingdom of heaven.
(And all I’m looking for, at the present moment, are some words to better describe my birthday.)
I guess I should expect more from myself, perhaps wish for more. The poem’s language may speak less to victory or joy, but rather to the intensity of suffering which completely blinds us to the possibility of either. It will leave you stunned as a fighter with his eyes swelled shut who’s told he won the whole damn prize. When suffering so much, one thinks everything else but victory. I might think “I want this to end,” “I hope some part of me is recoverable,” “wow I wish could be aware of more,” “holy I messed that up.” “The whole damn prize,” here, seems to be that the possible is now possible.
I can’t quite say I feel that, as my sufferings are nowhere near the scale of that prize-fighter. I can say that I have some share in It will feel better than any floor that’s risen up to meet you. The feeling one wouldn’t even be able to take a step without punishment, that one was compelled to step into one’s own doom, countered by the fact there was a floor and I could navigate it and move forward. I think of how many have put up with me saying stupid or worthless things and didn’t make a big deal of it. They didn’t punish me for my awkwardness, but instead accepted me. A lot of places are looking for the least mistake in order to bully others and consolidate their power. Because I was given space, I strove to be better and became better. Birthday wishes are a recreation of that space—you’re celebrated merely for being—and I’d like to internalize that more. Extend it to others more.
Still, the imagery of the poem asks me to consider how much even that share in acceptance is eschatological thinking. The “stun” of a fighter who can’t even see, the feeling that a floor rises to give you ground—these are everyday miracles, but they are not minor. The resurrection of the dead is not far behind: It will rise like Easter bread, golden and familiar in your grandmother’s hands. She’ll come back, heaven having been too far from home to hold her. O it will be beautiful. There’s a lot to say about these lines—about being perpetually celebrated by those who once celebrated you—but I cannot do them justice fully at the moment. I can say that “heaven…too far from home to hold her” is the New Testament, the new dispensation. The only true justice is here, on this earth at this moment. That one can conceive of what is just serves to link mankind and God, but that leads to two radical states of affairs: 1) The bliss of the poem is real, tied to a world that could exist here and does exist here in part 2) Our experiences of suffering, necessity, and wrestling with ghosts are part of that bliss, that justice. I am not trying to repeat a medieval myth that still holds sway over many, that Providence or divine justice requires we suffer in this life. The truth is far too strange to articulate in a way useful for any theological-political project. One cannot dismiss someone as “utopian” because they think we should try to eradicate poverty or exercise tolerance. However, the enormity and complexity of justice seems to stand as a stricture on human reason.
When I worry about the unreality of the poem, I worry about something all too personal. What does it mean for me—just me—to have hope?
Back to middle school, back to high school, back to college—surrounded by a mass of humanity, we wonder what we’re doing there. And we wish everyone would reach out and love us and make our acceptance of ourselves so much easier: Every girl will ask you to dance and the boys won’t kill you for it. Shake your head. Dance until your bones clatter. This is the “new,” the state of affairs that never has been. The state of affairs all young people wish for and all of us adults wish we could give them. The state of affairs all old people ask for and all of us wish we could make real.
Part of it exists on this earth. I’ve been lucky enough that there have been dances where it felt like every girl asked me to dance. But I, like those of you reading, am thinking of those who have found ways of ignoring us, people who have dedicated themselves to not caring, not reaching out. People dedicated to hostility, consciously or unconsciously.
Hope isn’t really about objects or success. It’s fundamentally about other people. That might explain why people who seemed very loving can become very hateful—they turned others into embodiments of their expectations without quite realizing what they were doing. For myself, the task is to identify hopes in this vein: that what seems to be about me is not actually about me, and what’s about others is sometimes really only about me. What a prize you are. What a lucky sack of stars only means something if others are touched by its import, if others feel like they’re a prize, worthy and wanted and bright throughout the ages.