“There have been losses in staying at a small college in a small town…but…the compensations of family, friends and place were abundant, as one experienced the rich tapestry of life and death in the deep social context of a Lebanese-American ethos…” – Eugene Paul Nassar, Essays at Eighty
“In our finite infinity, our responsibilities for the creation are inescapable; there is no separate reality to which we can flee……And within the cloud we face as a species it is that fold of infinite possibility that makes possible….our potential to actualize that other, more convivial world. Create world together, we will…Yes we can. The question is what world it will be.” – Catherine Keller, The Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement
On the wall at our Cafe are the words of MLK, Jr.: “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions, a little change here, a little change there, now I feel quite differently. I think you have got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.” As I take it, and as I understood it when we hung the banner in 2002, in our little coffeeshop that we meant as a place of anti-corporate resistance to accelerating dehumanization, MLK-depth change is transformational change.
As it turns out, after 5-plus decades of a little change here, a little there, society now faces the impossibility of transformation in the direction of peace, and social, and ecological justice. The ‘revolution of values’ belongs to the rightwing extremists and the the unstoppable doom machine of predatory capitalism. By impossibility, I mean not just electoral politics and our corrupt leadership, but the impossibility, for those of us existing in liberalism’s bubble, to change our way of life, to be the revolution of values, that would demand our leaders lead in the direction of the good for all. Perhaps now, with climate disaster threatening extinctions and systems collapsing, impossibility itself can mean differently, can be experienced as the transformation “zone” that carries one through the wall (or cloud) of the impossible. As even Popeye knows – we’ve been watching early Popeye cartoons with our grandkids, who, a little to my surprise, love them – impossibility is the necessary condition for transformation.
Popeye knows when it’s time to reach for that can of detestable spinach. But real-life people who are brought “to their knees” by impossibility and must either “let go or die” have, too, gone as far as they can on their own power. The alcoholic who admits her powerlessness opens a door to the possible; she gains a spiritual (super)power which can change her life. Does it seem, now, as the horizon of the collective global future sinks lower and lower, that any way a white liberal like me can learn from impossibility – the lessons historically left for those at society’s bottom – ought to be taken up, now? Ought we not now put ourselves voluntarily into situations and circumstances that limit the “freedom” we know isn’t free, the unacceptable cost being limitations it places on the possibilities for others so we can keep ours? Ought we not now to choose local living as means to the revolution of values? Ought we solemnly vow to stay face-to-face in this community, this particular place, among these imperfect friends and relatives, this damaged and ailing butt end of the economy, this society that has at best half its attention here, the rest on travel, building the new home, the continuously fascinating world available via screens – so we can learn at last the transformative secrets of impossibility?
The vexing aspects of staying local, keeping within the confines of the vows I’ve made, continue to haunt me after 45 years of marriage and 20 years of small coffeeshop ownership in the flyover city of Utica NY, USA. There’s no longer any question of my leaving – at 71, with my family here, with the coffeeshop still needing daily attention – except, when the time comes, “feet first!” But I’m pushed daily to remember/reimagine how this decision is based in desire, not in stoic, sometimes resentful, determination. My upbringing did me no favors in this regard, my mother being an (unintentional) upholder of “Now is preferable to Then,” and “Where We Used To Be is far inferior to Where We Got To,” etc. In no way was I prepared to turn that “wisdom” upside down, which is partly why my roots need frequent watering and the well is constantly going dry!
In part to replenish that well, I have initiated a long-delayed “reading theater” project with some friends, to present writings by Utica native Eugene Nassar (1935-2017) at our little non-profit venue The Other Side. One of Utica’s two distinguished contemporary literary figures (the other being Gene’s student, literary critic and novelist Frank Lentricchia), Gene opted to stay in Utica, turning down offers from prestigious colleges in order to remain in the “deep social context” of his Lebanese-American face-to-face community. In doing so he shrank his career aspiration to the size of a small, liberal arts “teaching” college here, where I took from him a survey lit course in the early 1970’s.
With all his successes – Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Oxford and Cornell, author of an important book on the cantos of Ezra Pound and of other work esteemed in academic circles – Gene’s decision to “Walk Around the Block,” ( the title of his essay collection subtitled Literary Texts and Social Contexts) instead of around Harvard Square, or around the world, was received as both admirable and utterly baffling to people in Utica.
Like others of my generation who were not raised in the emotional richness of an ethnic ethos, but in the no-place of suburbia (the epitome, then, of “better”), I learned to despise the local. Or perhaps I should say the college-bound were expected to leave the homeplace; positive attachment to, interest in, or desire for home were simply out of the question. Negativity is extremely prevalent among those of us born and raised here, though countered now by slogans urging people to shop local, by I ♥ Utica bumper stickers, by branding your enterprise Utica Bread, Utica Coffee Roasters, etc.
Despite all the Go-Local hype, some of which has legitimate basis in awareness of anthropocenic climate change and/or political resistance to centralized power, staying is rare for those who have choices. I doubt Gene would recommend it – certainly he encouraged students of ability to pursue careers. Geared as we are for independence and movement, we no longer see the “sentimental ties that bind” as basis of our strength. For those of us thus released from non-negotiable duties and loyalties (other than to the job), staying mostly cannot be done, except as a kind of defeat. Unless I have that working class, often religion-and-family-values-centered pride of place, that today easily turns into MAGA belligerence, I must discover within myself the means to live locally with aliveness intact. This, with neither a rose-colored projection to lure me in, nor a heart that’s nourished by roots in a culture is, simply, impossible.
I can testify, the impossibility doesn’t go away. It demands of me, lest I sink in the drowning sea of earnest self-effort, that I confess the impossibility, that what I am doing just plain ought not be. Here’s how it seems to work (for me): In confessing, I drop down, out of the dominant liberal positivist Now’s-Better-Than-Then ethos, to ally with my lowly, neglected soul instead. It’s as if my poetic awaits those ego-tempering words of so-simple honesty that translate to Her as “you can trust me, I’m on your side.” This befriending of the occluded soul is what makes the change a change in heart, i.e., transformational. Thus, the very unthinkableness of staying native makes it a way, bottom-up and freely available, of resisting the catastrophe of neoliberal totalitarianism and anthropic exceptionalism.
Connected in imagination to all the relationships in which a human being is “enwebbed,” non-human as well as human, the soul’s transforming energy, released in that gesture of trust, makes a believer out of the liberal’s disenfranchised, exceptionalist heart. Otherwise, clinging to privilege, avoiding the impossible, the(we) neurotic, under-emotionally, under-aesthetically nurtured persons raised in neoliberalism will never stand up for the deeply affirming social bonds of genuine culture they/we never had in the first place. No revolution of values! Lacking the discernment and the strength to “just say no” to the relativization of all the things that matter to the heart, they/we surrender to “lesser evilism,” – Hillary, Obama and Biden – for what else can good people do?
Due to various factors in my upbringing, for years I was foreclosed from practicing either a religion or an art. When, by means of a psycho-spiritual crisis at mid-life I was able to transcend my contextual impossibilities to practice my art, I was not to be a storyteller like Gene, whose stories from his ethnic neighborhood in East Utica we’ll be reading publicly on October 20. I was, I discovered, a context-maker, a different kind of fabulist. Having to separate from the context that “made me,” I’ve been called to imagine another that can allow me to sidestep the shambles of selfhood I was left with. In effect, the devastation caused by the normalization of a too-thin, unnourishing human context forced me to reclaim for myself a more humanizing, kinder one. That I have had to imagine it, rather than being bequeathed it by family and culture, has made, as we say, all the difference!
For Gene Nassar, even his fine university education that removed him from the simple piety shared by everyone in the East Utica of his childhood, could not erase his need for the reality of relatedness available to religious imagination. In knowing reference to William James, he called it the “will to believe” that allowed him to belong in his church and, I gather, to believe in America in the conservative way. For me, deprived of the rich soil of culture, it seems I must have direct experience of my inclusion in the “All-One.” I conjecture the kindly Gene would think my occultism preposterous, but I must stand by it. And I must understand art this way, as not an exclusivizing practice, but an act of realizing inclusivity. The experience of art-making, the “impossibility” of the blank page, connects me to the plurality of the soul; it restores the connectedness which my upbringing denied me. It energizes me for the interpersonal impossibilities that are harder.
The interpersonal impossibles, though harder than art-making, are the point of transformation, of becoming, art-making the means. My relationship with Utica became/becomes possible only by means of the medium of the coffeeshop business we created that is our means of inclusion as ourselves. (Does it recruit others into the army of convivial resistance? Who can tell?)
As for the impossible of marriage, influenced by the liberal context that tells us marriage is optional, likely obsolete, this is most difficult of all! Because of that dominant ethos, Orin and I no longer rely on expert help when, due to stresses from inside and out, both of us PTSD-afflicted, we reach a painful “who-turned-out-the-lights” breakdown. Closer to the religious idea of marriage as sacrament, we use our own, home-grown improvised story to reconcile us within an alternative context that, slowly and over time, rebuilds interdependence as a non-negotiable of life.
That is, I know something about the reality of the impossible, and about the “cloud” within which it is hidden, until possibility breaks forth. “Posse ipsum,” possibility itself, was the name applied to God by the 15th century boldly cosmological German theologian, Nicolas of Cusa. Of Cusa’s relational cosmology, Catherine Keller writes: “If there is in our civilization now some spreading openness to the intuition of interconnection we should not too brusquely write it off as pop spirituality or neoromanticism. Perhaps instead we should lend it the historical depth of the luminous darkness in which another modernity could have unfolded.”
Is there a way another modernity can unfold? If pain is understood as necessary counterpoint to joy, then privilege can be understood in a way that’s far from white or middle class privilege (or from the “Christian light supremacism” Keller refers to, still dominant in western spirituality.) I am privileged to have to face the “luminously dark” wall of impossibility over and over in order to keep my one, on-the-ground, very local life going, in answer to a call I feel comes not from my heart as much as from God’s heart in me and the yearning of the All-in-One in me.
At our weekly family dinner last Sunday, Orin’s semi-estranged middle-aged daughter and her teen-aged children whom we barely know, in town for the weekend, brought our number at table to 17. I must have been feeling the paucity of my own capacity for inclusive warmth, the impossibility of making us, as family, “one.” No Trumpies among us, only people who’ve learned to live in the given liberal context that makes family bonds conditional. The unworthiness learned early in homes where “independence” is valued to the exclusion of the desire to be wanted and cherished – and of the desire to express devotion and loyalty – makes impossible what we deeply want. This deep ineradicable unworthiness is foundational to liberal reality, the unseen barrier to wanting what we want.
I thought of my late mother-in-law, Toni, who grew up in an ethnic subculture not unlike Gene’s. Her cultural otherness, more peasant than his, never positively extolled, was nonetheless apparent, including in the memorably magnificent meals she produced in her impossibly tiny kitchen. Offering a pre-dinner toast that evening I said, more or less, “I used to think of poor Toni as downtrodden, cluelessly sacrificial. And she was. But now I understand her as a fighter.” Lacking middle class aspiration, never fully assimilated, Toni fought futilely for the bonds of relatedness that society has abandoned. She could not articulate the fight; its truth was obscured by family members proclaiming “La famiglia” as if such a thing were possible. It’s not. The good side’s losing: time for the spinach.