Essays and Memoirs
The Reliably Spiritual Author Print E-mail

willner 02(Pacifica Literary Review Summer, 2017)

In Langston Hughes’ story, “Salvation,” from his autobiography, The Big Sea, he tells us that “going on thirteen” he was saved from sin—saved, “but not really.” At a special children’s meeting in the church, charged with the expectation that he would “see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul,” Langston waits while the minister asks the “little lambs” to come forward. Many do; a few hesitate. Most go to the altar. And there, by their voluntary presence, they are saved. But not Hughes and another boy, Westley. Neither budges; Langston is not feeling it. But, it’s hot, and the hymns keep insinuating, and the preacher keeps intoning, and the flock keeps expecting, until Westley finally capitulates: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved,” he says to Langston, and so Westly goes to the front of the church. And he is saved.

Music & JFK's Legacy Print E-mail

artblog barber with the kennedys 800x450(Written for WQXR, NYC's Classical Radio Station May 24, 2017)

If we include in an overview of JFK’s classical musical legacy, those compositional masterpieces that honored him after his death, two pieces jump out of the field for me: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Mass was commissioned by his wife, Jackie, to open the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. Bernstein used the venue’s function—performance—literally: he stitched together a transmedial work that combined the best of Brahms’ German Requiem, The Who’s Tommy, and his own Candide.

What I Am Not Yet, I Am Print E-mail

st.-augustine-of-hippo-icon-full-of-grace-and-truth-excerpt-from-the-encomium-to-st-nicholas-pic(Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies April 1, 2017)

The first person in Western literature to write his spiritual journey is Augustine (354-430 CE), author of Confessions, (399). In this Christian autobiography, he testifies to what he knows and to what he’s been instructed by God he should know. Writing in Latin, Augustine tells the struggle between his self (bad) and his soul (good), which, he believes, mirrors the physical wounds Christ’s endured. (Christ’s self and soul were both good.) When I read Augustine, I see that his selfish choices have been so immoral and his soul so scarred that he is in danger of losing God’s grace, in danger of forgoing Heaven. These dangers are not abstract, not mere Christian principle. No, they are real, and they take place in each individual’s sinful life. Who among the growing Christian population can confess to such a sinful life? Augustine volunteers, as it were. Speaking and writing wholly for himself, he attests to his failure to live up to the virtues God commands of him, commands that all but Christ fail to uphold. But still one must try to redeem oneself by declaring and overcoming one’s sins. No small task, Augustine knows what he should do: convert, confess, renounce all competing beliefs, and receive the Holy Spirit. He must bear this news for everyone to read. Thus, if he proves himself worthy—in life and in writing—he will be saved, he will gain eternal life. Augustine must ask this not of God but of himself.

What It Was My Father Came Here to Get Away From Print E-mail

Dad Pre-War(River Teeth 18.2 Spring, 2017)

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As early as I can remember, my father hated Catholics. Actually, he despised all religious people. He called believers hypocrites; priests and pastors, pimps. He rarely spoke of this enmity or, for that matter, much else personal, including his years aboard a Pacific Ocean supply ship during the Second World War. “Hurry up and wait,” he told my brothers and me. That was the only combat he faced. No story bayoneting Japs ever emerged. Maybe, contrary to my comic-book idea of war then, there wasn’t any. So, when he unloaded on religion, I was piqued by the sibilant sounds of those scandalous words, hypocrites and pimps, and the frosty certainty with which he iced his dismissal.

His disdain for God’s henchmen on earth began and ended with two betrayals—one, his body, the other, his soul, though he would have denied the latter had any substance left. Born in 1914, in Evanston, Illinois, he was given up at birth, probably by immigrants, a Bohemian mother and a Swedish father. That day, he was adopted by the childless Larsons, (another) Swedish father who was irascible and belt-prone and an English mother who cradled the baby to daily mass. They named him John Joseph Milton, the first two referencing Jesus, the third an artistic aspiration. My mother said Dad figured out long before he asked them about his adoption that he wasn’t theirs—what gave it away was his swarthy skin and his inborn suspiciousness.

Through the Veil One Sees: On Richard Selzer Print E-mail


(AWP Panel on Narrative Medicine, February 9, 2017)

On the surface, the doctor and the surgeon appear to be equals. Both help the body heal based on a patient’s symptoms. Both know that physical pain creates psychic stress. Both seek a cause of an illness, working from clues garnered via observation, medical history, complaints, tests, and the physician’s intuition. At times, a patient’s problem is obvious, skin-deep. Other times, the problem is multilayered, elusive.

Here, doctor and surgeon part company, where doctor defers to surgeon who will, knife in hand, uncover the culpable agent, not on the body or in the mind but inside the body where the mire lies. The doctor sends you for tests and the lab techs, post-diagnosis, send you to the surgeon to slice the Thanksgiving turkey with laser, laprascope, or blade.

On Cezanne's "The Card Players" Print E-mail

Cezanne The Card Players Barnes(Written February 4, 2016)

Not long ago, in Philadelphia’s Barnes’ Foundation, I sat then stood long with Paul Cezanne’s monumental, “The Card Players.” (This rendition is the most complicated and multi-involved of the series of five “Card Players” he painted in the 1890s.) It’s a mesmerizing work where paint, texture, composition, and pose are equals—three burly men around a table, cards in hands, another man with pipe looking on, a fifth, a feminine boy, his eyes downcast, echoing and softening each man’s self-absorption. A man and a boy not watching but witnessing the huddle of the three. (A painting whose witnesses—us—are portrayed within.)

On the Best American Essays 1995: Man Versus Boy Print E-mail

m7781-spiderman-spiderboy(Essay Daily December 16, 2015)

The surprise? That I single out the male authors. That I count twenty authors total, thirteen men. That my distaste is palpable. Find them sexist, show-off-y, self-infatuated. Was unprepared for such a response. In me. What the passage of twenty years since I first read these pieces can do. It’s the self-righteousness that’s so bothersome. The wooliness of having put it behind me or I have no doubts so no reflection turns the bearing as though the past were father to the man. How glossily several calibrate their inner Brett Easton Ellis in whom the boy demands—be he PFC, rookie, deckhand, red-shirt—to ring the remembrance.

What I mean is. John Turturro in Barton Fink. Michael Keaton in Birdman. The boy in the man who is ever what he was. Who LP’s Sticky Fingers or Blonde on Blonde with unclogged reverence. Boys in men other men admire. Who reel highlights, who wash-and-wield a Buick 6, who used to be, if not are, some woman’s used-to-be. Those literary varietals—the stooge incarnate or the male ingénue. Whose sense of self comes at the boy’s behest.

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