There is nothing to forgive


Graciously look upon Thy servant, humble and lowly at Thy door, with the glances of the eye of Thy mercy, and immerse him in the Ocean of Thine eternal grace. — Abdul-Baha

Today is the second anniversary of your suicide, and somehow, it has come easier — not because there is less to say, less to feel; no, quite the contrary, because there is too much, and all of it so beautiful.

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The eternal conversation

Louise, I went as fast as I could. You were drawing your final, heavy breaths, while I was drawing ancient, arcane syllogisms. This was our last chance to speak together in this life. We understood that all too well, and so I hurried, disentangled myself from logic and leapt across the ocean. Yet, in the end, we missed each other. I could not shake loose the tethers quickly enough, and your last smoky breath slipped away.

Humanity often ponders over her mortality, and she thinks she knows “all too well” the deep link between the material and the temporal. She doesn’t, not really. Aristotle and Einstein, though, they were individuals who did truly understand: time is matter. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains them best, writing, “This state of motion is said to be essential–that is, natural; it cannot be separated from beings because it is their essential requirement, as it is the essential requirement of fire to burn.”

We can think of this two ways, first, that existence and motion are co-extensive, quite quantumly and ontologically so. We sat beside each other at the Pesach table, Louise, as we frequently did, and yet all along we were also speeding past one another. Descartes saw the truth but could not bear it, that proximity is real at only one level of understanding and experience; at another, we are constituted of nomadic existents, and so we journey in unseen lands.

Or, second, as Bahá’u’lláh has written, that fate is of two varieties, one irrevocable, the other revocable by divine decree, that is, in response to prayer and entreaty. In this life, we are marked by a tantalizing and terrifying obscurity, for we can never know with certainty which of these might constitute any given event. The author who pens our story loves us dearly and adheres as best He can to the contours of our innermost narratives, yet He still has a plot to maintain, as well.

These two interpretations intersect for me in you, Louise, my aunt, the grandmother I never had. And in that junction, this summation by Bahá’u’lláh solemnly speaks true: “Thou hast committed into mine hands a trust from Thee, and hast now according to the good-pleasure of Thy Will called it back to Thyself. It is not for me, who am a handmaid of Thine, to say, whence is this to me or wherefore hath it happened, inasmuch as Thou art glorified in all Thine acts, and art to be obeyed in Thy decree.”

Thus, with your passing, I understand a little more, and I also understand a little less. Hegel would simply smile and nod, I’m sure. Yet, through the shifting mists of insight and confusion, things unsaid, things that only you and I, as the professional philosophers of the Schwartz clan, could share and love, begin to echo through.

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Waiting for the kingdom of the impossible

This day will always have a double-meaning for me. On one side of the Atlantic, it means deliverance and celebration; on another side, disappointment and sadness, and yet, also something subtly more, something leavened.

A year ago today, at this very moment, you were making your final dance on earth. Not long after, I wrote,

Perhaps, then, faith is perseverance in the face of the empirical, the exaltation of the word over the fact.  It says: here lies a body, yet the person still lives.  Past the horizon of evidence lies the kingdom of the impossible; under decaying molecules and fading memories hides the immortal.

I don’t believe you’re gone.  Somewhere, somehow, beyond the reach of time and the sorrow of flesh, you still dance.  And even in death we continue talking: I still haven’t learned how to pronounce the Flemish “uu” or “ui”, and you still challenge me to be my better self.

Now that a year has gone by, what do I think, what do I feel?

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Hades is Terra, Terra is Hades

Phenomenal and the nouminal, potentiality and actuality, matter and spirit — the philosophers’ vocabulary of division and duality.  A picture emerges of duality, on the one side a physical world of where and when, on the other side a  dimension of nowhere, when and no-when.  Here is causality and motion; there, well, a non-there.  The two have nothing to do with each other.  Let Hades be; we’ll busy ourselves with Terra.

Or at least so we Moderns have long wanted to believe. Our researches into quantum mechanics increasingly seem to bend the philosophers’ hard distinctions to the breaking point.  To our horror, our concrete here is made of quarks and shadows.  We realize that Hades bestrides, enshrouds, and permeates Terra.  We wander the Elysian Fields now, in our offices, our classrooms, our bedrooms, our thoughts and dreams.

Does this mean that we are already dead and risen?  Have we already decomposed into the trace elements of silence?  And in the strings of quanta, intertwined in the great lattice of being, do we already exist forever?  Are we right now those strings, vibrating and trembling and singing beyond the reach of the microscopes of religion and the rituals of science?

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Finite eternities

Hryhorii Skovoroda believed that all of existence had two shades, namely, the extrinsic and the intrinsic.  So do I.  Consider the case of aspirations.  Ever since I was a child I have wanted to be a traveler, an author and scholar, and a lover.  I have wanted to see the world and to write something that would change it for the better.  Most of all, I have wanted someone with whom to share my quest.

By extrinsic measures I have already failed on all counts.  There are others my age or younger who have traversed entire continents, mastered innumerable languages, published their first novel, completed their doctorate, joined a prestigious news agency, and have coupled, perhaps even begun a family.  In the marathon of the world, I am at best an amateur contender, an “also-ran”.

By intrinsic measures, however, I have already succeeded on all counts.  I have managed to escape the prison of my homeland, published a relatively substantial journalistic oeuvre, and continue to struggle toward my doctorate.  I can say that for the occasional friend and colleague, I have been a positive influence.  Indeed, with my current job, I can even say that I am engaging in journalism at its truest.

And what of love?  The One still eludes me, and perhaps she always shall.  Indeed, frequently it seems that intimate solitude shall be my spouse, whether I want her to be or not.  Yet, the lovers I had were remarkable women, each one of them a facet of the One, or perhaps, in their own individual ways, Her true face.

I am coming to grips with the likelihood that my fate is obscurity and my legacy, at best, a footnote.  Upon my death, soon or eventual, some distant cemetery shall gain one more cheap headstone that shall speedily erode; my words shall quickly fade into dust or cybernetic oblivion; and my lovers, all of whom have already renounced me and moved on, may hear in the corridors of their hearts a faint echo of my voice from time to time, but nothing more.

Yet, were the grave to knock on my door this morning, I can look into its abyss and forget the extrinsic.  Remembering the intrinsic, I can say, “I saw, I wrote, I loved.”  I can say, “Within my life I have lived many lifetimes, each one a finite eternity.”  And I can say, “You do not frighten me, because I have already been dead.”

For Amy

“It’s fascinating to me (though of course sad) to see her through your eyes. It’ll probably be difficult for you to imagine, but I actually never saw that ‘quivering, incoherent,’ and naturally rather scary woman at all,” writes my friend and cousin Amy, daughter of Doris, in an e-mail to me.

“My kids might’ve, somewhat, but I think they grew up internalizing at least partly the way we, her own kids, saw her — as the person we’d known before, just hidden from us by shadow.  Which of us, I wonder, was laboring under illusion?”

I realized the other day, during a class on Malebranche, why I am so horrified by the Cartesians.  What was nearly lost with Descartes was a sense of the cosmos as a vastness invested with value, a universe not indifferent, as the Stoics and Cartesians viewed it, but as ultimately, if enigmatically, hospitable, as the Medievals viewed it.

Medievals, like the cosmologists of today, looked up at the night skies with their telescopes and their Aristotelian philosophical concepts of matter and forms and categories and saw not a gaping, abyssal maw.  No, amidst the vastness and the insignificance, they saw home.  And turning their lenses upon fragile human flesh they saw therein, too, a mirror of the rich, tapestry-like greatness around them.

They would say to you, Amy: yes, a shadow seized your mother, but you were not laboring under an illusion.  The shadow was the illusion, not the essence of your mother, and most of all, not your love for her.

Being beyond my own

This morning, while on the way to buy bread for my kitchen, first a car nearly collided headlong into my bike, then the side rear view mirror of a bus, passing far too close to me, nearly took off my head.  In both instances I was innocent.  The car driver and I made eye contact, but she persisted, and the bus driver, well, who knows what goes through their minds?  Yes, I was innocent, but the universe does not speak in such terms.

In light of my aunt Doris‘ death, as well as that of my friend Astrid‘s before her, I have been thinking a lot about my physical future, about survival.  The worry concerns more than the catastrophes that hunt each of us from around the corner, the irresponsible car and bus drivers of fate.  Doris’ disease was not inflicted upon her by another, but rather, by the treason of her body.  What predatory horrors lurk within my own flesh?

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Goodbye Doris

This past Friday, after a decades’ long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, my aunt-in-law, Doris, passed away in the company of her children. I never knew the dynamic woman who captured my uncle’s heart, and even as early as a child, I was bewildered, and not a little horrified, by the ruthlessness and enormity of her condition.

Of all the ethical unanswerables that characterized her life, I have faith that this much is certain: her suffering has finally ceased. What begins now for her, as it will inevitably for all of us, is a strange, new journey. Moreover, I have hope that all her years of struggle ultimately contributed to her spiritual progress in ways neither those of us who loved her nor she herself could calculate.

יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא

–Kaddish

I entreat Thee, fervently and tearfully, to cast upon Thy handmaiden who hath ascended unto Thee the glances of the Eye of Thy mercy. Robe her in the mantle of Thy grace, bright with the ornaments of the Celestial Paradise, and, sheltering her beneath the tree of Thy oneness, illumine her face with the lights of Thy mercy and compassion.

–Abdul-Baha

R.I.P. Mr. Grady: interview, “The Scope and Nature of University Education”

It is with a bemused pen that I report the passing of John Grady, the director of La Salle University‘s Honors Program. Rightfully considered a pioneer of honors programs among small liberal arts colleges, for 34 years Mr. Grady was a major influence on the careers and lives of hundreds of La Salle graduates — myself (proudly) included. As with the passing of Dr. Michael Kerlin, a professor whom I deeply loved, Mr. Grady’s abscence will take some time to fathom.

Other weblogs covering Mr. Grady’s passing:

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