18 December 2010

A New-Old Take on the name, "Immanuel"

One of my favorite books/podcasts is "Freakonomics." The authors, Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner have the perfect tagline: "The hidden side of everything."

One of my favorite books to study is the Bible. Yet no matter how many times I read it, I am constantly coming across the "hidden side" to stories that I have read or referenced all my life--facts that hide in plain site right there in the text.

Read a few verses before or after a text. Check one of the cross-references listed in the study Bible. Try to do both, and you you will be taken deep inside the culture; your eyes will be opened to the "hidden side."

For example, one of Christmas's most cherished quotes was first delivered beside a water pipe. No angels sang, no shepherds watched. A king was there, but he was none too happy with the Christmas message.

The king was Ahaz, father of Hezekiah, a king who divided his loyalties between Yahweh and King Tilgath-Pilesar of Assyria. The prophet, as we all know well was Isaiah, the proto-Christian voice of pre- and post-exilic Israel.

If you read biblical encounters of prophets and kings, you figure out the prophetic modus operandi pretty quickly. Prophetic visits aren't announced or arranged. The best encounters--Moses with Pharaoh, Elijah with Ahab, Nathan with David--occur when prophets just 'show up.'

And that's what Isaiah did one day in 735 B.C., surprising Ahaz as he inspected the pools of Jerusalem. Ahaz wasn't preparing for a message from God, he was preparing for war. The kingdoms of Israel (Ephraim) and Damascus (Aram) had united against Judah. Ahaz had done two things to secure his throne (neither of which involved prayer): he had requested aid from Assyria, the superpower, and he had fortified his defenses. The aqueducts, which brought water into Jerusalem's pools and fountains, would be among the first defenses to be attacked during a siege.

Driven by divine order, Isaiah took his son, "Remnant will Return" (you have to feel for offspring of prophets in the Bible--modern-day celebrities having no corner on bizarre baby names). Isaiah met Ahaz at one of the pools.

His message was benign: "[This invasion] will not take place, it will not happen," he told King Ahaz (Isaiah 7.7). Yet Ahaz didn't respond: no praise, no thanks, no offering...no worship.

Maybe he didn't hear Isaiah and his son. "Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz," the story continues, "Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights" (verses 10-11).

I imagine that Isaiah was pretty brusque at this stage. Ahaz had just been given a prophecy that would certainly seem to be "glad tidings of great joy." Peace in Judah had been confirmed by God.

Ahaz didn't want a sign. "I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test," I have things under control--thanks but no thanks.

This is pretty surprising, considering Ahaz's superstitions. Later his son, Hezekiah, would ask for a sign--the sun retreating down a sun dial. But Ahaz was in every way superstitious and pagan. For example he
  • carved Hezekiah's sun dial into the Temple steps, much to the dismay of God-fearers like Isaiah
  • erected two golden horses at the east-facing entrance to the temple, modeled on those harnessed by the sun god every morning
  • built a pagan altar inside the Temple, modeled on one he had seen on a royal visit to Assyria
To put it succinctly, he had most certainly put the Lord's mercy to the test.

Isaiah erupted--but his eruption ties in with the Christmas story. In the face of this vacillating, idolatrous king of Judah, Isaiah threw the Christ child.

Perhaps if this king didn't "get it" (and how many kings--or presidents--or representatives--ever really do), then a good king would come from the most unlikely of places.
"Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (7.14)
Before there was a Joseph or a Mary, before angels appeared to shepherds or a star lighted the way for wise men, there was a king, checking his water supply, who ignored some pretty good news from a very great prophet.

It's still pretty good news today.

10 December 2010

Getting Real about Persona

"I wish I were my persona." Billy Collins

The words really took me aback. I was in the auditorium at Nashville's Hume-Fogg Magnet School, where Collins had accepted an award from the Nashville Public Library. After about an hour reading his poems, he took questions. The first was about persona.

Collins has long been my favorite living American poet, and I have taught his poetry in my high school classes. My favorite is "We Are the Dead," a meditation on a Heaven where every religion meets its apogee, and every belief confronts its eternal application.

In all of his poems, he displays a wry persona: a person who is a viewer, not a doer.

For example, another favorite Collins poem is entitled, "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes." The title alone shows Collins's enlightened irreverence--as if any self-respecting English major would dare to entertain such a thought!
The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything--
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that Reason is a plank,
that Life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.
I loved that poem before I had met Collins. I caught the many references to different Dickinson poems. After listening to him read and talk for an hour, I was even convinced that Collins is just as funny in person as he is in his poems.

And then he had to tell me--he told the whole room actually--"I wish I were my persona." The thought just blew my mind. It really got me thinking, and it has taken a month for me to get my thoughts into place for writing it down.

As a writer, I have to admit that I've often struggled with my persona. Writing has always come easy to me, but I have to admit that--other than religious essays and sermons--the other types of writing, short stories, poetry, have been hard to come by. I struggle to master the basic forms of character and plot, yet I come out with stuff that isn't memorable--or worthy of publishing.

That's not to say that I don't know anything about persona. I have a persona named "The Lover" who lives with Jenny George here in my house in Dittessee. This persona can't stop complimenting her, he speaks in a variety of foreign accents. He spontaneously breaks into a song that begins with the line, "I'm in love with a woman..." He engages charming sons in daily battles for Jenny's affections.

"The Lover" isn't me. He is a persona that I'm able to turn on when I'm turned on by my bride. When the kids aren't around, or we're talking about something important, the "real" JD engages with Jenny George. Sometimes, Jenny gets sick of "The Lover" and tells me to knock it off.

When I look at other teachers at my school, I see many who enthusiastically embrace a teaching persona. Mike, a vice principal at my school, roams the halls like a bulldog, glaring at kids who linger. "What do you think you're doing?" he will bark, or "Where are you supposed to be?"

Yet here's the thing about Mike. He's one of the most compassionate, caring administrators I have ever worked with. He genuinely loves the kids at my school, and he makes sacrifices to help them succeed. He has the "hallway" persona down pat, but he has the real Mike, also.

I'm jealous of Mike. I've never mastered the discipline game. I teach straight--as "James Dittes," and I have to put up with a lot of disrespect and silliness that a bulldog-type persona wouldn't see.

I have come close to a teaching persona--and I may just yet adopt one. Last summer, I was encouraged by a friend to set up a Twitter account to promote my magazine sales site, Mags4Kids. On a whim, I chose the Twitter handle, "Father_Ahab." One of the highlights of the semester--for my American Literature students and for me--is the week we spend reading Moby Dick and sailing with Ahab into the jaws of doom. During that week, I get to talk like a pirate (when I read Ahab's lines), I act a little crazy, and the kids really get into it. Then I move into Thoreau and Emerson and quickly shed the persona.

For a few weeks, I had so much fun thinking about Father_Ahab. He was a dad, like me, and he was obsessed with goals--again, like me. I scanned the book, looking for quotes that I could turn into Twitter posts. For example, "Toward thee I roll...Chattanooga, Tennessee," or "Call me sleepy, too many late nights reading Moby Dick!"

While I had fun with the feed, and I added a lot of followers in the first few weeks, it made no sense to my friends. One suggested that I change it to Mags4Kids, and I did. I posted a few items about kids' magazines, then I gave up. I just couldn't think of anything to write. Without a persona, I was wordless.

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if this might be the problem behind my failure to really gain traction as a writer. I need a persona. I mean, just think about the way that Samuel Clemons was able to fill the persona of Mark Twain--the hair, the suit, the sense of wit. He never said, "I wish I were my persona." Maybe that's because Clemons eventually became his.

I think of my favorite author, John Steinbeck, how he was able to embody his outrage and channel it into great literature. Children's books are full of personae: Lemony Snicket, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, to name a few.

What I need, more than a story to tell, is a persona through whom to tell it. I have a cool pen name that I developed for a manuscript I wrote several years ago. It's Titus James. It's a cool name, a reversal of my first name and the Roman origin of my last name.

Perhaps what I've learned from Billy Collins and from the teachers around me, is that I need to invest some time to develop Titus--get to know him, write through his persona. Either that, or I need to reinvest Father Ahab the Road Warrior or some other persona that embodies and expresses all the ideas that are just ready to burst out of me!