A letter to a friend from exile

The Flayed Ox. Chagall

Dear friend,

At long last I write back. Forgive the delay.

You ask, “What are you thinking lately?” To be honest, I feel my capacity to think about much in recent days has been greatly diminished. I’ve gotten overwhelmed by the numbing, unchanging situation that has hung on and on like a fog that just won’t dissipate.

We, the public, are being treated to something we rarely witness: the process of scientific discovery — or as one of my readers calls it, “the making of the sausage” — as we learn about this particular novel virus and try to develop therapeutic and preventative remedies for it. Heavens, this process is slow! And I fear a sizable portion of the American people don’t have the patience for it. Even now, still fairly early in the process, the air is filled with false information, looney conspiracy theories, wild speculations, ignorant claims, angry rants, and partisan cheerleading. People are raising huge stinks over the smallest, most innocuous common sense issues (masks, seriously?). Good people, like Dr. Fauci and other public health officials, are not only being slandered, but are receiving regular death threats. I have good friends I’ve known for years with whom I can’t talk anymore, family members who blame George Soros, Bill Gates, and nefarious deep state actors, believing the pandemic is a hoax and a conspiracy.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter much what I think about what’s going on. There is so much noise and dust and interference that my voice seems like a whisper in a whirlwind. So I go about my business, visit my patients, try to keep in touch with the family, work in the yard, and struggle with ennui, malaise, and weariness.

I’ve concluded that I live in the wrong country for this kind of problem. Imagine it, we’re now the pandemic pariah of the world. The U.S. is too big, too complex, too divided, and too libertarian and individualistic to process this well in real time with patience and mutual cooperation.

I myself am not as concerned about getting the virus myself, but what I am worried about is the effect on our life’s infrastructure, especially if we have a surge this fall in conjunction with flu season. I worry about my health network not being able to sustain its level of employment and cutting jobs. I worry about my grandkids not being able to go to school, and the adverse effects this will have on them and also on their parents and their work. I worry about my grandson who is a senior this year not being able to play football and missing out on many other facets of his senior year and the impact that will have on his future as he enters adulthood. I worry about the elections this fall and the chaos that could ensue if all this affects them adversely. And if Trump is reelected, I dream of moving to Scandanavia, but no one wants Americans traveling to their countries these days. I worry that, even if we get a vaccine, it will take a long time, and it won’t be as effective as we hope. Frankly, I’m a bundle of anxieties at this time and I don’t like it.

What a downer I am! Sorry about that, but I appreciate a friend to whom I can say these things.

These are the days for lamenting and carrying on as best as possible in exile.


• • •

A note on today’s art

“Flayed Ox,” by Marc Chagall (1947)

“…nothing quite matches the savage impact of ‘The Flayed Ox,’ 1947. It depicts a butchered ox hanging from a crossbar and may refer back to Chagall’s childhood visits to his grandfather, a ritual slaughterer. He began work on this painting in 1929. At that time it was seen as a premonition of the political and personal unrest he felt in the Soviet Union. Reworked after the war, Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager calls it “a self-portrait as a crucified cow, the carcass crimson and vermillion against a night shtetl scene: an expression of his fears for a Europe in which his art was inextricably rooted.” (The Artful Traveler: Chagall’s Years of War and Exile)

12 thoughts on “A letter to a friend from exile

  1. Speaking of the art above, I went into my cousins butcher shop in Ireland and there was a lamb hanging from the ceiling, skinned. The head, also skinned, was on a table. That was every day at his house, which essentially was the butcher shop. The lamb was bigger and bulkier than I guessed it would be. There were remnants of blood on the floor. It was a raw scene that I don’t see, ever. That reminds me of what we are seeing now. The more you follow the situation on the news and in social media, the more numbed and overwhelmed you become. It’s like you just saw a skinned and gutted lamb hanging from the ceiling and that’s just regular. It’s regular for some people but when you’re not used to it, it’s just downright strange. These are strange days. Really strange.


  2. I find a https://internetmonk.com/archive/92606?replytocom=1154997#respondlot to like in the sidebar article you provided the link for, but this, “Finally, we must encourage each brother, each sister to not lament or complain about what has been lost,” I think is just wrong. There is nothing wrong with lamenting loss, especially at this early date when it is not certain what has and hasn’t been lost, and we are in fact in an immense, dark, unsearchable liminal space, going we know-not-where. And even if we are leaving nothing behind but that which is unworthy — and that is surely not the case — it is human to lament loss of even the most tawdry realities and dreams. That’s what a lot of Bruce Springsteen songs are about: lamenting the loss of tawdry dreams that nevertheless had value because the people whose dreams they were have value.


  3. From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own two feet.

    The words that his abbot friend sent via messenger back to Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche in reply to the latter’s query regarding what they should do in the wake of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, and the destruction of their traditional Tibetan Buddhist society, institutions, and way of life, as related by Thomas Merton in a talk he gave in Bangkok before a conference of international monastics on the last day of his life just a few hours before he died. For those of us who can no longer stand, either on our own or with others, we will necessarily sit still or lay prone on the road, waiting for the Samaritan Christ who walks every abandoned road, and rescues every stricken traveler.


  4. Thank you for your words, Chaplain Mike.

    A couple of weeks ago, I was reading some Nouwen and he was talking about how in God’s absence we still learn a bit about his presence. I was really caught by that, as I have been experiencing much of God’s “absence”. While I might ponder the absence of God from a more collective front, I also continue to think through this for myself. I have never encountered panic attacks in my life before Covid, but have now been experiencing them more than I can count (due also to some other things, along with Covid anxiety). Last week I went on anxiety meds for the first time in my life. At times, I am simply putting one step in front of the other. I long for his presence to be real again.


  5. The parts of the [Protestant] Bible that are written in Aramaic have always held a fascination for me; a verse in Jeremiah, the inclusion of some documents in Ezra, the chimera that is the book of Daniel. All of these fragments resulted from the Exile experience of the Jews after the extinction of the Davidic monarchy. That had to be a hard time for them, but in a sense it represented the first cracking of the Semitic egg so that the divine Yolk could be offered to the world.

    It is always the same way; you are comfortable and at ease, all your needs are provided for. Then comes a constricting and a pressure, and you are thrust into a noisy, confusing, but wider world. Ye must be born again, of water and the Spirit. We Americans think we’re the center of the world, and if we miss a bus or have to reschedule a meeting, its the Apocalypse. There are some people who appear to be adjusting well to the pandemic, who see the opportunity to move beyond exile to a new way of living. There is an article on the IM sideboard I would recommend to everyone. It gives me hope.

    What I am sorely tired of are the bromides of both the online left and the online right, the former pleading for (armed, if necessary) ‘liberation’ and their Manichean counterparts howling for (armed, if necessary) , ‘restoration of order’ and of course, the self-serving opportunists who thrive on chaos.


  6. “These are the days for lamenting and carrying on as best as possible in exile.”

    Which is something else we Americans are not well suited for, given our cultural inclinations towards success and constant improvement.


  7. Mike
    I feel your anxieties
    I feel the same in many ways
    It is very difficult to see our world , our country that we are privileged to
    Live in go through the pandemic
    Our lives depend on our childlike faith and our trust in the Lord hand to bring us through
    Grief is natural and your grief is heard
    Prayers to you and family


  8. thank you for this post, Chaplain Mike

    it is ‘a time to mourn’ for many of us, in more ways than one, sadly


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