To secure the services of foreign teachers, the Chengdu Foreign Languages School outfitted one of the apartments in its walled compound with “Western-style accomodations,” meaning, a flush toilet. It worked in the sense that, about a week after I was installed there along with another recent ASU graduate, we forgot the wolf spider who apparently lived behind the fuse box, and began to feel more or less at home.
One afternoon found us sitting in what we’d come to think of as our parlor, waxing fulsome over the cheapness of the knockoff Marlboros and the sweetness of the soy milk. “The only thing we need,” I said, pointing to a constellation of peanut shells that had been ground, somehow, into the carpet, “is a vacuum cleaner.”
An hour later there was a knock at the door. It was one of the school’s janitorial staff. She was holding one of those primitive floor cleaners that operates by force of hand — not quite a vacuum cleaner, but as close to one, we realized, as could be laid hold of easily. After she thrust it in our hands and marched off, we two Americans looked at each other wide-eyed, remarked very loudly and clearly that our hosts were very considerate, and spent the next ten months communicating in sign language.
Probably it was a coincidence. Even if electronic surveillance was then a Chinese specialty, speedy service was not. We were both new to the expatriate life and fresh out of Cold War childhoods, so we put it down to the cunning of the heathen Chinee. I relate this story now because, just a couple of days ago, another plea of mine — though unspoken, and barely half-formed — was answered with the same dizzying speed. Only now I’m tempted to credit God. That may be just as naïve, but it’s a lot more comforting.
Last Sunday morning, I watched that episode of In the Arena where Greg Kandra, Elizabeth Scalia and Dr. Pat McNamara discussed blogging and its merits. To support the argument that blogging represents a meaningful form of communication, Greg and Elizabeth each told about a longtime reader who had sought him out in a spiritual emergency. Greg had been contacted by a high school teacher, devastated since the recent death of a student; Elizabeth, by a Protestant minister who petitioned her to petition the Blessed Mother on behalf of his daughter. Both readers found a measure of comfort in their brief encounters.
It’s been my experience that more Protestants like the idea of the BVM as intercessor than will readily cop to it. (Marian shrines, I suspect, play the same role for non-Catholics as public men’s rooms play for certain married congressmen: what happens there is supposed to stay there.) Still, the fact that Elizabeth and Greg had been the objects of such confidences filled me with admiration, shame, and frankly, a little envy. My colleagues were using their blogs as apostolates, as vehicles for doing good. They had the skillz: Greg, his pastoral presence; Elizabeth, her hard-won earthy wisdom. One sees them as Lucy and Linus van Pelt, the one homilizing over a wretched Christmas tree, the other scowling under a shingle reading: “PSYCHIATRIC HELP: 5 CENTS.”
What had I done? Well, I’d tried my best to entertain and amuse people. In that, it seemed, I invited comparison to Snoopy — a hoot, for what that’s worth, but nobody you’d turn to in a crisis.
Several weeks earlier, two readers had left comments (which I’d lacked the guts not to delete), challenging my very right to blog. I was an aging rake, they’d said in so many words, a loser who’d never made it into the middle class or started a family. What wisdom could I possibly have to impart? Their malice was easier to dismiss than one of their underlying assumptions: bloggers should feel some responsibility, if not to speak to the concerns of a particular demographic group, then certainly to be something besides smartassed dilettantes. I wondered, frankly, whether the…oddness of the life I’d led might disqualify me from ever doing so.
It was in these brackish juices that I continued to stew until Monday morning, when a dialogue window suddenly appeared at the bottom of my Facebook page. It was from a reader who’d friended me shortly after I’d launched my blog. She was in the middle of an acute emotional emergency, and needed someone to vent to. This person is no social isolate; she has no end of friends, real or virtual. But none of them happened to be available at the moment, and it was the moment that counted.
She is one of those naturally good writers whose clear phrasing mirrors clear thinking, so my job was easy. All I had to do was listen actively, telling her from time to time that her feelings sounded completely normal, given the circumstances; that she was wise not to beat herself up, and resilient for not despairing. Forty-five minutes later, she wrapped up with something plucky and Scarlett O’Hara-like — maybe not “tomorrow is another day,” but along those lines.
It should be noted that, though this person and I had exchanged messages before, they’d touched strictly on shared intellectual interests — schismatic sects, for example. That morning, she was suffering the aftershock of a doomed affair of the heart. For her to share it with me required an enormous leap of faith. But I’m not sure she saw it that way. She’d never talked about her romances before, but she’d certainly read about mine — here, and in my Patheos column. Though I generally aimed at a comic, Jonathan Ames-type effect, I hope I am not giving myself too much credit when I suggest she spotted references to longing and failure and pain that struck her as real, and made her think I’d be a fit confidant.
In other words, there are some problems you’ll bring to a apologist for the Faith, some you’ll bring to a man in Holy Orders, and others still you’ll bring to a guy who writes about ethnic tensions on nudist beaches, or about getting stoned enough to eat Maryland blue crab with his hands.
Here I am blogging about blogging — meta-blogging, if you like. It’s exciting because this whole business of online social networking is so new, and evolving so quickly. Where man meets technology, where the will to connect meets the written word, there’s no guessing at the number of potential outccomes. For example, in Slate, Farhad Anjoo and Emily Yoffe debate whether one should send a thank-you PM after being friended on FB. One day, they may work their way around to stickier questions, like when is the proper time to bring up bad relationships. Even reduced to cyphers, like avatars and a few lines of text, humans persist in the quest to define and order themselves.
In any case, I shall take Monday’s answer to Sunday’s unspoken prayer — “Lord, make me useful” — as a reminder of St. Paul’s line about hands not being feet and eyes not being ears, but all parts belonging to the body nonetheless. I don’t pretend to know what part my own role corresponds to, but I would beg those two critics of mine not to disown me just because they’re a pair of gaping you-know-whats.