Monday, October 6, 2014

The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy
COP is a very thin little book, written in Latin, part rhyming metered poetry and part prose.  The translation I ultimately read is by H. R. James 1897.  This is the story of how I discovered The Consolation of Philosophy many years ago.

It would have been sometime around 1992 (I was 34 then) when I was cleaning for the parents of a friend I had met when I was 21, dropped out of college and living in Wilmont Apartments.  

 I did not discover the book in their house but in the neighbors’ house who also hired me.  Both couples were older and had been retired for several years.  I was cleaning for Brad’s parents because his mother was dying of cancer of the colon.  I had been cleaning for several months, not realizing how close Mrs. Joyce was to the end of her life, until a few weeks before she died.  Brad and I were close, I had known him when he was struggling with the mockery of closeted gay friends in high school.  My roommate, who had been divorced by her parents, yes, that is the way they framed kicking her out, they said parents could divorce children just like they can divorce each other, she had been sneaking out in the middle of the night, skipping school and generally behaving like a teenager that could not wait to get out in the world so they sent her out into the world!  And she got a job at Reader’s Corner and rented an apartment across the street, with me!  I had dropped out of engineering school at state and was taking a class in Latin, I joked that I was going to be the first female priest, but dropped the class after a month or so.  We were both openly gay and looking to live with someone who did not find that offensive.

Karen was a serious musician, a fairly serious student and a very serious partier.  She also courted the homecoming queen of her high school; a young lesbian in love with a straight cheerleader.  Brad was one of Karen’s many friends that spent time at the apartment.  We remained friends after Karen reunited with her parents and went to live with them when they moved to DC.

Brad was a dancer and also a very serious student.  He was taking calculus and history classes at State to get a jump on his college credits.  He had been taking dancing lessons since childhood.  I don’t remember the story of how he got started, maybe through theater, because his parents though not at all discouraging were a bit mystified at his passion.  Brad had a great sense of humor about himself and life in general, and no illusions.  He had a critical but open mind.  I was really shocked one day when he called upset about gay ridicule from a campy closeted fellow student.  I had no idea Brad was gay, it didn’t seem to matter in that crowd, and he just never had shown an interest in romance anyway. 

Face value MP, face value.  If you have private stuff, so do others.  Well that day he let me in on his private stuff and from then on we were close friends.  He got over the ridicule pretty quickly, but then came out, went to a gay bar and immediately fell in love and was spurned.  So there was another heart break, to help put the forgotten ridicule in perspective.  He was easy to be friends with because he just plunged into his work or study and churned on through the loss. 
I refer to Brad in the past tense because we have lost touch after so many years and also I am not using his real name.  But back to his parents.  They hired me when Mrs. Joyce was in the last 6 months of her life.  I was so busy getting to know his Mom and Dad better, catching up on Brad’s years since going off to college and teaching and grad school, and of course cleaning the house, that I did not get that Brad’s Mom was going to die soon.  One day when he was talking about all the research he did on the different types of cancer and how he was preparing any tempting dish he could think of to coax his Mom into eating, it dawned on me that she was not going to survive the illness.  I asked him about the hope that seemed to pervade every aspect of the family interactions.  There was nothing fake or delusional about it.  They all behaved as though the struggle to survive was winnable.

He knew exactly what I meant.  We were both atheists and had no ideas of an afterlife.  There was nothing romantic about the situation.  The bad history between the kids was being churned up and they were bound to slog through it.  And the Mom and Dad were two really cool people.  It was going to be a big loss.  The Dad was in the middle of remodeling a section of the house and Brad said he was having a lot of trouble concentrating on the tasks.  They were functioning, they were hoping, but they all knew they were on the way to losing an amazing Mom.

Brad said when someone is dying you have hope because it is the only way you can keep going.  He said they couldn’t help but operate as though their Mom would beat the disease.  I can’t remember why he thought that was the case, just that he acknowledged how unrealistic it seemed on the surface.  This prompted him to talk about how he wished he could believe in the kind of afterlife that his parents and siblings believed in.  He felt left out, but could not relate to their views of heaven or reincarnation.  I look back and realize he was articulating how isolated it feels to not share the beliefs held in common by people you love.

I think I did not start cleaning for the Howards till months after Mrs. Joyce died.  I can’t remember.  Mrs. Howard was a tiny little retired English teacher and worked as a volunteer at the local hospital.  Early on she told the story of how she, Mrs. Howard had been picked up and rushed to the hospital with what turned out to be a brain tumor.  I’m not sure if I remember that right.  It was something very sudden and serious.  She said when she recovered Mrs. Joyce talked about how panicked she was when she saw her closest friend and next door neighbor being carried off, that she was out of her mind with the thought that she might never see her friend alive again.  Mrs. Howard was turning over the irony of how things ultimately turned out, that the one in the ambulance would be the one left behind grieving for her friend.

But Mrs. Joyce dying was just the most recent loss for Mrs. Howard.  Her only son was one of the first people in the US to die of AIDS.  It took a while before we started talking about that, the story of how she journeyed to the northern state where he had lived for years, and cared for him in a special home for the dying.  She described pulling his wheelchair up a set of stairs every night after long days at the hospital for treatment and falling asleep exhausted.  She was never emotional or self pitying, but she was willing to tell the story. 

At the time I could not understand something that suddenly comes to me.  I would read the church bulletin laying on their porch or kitchen table and feel really angry at some of the propaganda against homosexuality and the sins of the gay ‘lifestyle’.  Mrs. Howard may have finally told the story of caring for her son when I asked about the bulletin.  I never came right out and asked how she could stand being a member of a church that spoke as they did about gays.  I did not feel that I could use the same language with her that I used among friends.  In the conversations about her son we never used the word gay or homosexual.  The discussion was very circumspect.  But I asked something hoping maybe the judgments in the bulletin did not reflect the local parish.  It pissed me off to think of her surrounded by people with the opinions outlined in that bulletin.

All I ever got was the story of caring for her 40 something year old son in the last months of his life and that she donated flowers to the church every year on the anniversary of his death.  It suddenly occurs to me that that was her very powerful statement to the congregation.  She was a very positive, service oriented, modest woman.  She was happiest talking about visits with the new child of a couple very close to the family.  When my son was born and I tried bringing him to work she played with him and had him laughing so hard I wished he could be with her every day.

That was so many years ago, I don’t even know if Mrs. Howard is still alive.  I have not kept in touch with Brad, his family or the Howards.

After their son had grown and gone off in the world the Howards began sleeping and spending their leisure time down in the basement where the temperature was most comfortable.  It looked like it would have been the son’s hang out area as a teen.  He was older than Brad and had gone off to college when Brad was still young so Brad did not know a whole lot about him.  The family library was downstairs and there were also at least 9 photos of the Howards’ son from infancy to high school, all in a row showing the changes in his face from youth to adulthood.  Boy did I look a lot at those photos. 

And of course I looked at the books.  That was where I found “The Consolation of Philosophy.”  It was a really skinny book.  I took it off the shelf and brought it home with me.  I can’t even remember if I asked.  I kept it for 6 weeks and brought it back when it became evident I would not be able to concentrate on it.  But I had read enough about Boethius that I knew he was in prison when he wrote it and was ultimately tortured and killed.  I also got that he was a well respected official in the government of Theodiric.

It wasn’t till many years later that I found a translation of COP on the internet, with plenty of annotations illuminating the unfamiliar cultural references, and I was finally able to make sense of it.  Boethius is said to have been one of the few Romans of that time who read and wrote in Greek.  He had plans of writing a work about astrology, which in those days was still a branch of higher learning even though in popular culture it had been watered down and debased for centuries.  When I had gotten all I could from astrology books and felt there was still something missing I kept going back in time, as far back as Ptolemy’s “Tetrabiblos,” and still felt there was a key waiting to be found.  That key was Consolation of Philosophy.

What COP and Timeaus (Plato) do that I think a lot of pop astrology misses, is treat time as the unfolding, or opening out into manifested parts, of unity.  Neither Boethius nor Plato ever use the word astrology or astronomy.  They speak of time as the motion of the planets- as the visible, tangible unfolding of some first cause that never dies, is unborn, and so inconceivable to us, but never the less the source of our existence.  They speak of the philosophy of time and so the philosophy of astrology.  The Consolation of Philosophy became my philosopher’s stone.

It wasn’t the only book that helped me understand how astrology works, but it was the first that brought it all together. Eventually there were other ancient works that spoke of time, the movements of the planets and the unity of existence and I continue to study them all to deepen that understanding.  The Consolation of Philosophy has a special place for me and I feature it throughout this blog.  I will always associate it with two very courageous families that stood with quiet dignity behind their sons when their surrounding communities’ message was to hide in shame.  They were good examples for me of how families make it through really tough times.  They were a lot like Boethius the author of The Consolation of Philosophy.