Could you love God in a world without death? Teacher asked.
And we children shouted, a bristling forest of raised yearning arms. Yes! No! Depends!
We didn’t know the answer, or even the question, just wanted to be admired for alacrity, vehemence prompted by authority. Some of us took the opportunity to punch our neighbors, or, in our excitement, ourselves.
Yet we felt sorry for her. There were lines like a ledger stave ruled in her forehead, and the wan scuff mark a key might leave on the edge of a lock at the corner of her chapped lips. This morning one of the buttons on her gray blouse was open. How could that happen? No one had buttons like Teacher – huge sofa-buttons, the holes hidden by a scrim of fabric.
Come to think of it, one of her earrings was missing its Neiman Marcus pearl: just a dangling wire clasp.
D. Nurkse (aka Dennis Nurkse) is primarily a poet, which may explain why I was drawn to the language, first in the descriptions and details – a ledger stave, sofa buttons, a bedraggled earring – and then, by the geometry, including the almost symmetrical appearance of the word “authority” near the beginning and end of the piece. For what is God but the ultimate authority, and what is a teacher, to children, if not that same authority? Right down to children as authority to their pets: a hierarchy from God to amoeba.
The very short story/poem – not a prose-poem, exactly, but a story infused with poetic sensibility – takes place in what is presumably a classroom at a religious school, most likely Catholic, where the love of God is a given and all that’s left is to discuss the peripheral details. In a further show of symmetry, a paragraph right smack in the middle of the piece (this is my perversity: I talk about math in poetry classes, and I talk about poetry in math classes) sets the time as the winter of 1950-1951, when the momentum of the Korean war was going back-and-forth almost monthly. For those of us whose only experience of this particular war, long overshadowed by its bigger cousins WWII and Vietnam, was the TV series M*A*S*H, we see it from a child’s-eye view.
Teacher is herself a brave soldier, calling on the less enthusiastic and outspoken class members to recite, encouraging them, too, to consider the answer. And no one really has any idea, because what does third or fourth or fifth grade have to do with loving God, death or no death? But they’ll do everything they can to give the right answer, because that’s what authority is all about.
Then the hamster comes along and blows it all to hell:
Yet Teacher listened, leaning forward, with the attention of a patient when the doctor speaks. In the hush you could hear the constant ping of heat-pipes, teachers in higher classrooms, droning with a heart-stopping authority, and the squeak of the hamster’s wheel
Oil it! We said under our breath. Who knows why it never happened – Who skipped a day on the task chart, who was distracted, why that small trapped creature is still advancing, there in the darkest month, in the cage of a circular journey.
This is the essence of faith: to keep moving, even when the sun is shrinking every day. But what about that squeaking wheel? There’s a tendency to think of it as complaint – as in “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” – but here, it’s more of a signal of neglect.
And that’s where I see the story/poem coalescing: maybe God got a little shopworn himself back in the Days of the Prophets. He provided the hamster, and the cage, and the wheel, and then it became our responsibility to keep things oiled. If we’ve neglected to keep our part in the bargain, well, you can’t be surprised by the squeaking. And the hamster just keeps running in circles.
Can a hamster have a theology? Does it think of the squeak as evidence of God’s nonexistence, of his creative but ultimately impersonal nature, of the natural consequences of original hamster sin? Until we can speak Hamster, we have no idea what the hamster thinks of his squeaky wheel. And yet – and here’s where Jake Weber’s post on this story/poem shines as he dissects theodicy – we’re convinced our pets love us, as we love God. And we’re all just running around in the wheel, while maybe God’s losing his buttons and has tolerated the squeaking for so long, he doesn’t even hear it any more.