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Saints & Ain'ts


by Jeanine Hathaway

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” (Oscar Wilde)

In one morally neutral moment, a fresh line was drawn between past and future. I tripped backward and lost my balance. In breaking my fall, I broke my wrist. My left wrist, sinister in Latin. A few hours later, I was cast into an uncertain future, with painkillers. A few days later, I was scheduled for surgery, plate and screws. To prepare myself for that, I did what any American might: I watched videos. Single-handed, I could distract myself, put some distance between last week’s peace and tomorrow’s future: demons called Legion, called Fear, called What-If?

The Metropolitan Opera advertised its production of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” by posting a portion on youtube. So, heavy plaster cast in a sling, I turned up the volume on the final scene.

During the French Revolution when all things that smacked of religion were suspect, a convent of Carmelite nuns is faced with a choice. Disband and suffer uncertain consequences, or together in procession face the guillotine. By the last scene, as a choir the nuns chant the “Salve Regina.” One by one, the voices grow fewer as each woman climbs the stairs to her death, until there’s only one young voice still singing. Then whang! thud! It’s over.

There, weeping, I thought, catharsis. My nerve strengthened for the outpatient event, clean and apolitical. No saint, I’d go under a different kind of blade.

But anyone who’s been on youtube knows there’s always more. The sidebar of recommendations tempts a viewer to go on. And I was weepy, and my cast was heavy, my future too soon. Delay! Watch another. Without apparent forethought, my hand moved, perhaps by accident, as with a ouija board, or by some Carmelite’s gesture of compassion. Vulnerable, I got hooked by an old clip of Johnny Carson hosting Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters. In the flash of an instant, my tears sprang out of laughter. I could hardly keep up, their wit so quick.

Whatever concocted that connection—guillotined nuns and side-splitting comedians—the algorithm shot straight from Ecclesiastes. A time for both. Call it Artificial Intelligence at work, that artifice let me sleep well the night before I got put back together, ready for more of the neutral present where choice appears as if by accident.