Saturday, March 17, 2018

monastic mirth

In cold January rain—
which will soon turn to snow—
in Pacific Northwest damp,
three pilgrims and one monk,
named for the inventor of the question mark,
gather around illuminated writings,
shared awe bursting into
uncontained, unconfined, unedited
Spilling out their lungs uncontrollably,
filling the small vault,
peals of joy crossing the divides
between man and woman
monk and lay
student and teacher.
Common being discovered
in one event of communion,
one joy, shared.

My face is contorted into folds
of that deep laughter that springs
up from our deepest wells,
and holds us paralyzed,
in its convulsions.
The monk removes his white gloves—
for handling delicate matters
like kid and vellum—
and wipes tears of mirth
from his eyes.
We let the peals exhaust themselves,
stray quiet laughs hiccup out of us.
We resume our business of examining
ancient illuminations and antique coins.
But our eyes twinkle with one common joy.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Beatrice's a Selfie

Scusa, signore, dov'è la Via Appia Nuova?
I interrupt each face of Christ,
who turns,
her shoulders weighed down,
his bearing a cross,
Quo Vadis?
My poor Italian masks
the tears which burst their dams.

I do not know where I am running,
but you promised you would be there.
As you walk up a Via Appia Antica,
couldn't you just do me the courtesy
of pointing out some other way?

Scusa, scusa, scusa.
His face wrinkled,
Her brows furrowed,
something about the question
is befuddling.

I have just enough Italian to understand
sinistra and destra.
Between those and
I piece together the road home.
I am always getting lost.
And can never find the Tiber.
Each morning run's a wager.
Home is an Air BnB which smells of cats,
littered with dolls—
no joke—in cradles.

This can't be the way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

due kodak momenti

Technology's a funny thing. You want just enough of it to make things comfortable, and just little enough of it to make things challenging.
I moved not to carry a smartphone with me on this trip to Rome, because, well, if I did it five years ago without a smartphone, why should I need one now? Also, I have zero plans to leave the city, so we'll just do some old-fashion map-following, I figured.

The only snag is how to take pictures. First of all, picture-taking was not optional, since I had to take pictures of myself for grant-report purposes. Second of all, I realized I wanted to take photos. The urge to take pictures is not one I feel often, but as I walked out of the Lateran underneath a gentle pink sunset, I wished for something to capture the moment. Third of all: I could put myself at the mercy of my fellow-travelers with iPhones but I am generally always making myself dependent upon the Uber-wielding, GPS-equipped, data-plan-carrying members of any travel group, and I wanted to find a solution on my own. Because the blood of prairie homesteaders flows through my veins, and they would roll over in their graves like tumbleweeds on Texas interstates to think that their pansy descendent couldn't figure out how to take a single darn photograph in Rome all on her lonesome.

Thus, I was left with one option (there were many other options, but I am but one woman, with limited time and limited energy, so I decided I would only pursue one option, as focusing my limited energies meant a higher chance of success in that one mission): to find a disposable Kodak camera. Remember disposable Kodak cameras? I think I used one last in 2003. Nevertheless, the thought that maybe I wouldn't find a single store carrying them never crossed my mind. One of my fellow choir members had used one back on choir tour here in 2012, so his luddite witness from six years ago convinced me that my plan was not only feasible, it was possible.

I stepped into corner store after corner store, browsing through grocery stores and in those strange knick-knack and plastic doo-dad stores. I stopped into chintzy tourist shops. I peeped into a Farmacia briefly. No dice. And certainly no cameras. A photography store right across from the Lateran opened its doors as I walked by. Surely that was a sign? I stopped inside. Scusa, signore, I stammered. Hai una camera Kodak disposable?

Nailed it.

The confused store proprietor did not have una camera Kodak disposable and he mostly didn't understand what the hell I was saying. Apparently his Italian is not advanced enough to understand "camera Kodak disposable" a rare gem of a phrase originating deep in Canto XXVI of the Purgatorio. Just as Shakespeare was out here in Britain teaching us all to bid good riddance to wild goose chases when we have seen better days, Dante was coining lots of modern Italian, too.

I turned tail, turned back to DuoLingo to brush up my Italian comprehensibility, and, like a villain from J.R.R. Tolkien: waited and watched.

Finally, on a sunny walk, I passed an unassuming store that featured not one but two i cameri Kodak disposabile in the window! I went inside and purchased two forthwith.

And I laughed, as I snapped a picture of the Colosseum in the shadow and a street sign in the sun, feeling just as I did as a kid in Colonial Williamsburg.

Providence means that whatever choice we make will be blessed. By something. Providence does not mean that there is a plan, providence just means there is a way. And the way is somewhat meant. We make the meaning, offer it up, and it is blest.

How funny that what we have been looking for can come out to meet us so easily. And in such superabundance.

Whatever way we choose can become blessed. With not one, but two cameras.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

One Southern Sunday

As I exit the gangway, the humid air of Atlanta’s atmosphere descends upon my face. This swampy Southern atmosphere is a wildly different ecosystem than the frigid North I left. Cigarette smoke wafts out of the open door of the smoking lounge and tints the atmosphere with nicotine smut.

The bathroom signs are lit up blue for boys and pink for girls, a vestige of a simple gender symbolism which even little Minnesota me finds jarring.

Replacing the tarry cloud of cigarettes, Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen pours the rich perfume of fried chicken into the concourse. The warm, crisp aroma brings a smile to my face. I lick my lips, trying to capture the scent which wreaths through the air.

If ya’ll don’t have it, don’t worry about it
Yer dayumn right.
Now ain’t that
The chorus of Southern language floats by me.

A shoeshine stand is cavernously empty. A man rests in the chair, soaking up the small air conditioning.

Everyone is walking at a languorous speed unknown to any Manhattan entity but the paint drying on the brownstone walls.

But the high speed train which runs between the concourses rushes like the subway on express. Step inside is to step into a higher speed of efficiency and a blast of freezing air-conditioning. An extreme reaction to the heavy heat outside.

The escalator advertisement cautions against wildlife crime, a clear sign this airport receives the global south, as the wildlife in Chicago are no more exotic than raccoons. The multilingual signs lend the airport a more international flair than most monoglot Midwestern terminals.

I try to read the Arabic words for “baggage claim” before they are replaced by Mandarin and Korean scripts. This morning, the Uber driver met my parting “shukran” with a reflexive “afwan,” and I thought of how this is language is supposed to function. A way of interacting with the world which is raw and pure, which is not problematized by translation. To learn a new language is to learn a different person’s mode of interaction with the world.

In the airport, you begin to expect new languages, so I begin to speak in a strange patois of English. Proper grammar is too unwieldy to be the lingua franca of the common markets of international exchange, so I begin to speak in fragments.

A lost man stares up at the sign for the women’s bathroom, looking for its counterpart. He stands opposite it, as it challenges him, Oedipus meeting the challenge of the Sphinx. I gesture towards the right:
I think, that way. Meeting his thoughts mid sentence, dropping the object of the sentence or any proper predicate, but still imagining my communication effective.

I think, that way. 

I sit down at the gate, next to a priest who is traveling to the Vatican. Small phrases of Italian are sprinkled around the terminal, and there are a few Brooklyn accents.

A boy has Scooby-Snack graham crackers in a Publix bag attached to his backpack as he travels with his nonna and papa. His skinny legs rise out of boat-like shoes.

I stop in the Interfaith Chapel, which is behind a large display case of Martin Luther King artifacts. It is bumping in the Interfaith Chapel this Sunday. Two women and a man pray in front of an enlarged image of the airport symbol of a person praying, framed by colorful mosaic tile—a self-referencing icon. There are a few bibles on the shelf above some prayer rugs. I pick up the King James New Testament in the back quickly for a word of inspiration. I open to Acts 23, in the thick of Paul’s adventures. A man appears at my elbow, also paying his respects to an unnamed God in this chapel-which-is-not-a-church.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? asks the irascible nun in the book I’m reading.

Yes, I reply to the silent pages of the book. Because spaces like these become sanctified by nothing more than the faith of those who enter them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Heidegger Waltz

Fidgeting like a sparrow,
swaying in the sunlight,
itching for movement,
colored amoeba of light
swirling below
David with his harp
on gold-plate relief
dance of distractibility,
offered liturgically,
pulled by perichoresis
pure being
in a sunbeam
in-a-Son being
innocent being
in our sins, being
being for gift
being for given
given our being
gift is our being,
being gift
for us
for the neighbor
for the near other
for the God
on the far side
of Other
who gives us
a being, not innocent,
but forgiven, even in
our sins—
pure gift.

Monday, March 5, 2018

theodicy's a joke and you’re the punchline

"Well, whatever God wants will happen," she simpered, smiling a saccharine-sweet syrupy smile I wanted to wipe off her face like a pancake.
Do you realize how many things happen each day which are not what God wants?
How can you trust that "things will go according to God's will," when, empirically, factually, and historically, they don't? 
Don't you know that there are women raped by strangers with machetes and by clueless frat boys crossfading at the bar? 
Don't you know there are children murdered in their schools? 
Car wrecks leave face's broken and bodies scarred and crippled for life? Children contract leukemia and women go blind at forty. Don't you know journalists, mothers, and small children who never harmed anyone are murdered in cold blood? I wondered, as I left the bar into the freezing rain of February which I was positive God had not willed the homeless crack addict to lie exposed to that night.

Adults learn to trust relationship who deserve them, who do not let them down. We can only learn who we can trust through others proving themselves trustworthy through time. Brené Brown calls these trustworthy friends "marble jar friends"—friends who prove themselves through very small actions, by saving seats for us, bringing us our favorite candy, saying hi to our parents,  offering us comfort, by reminding us of who we are—and I wondered: is God a marble jar friend?

In the face of all the evils of the world, and even the power of my own stubborn selfishness to make mistakes, to wound others, to enact a will which is not divine, it is very tempting to pin the blame on God. To say: I'll love you, but I for sure won't trust you. I'll love you, but I won't depend on you. Goodness, that would be silly. And foolish. Because I'll be disappointed. I'll forge my life into some desperately sculpted image of beauty without your help. Your help which you seem to withhold whenever you so desire.

"Not my will but yours be done" is the rock I dash my own prayers upon, hoping to break my will, making space for his to river through. But God doesn't keep up his end of the bargain. Your will, O Lord, seems to be thwarted by the sins of the many—others and my own. I try to turn my own will over to yours, and yet yours remains undone.

These self-pitying histrionics lead reductio ad absurdum to the question: Is God worthy of my trust?
Asking that question feels somewhat blasphemous, biting the hand which feeds me, maybe? Or cutting my legs out from underneath me. In the asking, it seems to answer itself. Who am I to imagine that Being is not worthy of Becoming's trust? I am a creature who demands so many necessities to survive: oxygen, water, sun, food. Contingent beggars can be choosers when it comes to their originating absolute. If I cannot trust the God who called me forth from dust, who has loved me into breathing, than what meaning does the word "trust" have left?

I was nowhere to be found when the foundations of the earth were laid. Surely you know it! the voice of God assures me, but I am utterly ignorant of the universe's dimensions (not my fault. It's constantly expanding). I did not lay the cornerstone of the cosmos in its place, and I have never heard the morning stars and angels sing together. I did not shut up the sea behind its doors, and set its boundary-line on the coast's shore. Dawn does not take my orders, nor even the eagle. And morning's origins, the springs of the sea, and the storehouses of snow and hail are closed to me. The horse got her strength from somewhere, but not from me; and if the hawk flew by my wisdom, she'd be led astray.

As I toy with the idea of posing the question: "can I trust God?" I am instantly filled with the shame which accompanies weakness as I think of the many humans who have endured objectively much worse hardships than I, and who are still able to smile sweet smiles and say, with Paul: "and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God." I wonder if the hearers of Paul's word knew that, and even more if they believed it. I wonder if the smile of absolute trust can only break open on your face once it has grown to hold all the pains and sorrows of the world. After listing all the reasons we have to abstain from laughter, only then is joy meaningful.

Perhaps trust has a transformative and salvific power all its own, logically inexplicable, yet nonetheless efficacious. Discouragement in the face of evil—the evil in our own hearts and in the world—is supremely natural. But trusting is woven in the fibers of our being, even in the face of evil. To say, in the midst of our own sin, depression, or hopelessness, surrounded by the violence which consumes schoolchildren, journalists, mothers of young children, and our own dignity:
“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted"

is trust, noun, 1. the only viable form of human existence yet discovered.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

undergoing God

Rather suddenly, the lights in this church fall to black. A dimmer falls with the speed of rain, and suddenly all is an enormous dark, a vision, I imagine, of Gerard Manley Hopkins' heart. A dark, voluminous cavern to rummage around in endlessly, searching for that light strangely pellucid and present in the midst of the murk.

Snapping my book shut, I genuflect mechanically in the direction of the Lourdes' mural, and turn my steps towards the baptismal font. I am interrupted on my path by an eager thurifer swinging his incense with vigor. The sweet steam of incense swells around the shimmering waters of the font, and wraps around me. I am bathed in an olfactory beauty.

The premature paschal candle parades past me, an irruption of clarity in the purifying darkness. The candle, whose brilliance is usually lost in the splendid, gilt colors of the basilica, radiates gloriously into the gloom. Over the course of twenty-six years, a lot of noise accumulates. It becomes much more difficult to be quiet. The sudden blackouts are perhaps necessary for our own ability to cultivate attentiveness. And peace.

In the crepuscular hush of vespers, I am—as I have so rarely found myself during the past two years of grad school—at rest.