Saturday, July 21, 2018

Job to his coy lover

I have strained my back by loving you,
discovered sores 
on once fresh skin,
scar tissues tender routes,
mapping out the dermal road 
to nowhere. 

Bent over backwards,

and the oak leaves wind-rustled on the window,
I strain to hear your voice,
Listening for it on lonely mornings,
between the radio frequencies
in dense air
when the rain clouds fill the bay.

In the recesses of a stormy heart,
dark coves of rock under tempest waves,
I dive to find a pearl
(I am told)
of great price— 
the lake floor is

fistfuls of silent sand.

Each muscle's energy expended
straining towards you.
an irrefutable and unplumbable foundation.

No, I do not know
where celestial water
splashes on atmospheric floodgates.

I get it—
the mysteries of mountain goats
and habits of wild horses 
are utterly unknown to me.

But if you wanted,
you could tell me
where the eagle builds her nest,
and how many stars are in the sky.

If you felt
so inclined,
my ears would be, too.


Monday, July 16, 2018

a people of memory

I suppose the challenge is to encounter each day not as a grab-bag of events, or as a series of calculated steps, but as something effortless: a melody of actions and responses that all have a coherent inner union. In order to find something like meaning in a day, the day must revolve around one thing.

The bluebird father perches on the post of the garden, his chest puffed up with pride at the nest upon which his wife sits, tending to their freshly-laid eggs.

The chorus of sparrows, cardinals, and finches circle around the feeders, and the Rancho continues its daily business. As I stand on the prayer deck in the grey warmth of early morning, I am suddenly standing in the thick of memory. My mind picks up a memory of the night before, and I follow its thread back to other memories, other currents whose movements have all colluded to wash me up on the shore of this present moment. The past is seamlessly woven into the present here. As my mind follows the winding threads of stories, they all congeal for one solid and inexplicable moment in the sunlight on the oak leaves.

The moment is permanent and insoluble, but, like all moments, rigidly ephemeral.

I am in Hudson Memorial Church, the simple goodness of the white-washed meeting hall, celebrating that which is not pagan, a hall that offers the clarity and neatness requisite to see God. I suddenly, in the middle of the services miss messy churches. I miss the Melkite church just inside Jaffa Gate, coated in the technicolor of its milky-rich icons. Its colors are so vibrant you can taste them on your tongue, even in memory. I miss the painted walls and ceilings of Notre Dame's basilica, the overabundance of image which crushes you with salvation history, embeds you in a narrative arc in spite of yourself. I miss the outlandish stained glass of St. Vincent, its darkly carved interior, full of quiet corridors of shadow. I allow myself to think for one moment of St. John the Divine, my favorite haunted church. I miss the distracting visuals you can sink your teeth into, which are, in fact the main meal.

Back at the Rancho, I am spellbound by the still and silent hummingbird, hungrily sipping nectar through her beautiful, delicate straw, more like a proboscis than a beak. Her wings which beat more times per minute than my heart are at rest. There is something preternatural in her quiet. I sip coffee and read Nouwen on memory. It's all here, for just a moment, time stops and all the things that are present are here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Pagan Intrusion into Hudson Memorial

I spend the whole service thinking of how to find Christ in the stale odor of unwashed body which is carried with each fresh breeze of air-conditioning into my nostrils. I fail. To my left is my feisty rein grandmother, who is unbothered by any and all ungenteel behavior, and sails through it like a swan. It is very easy to see Christ in her.

After the service, I left Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, at the small square in the brick wall, holding my grandfather's ashes which I call his grave. I walked out of my apartment in May, and into a twisting Victorian bedroom, which was the first of the strange nests I made home this summer. I walked out of a sure chapter, and into a mess.

There, on the rocking chair, a card of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots was left for me, the patron saint of transitions and liminality. Whenever the world feels uncertain, I find myself not calling to her, but she, rather, calling to me. In this slight card left. In the story of a friend.

This card seemed a fitting token and patron to leave at the grave of a forefather--someone who birthed my mother into this whole nonsense mess of a world, into the maze of relationships that is a family. To be born into this chaos of a cosmos is to enter a situation that is already complicated and your arrival only makes it more so. You arrive, a complication born unto complications.

Am I leaving this card, I wondered, as a sign of the virgin's intercession? Am I leaving it that she might untangle the knots of this man, whatever knots are in the afterlife? I think that might be more theologically mainline. But, if I'm being honest, my motivations were far more visceral. I left it not so much for the virgin's intercession for him, but because I wanted the man who brought me into this knotty life to help me untie the knots I'm currently wrestling with. I want the man who built the playhouse in our backyard, and taught me to throw tops and yo-yos properly, who helped me fish and shoot pool to help me sort through all the threads of possibility to find the next course to chart. I want what any of us want—the people we love and look up to, those who truly are our parents, to carry us through the stormy waters.

And perhaps I wanted something else as well. I wanted to tie my own knots to those that are my grandfather's. I want the knots which demand unraveling in prayer to be not just simply mine, but also his. I wanted to be tied to someone with whom death has severed ties.

On the sliding scale of paganism between the Temple of Apollo, Chartres, and Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church, Our Lady, Undoer of Knots certainly falls somewhere between Apollo and Chartres, and she brings a whiff of Romanism to this tidy memorial courtyard. I do feel slightly sheepish leaving her among the unbloodied crosses and the white roses which mark the other graves. But these people that I come from were never conventional, anyhow. Their strong Presbyterian roots may make them on the outside seem the opposite of pagan, but their love of land, large skies, and blue bonnets maybe led their wayward, least-Romantic daughter one day to a Roman Church.

The slender leaves of the Japanese maple tree brush my shoulder as I walk out to the parlor door. I realize that I have never noticed this tree before, and I have never felt its leaves before. I have only been in the courtyard in winter. But it's summer now.

Friday, July 13, 2018

a surplus of understanding

All day, there has been a squirrel at the birdfeeder with a cage around it, designed specifically to keep the squirrel away. The squirrel has been holding onto the green wires with its feet, and, twisting its body so that its cotton-white belly shows, it reaches for the green tray at the bottom, which holds sunflower seeds, and scrapes them into its upside down mouth, hungrily.

It is a perfect visual joke, which resists verbal translation. And I can't help but think that there is a moral lesson in the squirrel who insists on eating from the bird feeder, when there are plenty of other piles of mash and seeds provided by my grandmother around the yard, but the squirrel resists moralizing.

I think of this squirrel as I am driving through the various subdivisions of Cary, in search of small hole-in-the-wall restaurants which will be our wardrobe-doors, leading us not to Narnia, but to the far-off reaches of Baghdad and Kolkata. We will talk to the white man whose blue eyes mirror ours about the history of his mithai and his Bengali wife. At the cash register, the bakery proprietor schools me on proper Arabic pronunciation, and quizzes my grasp of the gendered second person suffix.

A Gormenghast-black crow swoops over the sunlit grass. It has been temperate all morning, as I did the exercises which are half yoga and half talisman against the pain which creeps over the back of my knee while reading Le Petit Prince. It has begun to grow humid.

As my grandmother tells stories of neighbors and the neighbors' scions writing them to buy parcels of acreage off of them, I am struck by the vital importance of land. To own land is to be rich—to be established and stable in a way that I, whose dream of stability is a year-long lease in an apartment, cannot even fathom. It is perhaps, to use a new distinction recently discovered, not a luxury but a blessing.

I wonder how you can love people through the wounds that they bear. Not fresh wounds, the scars that have compiled over years, twisting the flesh into ugly rivers of scars. How do you begin to untangle the muscles in your leg so you can actually walk? One knee injury causes an injury in the opposing hip, and before you know it, you are wearing a brace on your right knee, while beginning stories: well, when my left knee got injured. Wounds are not stagnant, they are a domino effect inside our body.

How do we love people who suffer not simple, not compound, but complex fractures? We are not living a world of unscathed people. But people wound in labyrinths of histories of injuries, of wounds suffered, and the inadequate homemade remedies we have self-administered to hide them. These labyrinth obscure the true cause of our pain, it makes it almost impossible, it seems, to diagnose the ills that plague them. And us. For woundedness is a contagion—it reaches from one art out to another.

There is no shortcut, I cry. You have to unwind the labyrinth, to retrace your steps back to the first hurt, the first lie you told yourself to hide it—ineffectual as a plastic bandage on wet skin—and the histories you've spun around it.

Perhaps there is a shortcut, one which isn't easy, but cuts through all the winding cloth, frees us from the tombs of our own bondage.

I think of how much energy I expend trying to tame the lions, heal the wounds, snuffle through the data of old stories to find The Truth, promised to set them, us, me free.

The truth is not the solution to the mystery, it is the mystery. In answer to the problem of how to love another, the truth that sets us free seems to be:

I will not demand
where you've been or where you've come
from—I will simply love you.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

red herring walks

Henri Nouwen asks, in his small tome on discernment, if one can hear the trees clapping their hands, as described in Isaiah 55:12: "The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."

Trees don't have any hands, I think, perversely, as I read Nouwen's call to heed the music of nature on one of the many small wooden decks which jut off the back of my grandmother's home. I am surrounded by trees—oaks and pines, mostly. The oak leaves glimmer with the moisture of the already densely humid morning, and the pine trees are most visible by the rusty pine needles which carpet the floor of the woods all around us.

I look into the thick of green in front of me, to see if, by burning my gaze into their trunks, I can hear their music. Tuning my ears, I mostly hear the caw of mockingbirds, the rattle of the nuthatch, and the shrill cries of bluejays. The quieter notes of the sweeter songbirds are drowned out by the dull ocean waves of cicadas crashing on the coast line of the treen line, and the racket of the more bullish, bawdy bird orders who crowd around the plentiful feeders scattered throughout the clearing of the backyard.

I hear the hose watering the fig tree, bearing green fruits and greener leaves. I do not hear the trees.

But I would not go so far as to say that the trees are silent.

As I pace up and down the front driveway, exercising my complaining hip and itching knees, I notice a slight line of silk running across the path in front of me. I follow it to my right and see it end in a dizzyingly intricate net, a bright red spider waiting in the middle of it. I back away, imagining that creature running through my curls.

On my next lap, I almost walk into a caterpillar, dancing midair, suspended, like the circus aerialist from a thread of silk, tossing and twisting her body artfully. I back away again, shuddering. Imagining that creature, again, in my hair.

I should take to wearing a shower cap outdoors.

As I walk up and down the gravel driveway, I notice that the old paths my grandfather carved through the woods are mostly hidden by underbrush and pine needles. A few small plastic flags remain as markers. But I am loathe to follow them, thinking of the creatures who must by now have built many silk paths across them.

The only sound I hear is the traffic speeding by the mailbox at the head of the driveway—I think.

There is a noise in forests that is not cicadas, or animals in the underbrush, or the sounds of songbirds. It's a quiet sound, nearly inaudible, that emanates from the leaves' photosynthesis, and the wind rustling through the branches. It's an almost-silent drone which thrums underneath nature's choir. It's a sound whose vibrations are heard more as they echo against one's heart than one's eardrum. Like faith, the trees' music is present with a certainty that evaporates when you try to hold it, which eludes your grasp when you attempt to lay your finger on it.

But it's there—filling out the simple scene of a summer morning with something a little more full and more real. An invisible basso profondo more abiding than the contingent collection of accidentals thrown together by variable migration patterns. It's the subject of the sentence—the deeper meaning which the words reach towards, but never quite exhaust.

That's the sound of trees clapping—heard only in silence and in faith.

Monday, July 9, 2018

dropped summer days

How gauche is it to drop novenas in the middle?
So they sag like a scarf in which you missed a stitch?
To mean to make it but to miss a day?
Asking for a friend (whom I said I'd pray for).

To err is human,
so which is more divine:

To keep on starting over,
like a shy singer at audition?

Or to forge right through—
the show must continue—
trusting dropped notes
can turn to graced ones, too.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

problematic paginations

I want to be good.

But that's not the project of Christianity. We're not called to be good, what we’re called to be is better. Call no man good, except your Father who is in heaven. The project of being good—that tempting, tantalizing project—whose goal, once reached, means that I can shed all my dependency on exterior indications of my own goodness. No, once I am good, I will know—with finality and certainty— that I am right. That what I do and say is correct, that I am, and forevermore will be, right. That glorious golden future redeems me from the anxiety of submitting myself to what is other, on placing my entire being on the will of a God who stands above me. Once I, myself, am good, I no longer have to wait on the will of another, I do not have to enter in to the messy vulnerability of morality, which may (quelle horreur!) prove some of my actions to be wrong.

I leave confession, and the corresponding wash of relief over me takes the shape of a sigh whose verbal content is: Oh God, I hope I never have to go back there. It is nearly unconscious, this desire. But it is there. It is just a slight shade away from being correct. It is an indication that the project I am undertaking is slightly off-target from the project of the reconciliation I was seeking.

Realistically, I know the odds are that I end up back in that confession line, sandwiched again between a mother and her child and an elderly gentleman. So why do I pretend, in the great relief of cleanliness, that this is a state which will never fluctuate? Health does not seem to mean one is ever fully healed, but, at least for the duration of human life, continuously healing. Our love is never pure, but only becomes gradually less impure.

I want to be good, but even that desire seems to need to subject itself to the project of becoming better. Better implies a goal, and that goal, in the case of this particular project, is intimately mine and not me.