Monday, January 15, 2018

well, said Sam

Something in my room smells like the Tantur hallway by the kitchen, which smells a little bit like zataar, slightly like olives, and a little bit like nursing home. Maybe it's something baked into the '60s architecture. It's the scent which I imagine most of the that decade smelling like. It's not exactly an entirely pleasant aroma, especially when you have a cold or a queasy stomach. It is, however, inarguably homey.

Perhaps it has permeated into my clothing, or it's airing out of my suitcases. Perhaps it's lingering in my bag, or books, or in my olfactory cavity, but every time I open my door, I walk into a wave of Tantur-kitchen-smell. In the thick of new beginnings, this loitering scent is a lingering comfort, a reminder of a places that calls me home.

As I write this, snow is falling in lush, lacy clumps onto Bond Quad. One of the gifts of this room is discovering I can still see new things on an old, familiar campus. In December, the first time I saw Bond Quad in the snowfall, I stared out my window for a whole five minutes, transfixed by a familiar place blanketed in an entirely new perspective. It's equally as mesmerizing now, as the wind rushes snowflakes past my window in swoops and flurries. Watching snowfall cover the symmetrical, neat sidewalks of Bond Quad is a sight which calls me home.

I don't know what I mean by that, other than these sights—snowfall—or these scents—a familiar kitchen—speak directly to me from the very moment I encounter them. They speak to a genuine pit of identity deep in my heart. There's an effortless recognition of what they are and what I am, together.

Which, I think, home is. An effortless recognition—certainly not an uncomplicated encounter. Recognition is generally a fraught endeavor. But the meant-ness of home is something that can't be manufactured. To find an inexplicable comfort in seemingly meaningless moments such as snowfall or the smell of overcooked potatoes is the quality of home.

When we find this quality in another human, we call them friend.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


As I sped down Eastbound I-80, into the all-too-typical pockets of semi-whiteout due to lake-effect snow, I thought of all the movement and location that had filled the time since I had sped the other direction on the Westbound lanes.

Ten (10) airplane flights [three of them unplanned], two tow trucks, one rental car, only four taxis (moral victory!), too many subways, light-rails, and buses to count. (My favorite bus adventure being when I got on the wrong bus on Hebron, encouraged by the woman who assured me it was going to Yerushalem [which it did, but it took its sweet time getting there] with a dying phone, at dusk. And you're on a bus that may or may not be going to Jerusalem on a highway which your tour guide had helpfully informed you a man had been shot on the shoulder of last week, you are maybe more than a little anxious about the route of said bus, and the setting sun and dead phone do not help to relieve that anxiety.])

There were several moments (specifically between tow trucks one and two) when it seemed as though I would never make it back to those Eastbound lanes of I-80.

But, here I am, winding my way back. The familiar fields lining the freeway shifting into focus, as my new eyes learn to see them again.

No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. (Mk 2:21)

As I get settled into my sweet little apartment, I feel a bit like that new, unshrunken cloth. What I love about these series of images in Mark's Gospel is that they contain both our human instinct to fall back into the old molds, and also the undeniable reality of grace which severs us from the past. As an unshrunken cloth, I have often found myself tempted to cling to an old, comfortable cloak. Old clothes are broken in, they're familiar, they're easy to slip on without thinking twice about it. New clothes hang strangely on our frame, they itch slightly, reminding us of their presence.
I also have a terrible habit of putting back on the same clothes after a shower, which somewhat defeats the purpose of a shower. But if you've gone through all the trouble of finding an outfit, it's too much effort to find another one.

A psychological view of a human being can be depressing, because it mostly images a person in a series of patterns. Our identities are composed of various factors, our habits are simply our outputs of he various inputs of our environments, our parents, our pasts. Sometimes, it seems like we're stuck sewing ourselves back into the same old cloaks, slipping back into the same outfit. Change, which used to be the order of our childhood lives, is startlingly difficult to choose over complacency.

Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins. (Mk 2:22)

As I read this, sitting on my chaise in the blissful silence of a peaceful, snowy January dawn, I remember that this gospel passage is in the lectionary, serendipitously, as each new calendar year arrives. A year ago, I remember reading this on the big, billowing bed of my grandmother's guest bedroom last year, and how very new I felt then. Today, sipping chocolate mint tea on the chaise, I barely recognize the young woman just one year my junior, as she has been ground underfoot into a fresh new vintage.

I do not want to pour this sweet new wine, fermented by all the travel, the love, the heartbreak, pain and beauty of a year of living to be poured back into old skins. I do not want her contained by the suffocating limits of tired habits. As I read the passage, I see not just a warning, but a promise. The glorious inevitability of grace permeates these images Christ offers: even though we are so foolish as to try to push ourselves back into old boxes, fall back into old habits, the transformation of grace makes this impossible. The wine will burst the skins; the brittle old cloth will rip.

In that case, there is balm in Gilead. Rippling off the pages of my fat little lectionary, in waves of consolation, comes the promise that grace can remold us, transform us, offer our plagued and patterned psyches new habits of being.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

polyplaneted monoglots

I'm a simple girl,
one wandering star suffices me.

Commit to living on this blue-green planet,
and you have strapped yourself on
a train bound for ultimate disaster,
speeding towards destruction at the pace of
five hundred eighty-four million miles per year.

Response to unavoidable impending doom
is twofold:
first: anxiously seek an escape hatch,
reach for the emergency break—
know where your nearest exit is before the film begins
before the airplane takes off into flight
before you fall in love—
keeping in mind
the nearest exit may be behind you,
behind a wall of flaming film,
an asteriod collision,
a broken heart.

Second: find somewhere like a stylite—
and stay.
Find the world open up at my fingertips,
bending to embrace one singular plot of land,
putting roots down,
Benedict-like, in its sweet soil.

Friday, January 12, 2018

journey to the thin places

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
—Deuteronomy 30:11-14

As I walk up the familiar hill of East 90th Street, I pass a stream of mourners slowly processing into a funeral at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Men in black coats unpack wreaths of flowers from the hearse, a man in Notre Dame apparel stands at attention, his arm around a shorter woman. A bagpiper plays a dirge that causes me to wonder what life would be like three hundred years ago in the Scottish Highlands, like I used to read about in Little House in the Highlands, Melissa Wiley’s book series about Laura Ingnalls Wilder's great-grandmother. I bet it was simpler, I thought, forgetting that human beings have a habit of complicating any era they inhabit.

I figured the three-hundred-years-ago-Scottish-highland version of myself would already be married to a melatonin-deficient Scottish man and probably have a sizeable gaggle of blue-eyed, skin-cancer-prone children. And I wonder if that would be stifling or stabilizing? The bagpiper doesn't answer such specious questions, but continues to offer a properly melancholy salute to the sacred event of death irrupting the blissful veneer of immortality laminating my callow twenty-something life.

[I figured that, given we would never venture below 54 degrees North, my hypothetical children would have never be exposed to the UVA rays that would give them cancer. Indeed, whatever complications our Scottish ancestors were encountering or creating for themselves, it appears that skin cancer was not a primary one.]

The construction men fixing something in the sewer, the curb, or the pavement look up at the procession, and watch the coffin pass into the church. A woman in yoga pants and her husband/boyfriend/partner, dutifully holding the umbrella above them, stops in front of me. I brush past both them and the man walking towards me, wearing a bucket hat and tattered olive green jacket, with the cart full of plastic bags comes to a standstill, frozen by the bagpipe music. All are united by a liturgical sidewalk moment, encountering the thinness of life that death demonstrates.

For one moment, a split second that sounds like a chord from Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack to Henry V, that sounds like the crunch of dissonance in Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, that sounds like the Resurrection music at the end of Jesus of Montreal, each of them was Christ. For one moment, this small side street in Manhattan became Jerusalem, and the feet of God incarnate walked the cement dirtied from the winter rain. This insignificant street on the Upper East Side is as holy as Galilee. Each face a sacrament of Christ as much, if not more than, the grand darkness in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the warm glow of the Grotto of the Nativity.

Travel to the Holy Land, I imagine, is only worthwhile if one brings the Holy Land back with you. One recognizes the fish in the Sea of Galilee are ordinary fish, and if they are holy, so are the least of these. The command enjoined on us really is not beyond the sea, or in some distant place. Rather, the God we cannot see is right here, in the face of our neighbor. The command to love that God is right here in front of us, in the command to love the brother and sister we can see, right here on the sidewalk. What a curious collection of Christs are here on the pavement. The swelling-string sensation of the moment passes, but the face of Christ does not. Christ remains, unfading. Continuing to challenge me to the command I daily fall short of: to love the God I cannot see in each unexpected face of Christ I can.

We're a fumbling, clumsy, bumbling crew of worshipers at mass in the glamorous Cathedral. A man bumps into a small girl behind him in communion line, I collide with a woman merging lanes, the priest fumbles through a whispered, misunderstood request from a confused communicant. I wonder if this is more nearly what heaven is like: a bit more homespun and honest an affair than gilded angels with trumpets and spotless clouds of white. If Jesus keeps his scars, perhaps we keep our clumsiness, even in our endless alleluias of Dantean praise. Or are our klutzy attempts at worship smoothed into something more graceful and elegant? Do we keep our sincere and silly humanness, even in eternity? I wonder this, as I repeat again, echoing the congregation's chant: I am not worthy. Will there ever be a time I cease to invoke that prayer? When the Word does heal us of unworthiness, once-and-for-all, finally—eternally? Or is eternity a joyful offering of acknowledging my own unworthiness? Is heaven the process of being made worthy, eternally, by the blood of the lamb I drink? Perhaps "heaven" is a word that indicates something more mysterious, beyond the painful becoming of made worthy, a glorious, ultimate sharing in the final being of worthiness.

As I gaze around at the procession of people in  communion line, I wonder what power it is which makes us strange and sinful people "church." The answer appears in the food we eat, bread which has transfigured each of us into the carrier of God become man become bread. By the transitive property, theosis.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

les liaisons autobuses

What on earth is a crosstown bus doing in Midtown? Jack asks, and he certainly has a point. But East-Siders don't have the luxury of turning up our noses at a bus that lacks the decency to cross town through Central Park. The bus speeds by the still-Christmas-decorated Rockefeller Center, and I shift uncomfortably, well-aware of the garish indelicacy of such a route.

I've already maxed-out my one-cab quota for the trip, so I really have no other option, which the crosstown bus knows as it approaches, smugly chugging across the intersection.

I slink back onto the M50 crosstown bus with the reluctant moral rectitude of a woman who has tasted the electricity of another man's lips but slips under the covers next to her more consistent lover, thinking to herself: well this is right and just, but remembering her more inspiring venture with the wistfulness which intensifies desire.

Look, says the M50, how reliable I am, showing up exactly as the timetable dictates. What better partner could you ask for? I remember the erratic arrival of Arab buses, showing up in the cold, late; or in the rain, earlier than expected; or in the sunshine, exactly as predicted. Such whimsical, insouciant arrival which should signal radical disregard for my convenience, should, indeed, breed resentment, in retrospect simply seems honest. What sort of boor argues his desirability based solely on his dependability? I grumble silently to the antiseptic blue seats which surround me, remembering the thrill of early arrival, the leaden thud of betrayal as the full bus speeds by without a flicker of interest in your outstretched hand, beseeching it to stop.

I don't know what you want! cries the M50, stopping (of all places) by the Lotte New York Palace. I don't respond, looking out the window at Saks 5th Avenue, my lips curled into the mournful smile that is a woman's universal signal for: you just wouldn't understand. I may be riding the MTA, but my imagination fixes its wandering eye upon Egged buses, completely despicable aesthetic mixtures of Italian buses and the Boston T, and filled with more machine-gun-toting soldiers in a day than either of the aforementioned has seen in their lifetime. What I wouldn't give to be holding onto one of the hand straps in an overly-crowded Egged at rush hour rather than drowning in this cornucopia of empty seats and ample elbow room.

It's hard to explain to someone we once loved why we no longer love them. Or that we still love them, in a certain way, but that we've found someone else a bit more dashing, more charming, who understands the thrill of the chase, the electric back-and-forth of the will-she-won't-he, and whose timetable is never dictated by some central authority, but authentically derives from their own internal timepiece. I would rather, I try to explain to the M50, as he huffs towards the 6 train, ride a bus who is consistently late, but tries to be on time, than a bus who demands passengers, because he feels it owed to him, as a reward for his punctuality. It's not that I don't appreciate his efforts, it's just that I've found something different, and I think that works better for me and what I need.

Something more real, something more wild, something that speaks to the very heart of me. As the white bus roars up to the ersatz stop, unmarked by any signage, my heart races a little faster, as the thrill runs through me, too tentative to be formulated in any statement stronger than interrogative:
you stopped for me?

Instead of a Metrocard inserted into a soulless slot, I drop living coins into the pulsing hand of a bus driver, and he either soundlessly grunts in appreciation at the correct change, or slides a few shekels out of his coin machine to hand me with my receipt for 4.70 exactly. And I take an empty seat next to a female rider, feeling like I've actually been greeted, welcomed, that my presence is exciting, not exacted.

Sometimes, I have to hound the Egged driver for a receipt, and he points me to the collection of extra slips in the tray below the fare machine, reminding me of my status as a rider with out a RavKav card. I know these are silly power games, and I roll my eyes each time. But how charming, I think, as the old routine is never tired, but has the fresh immaturity of snowball-throwing flirtation.

How can I be something I'm not! cries the poor M50. There's a strained silence, as I arise to depart through the back doors, which aren't opening.
I don't really have a response, because the issue he's raising is not really The Point.
"Give them a push," commands the driver.
So I do. I exit, without another word, thinking that I really don't owe an explanation to a bus who hasn't even merited a crosstown route above 59th street. (Which isn't his fault necessarily. It's a fact he can't help. But. Still.)

Public transportation is best enjoyed, I figure, reflecting on the experience, on its own terms, and loses some of its luster when comparing one infrastructure to another.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

second law of anthrodynamics

Stranger: shorthand for simplicity,
relationship with an Other untouched by entropy,
Crisp, clean boundary lines demarcate your life from mine,
ne'er the twain meeting,
except in cursory morning greetings
at checkout counters,
pedestrian courtesies on public transportation,
shared smiles at bad behaviors
of Russian mothers in airports.

Glib flirting or facile rapport:
dangerous slopes slipping into more.
Once the yolk is broken, the porous
wall between my life and yours,
suddenly [adv., "without much warning"]
without signal from the penguins,
simple polar ice of strangers thawing
into messy oceans of
Small archipelagos of affinity
building [something like] a bridge
between our coasts,
tangling two threads further.

Elbows glance against each other,
flint and tinder sparking,
our similar poles repelling
my body apart from yours.
Our slight adjustments laden with too much story,
un-static electricity
running through simple actions,
transforms each brush into a signifier,
actions' simplicity robbed by sacrament.

Cinnamon swirled into oatmeal,
sugar dissolved into tea,
poem you began, ended by—

confused, changeable, indivisible—
Chalcedon does not apply.
Overwhelmed by signal, I
am inundated by sign,
the effortless innocence of "stranger"
painted in rose-tones by me,
[by me]
unencumbered by entropy.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

psalm 27, bus edition

One thing I asked of the Lord,
This only will I seek after:
One thing I asked of my God,
Oh this my only desire:
That I might stay on this bus
Souped up with Real Madrid banners
Stuffed figurines of Smurfs and Popeye, Spongebob and Mickey
all the days of my life.
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
In the warbling Arabic voices on the radio,
singing the mid-morning sun into shining,
as he picks up steam
actually beginning to get serious about this business of warming up the world.

[The first aid kit has a red Star of David on it
Ohhhh like a Red Cross
Sometimes I’m a little slow to the game.]

May I remain on this bus all the days of my life,
On this dreadfully patterned blue seat,
I will pitch my tent, here, where I know I belong:
near whatever woman with a vacant seat beside her,
Modestly crossing my legs
underneath the frayed upholstery of the seat,
Sporting red lipstick,
an understated stab at
face paint half as glamorous as my seatmate’s under her hijab.