Friday, June 23, 2017

lo, the swaddled lettuce wilts

Akedah, she is easy.
Her yoke it is not that one which is heavy
and her many suitcases, dark they ain't.

We stop mid laugh and I think
but do not put to voice
the question from
an other Friday bed-
time ritual revamped.
But her answer sings
in the wind that blows
my napkin off the table--
twice--that hums beneath
the melody
harmonized in laughs between
our twin blue eyes.

Two souls, one body, Dr. Aristotle
scribbles on prescription pad
you are indelibly inscribed,
conscripted, even
into constellation Philia,
ancient, riddled with
supernovas perpetually
composing new suns from their dust.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I don't know any of those words

Keen injustice: sitting in a Debart classroom
plastic chair
on a bright June morning as the glorious summer sky
rolls by outside.

I keep sneaking poetry into the margins
of a notebook which should be
solely German grammar.

I keep sneaking glances out
a window into fluffy-clouded-summer-sky
New mottled clouds are portraited in the window
sculpted beauties in a
sky blue Louvre,
fresh galleries appear with each stolen gaze,
pushed across my tiny window-frame of
by mighty Midwestern winds.

Small molded clouds of
soft dove grays,
blanched and feathery,
chase mammoth cliffs of shapely water vapor.

You keep sneaking back
into a life that has no room for you.
I make space:
in the margins
in my grammar.
We can share this syntax.
Just for today.

Monday, June 19, 2017

swimming in grace

My shoes and feet and everything are tired of running. My fractured toe needs rest, and my knee protests another trail. So I dive into the pool and backstroke, staring at the uninspiring ceiling. I suppose the view from most lap lanes could never truly be called a vista, but these beige tiles seem particularly and spitefully bland. I think of old Roman baths with their ever-enduring mosaics, Turkish baths with their colorful domes, and I can't help but feel that contemporary America should up our gym ceiling game a bit.

Indicative of the population in the pool, Frank Sinatra is playing. I am miserable and my heart is heavier than a stone, which makes Sinatra sting like saltwater in a hangnail, and reminds my heavy legs, by contrast, of how poor chlorine is for buoying up one's spirit or its shell. As I watch my legs kick up a miniature wake, my toes just barely cresting the surface of the water, I think of how my legs floated on the surface of the Dead Sea. I smile (and swallow pool water accidentally) as I remember how the one-third salt water lifted up my legs so that they couldn't even kick. They would just splash impotently on the surface of the smooth sea. I remember my laughter as the water would roll me around and around, keeping me afloat, dependent on its mercy, despite my own attempts to stand. The Dead Sea feels like providence, and I was just rolling around in it.

I think of my last swim, in the Mediterranean, its marble blue-green waters rolling in thick, undulating waves. There, the piercing blue sky was the ceiling, and the lap lanes determined by the sharp spurs of rock, intermittent with the silky white sand floor. I dove under the waves, rolling around in the surf, glorying in the quiet, expansive intimacy of sea and sky. Experiencing myself as single, lone creature but not lonely, swallowed up in an infinite field of glory and wet, wild beauty.


Today, I ran again, my feet exploring the unbroken reaches of new running shoes, and the familiar, broken-in paths of familiar running trails.

But the sky was a sheer and startling blue, interrupted by molded white clouds, reflecting the golden radiance of the sun, perfectly gilded and shaded on their ruffled underbellies. The hot gold light burns my skin more lightly here. But the heavy air holds solar heat more permanently than the desert of Judea. I am landlocked, far from the sea. But, in the damp clashes of cold and hot storm fronts, I am still swimming in a wild sea of weather and grace.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

die stadt der schönen Freude

Full of uncomfortably undeniable hurt feelings, I make a winding way towards Washington Square Park, the gift of broken phones reaping slices of unexpected solitude. I alight from the F train at West Fourth Street and am greeted not by the discombobulating vague wash of nondescript dives and storefronts on the shifting streets of Penn Station/Port Authority’s neighboring avenues, but by the IFC center’s friendly façade, as familiar to last winter as Fred Armisen’s face. I smile and the combined force of that smile, that storefront, and the mismatched cluster of tourists outside the garish hookah window display of the neon smoke shop remind me why I love this city.

I love it for the slap slap slap of sandals moving over the sidewalk.
I love it for the swing in my hips as I traverse it with a freedom I no longer take for granted.
I love the woman eating pricy sushi on the pavement with her weird yuppie bar crawl crew, complete with lanyards ‘round their necks, smiling so joyfully and authentically with her friends. I love the Japanese fashionista with her thick orange eyeliner. The bent old priest rejuvenated, walks upright.

I walk up 6th avenue to St. Joseph’s church, so I can pray where Dorothy (Day, not Gale) once use to offer her own words of praise and hurt and thanks. I walk the path her feet have tread and think: this is holy ground. I walk into the blank white church. It’s newly renovated now, no longer filled with workmen and scaffolding. I see so clearly the altarpiece which was obscured before—Transfiguration. 

This is my holy city, my Jerusalem. And she is comfortingly the same. The cab driver takes me through Central Park—my park, where I have run through so many heartbreaks and heart aches and hurts like this—one thinks one would outgrow these things, that growing as actually left a mark of maturity, but here we are, back again, at the same old emotional junction, so run, run, run all the way around the bridle path, every single Saturday—he takes me past St. Ignatius—the translucent stone and stained glass shine like home—and up Park Avenue, which means I retrace my walks to and from that church, greeting each brick I've memorized on each penthouse corner. He takes me past Gourmet Garage—the scaffolding finally gone!—He takes me past Casa Blanca—its patio still dilapidated, its backyard tree in full leafy bloom. It has fancy new address numbers on the front. It has a new coat of paint. but it’s still mine. I am a part of its story and its mice, mold, and morning sunlight through my window are part of mine. To briefly greet that old friend once again is worth the $17.76.

But the city has grown and changed, too. Nothing living stagnates, this place least of all. The new high rise being built along my old walk to work is steadily rising. There is a new bar I meet the Cristo Rey contingent at. This city has grown and changed, even as it hums along its daily rhythm. Can this city, I wonder, ever exhaust my thirst for exploration? It swells always outwards. We shall not cease from exploration/And the goal of all our journeying will to be arrive right here, in There are other cities. The goal of our journeying is ever to arrive right here. Back at St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village and to finally see the altarpiece for that first time. To walk Through the unknown, unremembered gate/ of new adventures, and find that the last bit of ground we have left to discover is actually the Eden from which all our restless wanderings originated. It is that which was the beginning/the trees waving in the summer wind, the voices of the street performers in the sun, the children splashing in the fountain, clearly marked: no swimming.

This city's beauty blazes like tongues of flames in-folded into the utter ordinary, the voices of ex-pats, tourists, college students, into one glorious crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

the healing kind of the sickness

Hayley said this place gets under your skin, which sounds slightly pathogenic (yet true).
Raanan said that there's a name for it—they call it Tanturitis.
This place is not heaven on earth, but it's got a magic that's just a few shades short of eschaton.

The magic of Tantur Ecumenical Institute is not easily diagnosed or dissected. Its inescapable presence yet ineffable origin make Tantur's atmosphere endlessly enticing. Tantur is a place which feels larger on the inside, because of the abundance of mystery within its walls, beckoning to be plumbed.

In part, I believe, the magic of Tantur springs from the immense right which every person possess in being here: the elderly couple, the pastors on sabbatical, the visiting scholars, the rabbinic student, the group of undergrads, the staff members of various organizations housed here at Tantur itself, the fourth grader practicing piano: each of them belongs here just as much as the other. There is a deep and gracious humility in recognizing the sacredness of each encounter with every community member. Any person can sit down next to you at a meal, and your conversation feels completely horizontal, there is no slant of inequality, even with the ten-year-old. This sort of humility is rare, yet is endemic to Tantur, providing the bedrock for its seemingly innate radical inclusion.

Tantur is, of course, not perfect. There is disagreement, there is not one single vision always. But, at least I have found here, divisions do not overwhelm the experience of the unity. There is still union, even in discord, and there is still acceptance, and more than a facile acceptance—celebration—of difference. (Not perfectly, however. We are so trained to disagree with difference its difficult sometimes to celebrate it. But perhaps this is only one of many occupational hazards for people trafficking in Ultimate Concern.)  Fellow pilgrims can easily annoy you; you tire of them, they are irked by you. But you still walk together. I think that is what Church means.

The magic of Tantur—which, perhaps I should more accurately name grace—is precisely in this miraculous journeying together. Tantur is a diverse collections of pilgrims, each with very different roads and a variety of maps and atlases by which they navigate. But the mystery of this ever-expanding space seems to upholds all of them. There is enough support to go around, enough room for all to meet.

I cannot help but contrast Tantur with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is a poignant architectural incarnation of the bitter and oh-so-human divisions which mark this human institution which springs from faith's central mystery. It is a church with hermetically sealed traditions, which only meet when shooing the others—made into very much Other—off their turf. It is a portrait of the Church which hurts to see, but it rings true. So much of my time here, I have been reflecting on our need for the real, for the genuine. Pilgrims come to the Holy Land with the simple question: Is this all true? Did this really happen? and the land meets them with a yes: this did happen. It happened here. The yes just doesn't always look the way we want or imagine.

So for all the dis-ease the Church of the Holy Sepulchre raises within me—annoyance at the boys' club pissing contests, great sadness for the scandal of Christian division—I find its mystery draws me back and back again, because something about that church rings true. Perhaps it is not as it ought to be: that church needs cleaning, repair, and some single, unifying and ordering principle; but its messy, piecemeal blend of traditions, architecture, and weird cavernous spaces sings a broken psalm of praise to the God who sustains it even in its human messiness. It is not right and just, but it is accurate and inescapably real. And I am here not for the reality I want to see, but things as they are. Even if they hurt to look at.

Tantur's grace feels like a salve for that hurt. Indeed, there is a balm in Tantur, a particular grace that answers the Holy Sepulchre's hurt—the grace of community. That's the sort of grace which is infectious, which gets under your skin, which pulls at your heart, demanding you leave your tent pitched here, right here. This must be the sort of grace which ought to fill our Eucharists and Sunday services. Perhaps this is a grace of unity which is the briefest appetizer—a stuttering, stammering, abbreviated articulation—of that final unity when Christ is all-in-all and all are finally, truly one in Christ. Perhaps if the global Church felt this unity, this is what our churches would feel like—we would never want to leave them.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Anastasios Kodak Moment

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, May 27, 2017

The Orthodox-Armenian priest, solemn in his black cassock, beard and thin spectacles takes a picture of the stone in the apse of the tomb "kiosk" chapel. I am not quite sure what is so important about a piece of rock encased in gold, a quick google search reveals it to be revered as a bit of the tomb that was rolled away from the entrance of the tomb, accordingly, it is named "the angel stone."

The be-spectacled, priest takes his photo with an old digital camera. It makes a horrendous clicking-shutter sound every time he snaps a pic. The flash is on and it goes off each time he takes a picture--a blinding, sharp, disruptive strike of lightning being fired into the warm dark womb of our tomb chapel. I am not amused. Not amused at all, and slightly blinded by the blue lightning flash interrupting the cozy dim lighting of the dozens of golden lanterns hung from heavy chains from the ceiling.

Seriously, solemnly, the priest circles the truly unremarkable piece of rock, takin a picture from every possible angle, fastidious and carefully studied in his movements, framing each new composition with equal Surat-like care. Each flash is foreign and intrusive. By the fifth flash, I realize: among all the paintings that surround the tomb: cheap, gaudy, cheesy--emaciated El Greco Christ's flying through the sky--chintzy, and flat, this invading light, unwelcome and unsought for, is by far the best image of resurrection here.

Friday, May 26, 2017

How's Israel?

I don't even know what to call this land. Is it Israel? Israel is the Jewish name for the Jewish nation here, mostly populated by Western Jews in a land that's not the West. The land is called Palestine, too. It's Palestine, a state that Israel calls the West Bank, and builds settlements in, in an attempt to bulldoze their way back into its history. But the land's been called Palestine for millennia, ever since, in fact the ROMANS, another Western colonial power took it over. Okay, well who had it before the Romans? The Israelites. This land was Israel and Judea for hundreds of years before it was ever Palestine, but the Israelites were not native to this land, they wrested it from the Canaanites. It's rightfully Canaan, right? (Who settled here first? Abraham? his children? We're back in the hazy ground of pre-history here—is that just a polite term for myth?—so who can say? The Egyptians. They were around before history even began it seemed.) To excavate her identity requires and exhaustive and exhausting peeling-away of all the layers of history that have literally built up on this land, an effort that exhausts human capability. When hasn't this land been named by someone not from its own soil? If a land's been colonized, recolonized, conquered and despoiled for thousands of years then who, in fact, does this land belong to? Who has the right to name this place?

So do I just call this place the "Holy Land"? It seems to sidestep the fraught Israel/Palestine labeling, which I have no right or ability to decide, but then I've just smacked a religious appellation to this piece of ground, and if there's one thing that's controversial here it's religion. Religion divides this holy city into quarters, it splits it almost literally down the middle. Or is religion just a convenient cover for something else? For clashes between race, ethnicity, and culture? What are the real dividing lines?

But I find myself in awe of the physical land itself, of the ground which bucks anyone's attempt to give it a name not its own; like Yahweh, perhaps, whose given name is "I am who am"— no name at all, really. No gender, no limits attached to the name, Yahweh's chosen designation as limitless and ineffable as being itself. The land's sacredness lies in her mystery, in her exposing of human nature. Humans — all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews — attempt to grasp at the sacred for ourselves. We want it to be neat, homogenous, clean, and ours. We want it to be one single story, and we the possessor and sole inheritor of it. 

But, I think, this land will not allow anyone that simplicity. And I find that a mark of the sacred. Because sacred lies deeper than all attempts to profane it. Sacred is often met by our weak human nature with violence. Because we sense the mystery, but are not good enough to let it be larger than ourselves.

If any land is holy, surely this one must be. This land that holds so many stories in it, that ties together many faiths, that has space for each one of them, as countless as Abraham's stars in the sky (Gen 22: 17). If any land has held God in it, surely it must be this one. God's dwelling in this land has not made the mystery any easier. Its clarity lies beyond human comprehension. Its holiness has become more profound, untamable, most intimately us, and not ours.