Wednesday, July 31, 2013

like a world with no gravity

Growing old is getting old
I often find myself here thinking
About the birds, the boats, and past loves that flew away or started sinking
--Stars, FUN.

In the middle of Miss Nelson is Missing, which was the star of yesterday's story-time, my mind traveled far away from the room of 4-6 year olds, as I experienced a semi-paralyzing moment of: Lord have mercy on us all, what should I do after I finish doing college; and if I do it, will I have health insurance or grocery money?
 Rose had taken off her sparkly silver flip-flops and was licking them, so my moment of vocational career discernment angst quickly ended as I turned my focus towards getting the flip-flops out of her mouth. 
I suppose there's a metaphor or moral lesson in there somewhere about the work of life being revealed in the present moment.
But, candidly, my overwhelming concern was the amount of germs being transferred from flip-flop to mouth.

It's difficult, you see, because the point of life is neither health insurance nor grocery money. But you have to have a little bit of grocery money, or else you won't have any groceries, which means that you probably won't eat, which means, sadly, that you'll probably stop living.
(This sad state of affairs is called Logic, Facts, and Deductive Reasoning. If you're thinking to yourself right now: wow that kind of sucks; that's because it does. This sad state of affairs is called The Fall, and if you want to learn more about that, Wikipedia "Adam and Eve")

For the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, life is quite simple for the sisters and their band of volunteers. Simple, meaning there isn't much to distract one from the raw business of living.
The goal of each day was two-fold:
1) To keep yourself alive.
2) To love someone other than yourself.

That was all that was asked of us.
Those are two very simple goals in concept, but executing them can be somewhat complex. They're easily achievable goals, in one sense, but will also keep you busy for an entire lifetime.
But, at the end of the day, it's a very simple plan:
wake up.
feed yourself.
go feed someone else.

It has a certain sort of dry romanticism about it.
It's such a simple plan, it couldn't possibly the elusive secret to happiness or the meaning of life that wiser people than a small Albanian nun had been searching for for eons.
But out of the mouths of babes and small Albanian nuns, as they say.

Over the front door of her first orphanage building in Kolkata, there is a famous quote of Mother Teresa's:
Let us make something beautiful for God.
That, perhaps, is the very fundamental point of life.
Whether the little bit of beauty we make is noticed by many or noticed by none, whether it's something grand and glorious, or something mundane, whether it earns you plenty of grocery money or not, the point is to make something beautiful with your life, and most importantly, to make it for someone else.
If you wake up each morning, and by the time you go to bed that night having loved someone other than yourself, then you have reason to rest well.

It's a very simple plan.

Monday, July 29, 2013

cussing at clergy, and other blasphemous bemusements


Wanting change but loving her just as she lies
Is the burden of a man who's built his life on love
You told me life was long but now that it's gone
You find yourself on top as the leader of the flock
Called to be a rock for those below
--Mumford & Sons


Paul sat on the front porch, not-talking with Peter, lost in his own thoughts as he stared out into the Corinthian sunset.

Peter was sitting in his favorite rocking-chair, reading the new Gospel that Luke had just sent out to all the Apostles for review in between sips of his post-dinner glass of merlot.
A bit long, thought Peter, as he cautiously underlined a section he thought could probably be reduced in half. I thought Mark's was much more to-the-point. He remembered and loved Christ's little homily about the lilies of the field and God clothing the grass, etc., etc. but he thought it was all rather superfluous.
He would suggest that Luke cut right to the part he remember had smote his deepest soul of souls: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
Reading these words put down on paper that had only before existed in his ears, and repeatedly meditated over and over again in his heart, Peter was touched by a miraculous brand of magic and his eyes welled up with joyful tears, which he quickly wiped away before they fell on the scroll. Luke was a fastidious young man and would most likely not appreciate water stains on his manuscript. Peter personally thought Luke's medicinal profession was no excuse for his almost debilitating germophobia. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness," Luke would always say, ad nauseum. It was rather insufferable.
But Peter wiped these annoyances away with his tears. He read his favorite line again, and for a brief moment was transported back to a summer day in Galilee, as all of the twelve of them sat with Him, eating their small portion of daily bread for lunch. He heard the sweet remonstrance to "fear not" and his heart was filled with a warmth that even the richest merlot could never give.
He collected himself and turned back a page to the story about Lazarus' sisters.
His brow crinkled into a frown, as he read and re-read the passage. He thought the Mary and Martha story had confusing imagery. He made a note in the margins: "symbolism of physical presence confusing/potentially obfuscating." It was Martha's birthday today he recalled.
I ought to send her something, he thought absentmindedly, and made a mental note to tell Timothy to send her a basket of the figs that were just at the peak of ripeness in the backyard.

Peter, said Paul, interrupting the evening's tranquil quiet, you have a problem.
Taken aback, but not unduly surprised by Paul's irrepressible candor, Peter took a longer sip of his merlot, counted to eser, and turned to Paul.
To which problem exactly are you referring? he responded. He found with Paul that slightly wry humor would always win him brownie points. Lighthearted wit was the Epistle-maker's weakness.

Paul looked Peter straight in the eye and said: You read too much into everything.
What can you possibly mean by that? asked Peter, without a hint of irony.
Paul chuckled and said: You goon. Have you gotten to the part where Mary keeps all these things, pondering in them in her heart silently? I think that's my favorite part of the piece. Some things cannot be spoken about, or adequately expressed through words. Some mysteries can only be held in one's heart.
Peter snorted, because if there was one thing Paul loved, it was words. He wondered if Paul had actually ever pondered anything in his heart that hadn't flown out of his mouth two seconds later. He refrained from speaking, however, and just took another (long) sip of the merlot.

Then, without explanation, Paul changed the subject.
(Peter was getting a headache.)
Last night I dreamed, said Paul, of sitting in a large white room with large windows, whose trims were painted a glossy brown color. I sat under one of these windows. The fresh sunlight streamed through the foliage outside, the leaves filtered the muddy city light into something radiant and clean, crisp and new. I watched the cold stone floor in front of me become bathed in waves and waves of radiant light. Something supernatural was in that light, for it washed my soul in the same waves, and I was choked on an indescribable and glorious Joy. I was pierced with an aching longing, for the North, for the utter East, for something beyond the limits of the world, that that light had brought into the world. What I longed for was right in front of me, and yet I longed for it.
In front of me, the bread and wine were changing. And in that moment, I felt the joy of all moments--of the past, but mostly of the future. I fell in love with all the memories that were on the verge of being made. And in that moment, I offered my broken offering of thanksgiving for each one.
And I knew, beyond reason and beyond doubt, that all future moments of joy would contain traces of that moment. 


Peter yawned. He hadn't slept very well the night before.
As he got up, he remembered one of his many mental notes:
Timothy just received a letter from Phillipi. I think he wants your help crafting a response.
Paul nodded, and got up as well, and collected the dirty dishes and wine glasses to bring back to the kitchen.
He then followed Peter into the house, where the sweet sounds of their brethren beginning to chant evening prayer wafted out of the upper room.



"You are suffering much, dear Brother Edvin," said Kristin sorrowfully.
"It seems so to me now. But I know 'tis but that God has made me a little child again, and is tossing me about, up and down...But now, 'tis all over, little Kristin; I will home now to my house."
--Kristin Lavransdatter, Part III, Chpt. 6


Thursday, July 25, 2013

keep the earth below my feet

If you're out here, why do I miss you so much?
--FUN., Stars

A Nomad's Hymn

Something stirred inside the soul,
the small sapling soul, younger than boredom,
newer than the starling's chick,
a soul that had just begun to taste the 
tantalizing air of strangeness.

Something burst forth, bud forth, sprang out
--something altogether wild and whimsical.
She laughed with the larkspurs and sighed with the heather,
She followed the heath until it ended in sunset.
She tasted the tangy air of a Indian Summer,
And her autumnal heart was branded
with the indelible and indescribable joy
of a nomad.

A desire came to the nomad soul to taste sea air,
to ride the undulating waves of a camel's gait,
to dance with the sparrows on the city's roofs
She craved to soar through clouds,
to dodge the mist that rolled off waterfalls,
She wandered through unmarked lanes
Teetered along the crests of mountain trails and
galloped through rainstorms, her laughter peeling like the church bells.

The world, she found, repeated itself over and over again.
The Joyful monotony of nature made her daily sing a new song
--just like the day before
Wherever she went, she found strangeness,
strangeness inevitably transmuted to familiar,
by a magic beyond her ken.


"Home!" cried all the seagulls, swooping to their nests,
the nomad soul obeyed and pitched her driftwood tent.
"Forward, forward!" laughed the spring breeze,
rolling through nooks and dells of the dewy glen
Breathless, the nomad soul followed the wind
as it danced and laughed
"Rest, rest" urged the stars, as the thick night set;
a lonely pine cradled the nomad soul under a blue moon.
"Will you never stop?" mourned the hearth fire of the cottage.
"There is no country too strange or forest too remote,
a people too far off, nor horizon out of reach,
no fauna too foreign, nor clime too harsh
Nowhere on this wide, rocky earth
do I find myself estranged from home--

"-a prophet's Nazareth is in his heart," she said.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

tell me you love me by the charcoal fires

"For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say: 'Who will go up into the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?' Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?' 
No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts, you have only to carry it out."
-Deuteronomy 30:11-14

There is a trend, a pattern, a story of human beings seeking holy places--places where the heavens kiss the earth. Spots where the mundane dust of our globe's crust is united intimately with the sacred air of heaven, where a ladder drops from the clouds to the soft tuft of earth where Jacob dreams, to find the starry rungs where angels tread on their journeys to-and-from the firmament.

Human beings long to find those places, where the tantalizingly translucent veil between the natural and the supernatural becomes completely transparent, and all but vanishes.
So they flocked to the Temple in Jerusalem, to Mecca, to Jagannath, to the Bodhi tree, to the Mount of Olives, and so too, Kolkata.

Here, in Kolkata, a woman told me on the first dusty, noise-polluted, thoroughly overwhelming day: the veil between heaven and earth is very thin here.
And so it is.
When throngs of sisters in white saris sing hymns to the virgin in the blessed room they call their chapel, there seems to be no difference between heaven and earth.
Accompanying them is a rag-tag little army of volunteers, a motley crew of pilgrims who have flooded this place where the heavens kiss the earth.

Here you meet your brothers and sisters from all corners of the globe: the diminutive-looking woman from China, who spends her weeks saving people from death on the streets, accompanied solely by her sidekick (a chipper elderly Irish gentleman) and flanked by their gang of minions--tall boys with hip European haircuts (rosaries around their neck or in pocket, per Sister's strict instruction). They stride into the homes like sanctified superheroes, carrying with them half-broken bodies, with the gentle humility of heroes who know the work they do is not their own.

Here you meet the single young 20-something EMT from LA county, addicted to helping those around her, brought here for reasons unknown, simply trying to follow a dream, follow a call. They say Kolkata calls you. And what can you do but follow?

Here you meet Handsome Spanish Man, whose eyes are always pensive, melancholy and searching, but mysteriously full of Joy.
Here you meet the young girl following an irresistible and unquenchable call, running a path marked by clear signs pointing the way to an unclear destination.
Here you meet the blonde hippie lad who looks like Robert-Powell-as-Jesus, who encounters the Eucharist in a bizarre, majestic silence and an etheral stillness.
You meet a South African art therapist, a blonde, smiling Italian hippie, leading her crew of gorgeous Italian volunteers with laid-back confidence, a pushy, lovable New York journalist moved beyond words by the love of the Sisters, a young Malay chef between jobs.

All these pilgrims journey to this place, following the light left by a brave young woman who loved her neighbors. There, they find they encounter a mystery, an almost frightening paradox--the woman they came here to meet tells them to go home.
She says: "Find your own Kolkata." A distressing welcome to a seeker thirsting for answers.
But the answer is already in your mouth and in your heart--the answer was in your heart from the  moment your tiny heart began to beat in the dark sanctuary of your mother's womb.
Because the mysterious, magical reality of the blessed world we now dwell in is that God is with us. A giant tear has been ripped open in the curtain dividing the heavens and the earth that sundered creatures from their creator.
God has taken up His dwelling place with us--we are surrounded by Him.
We may grasp for Him as if He is far off, but He is not far from anyone.
He is not in the past, or in the future; He is not across the ocean, or up in the sky.
So do not stand looking up to heaven, cry all the angels, laughing at the foolish men staring up at the sky, our ladder has vanished because the one you seek now dwells among you. You will find Him in the eyes of your neighbor, in the small disc that tastes like bread, or in the deepest part of your heart, where binding and loosing take place.
Go find your own ladder; Jacob's is now cruciform in shape and terminates at the feet of a virgin, tending to the baby in a manger.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

the hardships of red-haired mystics

You have helped me learn to see,
That love is strong when I am weak,
The beautiful humility, 
Of being willing to receive.
--Danielle Rose, "Not a Burden"

Girish* said: I wake up everyday and say, 'Why, God? Let me go.'
Girish can barely sit up, and as I crouch next to him, the twenty-something-ish-invincible-picture-of-health, do I have the audacity or stupidity to say that if I was in his shoes, I would say anything different?
My prayer would be the prayer of Girish.
I can't take away the pain, nor can I step inside his shoes, as he begged, and experience someone feeding me potato curry and rice. But one day I may be older, and unable to walk, and possibly hooked to a catheter. 
I don't know what it would take for me to want to be alive then, in the midst of dull, perpetual days of pain.
But I do know that I would want someone to know my story.
And so I stepped inside Girish's shoes, and told him what I think I maybe would have wanted to hear. 
How could I know what I will want to hear forty years from now, as I, too, sit by my bedside and wait for someone to feed me, or adjust my pillow to slightly ease the awful gnawing of pain.
I don't know if words can heal, but sometimes they can be little Band-Aids to cover the open wounds of pain.
So, finally not lost for words, I looked Girish straight in the eyes, and said: Girish, your soul is full of stories. 
Your soul is full of stories.
And he nodded, and his eyes brightened.

Sometimes all you can do is offer someone a Band-Aid, as pathetic an offering as that may be.
Because it is not my love that has saved the world.

As any psalmist can tell you, the mystery of pain has an unspeakable answer that lies in the silent heart of God alone.
There are no words for it.
But as humans, we have been laid with the Sisyphean burden of attempting to make meaning of our lives.  Faced with a riddle, we find that to turn and to ignore the challenge is not an option.
So, the psalmist leads by example, and cries out day and night to the plaintive strumming of a lyre.
He never stops--he sings when his heart breaks, he sings when his heart leaps,
and somewhere in the midst of his singing, he has sung his way into an answer of sorts.
At least for the moment.
For as human beings, we march like the little tribe of ants marching on the wall by my bed from moment-to-moment. We hold each moment with us, while letting it go, consecrating it as a precious gem of memory; but casting it back into the sea, returning it to eternity, its origin and source.
And the psalmist, like a green olive tree, flourishes in his song.
And as he writes his story, he learns, even as he writes, the story of Love entering his life and molding something beautiful from it.
What are we without our stories?
Sister Nirmala looked at each one of us, and said: Everyone has a story of God's love in their lives--you, and you, and you, and you...

How on earth can we find it in our broken hearts to believe we are loved when we live each day like Girish in perpetually gnawing pain?
I looked into Lilly's endless dark eyes, and wondered what her story was, and how I would ever learn it.
Her rare smile opened up like her namesake flower, and there was palpable sunlight sparkling in her eyes.
Her beautiful curls had been cut off the other day, and with her closely shaven head, she looked like a little lamb.
I helped her try to hold the toy in her hand, repeatedly opening and closing, practicing how to make a fist with fingers that never fully bent.
In that moment I knew how alike Lilly and I were. 
Our stories may be very different on the outside, but on the inside, I realized, they are much the same.

Maybe the story of love that reside in our souls, or in the souls of our neighbors can be simple little lights for us when all other lights are dark.

Mary sat before the feet of the Lord, the only utterance possible-- a belch.
Mary stood on the shores of the sea, and wept with the bitterest Joy, because the salt air tasted vaguely like home and also something akin to eternity.
Mary stood with her sister Martha and no one saw Martha, because she was busy with many things.
Martha talked more than she listened, while Mary glowed with the quiet radiance of silence.
Condolences to all Marthas with ginger tresses;
they will never see you run out to greet your Lord.

*Ed. Note: I originally misspelled Girish's name [which is somewhat fitting, since I always mispronounced it]