Monday, June 30, 2014

heart to serve

I woke up this morning with dreams of India still swirling through my head.
Even in my dreams, I was nostalgic for the humidity and the rich spicy air,
and I walked through familiar streets, reading familiar signs and making our way to our guest house.
Inside, the guest house--a simple home--was transformed into a plush palace of Persian carpets and tapestries.

I remembered when we would see Missionaries of Charity's ambulances driving by us, we would get so ridiculously hopeful. Seeing them would cause our hearts to start beating faster, we would hope against hope that one of them would stop and take us up into their blessed shelter of semi-silence and some semblance of personal space--a relief from the chaos of the Kolkata traffic. It is wonderful to remember how desperate our hope when we glimpsed an ambulance, and how pathetic our despair when it passed us by, and yet how utter our joy when we caught a ride on one. It is silly how much such a little thing mattered, and yet it did.

I thought of how scared, how utterly terrified and overwhelmed I was that entire first week in Kolkata. I remember walking through the neighborhood streets in my completely temperature-inappropriate clothing, that I had worn, sweaty and dirty not only from the sun, but also from the thirty plus hours of travel. Jet lag and sleep deprivation and general culture shock made my vision blurry, and I remember following my compatriots through the streets with a filmy, gauzy veil pulled over my dulled senses.

Seeping into my mind, the memories of the sister's first vows permeated my dreams. Sharply and distinctly, I remembered sitting in the hot church, not yet accustomed to being cooled only by fans, and dozing off during the homily, and really anytime I was sitting for long periods of time. I clapped along as the novices danced in Motherhouse, and I stood dumbly in a corner and watched in awe as parents and families showered these grinning sisters with garlands upon garlands of fragrant, exotic Indian flowers. The music, the tinfoil decorations, the noise, the commotion. All this was so foreign to the sweet still of Motherhouse. My sense were decidedly overwhelmed.

I remembered sitting on the bus with Sister Beatina, who looked as me as though she remembered what it was like to be a tenderfoot in India. How overwhelming and exhausting the entire city was at first. She smiled at me kindly. And I looked away, out at the traffic piling up between Park Circus and the Zoological Gardens, in order to blink back the tears that came, unbidden, to my eyes and clogged up my throat.

Later, I found myself in the middle of the Zoological gardens, separated from most of the group, except for another volunteer and Maria and Pinky in her wheelchair. A monsoon rain--the first of the summer, but absolutely not the last--came roaring down on us. It soaked us all to the skin, try as we might to escape from it, it came crashing into us. I remember as I walked as quickly as I could through the zoo, thinking to myself: what is even happening here? What have I gotten myself into?

I recalled that moment when, scared but determined, I prayed at the foot of Mother's tomb. And I realized that I didn't have to wait for a mythical savior to show up with a plane ticket back to America. If I wanted to leave this place, I absolutely could. Acknowledging that I could leave convinced my wavering heart that I certainly was not about to do that. I looked up at the crucifix and said the only words that I could possibly think of in that moment: not quite a dare, more a cry for help, or the only promise one can offer when you have nothing else to give: Love on, I will requite thee.



Sunday, June 29, 2014

there i left them

To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 
--Paul of Tarsus

With bravery, with patience, with a considerable amount of discernment and prayer, he learned to write what he heard.
Which is not easy, not easy at all.
There are so many other messages, so many other thoughts that get in the way.
It is hard to remain free of distractions and to write only what you hear.
There are so many other words that we would rather write.
We are inconsistent creatures, who would rather write any other word than the one word that is given us.
It takes such faithfulness and constancy to stay the course, to trust that the one word we are being given is not constricting, but liberating.
That is we discipline ourselves to writing the one word, we will find that it contains all the meanings the other words we made up could never possibly express.
It is hard to believe that our desires for the other words are not much better than the desire we are supposed to reserve for the singular one.
It is tantalizing, intoxicating to think that there is a word that is being given to only us, that no one else could possibly understand.
To discover that we have been given a secret knowledge into an exclusive logos is a dangerously attractive prospect.
But this is quite the opposite of what we ought to do.

My tongue will never quite be able to forget the time that it was burned.
That the words came out painfully, in spurts.
It will probably never forget when the poor singed tastebuds tasted all the sweetest mishti, which felt like cardboard on my tongue.
But one must speak, even if one's tongue is burned.
And so I labored to say the words that no one has ever said easily, which have never been said without steep cost to the speaker.
Each time I worked up the courage to roll the harsh word off of my blistered tongue, I stopped short.
No, I would not say it, I would drink a glass of water, and roll the ice around my tongue instead.
For my tongue really did hurt, you know.
I really needed to nurse the poor thing back to health. Having a burned tongue is no good, no good at all.
All the enjoyment is sucked out of your food, as it all becomes tasteless mush with different consistencies and textures, now that your tastebuds are out of commission.
Your tongue feels raw and heavy, as each time it brushes against your lips or teeth, you are reminded of the hurt.
You have to heal your tongue, and if that means licking ice fresh from the freezer--ice so cold your tongue sticks to the cube.
First the numbness sets in, which, after the unrelenting, tropic sting of the burn, is a great relief.
Quiet, darkness fills the air, as your tongue remains lifeless and still, frozen in the midst of its healing.
After what seems like eons of waiting, one day, you find it is healed again.
A new age has begun--one where your tongue has been returned to you, and you can use it to speak again.
But not carelessly, so that it will be burned.
But with great wisdom and courage, so that it will say the word it was created to say, the word formed on its lips before the invention of the world, the word it can only murmur in the eyes of something deeper than the world, an assent, a fiat, whose power is found in fides:
Yes.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

life has no opposite

Running is one of those things I don't know why I do.
Running is for two kinds of people, it seems. The first kind are the health nuts; people who are just all around healthy. Despite the fact that I have eaten grilled tofu for almost every meal this summer ( more from a sense of expediency rather than concern for my body. There's never a line for the tofu station.), I'm certainly not a health nut. I love Nutella too much for that, I think.
Although this strange thing has happened to me now where junk food is no longer all that appealing.
I thought they say that your taste buds grow weaker as you grow older (which is why bitter foods like spinach, kale, and brussels sprouts become more appealing to your aging and dulling taste buds)?
Now that I no longer have the sharp and precise taste buds of a child, one taste my taste buds can keenly sense is the taste: Processed. They can smell a processed food a mile away.
They know. 
They know when something is faking it and something is the real deal.
They're sharp little monsters.
It's disappointing, because they really do demand the best: they can even taste the difference between a sweet, fresh, natural banana and an uncomfortably plump banana, juiced up on growth hormones or steroid water or magic potions or whatever farmers are putting into their bananas these days.
They're now able to taste the cow hormones in the water, too. Super inconvenient.
All this to say, I am not a health not. I have about zero interest in ever going to a gym, because gyms, I find, incredibly depressing. And they smell like too many humans sweating in one room. Which is also how a rock concert smells, but people don't mind it too much there, because they have altered their mental state to a point where they are no longer cognizant of the aroma that permeates the atmosphere around them.
No such substances are allowed at the gym, and furthermore, to have them at the gym would defeat all the health benefits gained by 'working out'. 
So, no gyms. Gyms are out.
But running, running is a different matter.
The second kind of people who love to run (and granted, there is probably great overlap here with the first group,) are the social runners. You know, the people who have running buddies and the couples who run together.
I feel like a sign of a stable relationship is definitely couples who run together.
I hate running with other people. (Maybe this is why I'm still single.)
In all seriousness, running with other people is the opposite of rejuvenating. Running is not social time, running is time where I forget all the people in the world and I find that it's just me, the sky, and the ground beneath my feet.
When I'm running, I can string phrases together in my head, and compose pages of unwritten dialogue.
When I'm running, I have no other obligation in those few moments than to listen to the birdsong, and taste the texture of the wind.
When I'm running I can feel the sweet icy air of winter on my face, or let the muggy air of summer run through my curls.
Running, you will protest, is an unnatural bore and an excellent way to destroy a lovely morning walk through nature.
Why would you engage in an activity whose sole purpose is to run yourself out to the point of exhaustion?
~
There comes a magical moment, sometimes, just rarely, when the wind is just right, or the sun shining through the tree leaves hit the path in front of you with just the right angle, or when the insistent summer rain is beating down on you, when you begin to fly.
Not literally fly, but very nearly.
And it doesn't happen every day. But every day, I continue to run, knowing that the next time I can fly will only come if I continue with the work of running.
Flying cannot come without practice.
Sometimes the practice is dull or hard or distasteful.
But those rare moments of flying are absolutely worth the drudgery. 
Those moments when you take off down the path with a renewed burst of speed, and although your feet are still touching the ground, your entire body is simply soaring through the air.
You are alone, flying through the rain, flying through the sunny morning, faster than a deer, moving with an intoxicating freedom.
Running at the speed of joy,  you find that this could very well be the pace that we were born to move at.
Your heart races, but it feels light and free, not worn out or exhausted.
It is the opposite of exhaustion.
It is exhilaration.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

falling in love with soap bubbles

Once upon a time, many moons ago, I sat with a boy on a sofa and he traced his name on my fingertips as the soft glow of the living room warded off the dark night outside.
We talked about things like what the painting Starry Night would taste like. Surely, he said, it would taste like a plum. Something rich and dark, velvety and tantalizingly fresh. I complimented him on his poetry, which he credited to my whimsical influence, a complement to his comedic practicality.
His fingers traced a map on the back of my hand, glowing lily-white in the dark room.
And we talked the sort of poetic nonsense that makes the world keep spinning.
Sometimes, on a particularly awkward date, I think of that moment, when every word was spiked with laughter, and the mysteries of the world such as: the taste of Van Gogh's Starry Night were revealed to us all. And I remember with fondness the gentle sparring with words and the spirit of play that permeated the conversation.
When I think I could settle for a man who speaks solely in hackneyed platitudes, I think of the moment I learned that Starry Night could taste like plums.

Before that, some time before, when I was younger and a bit more callow, before I learned that the looks boys give their sweethearts are more precious gifts than any number of roses or rings or words that men may give, before I learned to hunger for the gaze of lovers, there was a boy who looked at me with stars in his eyes. If you've ever seen two people who are in love, the look that passes between them is electric. It is something palpable, something only they two can see. It unites them across a room of strangers, it ties them together, pushing everyone else away. You feel yourself to be keenly on the outside of their 'Shining Barrier'. But you don't really care, because the vision of warm unity that exists inside the barrier is so breathtakingly lovely, it is a joy to just witness its very existence.
The Boy with Stars in His Eyes didn't look at me like that. First off, because that sort of look takes two people, and the stars in my eyes didn't shine for him.
And if you asked me day after day why they wouldn't, I don't think we could ever find the answer.
He looked at me with a gaze that had an enamored shine around the edges. It was that look of absolutely undeserved and delicious adulation that truly smitten boys will cast upon their clandestine lady-loves.
I wonder why I never paid those looks--bursting with deep wells of affection--any mind.
Maybe, if I'd just stared at him long enough, I would have been infected with the stardust in his eyes. If only I'd returned the gaze, maybe I could have caught the feverish glow that permeated his irises. 
I wonder sometimes.
When I think I could settle for a man who looks at me like I'm an Interesting Dinner Companion and nothing more, I think of the stare of the Boy Who Had Stars in His Eyes. 

Back when the world was very young indeed, younger than springtime and newer than hope, I felt a boy's lips on mine. And it didn't taste like grasping, it didn't feel like a clamoring after something, but rather, it felt like gift.
When I think I could settle for the kiss of a boy who looks for himself inside of me, I think of the boy whose lips tasted like fresh-fallen snow and gratitude.

Monday, June 23, 2014

divine bouts of wanderlust

Those who look to him are radiant
--Psalm 34

The big joke of senior year was Dove Chocolates.
Because Dove Chocolates have those really cheesy messages in them about usually things like: Be Your Own Valentine; or Chocolate Loves You Back When Everyone Things You're Rubbish; or Just Be A Human and Let Go of Worry and Eat Dove Chocolate Because Dove Chocolate Loves You;  Your Money; Dove Chocolate. Things like that. Sayings that I would say fall under the category of faux-advice that is helpful to no one.
But I saved them anyway.
Beating their wrinkled tinfoil surface into a beautiful flat, shiny sheet of small colored foil, I would use these little proverb-ed sweetmeat wrappers as bookmarks, as collage fodder, as gifts for other humans.
One of them hangs in the photo board near my bed right now, and it says something very simple:
Love What You Do.
Which, is a bold command, much bolder (I feel this is safe to assume) than the Dove Chocolate Wrapper Message Writers meant it to be. I could be wrong. For truly, maybe their intention was to tell us: life is not about a constant pursuit for Finding What You Love, and searching for that magic solution of a career that will Set My Heart On Fire with Energy and Enthusiasm for Life.
Life, truly, is about falling in love with the work of the moment: if the work of the moment is changing a diaper, or managing a company's finances, or listening to your really dull and frustrating co-worker ramble on about their weekend or sick cat, then you must fall in love with that.
Our mission is to find a way to fall in love with whatever task we are given to accomplish, to find a way to let love and life be present.
Our goal is to learn to love while living in any and every job we accept.
Love what you do.
Then,  I found this letter.
Sometimes, I clear out the piles of old papers: old notes from favorite classes, old lesson plans, old quotations marked on paper that is yellowing.
There, I found a letter-- not even half-written, never sent--that I had begun to compose for a friend. As I read it, I was struck by the memories of the day that I had been writing in the letter. The sunlight was warm, the air was chill, the basement of the house was too quiet, the whole day was rushed.
But even in the midst of that chaos, I had found the time to write a letter, and in the last half of that first paragraph I gush: I love this work. I can see myself doing this work. This gives me confidence, because when one narrows down one's thousand-storied castles in the clouds, full of possibilities, to one path, full of possibility, it becomes scary to find oneself doing one thing that at one point you thought you would and prayed that maybe you could hope to one day be in that position.
The courage to continue to fall in love with the work set before us comes from little messages--I'd say places like the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and those random snippets of sentences people just feel compelled to share to you sometimes--these messages are often found on shiny little pieces of wrinkled tinfoil, just waiting to spread their little message of hope and chocolate-laced happiness to all of us who approach them seeking epiphanies--even the ironic and flippant epiphanies.



Sunday, June 22, 2014

immortal monuments to his genius

God provides in love, as always, Holy Manna every day

If you don't find the Bread of Life discourses unpalatable, then you are clearly not paying enough attention.
It is a strange, scary teaching.
Additionally, as the priest at Mass tonight [it's sumer at Notre Dame, so I do this weird thing where I go to Mass in the evening, at 9pm. It's strange, and not at all like real life, but I kind of like it. Partially because it means that the first thing that woke me up this morning was the carillon ringing across the quad, summoning the church-goers to Mass. It felt dreadfully heathen of me and the sun to be lounging in bed, instead of leaping out to go worship the Lord. But there was never a wake-up call sweeter than that of the Church bells.] brought to our attention: Jesus was mega-insistent on this teaching. He was adamant. 
If the Bread of Life discourse was a pop song,
Amen, Amen I say to you would be the over-utilized chorus.
In the Bread of Life discourse we do not see Sassy Jesus who out-witticizes the Pharisees or lovingly tells off the Woman at the Well, nor do we see the soft and gentle Jesus who embraces the Woman anointing his feet, and says that "The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath," this is kind of a scarily intense Jesus, who seems desperate to make His point.
Eat my flesh and drink my blood, otherwise you will have no life within you.
Shoat.
Our homilist tonight (and really, this blogpost is basically just going to recap the homily, because it really simply was that good) played his tune upon the single string of Jesus' insistence on this particular point.
He seemed incredibly eager to drill this one truth into the hearts and minds of His followers. He acknowledged that this saying is hard and who can accept it? Who can accept it?
Goodness, who can? It's quite hard to do so. On one's own, it is absolutely impossible.
And then, I am struck dumb in my shoes by the prodigal love of someone who would come to me even when I doubt Him.
It is dangerous of Him.

One day, on a dusty, sweaty, bumpy bus ride back to Motherhouse from Shanti Dan, through the bumpy, crowded streets of Kolkata, a fellow volunteer asked me a question.
How do you stay strong? she asked. How do you get the strength to thrive in the midst of poverty, dirt, noise, chaos, danger?
I think I was too tired to make my answer more sophisticated or false, as I would have in civilized society. I remember looking her directly in the face and saying: the Eucharist.
There just was no other sustenance--not even Mother's magic biscuits, which legendarily cured a man's stomach ulcers-- that could possibly carry you through the day.
Because what you are doling out each day in Kolkata is love. The work is less about handing someone bread, and more about handing them a bit of your heart.
And we have such tiny little bits of love, barely enough to keep ourselves sustained, much less others.
Our limited love forces us to rely on another source of love to fill our reservoirs.
Thus, the Eucharist.
A place where our limitations are absorbed into the unlimited, consecrated like the broken bread on the altar, and given back to us, transformed. Our walls that held us back are transformed into viaducts of grace.
The Unlimited has entered into the limited.
I wonder each day how the world can hold such a miracle.
What has happened to the libertine story-teller of the prodigal son? Where now is the chronic Sabbath-breaker? Out of love for us, he invites us to this unyielding truth of the Eucharist
--Fr. Lou Delfra

Thursday, June 19, 2014

love-affairs on the sea

Sometimes, I just want to
crawl into my priest hole
where I'll find a bit of quiet
hidden in the muddy Reformation's
violent chaos.
There, I will read without
interruption
which is, of course,
a bibliophile's dream.

But books are contrary
entities, who wrap you in
a world that only one can
enter into at a time.
But books are inherently
vehicles of worlds
that must be shared.

The first thought of God
was a Word.
A word that could bridge
the impossible divide
between eternity and time
between creation and nothing
between power and weakness.

I stood in the rain,
because when you're crying,
sometimes it's nice to know that the
world can cry, too.
That even clouds are sometimes
stretched to a breaking point.

The clouds are afforded the luxury
of dumping out their misery on
any human underneath their sway.
They make the sky roar with thunder,
and crack the atmosphere with lightning.
Since we cannot do the same,
we look to nature to wreak the havoc
on the earth which
our emotions birth inside our hearts.

My red umbrella swayed in front of
the periwinkle sky.
A sky whose colors were bleeding
into the rainy treetops,
drowned in an evening dew.
Tears welled up in my eyes,
like the water puddling on
sidewalks at my feet.

The sounds of sobbing
were stifled in my throat,
and instead of making sounds,
they produced a hard lump,
a bolus of unchewed emotion
caught in my esophagus.

My phone, impossibly
broken, lay lamely
in my pocket.
Ruined by too many tears.

The first thought of man
was wordless.
Until, the word took flesh
inside his thoughts,
creating Thought itself--
a Thought made of Word.
Word that could be spoken,
thought that could now
be shared.

And in the periwinkle tree-tops,
under the golden sunset
sparkling behind the stormy sky,
the birds still sing.
The robins and the cardinals
trill their tender tune of hope,
as the plump raindrops
hit the ground
beneath the feet of
rambling sinners,
wandering in search of
saints hidden in rainstorms.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

more stable than sugar

"Here I am, Lord"
-- Most People in the Bible

I laughed out loud when one of the presenters at Notre Dame Vision had the above quote appear in his Prezi, whose vibrance and exuberance almost matched that of the speaker himself.
And it is curious.
Because I don't think that the people in the Bible said: "Here I Am, Lord" because they are People In the Bible--people somehow different from the rest of us because they eat manna and wear sandals and flowing robes--but rather, they are in the Bible because they said: "Here I am, Lord." 
I do believe the concept of Vocation is one of the most dangerous concepts that Christianity has ever brought to our attention. 
Dangerous, because it can be a distraction. 
The future, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis' marvelous literary anti-protagonist, Screwtape, the future is what is least like eternity. The past is a solid moment of reality that has simply passed us in time. The future is really not anything human beings can concern themselves with, because it is very much not within our realm of understanding.
A lot of what we think we know about the future is equal parts our own imagination and our excellent speculation.
But the future is really Mystery. Absolute mystery. 
Thus, if we obsess over the future, I think we risk more than our insistence on holding onto the past.
There is something a tad immortal about nostalgia, about a longing for what was.
It signals to us that perhaps there will be a time where there will no longer be what was, but only what Is. 
But the future. The future can become an idol so easily. So that, all of a sudden, what we are truly seeking is to Find Out Our Vocation rather than to simply do the will of God each day.
This is a very understandable misstep, because we are creatures of distraction, who court curiositas at every possible convenience.
It is much more comforting to think about all the possibilities of the future than to dig into the drudgeries opportunities of the present moment.
Someday, far off in the future, the True Path of Our Lives will be Revealed to Us. And we waste time, energy, and prayer trying to divine what that Path will be.
But 'Someday' will never become Today. 'Someday' is an illusion our hearts made up to fill up the unspeakable and unquenchable desire for love that springs up inside us.
For there it is, behold, the path is right in front of us. 
We are already on the journey, before we even knew how to walk.
We learned to walk by taking one small, shaky step out of our mother's arms into the wide expanse of living room, with only a berber carpet beneath our feet, the nearest coffee table endless steps away.
So, very sensibly, we fell. Because our legs were not strong enough yet to reach the coffee table.
But babies do not give up, their instincts that demand they explore the world and enter the wonder of motion and training the muscles inside of them to harmonize into movement has not yet been snuffed out by the will. Or maybe, it works in tandem with the infant's budding will and sense of self. 
So, the infant falls, but then gets up again and takes another step.
And then another.
And another.
Until one day, its muscles and nerves have learned how to synchronize into a movement known as "Walking to the Coffee Table."
Then, after walking to the coffee table, the infant, on the cusp of toddlerhood, learns to walk across the house, and through the halls, and maybe even down the stairs (a few tumbles ensue from this perilous venture).
The infant becomes toddler, the toddler in turn becomes a young boy who races all the neighborhood girls. Their steps are now leaps and bounds, as they race across the park down the block from their house.
The young boy becomes a young man who walks along the river with a girl on his arm, each step beating on the ground like the blood that rushes through his pounding heart.
The young man's walk becomes a father's walk, a husband's firm and steady footsteps.
It all began with the first wobbly gait of a toddler.
A toddler must learn to walk.
In turn, his walking will one day lead him to where he needs to go.

Grant that we, Lord, who call upon you in our need may, by your prompting, discern what is right, and by your guidance, do it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

lilies strewn across the muddy milky way

Woo me, she demanded.
As I looked into her eyes, I felt something inside of me quicken and quake.
She had issued a dare too blatant to ignore.
I swirled the ice around in my tumbler, letting the clink of ice against glass distract me from the words that were lobbied at me.
I often pay lip-service to my desire that women could imitate the straightforward manner of my own sex.
Communication is a lot more pleasant, you know, if it's delivered in a concise, clear manner. No guessing, no games, no beating around the real meat of the issue. 
Just make your point in simple English, and there you are.
But this was a sort of candor that would make a mighty oak quake.
I wished that there was bourbon left in the glass. 
Alas, there was none. 
Liquid courage always deserts a man when it is most needed.
Her words cut through the layers of affected mystery I had carefully assumed that morning with the rest of my toilette:
Do it. If you're so wonderfully keen on me.
I, at a complete loss for words, resorted to the classic--and much maligned-- ad hominem argument that my high-school debate teacher had thoroughly whipped out of me. 
Unfortunately, my high-school debate teacher was not here. In private moments, all the instruction of my saintly and aggressively encouraging high-school debate teacher on the subject of the Properly Constructed Argument ["The Properly Constructed Argument is the Properly Conducted Argument."] tended to fly from my mind as if the hounds of the Baskervilles were at their heels.
Thus, I spoke, to disastrous affect:
Sort of quite not a lady-like thing to do, ain't it? Daring a lad, I mean. That's quite a tall order, quite a dare. Rather bold, I'd say.
She didn't seem very impressed with that statement, and sent a withering glance through my eyes into the back of my skull.
Well, rather, I think it was supposed to be withering. 
I felt rather creamy inside, rather like my heart had turned into a tureen of tomato soup.
But I also felt a cold chill of contempt run up and down my spine, sort of in the area of my brain stem, right where her icy-cold eyes had landed.
She launched into such a tirade.
And what a tirade, I didn't listen to much, I'm afraid. I mean, I'd gathered the gist of it:
Some remarks (peppered with absolutely titillating tones of bitter vitriol) about gentlemen not leading ladies up the garden path and into the valley of derision or debauchery or something along those lines.
She was a vision to behold when her temper was aroused, she peaked when piqued, sort of.
Her eyes glistened with all the saucy fire that was stored up inside of her, and she tossed her head, and her arms gesticulated about, cutting through the air at haphazard angles like some possessed windmill.
With every breath inside my body, I wished I was Don Quixote, and I would charge like a madman into those windmills, and those arms would wrap themselves around me and hold me prisoner in an embrace worthy of a giant.
And if you just won't, then I don't see the point of all this.
I wanted to tell her that I would. My God, of course I would. That, dearest goose of a creature, that was all I had wanted to do for quite some time, and I did think that I would do it, come hell or high water.
But the words didn't really shape up the way I wanted to them to. She had that effect on me. On my own, in my head, I could talk to her with all the eloquence of Wordsworth. 
But, then I would talk to her face, and realize that all sorts of surprising things came out of her mouth that I was never quite prepared for, and had to pull the troops back and regroup.
By then, she had flittered on to the next thing, and my nascent eloquence was left behind in the dust.
I would I was never really good with words, not to her, not out loud.
So, my mouth moved, I think. Perhaps it was frozen.
All I know is that no words came out.
She looked at me. Her icy eyes had softened a bit and looked more like the deep blue of a frozen river than a steel knife.
I could feel them looking into mine, but I don't think she found anything in the soft brown shades that effectively disguised the windows of my heart.
She sighed.
She moved her chair out from the table, stood--so slowly, like molasses rising-- and pushed the chair back in, very deliberately.
Too deliberately.
I knew that if I just reached out and touched her hand the frozen river in her eyes would melt and begin to flow.
But I etched out invisible designs on the cold glass of my tumbler with my fingernail.
And I could barely look at her as she hesitated behind her chair, hovering in mid-air for a second.
In my peripheral vision, I made careful note of the soft twitches in her fingers, her mouth, open as if to speak, and the tension in her foot, poised to move, but suspended in the air for a second.
And then, the moment passed, without me lifting my head. 
I stared at the ice cubes for an elongated minute, watching the perspiration form on the glass as the ice began to melt.
All that was left was a faint whiff of her perfume.





Saturday, June 14, 2014

telos-poaching harpies

There is a fruit bowl on the table,
made of beaten rose gold,
it's filled with onions and their skins,
newly peeled off from their succulent 
bodies whose aromas penetrate
everything
they weave their way into her
silver curls,
the disneyfication of the university
mulling underneath her sunburnt skull.


Last night, the sounds of the wedding poured out of the high arched windows, 
the music drowned out by the sounds of laughter, 
and the laughter drowned out by the brilliant gold 
light that washed the dark treetops in brightness, 
to no avail. 
The dark green trees cracked the flood of golden light, 
as their labyrinthine limbs crept up towards the moon.
The pale orb of the full moon 
was listlessly floating through the sky 
on a bed of wispy cirrocumulus clouds.
It caught the breath that hung in my mouth and 
suspended it in front of my lips in the air.

There is something so strange and wonderful 
in the mud of earth beneath your feet,
dense, damp, packed down tight 
as myriad footprints are carved into the soil.
And above you, the treetops are kissed 
with the gold of the morning sun.

At sunrise, the golden hour is fresh, new, 
sweet as the first strawberries of summer.
The morning is filled with goodness; 
how could anything evil be stirring before breakfast?
The golden hour before sunset is different: 
it is sadder, it is older, it is wiser.
The music of the day has suffered 
some discordance. 
But Golden Hour of Sunset wraps up all these wounds 
into the melodious light that 
heralds the slumber of the sun.

As I run through the treetops, 
the first golden hour of the day 
slanting through the trees,
my breath beats fast along with 
my pounding heart.
The golden sunbeams wash the pale virgin leaves, 
but their gilding slides right off--
the leaves, free of the weight of gold,
wet with dew, dance in time to the 
song of the robins carried by the morning breeze
The music of the violins soars up to the treetops, 
with each swell of the music, 
it rises.

The violin is an uncanny instrument, 
made by creatures confined to earth 
in order to gain the heights that 
only the songs of birds 
can reach.



Tuesday, June 10, 2014

pursued by skunks

Reality's a lovely place, but I wouldn't want to live there.
--The Real World, Owl City

And just like that, only several hours and one Missionary of Charity sighting later, I am back.
I felt as though I had somehow cheated.
I had found a wormhole, a loophole in time that has allowed me to come back to this place which is no longer really my home.
As I stepped on campus, the world was hazy with the surreal nature of reunion.
As I ran through the rain, the sidewalks reflected the familiar buildings back up at me.
The pavements were riddled with memories, the entire campus was painted in a heavy wash of rhythm, rhythms that have soaked themselves into each tree,
each bench,
each building.
Trying to picture a life that is not lived in that rhythm sort of knocks the wind out of me for a moment.
My heart skips a beat, as it's not sure how to process this idea.
As I ran, my heart filled with fond memories at each step.
As the rain kissed my skin, I stopped at the Grotto.
It was silent, quiet. There was no one there.
Campus was guarded only by the dear priests in Corby Hall and the bells of the basilica ringing.
They played the Alma Mater, and I tried to remember the last time I had heard their sweet, familiar sound. I felt it must have been at least a year.
How could I have gone an entire year without their sweet anthem?
And I realized, in a flash, that this summer will be a lesson in learning to let go.
I walked through the trees, the last raindrops falling off the trees.
I looked up into the sweet, inky eternity of the night sky.
And I felt a rush of gratitude for my new little dorm room and the surreal and strange five weeks I get to live in it.
It is a grace period. 
A period in which to live inside the aberration of the rhythm and to say goodbye.

Monday, June 9, 2014

he told me everything I've ever done

It's mystifying and delightful how words and pictures and moments come into your life, and transform it so deeply that you never knew a time when those fragments of words or that glorious moment was not a part of your vocabulary.
Just as it is impossible to remember how you thought before you had the language in which to think, it becomes nearly impossible to imagine how you encountered the world before you had that moment to include in your imaginative parlance.
Thus, a life that is lived in the light of a particular vision becomes nearly impossible to render without that scope of vision.
~
I remember once, several summers ago, picking up A Ring of Endless Light. Prompted by the stormy winds of time and college, I decided it was time to return to the anchor that is Madeleine L'Engle's lucid writing. I had read The Irrational Season that semester, and its clarity had tasted familiar and was at the same time completely novel and refreshing.
I had decided that I liked L'Engle once more.
Many Waters is the culprit responsible for my exile from L'Engle's lovely prose for so long. Misguidedly, I read Many Waters at that unfortunate adolescent stage when any mention of nudity or of a human's more delicate regions is met with great embarrassment and uncomfortableness. Obviously, this embarrassment rises because the images are far more vivid for you, the wide-eyed and adolescent, dazed by hormones and the adult world rapidly swallowing up your childish horizon, than they are intended to be by the author, an enlightened and sophisticated adult, whose mind is blessedly unaffected by the tsunami of hormones that daily engulf the teenage brain. (Sadly, Perelandra was victim to the same phenomena at roughly the same time. Thus, if you had asked me before the age of twenty to summarize that volume, I would have told you: Oh, it's a bunch of naked people running around on floating islands on Venus, slitting the backs of fogs. Dreadfully unpleasant. Thankfully, my perennial crush on C.S. Lewis impelled me to revisit the gentle and stern beauty of Perelandra. As I do not harbor the same feelings for L'Engle, Many Waters has not benefitted from the same treatment. Perhaps it is time to revisit that book. But also, something whispers to me I may not find a world as lush as Perelandra inside the covers of this novel about story of the nephilim and the Murrays. But that is another discussion for another time.)

Anyhow. Now that you have an overly involved and highly unnecessary history of my relationship with the writing of Ms. L'Engle, we will return to the point.
 I decided I liked Madeleine L'Engle once more.
Thus, I began to read A Ring of Endless Light at a time when I was:
a. halfway through my college career
b. seeking some answers. 
(This strikes me as a rather obnoxious and clichéd thing to say [although to say something is both obnoxious and clichéd may be a bit redundant]. For it seems to me that all humans are in a constant state of seeking answers. So, what I suppose we mean when we say that "so and so is seeking some answers" or "it was a time in my life when I was seeking the answers" what I really mean is that I currently had a lot of angst about finding the answers. It is not to say that usually at the end of this period, we find answers, usually we don't, but we've achieved some sort of zen about it. Either because we've read enough Rilke, and we've embraced the command to "live the questions now" or because we've had a twin encounter to Orual's, and we've found the one "before whose face the questions die away". The one who "Himself is the answer."
And then after that, I don't have angst about finding the answers. Partially because I suppose I trust they the answers are indeed provided for in some way [in the words of my father: I am what I am and I have what I need], but mostly because I have a good book to read or a play to write, and I really haven't time to fret over luxuries like answers.)

I only got far enough in this new L'Engle book about this new family known as the Austins to know that this book was about dolphins (promising, but not tantalizing), and it contained the enchanting and wonderful phrase: "hair-colored hair." For the next two years, I couldn't have told you anything about that book. But I knew I would have gone to my grave remembering the delightfully accurate and beautiful phrase: "hair-colored hair."
I didn't get very far in the book, and the reasons why are shrouded in the misty non-remembrances of the past.
I think I was interrupted by Moby Dick (a rather obtrusive character, you know).
In turn, Moby Dick was interrupted by Life, and so, in the process of writing my own story, I sadly had to toss both Melville and L'Engle overboard on that particular voyage.

Eventually, however, I came back. Of all the L'Engle books to choose, I chose A Ring of Endless Light, because the quote that had lodged itself so firmly into my mind, my heart, my outlook on life and my identity was Grandfather's charge in Vicky, near the denouement of  A Ring of Endless Light.
"You are to be a lightbearer, Vicky, you are to choose the light."
There will come along people in your life who are messengers, usually without meaning to be.
This quote was a gift to me from one of these.
Thus, I read A Ring of Endless Light, hoping to find something in this book something that would elucidate that charge.
Something that would perhaps add to the weight that those simple sentences bore in my heart.

And what I found was such a sweet surprise.
I have never read a book whose phrases, whose lessons, whose words seemed as if they were plucked from my heart.
I have never encountered a story that seemed to parallel so utterly with my own.
(Not that my life is full of telepathically communicating with dolphins, as Vicky's happens to be that fateful summer. But we're talking about substances here, friends, not accidentals.)
Although wildly different from me, the heroine, Vicky Austin, seemed to be experiencing so many of the lessons of life: the sweet ones and the sour ones that I have learnt (both willingly or in spite of my self) over the past four years.
From the hair-colored hair to her discussions with Grandfather about evil.
The wrestling with death, the deepening love for her family, staying home to nurse a loved one--even when it really only means being present to them, mothers reading out loud at bedtime, the stars, angst about boys, navigating younger siblings' new selves.
But, really, at the heart of it all is Vicky's journey to discover her voice in her writing, discover that inside of herself is this budding poet--a poet whose voice shines through most clearly when she empties herself. 
Vicky's journey is to find those moments where she is free--no longer a self replete with self--but an empty shell, waiting to be picked up by Someone who will say: This is not dead, and can then fill it with Himself.
If I could pick a book that summed up the past four years, I would choose A Ring of Endless Light.

~
It's funny how you can find yourself in stories.
Or, to find a moment that you, too, have witnessed manifest itself inside a tale.
To read a story about a place you love, or about a time of day you thought only you had ever noticed or fallen for.
To find out that a love you have felt inside of you has been felt by many others, all over the world--from the dawn of time until even now.
It is incredible, awe-inducing, terrifying, and enchanting to discover that shimmering underneath all our stories is The Story--
A ring of endless light that cuts through the dazzling dark.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

veritable sabbath of the mind

"Words are life, Liesel."
--Max, The Book Thief


Now that my college education has ended, pretty much the number one thought that has been churning in my mind is the importance of an education, and why everyone ought to have as much of an education as they can.
Mostly, of course, when I mean an education, I mean those fields of study which the human race has cultivated since the middle ages, and before that in antiquity.
The arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which have given us some of the world's greatest poetry, drama, and literature of all natures.
Geometry and arithmetic, that art of unlocking the world's form with numbers and heart-bracingly elegant equations, dazzling in their simplicity.
Astronomy, the practice of looking beyond ourselves, to gain some perspective by charting the infinite.
Music, that discipline of crafting audible mystery.
These disciplines that have yielded so many great artists and scientists, writers and readers, great thinkers, who were adept at listening to the world around them.
Education depletes our lonely state in some way, for it unites us to the rest of the human race. As we race about in our Priuses and browse the internet on iPhones we live a life so different from the medievals, we are almost an alien race--a people quite disconnected from the past.
But not quite. 
For we too can behold the marvelous carved stones of Westminster, and our hearts can beat faster as we climb with Dante through the strata of the Paradisio.
Our literature and our art, our science particularly, brings us into step with the great march of persons who have gone before us.
And, sometimes, it introduces us to literary (perhaps even spiritual) fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. We do not have to call just one person "mother and father" when it comes to writing, there can be many teachers whose work nurtures us, as if we were their child.
 Flannery O'Connor taught me what I know, quoth the lovely woman with the peacock feathers inked onto her hand. She spoke her name with a sweet and easy familiarity that transcended casualness, and approached reverence, as if naming a dearest friend or sister. 
Beating in sympathy with hers, my heart knew instantly what sort of connection she could claim with this woman Flannery. Although I cannot claim to understand the empathy that must exist between author and reader after years spent reading for a doctorate degree, I had already felt an inkling of that connection the first time I read Madeleine L'Engle, or when I read Surprised by Joy. When you find an author who seems to write with words they hand-picked from your own private imagination, you cannot help but feel some deeper love for them than just a cursory fondness. Dubbing someone 'your favorite author' is perhaps one of the greatest compliments you could ever give another human.
The word 'author' is filled with much more depth and height and greatness than simply a title meaning 'purveyor of stories.' 
At its sweetest and dearest, 'Author' is someone who has taught you something so integral it has formed everything else you know, a someone who has not just shaped your education, but who has been your education.

Education introduces us to the heights of beauty that other human beings have achieved.
In the face of the many atrocities of the world: Apartheids, Holocausts, Genocides, Wars, human beings treating their brothers like cockroaches, bombs that rip apart homes, education stands as, not an answer, not really.
I don't know if one can point to all the great works of literature as somehow creating enough beauty or goodness and truth to account for the snuffing out of a human life.
The problem of evil, the dilemma of pain, particularly pain that humans are capable on inflicting on other innocents is a troubling problem, and all the great thoughts of the ancients cannot reconcile why a child should suffer a bloody and painful death (c.f., The Brothers Karamazov).
I sincerely doubt we can look to art to provide the salvation we seek in the face of death.
But, let us listen to the words of Death himself. Death, the all-too-familiar narrator in Brian Percival's symphonic cinematic retelling of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, after recounting his encounters with many different characters of the story in their last moments, murmurs simply:
  I am haunted by humans
Who is this race of people who, in the midst of war, can read together around candlelight?
Who are these strange creatures who, when there are men being dragged off to fight all around them, find some solace in the beauty of a sunlit forest?
Who are these people who, while engaged in the bloody battle of survival, can write down the poetry that wells up inside them, and the thoughts that lift them to the stars?
Who are these men whose minds contemplate the heavens on whale-ships and ponder the ocean while wandering deserts?
Who are these sisters and brothers who can look their executioners in the eye and let the last words that leave their lips be: forgive them, for they know not what they do?

I don't think art and literature can ever answer the question of pain.
And all the education in the world will never outweigh the evil that is one man rising up to strike down his brother.
Rather, education gives us proof of the greatness that humans are capable of, in spite of (or a more disturbing and mysterious and altogether probable theory--because of) the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
In the midst of great hardship, of deep sorrow, of wasteful death, and senseless tragedy, a human can still seek beauty. The wretched miseries of a country riddled by deep injustices can become a story such as Les Miserables. The product of a country scourged by cruel tsars and dictators is the canon of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Gogol and Pushkin. A man going deaf can become the sounds of Beethoven's fifth.
An education exposes us to the heights and depths of beauty humans have sounded.
Through our education, we learn the thoughts thinkers have discovered as they have set their minds towards plumbing the mysteries of the universe.
It exposes to us the truths that humans have uncovered while seeking to answer the question of Pilate: What is Truth?
Human beings are masters of imitation.
When we watch how our forefathers and mothers have made art in the midst of adversity, how our ancestors sought truth in the midst of lies, and how the generations that came before us learned to find beauty in an angry and cruel world, we learn how to do the same.
We are exposed to the responses so many men have given to the question that haunted Pilate, the refusal of so many men to portray the world as only suffering, the insistence of so many men to create something beautiful, 'useless' though it may be.
Their responses to the world around them give us pause. For a second--for a daring, bold, tantalizing second--they suggest to us that perhaps we are greater than the easy answers and mindless distractions of our world would want us to believe.
Our minds, intended to plumb the depths of the cosmos, are meant for greater things that beating Angry Birds.
For education, art, literature, science, all these great achievements of human beings are really just symptoms of the deeper grandeur that lies within each human soul.
The David, the Duomo, The Tempest are all just evidence that prove the cosmos' hypothesis.
Human beings haunt death, because there is something in each human that death cannot touch.
There is a resilient bit of indestructibility inside each human that bursts forth in the poetry of Keats or Tagore, or the paintings of Caravaggio or Dalí.
This is the importance of education.
It is not that Education outweighs Evil.
It is that education unlocks the power that rests inside each human soul to fight the darkness.
Education instructs each of us in how great and ordinary humans who came before us contributed to the light.
Through their example, we learn the courage to do the same.

Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
 The only throb she gives,
 Is when some heart indignant breaks, 
To show that still she lives.
 --The Harp that Once Through Tara's Halls, by Thomas Moore

Saturday, June 7, 2014

something altogether ancient

Souls like the wings
 Spreading out
Away from bad memories
--The Avett Brothers Souls Like the Wheels

The repeated phrases of Holy Week create a fabric of memory, a common background on which the drama is yearly set.
In this tapestry, there are lines, little phrases from the repeated psalms that are woven so deeply into the celebration of Holy Week transform our memories.
They take words and transform them into understandings.
Throughout the year, whenever I hear Psalm 30 or Psalm 61, it reminds me of the smoke rising from the candles at Easter Vigil. I am transported, by the signal that these words bear, back to the dark Church on that sacred feast.
These signals inside of words become a common tongue, a hidden language, that engender the meaning in them that arises from collective memory.
These pieces of music, these phrases transform the tapestry of the story.
With each retelling, the story only becomes sweeter, deeper.
Each year, it grows richer and richer instead of stale.
It is very strange of us to want anything other than the comfort of a true story being told over and over again.
This human obsession with novelty is rather mystifying.
Perhaps it is because we are not comfortable in our eternal skin.
Instead of seeking to find more truth in the Truth, we desperately seek truths that are new and novel.
But this repeated Truth, over and over again, always reveals new elements of itself.

Priests, when giving out holy communion, either look stoically unattached, or have a general, pleasant smile on their face.
Their faces alternately seek to reflect the solemnity of the moment, or its joy.
They are nothing more than conduits for the host, and they aim to fade into the background.
I opened my mouth to receive the host, and felt the collision of the small white disk on my teeth.
I blushed (can you say: Catholic Girl Problems), but my embarrassment was quickly alleviated.
Oops, sorry! the priest chuckled.
Then, he let out the most ridiculous giggle in the middle of that solemn moment.
Bursting out of him in spite of himself, that laugh cut through the sweet tones of the cantor's "Bread of Life".
I couldn't help but laugh with him as well, my merriment a great bemusement to the gentle but curious-looking cupbearer.
In a flash, I felt that searing joy of reunion I had felt so long ago, in a simple plaster chapel in the hot summer morning, with loud Kolkata traffic outside failing to penetrate the quiet peace within those blue plaster walls.
It was a moment of great tenderness in the midst of a solemn feast.
I felt as though a word that had been spoken to me long ago had come back to revisit me,
as though one of the pieces of the old tapestry had presented itself in a novel form.
The old and familiar was hidden inside something new,
bright as the dawn, and full of gladness.

For the spring that follows after every winter /shake the dust
--Anis Mojanji

Friday, June 6, 2014

starlight painted on the pavement

It was such a small journey, in feet, but it felt as if I were striding from one end of the universe to the other, the light of the Alps illuminating my way.
--Richard C. Morais, The Hundred Foot Journey

I came home in the midst of a rainstorm.
As we landed on the airport runway, streaks of rain running down the windows of the aircraft.
But inside the house was a homecoming like I'd never seen before.
The light in our house is so soft and malleable, it adjusts to suit the changeable moods of its inhabitants, the atmosphere bends to the ready tempers that dwell inside it.
The kitchen was filled with a warm light that did not come from the outdoors.
The gloomy grey cloud-banks outside only accentuated the joy that radiated inside the yellow kitchen.
There was something fresh and lively about the house. 
Each person seemed to chirp and chatter with their own exciting news, all the private joys inside of them spilling out in one big iridescent hullabaloo.
The kitchen pulsed with the various stories of twenty-somethings, teenagers, and one eleven-year-old boy who keeps up with all his older siblings.
I didn't look so closely at everyone's faces, but there was a collective smile that settled down over the entire room, incubated by the rain glistening on the window panes.
Joy echoed in the linoleum floor and the stuccoed ceiling.
Breathlessly, my own story poured out of me and added to the general joyful chaos.
I stepped back to take in the scene, and something tugged at my heart. 
Quietly, something whispered that this was a side of growing up I had never seen before.
Perhaps, it suggested diplomatically, growing up is not simply about loss, but about gaining something new as well.
Like yesterday, with my mother and the math book.
As she picked up Saxon Math Book Number 87, my mother said: I don't need this anymore. Confused, and intrigued, I looked up from the world of ante-bellum masters and slaves that was holding a firm grip on my attention.
I understood her meaning: my youngest brother had just finished his math lesson for the year. And instead of saving this book for the next child in line, my mother was to retire the book for good.
There was no child next in line to inherit the book, as we had done for so long, ever since I first inherited that book from my older sister many years ago ( she had impishly changed the threes to eights in several of the problems, causing me great confusion and distress).
It was strange to think of a cycle that had seemingly continued ad infinitum was finally coming to an end.
Usually, my response to growing up is nostalgia for the old days, when there were baby toys scattered across the living room floor, baby gates at the top of the stairs, and lots of little baby clothes in the laundry hamper.
I miss the hurried nature of life when everyone had to pile into the minivan to go to the grocery store, and when you vied with your siblings over who got to take the crying baby to the back of church during the homily (because you wanted to get out of the pew as much as the screaming infant).
Sometimes, I'll look at old pictures of all our little selves sitting on the front porch eating ice cream or playing dress-up out in the backyard, and I miss the simplicity of being a small child.
In a large family, being a small child is great fun: there are the mornings you wake up early to start your Barbie games before mom makes you start school, Christmas mornings, mornings your mom surprised you with waffles and whipped cream for breakfast.

But, there, in that kitchen, was the joy of when everyone in the family is, to a certain extent, grown-up.
There is a different sort of simplicity in the love fostered between siblings who can talk to one another about their art projects or science lessons and psychology theories, and what they're scheming over and what they're dreaming for.
It's a different sort of fun than running the plastic dinosaurs through all sorts of terrors and tribulations in your giant maze book with your brother, but it's good fun nonetheless.
There was something new in that kitchen that had never been there before.
Coming home to new things (substantial new things, I mean, not like new ovens, or new sofas, or new pictures on the wall) is jarring. But not a bad sort of jarring, just the good kind--the kind that makes you more attentive and alert, interested in the environment around you. 
Like when something jerks you out of your drowsy head-bobbing in an afternoon class. 

As I drove out into the pouring rain, sheets of lightning cutting through the velvet night with rosy blades, I turned up the Chopin prelude.
The sweet music and the savage rain blended together so sweetly.
Sort of like loss and gain.
Making a crashing harmony, like thunder and lightning, like adulthood and childhood.
It was a fierce juxtaposition, and I felt its electric charge run through my blood as its violent symphony soared through the wet and wild air of the storm outside.


As man understands, he knows how to go on.
--Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


Thursday, June 5, 2014

it can't be a mistake if I just call it change

Stay, stay, 
Until the hasting day 
Has run 
But to the even-song; 
And, having pray'd together, we 
Will go with you along.
--To Daffodils, Robert Herrick

Homecoming is very sweet, but also, like most sweet things, there's a hint of bitter in them.
Like my mother's bourbon candy, which is covered in a coating of bitter chocolate.
If it's consumed along with the sugary, pecan-filled inside, it tastes divine.
But woe to the over-eager helper who sneaks a taste of the chocolate while they're dipping the candies.
Their mouth will taste of cacao and it will probably appeal to their five-year-old palate about as much as wormwood would.
The bitterness of homecoming this time was when I went to put my suitcases down in my bedroom, and found all my little sister's belongings there instead.
This is called the circle of life, and it does indeed move us all.
And I felt quite whirled around and muddled by the circle of life moving me so swiftly.
But instead of Rafiki showing up to comfort me as I wrestled with the strange new movements of the universe, and the blow they had dealt me, my little sister asked me if I could shut the door ALL the way, so that the light from the playroom DOESN'T COME IN.
I performed the requested task (but could not resist a completely unnecessary but very satisfying: yes, mistress [murmured in an obsequiously subservient manner that did not in the least bit disguise my saucy intentions from the princess trying to get her beauty sleep] ), and retreated to the extra bed upstairs.
This extra bed upstairs was my old bed many moons ago.
But the room has changed so much, it doesn't remind me anymore of when my sister and I would keep each other up at night telling nonsensical jokes that had us rolling in our sheets with laughter, and when we would organize and rearrange the furniture in the room in a hundred new combinations and arrangements, or when I would hide for hours under the bed with the bandboxes and winter sheets, reading a book in sunlit peace, or when we would jump off the top bunk onto the door, and swing back and forth until we heard mom's footsteps approaching.
All the Peter Rabbit/Beatrix Potter has been washed out of the room, and now it is very much my sister's, filled with rosy light and delicate new light fixture, that looks like something out of Eloise.
My sister and I would have killed for a light fixture like that.
So, the next morning, I went downstairs after my little sister left, and ran my hand over the soft, silky cotton sheets of My Bed.
Every time I came home from college for a break, one of the best moments was the first time I would lay my head down on My Bed.
It is the best bed in the world. It has a firm mattress, soft pillows, and a rosy comforter.
I made My Bed--it is the only bed in the world I have ever enjoyed making.
When my sister goes off to school, I hope that she will enjoy coming home to this bed as much as I have.
And I thought of the bedroom upstairs that had been mine, and was now so thoroughly not-mine.
I realized that it was time for this bedroom to follow suit.
So I fluffed up the pillows, and straightened the comforter, and turned off the light as I left the room behind.

  Gradually along the range 
All things exchange their light 
For darkness. //
 And around us sounds 
Of things we cannot see 
Begin to rise:
--Night in the Mountains, Heather Allen

I walked through the woods in my backyard, to visit the playhouse my grandfather helped us build.
It was still there, so solidly and sturdily half-constructed.
It had braved windstorms and the worst kinds of polar weather.
The lean-to that we'd built of sticks, a veritable mansion made out of the forest's scraps and left-overs, had finally been dismantled.
I remember building it behind my father's green-bean-laced fence.
We'd assembled all the sturdiest sticks we could find throughout the woods, along the different paths that the neighborhood kids had carved through the treacherous poison ivy. Together, we hoisted those sticks together into a house: there was the spacious and well-swept kitchen and main room. Meticulously, we would sweep out that room, and beat the dirt floor down into a smooth and welcoming surface.
Then, the lovely hall led from the kitchen into the first bedroom.
The first bedroom was an architectural gem.
Not only was the leafy, mossy floor decorated with the small old rug our mother had donated to our little mansion, it was built against a vine tree, whose green leaves filtered light most becomingly into the delicate boudoir. It was divine.
Then, the fourth room was a sort of back entrance-cum-bedroom.
Mysteriously, this fanciful combination is a rarity in the world of grown-up construction, but I would highly recommend it you are building a forest mansion.
The only decorations in this house we'd built were those of nature.
Except for a collection of ceramic, anthropomorphic cows.
These feminine, gentle bovine figurines were dressed in pastel-colored smocks and were engaged in a variety of gentle womanly household tasks: baking, knitting, sewing.
They were tucked into all the different nooks of each of our house's rooms.
Except for the kitchen.
On principle, the kitchen must be devoid of frou-frou.
I was sad to see that the remains of the house had finally been dismantled by time and wind and nature.
But I could still see the beaten-down earth where the kitchen floor had been.
Honestly, I couldn't say the last time I'd walked through my backyard.
Also, I couldn't tell you the last time I'd actually looked at my dad's garden.
It had grown in smaller patches than it used to.
The only plants that looked very alert were the tomatoes.
Which, historically, have always taken to my dad and his green thumb.
They seem to flourish under his rule.
My entrance into the side-garden-yard was impeded for a moment by the large apple tree that was blooming like a sapling giant.
Stunned, I stroked its slender and smooth trunk in wonder.
This comely arboreal figure had grown into a saucy young woman of a tree.
I remember when my father first bought the twin apple trees and brought them home.
We welcomed to the family garden with much excitement.
When, I asked over and over again, are these trees going to bear apples?
I remember when we harvested the first tart apples from their branches (the ones that the deer hadn't managed to polish off).
I remember when that tree was no more than knee-high, and now it towered over me superiorly.
Wait. Stop. Rewind, I felt like saying to this tree as I examined its pale green leaves and buds.
You weren't allowed, I felt myself saying, to get taller than me without my permission.
I wanted to rewind through the years so I could notice when the apple tree's slow growing had occurred, instead of being blindsided by this sneak attack of growth.
As I held my hand on its trunk, I knew in my bones the callow apple tree was not going to listen to me.
Through my hand that rested on the tree, I could sense that the determined will to grow that lived inside that proud tree.
Flaunting her new-found independent will like a recalcitrant teenager, that tree was going to grow and grow, and I could do nothing to stop it.
So, I stepped back and reacquainted myself with that tree.
Sometimes, we dislike it when people or creatures mar our happy images of what they used to be.
We are content with our sweet memories of How They Used to Be, and sometimes the startling realization of What They Are Now is unpleasant.
And we, who are so comforted by our nostalgia, are displeased.
It is much nicer to love someone who lives as a kind and happy image in your memory than to love the grouchy human being that they are now, right here, in front of you.
We would rather write an offending character out of our script than learn to deal with him.
But apple trees grow, whether we're paying attention to them or not.
I don't know if there's a correct way to react to the growth of apple trees.
But I do know that commanding them to rewind is the wrong one.
The growth of apple trees marches on, and we are helpless to stop it.
That sounds depressing, and not exactly the note I wanted to end this blog post with.
(It sounds like Soviet agit-prop, or something: "The Proletariat will March ON! We cannot stop him! The Bourgeoisie are helpless underneath his iron tread! They cannot stop the Working Man Who Will Prevail!"
That, of course, is not exactly the tone I was going for.)
I suppose, what I mean is that apple trees grow.
And I think I keep harping on how sad it is to see a tree that you remember being knee-high is now a towering maiden-tree, dancing gracefully in the wind above your head.
But you know, now that I think about it, it isn't sad at all.
It's awe-ful.
It's quite wondrous, actually, that I can remember a time that I was taller than this beautiful tree.
It's magnificent to think of how long that tree will stay there and grow, and maybe my grandchildren will build a mansion of sticks underneath it.
And to think it all started with this little dwarf of a tree that my father brought into our garden one day.
That is pretty grand; and perhaps a certain sort of awe-filled sadness is--on occasion--an appropriate reaction to the sort of grandeur that accompanies Time's strange workings.
A sweet sorrow that slowly fades into something that more resembles sorrow's next of kin: joy.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

love that comes in softer forms

And when two people have loved each other see how it is like a scar 
between their bodies, stronger, darker, and proud; 
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend. 
--For What Binds Us by Jane Hirshfield


I sat next to my grandmother on the front porch of the Rancho.
We split a beer and watched the flowers blooming in front of the house dance in the drizzle.
The next day, we looked at old black and white pictures of my mother as a baby.
Seeing pictures of your parents when they were not parents is disconcerting. You look at their pictures and wonder what they were thinking, because they certainly weren't thinking about how to get your sister to her ballet recital and your brother to his baseball practice.
And they weren't worrying about how you were doing in your classes, and they weren't concerned about the washing machine that's gone on the fritz.
So what was your mother thinking about, as she sat so jauntily in the chair on her old driveway?
What thoughts were whirling underneath the antique 1960's baby bonnet?
These are the sorts of mysterious that get lost in time, and I think the answers to these questions are among the most interesting discoveries that human beings can find.
I sat on the front porch, sipping half a beer.
I must be losing all my tolerance, because I felt my tongue grow looser and a woozy sort of haze permeated the atmosphere, and I watched the tree branches sway in the stormy wind, while I listened to the sweet cadence of my grandmother's voice as she shared with me her stories.
My grandmother told me of when she and my grandfather went on adventures all around the globe.
Renée, she told me, if you ever find yourself married to a man who does not like to travel, this is what you do: and she told me of her first trip to Europe, to Lisbon, with my grandfather.
I have not been to Lisbon, but now I know I will go.
Then, she told me of when they used to sit out at the Rancho's pond and split a beer together after their day's work was done. And I think you learn what marriage is from hearing your grandmother tell you about splitting a beer together and from watching your mother and dad worry about the washing machine that's gone on the fritz. (Because they don't make washing machines like they used to, and this much-beloved Maytag relic is one of the good ol' boys.)
I thought of them when I listened to our pastor talk about his church. Because a religious community is made up of the people of God and the Eucharist, which are things that no one ever minds tending to. And a family is made up of children and parents (and sometimes animals), all pleasant and beautiful creatures indeed. It is easy to care about people and families and children, because these are beautiful and noble things to care about.
But it is harder to devote oneself to the less-than-glamorous aspects of shepherding one's flock, whether it be ecclesial or domestic.
Parish priests must listen to complaints about their homilies from the donors who give money for the new roof. They have to worry about new chairs for the altar and new prie-dieux for the wedding ceremonies, and making sure that the RCIA program is taken care of and thriving.
And they dream of new pipe organs very similarly to the way my mother advocates for a new sofa for the front living room.
Differently. But similarly.
Because all the boring maintenance of everyday life is a large part of the work of every religious community, whether it be a monastery, a parish, or a family.
Families are mysterious entities.
At their finest, I think they look like my mother doing dishes and me talking to her over the counter, and then realizing that this reminds me very much of talking to my grandmother over a beer.
And I realize that one day, my daughter will sit with my mother on the warm front porch of her sweet retirement home in the South and perhaps my mother will be reminded of talking to me.
The sort of love--ahaba, in Hebrew--that passes between three generations of women.
Families are mysterious entities.

My mother's family is filled with people--the women, mostly--who like to move.
Who follow where life takes them, who embrace the grand adventure.
My grandfather cannot move very far right now.
And so I came to him, to say goodbye.
And the words caught in my throat as I gently touched his arm.
And he said to me: I remember your house. I can see it now.
Yes, Da Bill, I said.
I can see it. I can see the road, and you turn left, and then you take a right, and you cross the--then there, that's a good place.
It's a good place, I agreed. It's a happy place, filled with happy memories.
And I am twenty-two, and all my memories are of places that I will return to.
Right now, I don't see things and know I will not go back.
But he is ninety-two, and he sees places from the past where he will not walk again.
And my eyes got all choked up, clogged with salty water.
Because the people who we love best we sometimes lack the words to tell them just how deeply they have fit into your life, and if they weren't there to fit in that hole, there would undeniably be a hole.
The words: I love you. I love you so much become harder to say the more you mean them.
As I looked at him, I saw him in the park down the road by our house. 
A good place. Full of happy memories of swings and monkey bars and all the delights of summer as a child. And I was glad he reminded me of that park and of summer days with him there.
So I gave my grandfather a hug, and responded that I was so glad I'd gotten to see him too.
Then I sat with my grandmother on the front porch and took a deep breath to calm my tears,
and I laughed with her, because the sort of love--ahaba--that runs through families is best expressed with warm embraces, laughter, and simple words that take a great deal of effort to express.

If we do not encounter love, if we do not experience it and make it our own, and if we do not participate intimately in it, our life is meaningless. Without love we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.
 --John Paul II, Washington D.C., 1979

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

bubbles underneath the stone


So that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may rest upon your eternal changelessness.
--Oxford Book of Prayer

The Romanov Siblings: (l-r): Maria [Masha], Titania, Anastasia, Olga, Alexei
I remember reading a book about Anastasia when I was probably about ten, and coming across this picture. From that moment on, I was in love with the Romanovs. How could you not be? They stare out of their dusky, damasky Victorian world with impish smiles, with a challenging stare, with a mysterious pout.
They look, in this photo everything a ten year old girl dreams a royal family would look like: stunningly beautiful, elegant, and yet a family. There is nothing impersonal about the world of the Romanovs.
I ran across this photo again yesterday, in a book of my brother's. It arrested my attention, because there are many photos of the Romanovs, but the book's authors used this particular one.
I had forgotten how beautiful they were, these doomed princesses.
But their beauty is arresting. Enchanting. Mesmerizing.

I think partly it's the sort of beauty that just doesn't exist in the United States. (And this isn't a rip on the United States. The beauty of North Carolina's piney mountains, or the craggy landscape of Wyoming is utterly, breathtakingly glorious and unique to the land of purple mountains' majesties.)
It's a very European sort of beauty.
It's like Rouen, where you walk to the market square, and there you see this large, market-place, barn-like structure. This is the Church that they have built to memorialize the martyrdom of Jeanne D'Arc.
And there, you see a slender, spindle-like cross that marks the spot where the young hero was burned at stake. And you stand right where Joan might have stood, and look at the gables and eaves of the city's buildings around you. And you are suddenly back in 15th century France.
There is an ancientness to Normandy, where cities had their origins in the 7th and 8th centuries.
You walk into towns whose roots are back in the ancient Gaul, which we all learned in Latin class that Caesar divided into three parts.
This is the beauty of the Romanovs, the romance of Rouen: they are artifacts that we can touch, they are living remembrances of past dynasties.
Part of the New World's fascination with Europe is that it is not new.
It's like visiting your grandparents, and listening to their stories. Stories that are part of your history, and yet far removed from you. Stories that are not yours, but that you inherit.
And you watch these people who are a generation removed from you, and they are full of mystery, because their eyes have seen so many things before they saw your baby face smiling up at them from your mother's arms.
Your grandparents are full of beauty, a majestic beauty with deep, solid roots. A beauty very reminiscent of Victorian nostalgia and Roman ruins inside the City of London.
A beauty that you do not have because you are a callow twenty-something, and you have a beauty all your own, much like the mountains in Montana.
(Truth be told, the mountains in Montana are more ancient than both the Romanov dynasty and Rouen Cathedral, but that is utterly beside the point.)

There are several things that capture the vitality of the past, the romance and beauty of what has past, a glimpse, a murmur of a heartbeat underneath the pages of our histories: grandparents, Rouen, and the Romanovs.