Tuesday, September 30, 2014

an open letter to mi hermana

forgetting how softly Eros walked 
in the nineteenth century, 
how a hand held overlong or a gaze anchored in someone's eyes 
could unseat a heart, 
and nuances of address, 
not known in our egalitarian language 
could make the redolent air tremble 
and shimmer with the heat of possibility 
--Romantics, Liesl Mueller

Dear Sister:
Here's something you don't hear every day but perhaps you ought:
you are filled with gift.
Everything about you, from your radiant soul down to your meticulously crimped hair to the tips of your toenails, worn down by dancing, are gift.
And an infinitely precious one, at that.

Sometimes, I would find Christmas mornings of childhood just a bit overwhelming, because there are so many gifts.
Spilling out of underneath the Christmas tree, there would be such a jumble of Barbies and trains and puzzles in the living room, that it was hard to appreciate the value of each one of those gifts. In the chaos of abundance, it became more difficult to appreciate each gift's unique status. When inundated with the cornucopia of gifts spilling out from underneath the Christmas tree, each one just bleeds into the other.

When a gift is precious, you hold it in your hand, barely wanting to breathe on it, in case it would break.
When a gift is precious, you can't take your eyes off of it. If you do, then it'll disappear.
When a gift is precious, you can hardly bring yourself to look at it, and yet you can never let it out of your sight.
Your gift--more precious than any mere thing-- is you. 
There is nothing greater you can give another person than every part of you: your humor, your memory-- so sharp it puts me to shame, with the details you remember that I'd never bothered to record, your heart-- so empathetic and kind, your will--so sweet and good, and in a word, irremovable.

Purity and chastity are loaded words, and they are flung around carelessly, which is rather shocking, since they deal with perhaps the most delicate and precious gifts that humans possess--
themselves.
And they are kind of scary words that make some people squeamish, and others scoff. That color some people as prudes and others as profligates.

But really, all they mean is a harmony between reality and you.
A harmony between your heart and your body, which we call your sexuality.
A harmony between the love underneath the Universe and how you bring that love into being in your own life.

As you grow older, you are going to hear a lot of 'dos' and 'don'ts'. You might have thought/think that being an adult meant being free of 'dos' and 'don'ts' but surprise! It doesn't. In reality, they just multiple like hydra's heads. They fly at you from all directions, and you never know which ones to listen to. The world has a multiplicity of voices, and none of them will explain the longing in your heart. None of them can talk away that emptiness inside of you, the love-shaped hole in your heart.

And one thing they certainly forget to tell you is how utterly precious you are.
Should they forget to tell you that, just take it as a reminder for you to recall how the beautiful, intelligent, talented, passionate and unique soul inside of you is more precious than anything else.
 Not a biological part of you, nor just an aspect of your brain, but you--your entire self in all your glory--you are precious.

We are told many stories about what to be: what our lives as women and men should contain. We are told to look like this and talk like that, but ignore all those stories.
Instead, listen to the silence in your heart. The deep, dark quiet that lies within that love-shaped hole. Listen to that story. For what it says to you is that you can only love someone when you do not need them. It says that in order to be that gift to another, you must know whose gift you truly are.
Intimacy is found not by grasping at another's soul, but by opening up slowly, like a little morning glory in the dewy dawn air.

For you, all of you is precious, and cannot be understood in just a day.
It will take you a lifetime for you to understand who you truly are.

Which is what "chastity" really means, of course. It means not rushing in where angels dare to tread. It means knowing that we are creatures divided in two, who are meant to be whole, creatures who strive everyday to make their broken parts whole again. And it is more painful for our selves, in the long run, if we insist on forgetting that we are meant for unity, and continually split ourselves in two.
Our bodies and hearts are meant to act in accord, and how often we divide them, stifling each of them from growing into what they ought.
The mystery of ourselves deserves to be given time to unfold, and even more time to be shared. Which is why they tell us not to share so deeply of ourselves unless that other person is going to stick around to witness to our self unfold. For the most precious gift you can give is you, not just your body, nor your words, nor your thoughts, but you.
The you who is alive.
The you that you are becoming.
The you that you are slowly growing into being.

I hope someone tells you this each day.
And if they don't, remember that I have.

Love,
Your Sister.

P.S. I'm sorry I borrowed your iPod without asking.
I'd say "it won't happen again" but it probably will.

Monday, September 29, 2014

there are more things in heaven and earth

 'Why doesn't God smite this dictator dead?' is a question a little remote from us. Why, madam, did He not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday? Or me, before I behaved with such cruel lack of consideration to that well-meaning friend? And why, sir, did He not cause your hand to with after you signed your name to that dirty little bit of financial trickery?
--Dorothy Sayers, "The Triumph of Easter"

You know how there are periods of your life that are defined by books you were reading at the time? This past summer was the summer of Dorothy Sayers. Starting with her wickedly pithy and thoroughly knowledgeable detective stories starring Lord Peter Wimsey, and finishing up the summer immersed in her insightful essays of apologetic theology, I spent the entire summer becoming acquainted with her through her writing, which was really quite beautiful. Reading is an art dedicated to mostly two activities: exploring new world, and encountering other humans.
In all her essays, Ms. Sayers has an overabundance of witty quotes (no surprise there), but the above is one of my absolute favorites. For she cleverly turns a problem on his head that we all usually wrestle with to no avail.
"The limit imposed on evil is Divine Mercy," quoth John Paul II, and for which we are endlessly grateful, for without that mercy, none of us would be in existence. For, as Ms. Sayers so beautifully demonstrates in this short passage of her essay, those questions that echoes in all of our mouths and hearts and minds far too often: "Why do bad things happen?" "Why does evil exist?" "Why does God allow for X,Y,Z global disasters to occur?" are never applied to ourselves. And perhaps instead of moaning over the evil we are forced to endure, we perhaps ought to cry out with gladness that we are not struck based on the evil that we perpetuate.
There is dying to do on the way to the Father.
--Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross
God allows the tsunami to occur just for the same reason he allows for our daily little sins to occur: mercy. Each day, like the father of the Prodigal Son, he watches the road as we make our way towards Him. And each day, we fall, of course, because we are like babies with little rolls of fat on our legs instead of muscles, and so they are often too weak to carry us.
There is no mercy in carrying a child until his legs have grown muscles which can hold his weight up underneath him while he walks.
There is no use in waiting until he is ready to walk to wean him off of crawling.
If her body never strives to walk, it will never learn. And, although perhaps a prodigy baby will prove me wrong one day, no child can learn to walk without exhausting its little nascent leg muscles and fall to the ground, gravity, for the moment, having the upper hand.
The process of learning to walk necessitates a fall.
And there is mercy in the parents who tolerate the falling, painful though it may be, and let the child's muscles work so that they can grow.
But our falls are truly happy faults and joyful failures. Christian belief asserts that perfection is not some sort of higher status we can achieve all on our own steam, but rather, the staunch insistence that if we seek to bring real good out of an undeniably real evil, we will encounter Perfect Love himself. In return for our daily sins and failures, we are showered with the overabundance of divine mercy. And this is perhaps the kindest reason that evil has ever been allowed to continue. For, in our pettiness, the grandeur of divine mercy shines through.
If we did not have this space of emptiness and darkness inside of us, how could we have ever come to understand mercy's ineffable light?

To be told that poverty of spirit, emptiness, and unknowing are part of the game is not very comforting, however, because the sting of failure in prayer is that we truly do fail. It feels like our own fault, and so it largely is. If we consent to be caught up by God's love, our sinfulness becomes manifest as it might never have done had we been left to live our little lives undisturbed.
--Maria Boulding, Gateway to Hope: An Exploration of Failure

Sunday, September 28, 2014

interior castle mountain


"You must still be tried here on earth and tested in many ways. Take courage and be strong, whether in doing or in suffering things repugnant to nature. You must be changed into a new person, often doing what you would not do and leaving undone what you would like to do."
--Imitation of Christ, Book 3, Chapter 4

The work of now is the work of waiting.
I have grown fond of calling this year (the term of year, of course, being used very loosely and freely--like an Old Testament, Book-of-Genesis biblical year) my novitiate.
The image first presented itself to me because one of my friends is in a real-live novitiate.
In the spirit of raw honesty, I must admit that I am slightly jealous. Not for Holy Orders, which is a sort of dead-end red herring when it comes to discussing the vocation of women in the church. (But more on that later.)
No, I am not jealous of that.
I am jealous because sometimes I wish that I could slip away to the side of Pike's Peak, to a lonely spot on the mountain, just above the novice house, and let my one companion be the silence of the landscape and the darkness of the cloud.
Sporadically, I yearn for that.
And in those moments I turn to the words of the Doctor of the Church, who should be the patron of all twenty-somethings and experience junkies, Thérèse of Lisieux:
 I feel in me the vocation of the priest. With what love, O Jesus, would I carry You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give You to souls ! But alas! while desiring to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood. 
 O Jesus, my Love, my Life, how can I combine these contrasts ? How can I realize the desires of my poor little soul ? 
 Ah ! in spite of my littleness, I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and the Doctors. I have the vocation of the Apostle. 
The sentence I think best captures Thérèse: I choose all.
When you want to choose all, it seems hard, at first, to settle down and choose just one thing.
I sometimes grow envious, because I wish I could join my friend in reading and studying the heady mysteries and the perplexing beauties of theology, and the rhythmic life of hectic and harried contemplation that defines the life of a student.
Sometimes, I wish that I could by a fly on the wall of my friend's adventures in Honduras, exploring new worlds and languages along with her.
And don't even get me started on my friend who is living on a farm. Where there is quiet, nature, and the Eucharist (oh, and if that wasn't enough: alpacas).

And to clarify: the sort of envy I'm talking about, (and I'm sure the sort of envy that Thérèse was talking about, although perhaps not. It is dangerous to speak for a saint) is not the sadness of the fortune of the other, and I wish to deprive them of that happiness, but simply a desire to also share in that happiness. It is an untamed and undisciplined desire for everything good all at once. The sort of desire that afflicts you when you fall in love--very earnest, sincere, all-encompassing desire to give. To give it all. To give it all in every way.
Basically, to:


And I turn, again, to Thérèse
Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation.  I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that Love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places. [...] 
My vocation is love.
Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.

And that is the task that is set out for me in this novitiate: to learn, along with Thérèse, how to live a vocation of love. Which, I think, means learning to live in one place at one time, loving each individual person one day at a time.
For love, as grand and all-encompassing that it is, for all it is the one great universal truth, love is revealed so tenderly in the particulars.


 We like to think we exercise freedom of choice, but what really sways us is the experience of being chosen. True, to be chosen by God cuts us to the quick, or pierces the heart. It sizes us up immediately; we know in its wake what we are made of and for. But if, in response, we choose to stay, then we become an imprint into which others can more readily step into sacred mystery. 
--Kevin J. Sandberg (from my MTS-earning friend again. She's a gem)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

the adventures of jogging lady

I have never lived a year better spent in love
--Mumford and Sons

The NYC Chronicles:
Last week on the NYC Chronicles: 
Episode 34: Flirtation.
I flirted with the traffic.
I flirted with the pigeons that flew by me on my run.
I flirted with disaster as I attempted to run from the 5 train to the 6 train, just as the doors were closing, and--of course-- my purse got stuck in the door.
I flirted with the waves on the ocean.
I flirted with the seagulls trying to steal our grapes.
I flirted with the crepe vendor. I got a delicious crepe and "mesmerizing" eyes, and he got $7.50. So.
I flirted with the babies on the subway car. They were more interested in flirting with one another. But I speculated on how beautiful their eyes were, wondered what babies think when they haven’t yet seen the ugly side of life, and hoped that these babies would grow up to be great humans of happinesss.
I flirted with the beautiful Indian man who was ushering in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
I flirted with the puppies in Central Park.
I flirted with everyone at brunch with me.
I flirted with the bellini-dispensing waiter with the funny fedora.
I flirted with the man who was guarding the outlets at the coffee shop. [and procured myself an outlet. So.]
I flirted with the idea of dying my hair.
I flirted with adventure as I walked from Brooklyn all the way to the Upper East Side.
I flirted with the old men who sat on their front porches, yelling at all the young people rushing along the street to: "Slow down!"
I flirted with death as I jaywalked to get crappy Chinese food on the other side of the street.
I flirted with the most handsome Goldman Sachs financier human eyes have ever beheld.
It went well, I'd say:
 “Soooo…how do you like working at Goldman Sachs?” 
[banter. It’s all about the banter, ladies.]
 “Oh, I love it. It’s my passion!”
Awkward pause as I silently attempt to decipher what exactly his passion is: Greed? Being the 1%? Making Money? Reinforcing the class system? Stomping on the weaker man when he is down?...

 “Numbers. Numbers are my passion.”
Oh.
 Camera cuts to me, who has no idea what to do with that.
Well done, Goldman Sachs financier.* You are the only man who has ever left me speechless.
 If numbers were my passion I would become a 7th grade math teacher or do research to save the environment.
 But that’s just me. So.
I flirted with heart failure as I ate an ice cream sandwich doughnut. Roger, do you copy. That is a doughnut filled with ice cream. Like an ice cream sandwich. But with a doughnut. Holey Cream! (That's the name of the store)
I flirted with the Jewish Man who walked by eating a sandwich.
I flirted with the bored babies in bassinets.
I flirted with the bartender in his empty bar.
I flirted with the idea of grad school.
I flirted with the lonely boy at Dough Loco. He didn’t judge me for buying a $3 miso maple doughnut. Decadence, thy name is maple miso doughnuts. These divine creations are the boon of my existence. The tantalizing scent of Dough Loco maple miso doughnuts floats in the cool autumn breeze every day on my run. I wonder how Dough Loco boy can look so lonely when he is surrounded by maple miso doughnuts. It adds a touch of melancholy to the store. I wonder how Dough Loco boy can look so morose, with his puppy-dog face, when he is surrounded by such delectable baked goods. It's sugar-coated sadness. But when Dough Loco boy's face smiles, it warms up the atmosphere, and everything melts, much like the maple miso glaze on those soft, warm rings of dough.
I flirted with the idea of making my entire NYC experience revolve around different doughnut shops.

Hey jogging lady, you keep working out
--words of encouragement from the hustler dealing out pirated CDs by Central Park

*disclaimer: I recognize that Goldman Sachs financiers are people, too. And I am not hating on them in any way. and I truly apologize to Goldman Sachs for taking advantage of the ridiculously unflattering stereotypes that people assign to their company to cook up some comedy. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

when everything's made to be broken

Be sure of this, that you must lead a dying life; and the more you die to yourself here, the more you will begin to live to God.
--Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Currently, I am reading Karl Rahner's On the Theology of Death, which is awkward reading to bring with you on the subway car, I have discovered. Not because I feel awkward actually reading it (I feel much less awkward burying my nose happily in a book than I do unwillingly overhearing the boys-who-smell-like-weed sitting next to me engaging very loud conversation about their debaucherous weekend plans), but because when I glance up at the faces of the passengers staring at me, they have a slightly horrified look on their face. Their faces have a sort of blanched look, and their eyes glaze over with a look of morose contemplation as they read the letters d-e-a-t-h written in serene white serif font against the cheerful red background of the book's cover. I have just reminded them of something they would rather forget: the inevitability of their own mortality. This is not something we usually like to be reminded of, particularly not in subway cars. Hurtling underneath a city at fifty miles per hour is hardly a pleasant time to remember that all of us, as humans, must eventually end our earthly pilgrimage. These thoughts are usually easier to stomach in a cathedral with stained glass, lots of candles, and a soothing aura of peace that conjures up images of eternity, making us think it might not be all that bad.

One of C.S. Lewis's arguments for human's supernatural souls is the nearly universal human discomfort with death. We find it unnatural and fearful, C.S. Lewis argues, because it is something so foreign to who we are. We are creatures naturally made of union: union of body and soul, union of heart and mind, and death is a severing, a severing of our body and soul. We fear death. We loathe death and all reminders of death.  Death, as one of my dear friends so eloquently and succinctly put it recently, sucks. We fear this severance of ourselves that we know is inescapably racing towards us at 60 seconds per minute. 

Karl Rahner, however, suggests that death--although still a mystery, an awe-filled mystery covered in "darkness and deadly silence"--is perhaps something deeper than a severance of body and soul. While there is still this passive undertaking of death, there is an active component to our dying.
Death is still an inevitable work of nature. We cannot escape death, we know that we have to passively submit to it. But death, he offers to his readers, is also the culmination of the work of our lives, which we offer up in a final fiat to God.
For our object in living is to become crushed each day, to allow ourselves to be broken down again and again. Each sunrise brings with it our daily opportunities to tear down our egos, and to let the broken pieces of our false selves fertilize the soil in which the seeds of new life can take root.
This daily dying that we attempt is our efforts to join in the dying to death that Christ accomplished. For, as Rahner says: 
"The real miracle of Christ's death resides precisely in this: death, which in itself can only be experienced as the advent of emptiness, as the impasse of sin, as the darkness of eternal life, could be suffered by Christ Himself, and now, through being embraced by the obedient "yes" of the Son, [...]is transformed into something completely different--into the advent of God in the midst of that empty loneliness."
 Christ's death--Christ's descent into the deepest, darkest part of reality--has transformed what death is. For now, even in the emptiness, even in that severance of self that death portends, we will find God Himself there. The Cross has truly swallowed up death, it has won complete and final victory for Life. Our dying is now transformed into our final act of giving our lives to God as gift. Our death, Rahner proposes, is the completion and consummation of our lives. Each day, as we arise, we attempt to die to ourselves, and so prepare ourselves to die.
Because, we find that if we die each day with Christ, we will also rise with Him. 
On the other side of our daily death is life--life in abundance. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

gary in ruins

Perhaps this is a facile or shallow analogy, but New York City feels like the Kolkata of the USA.
And Kolkata is the New York City of India

Let's compare and contrast.
Much like Kolkata, NYC is the cultural capital of our country. Unlike Kolkata, it is the largest city.
But, much like Kolkata, it is crowded.
But not nearly as crowded as Kolkata:

Population Density of New York City: 27,778 peeps per square mile.
Population Density of Kolkata: 63,000 peeps per square mile
Although, the population of New York City is almost twice as high as the most recent census count I could find for Kolkata:

The population of New York City:
8.337 million
The population of Kolkata:
4.573 million.

Which was an even more mind-boggling difference when I realize that the population of the United States is 313.9 million and the population of India is 1.237 billion.
And these numbers are impressive and interesting, but I also realized I probably can't imagine a room full of more than fifty people. At 313.9 million, my mind just turns into a blank.

The numbers are not what makes New York City Kolkata, it is the spirit of the city. There's something about the dirty smells mixed with the beautiful smells, and the rich mixed up with the poor, and all the beauty and the ugly, the divine and the mundane all jumbled up together in a rich, dusty mix of City that makes them feel so similar.

Just as the smell of the kati rolls or the misti stands would cut through the smoggy fog of pollution and goat dung, the most magical smell in the entire city of New York is the Dough Loco smell that wafts out of the soft morning air. It is the most magical smell. It's like Kolkata, where the rich smell of a stand would pop out of nowhere, surprising you with its potency and beauty--its sweetness and its richness.
The dough loco smell enchants me, it wraps me in its doughy, cake-y sweetness, it fills me with great gladness. I have decided that I am in love with Dough Loco. I love catching a whiff of sugary ecstasy every time I pass by. But although I breathe in deeply, to catch every whiff of the smell that I can as I walk by the store's large glass storefront, I come up empty. But then, a few unexpected strides after the store, the magical smell of maple miso doughnuts swirls into my nostrils. It usually only swirls into my nostrils a few strides after I pass it.
But it is intoxicating. Just like the smell of Kolkata.

Besides the similarities between the roar of the traffic and the trains, and the dog shit sweltering on the hot sidewalks, there are also uncanny little particulars that remind me of Kolkata even more.

The apartment buildings on Lexington that look exactly like all those sad dusty buildings in Kolkata on the way to the airport. It makes my heart turn upside down when I see them. In Kolkata, they looked like hopeful little prophets of modernity, that had quickly been covered up in the dusty entropy of the city. As I watched the wind tug at the "NEW! ROOMS for RENT! SPACE AVAILABLE! NEW!" banner, I wondered how long it would take for the metallic, sharp buildings, sticking out like a sore thumb from the statuesque brownstones and brick of the city, to be covered in a thick layer of dusty obsolescence.

But they are such different cities, worlds apart from one another. Although they are both filled with decadent smells and rich, colorful sites, there is also a sad ring of dryness in their crowded, bustling streets.
There is a spiritual sort of aridity, even in the midst of the colorful temples (Kolkata), the noisy bodegas (NYC), and the colorful fabrics, jewelry, and garish billboards (both).
Perhaps this is simply the very nature of a city on earth: that the crowds that provide all the activity also doom us to anonymity. While there is always an abundance of living happening all around us, at all hours of the day and night, there seems to be a decided lack of life.

But, somewhere in the midst of the dryness, there is a river of life. A little spring of abundant life that can break out of the dusty shell of the city's exterior, and irrigate the streets, so that each of the dirty blocks is soon bursting with something new.
Perhaps this is why Mother Teresa was so attentive to these cities: she saw fertile fields, just needing a little water to help them grow.*


 * Addendum: This evening, after getting lost in SoHo, I followed my nose--homesick for Kolkata, and recognizing an intoxicatingly familiar smell--to a small little colorful food truck that advertised kati rolls. (although they had just run out of propane, so they couldn't make me one. Also I didn't have cash. so.) 
The man promised me, however, that the rolls were excellent, "a game-changer" were his exact words. 
"Which ones you like?" he asked, "where have you had kati rolls before? The Village?" 
 "Kolkata?" I said. 
"KOLKATA!?" he said. 
"Ha," I said, doing the Indian head nod. 
"YOU SPEAK HINDI" he cried. 
I don't. But I can still fake it like a pro. 
It was one of those blessèd little interactions that fills you with joy for very little reason, except that human beings are full of beauty, and two people can share a love for something they love in very different ways: like kati rolls and the City of Joy from which they come.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

then he appeared to James

There is no eternal return of all things; there is only a history, happening once and for all. There is no migration of souls for which every life is only a provisional attempt open to complete revision at a later date, which in turn, for better or for worse, may be repeated. 
--Karl Rahner

She held her cheek against the smooth, cold granite that held him back from her.
She felt his heartbeat reverberate throughout the unforgiving walls.
The cold, immobile granite trembled as the steady beat of his pulse pushed against the stone walls, as gently as her own pulse flowed through the dimple of her wrist.
She could feel his heartbeat in the marble of the pillars, in the cement floor underneath her.
Heartbeat. Heartbeat. Heart. beat.
Against her cheek, the granite scratched a small red patch.
She thought of all the microscopic pieces of her skin that she had just left behind on the speckled stone. It doesn't do, she thought, to think about daily life on a microscopic level. It becomes too much detail to comprehend. She longed to feel his heartbeat against her cheek. Not through granite, but in the flesh. She felt, in the caverns beneath her feet, his movement. He shifted ever so slightly, but that slight tremor triggered a massive quake among her bones' tectonic plates.
She could barely catch her breath: she felt as though the world had turned upside down, and she was swimming in the depths of the sky. The serene cerulean atmosphere had become her swimming pool, and the ocean lapped above her, a green-y grey. The air felt light around her legs, which cut through the turquoise blue with the ease of dental floss through tiramisu. Instead of clouds, which she floated through periodically, wave caps dotted the ocean-sky above her with flecks of white. And on the horizon, far from her, she thought she could hear the surf crashing on the shores of the firmament.
She held her breath at first, not sure if the oxygen here was too thin to heartily consume.
Wary of the several thousand tons of water hanging over her, she moved gingerly, and breathed lightly, as if the slightest movement of hers would bring the water crashing down on her.
Finally, exhausted of her labors to be still, she took a great, deep breath. 
The air rushed into her lungs, then raced out again. 
Exhilarated, she took another. The air tasted different, a bit salty--like the briny air that is trapped by eddies of ocean breeze in little air pockets at the beach-- but with a touch of rosemary at the end, and a freshness and vitality, as if someone had power-washed the oxygen molecules in the dishwasher
She breathed the air in and out and in and out. She soaked it in, she drank it, and it washed out all the sea-water out of her, and she felt that she had somehow become more like the sky and less like the sea.
She dove deep into a cluster of clouds, and reemerged, lungs overflowing with air, arms stretched towards the sea. The water, perilously suspended over her, had not been disturbed by her darting and diving through the air. It continued on smoothly, undisturbed by the ruckus in the atmosphere. The ocean was not moving. It was fixed above her head to stay. She shivered in the sunlight underneath her feet, that shone out through her toes. Now, she understood there was a new life she had dived into when she dived into the air. This had never happened before,  Here she would live, with the stars beneath her feet and the fins of breaching dolphins breaking through the waves over her head. The endless expanse of sky rolled around her, and offered her an eternity of light, which to the naked eyes revealed only monotony. But as she stared into the cerulean depths, she saw within them the endless gardens of the cosmos, inviting her deeper into the sky.

On the contrary, it is ultimately because man is essentially a history, which happens once only, that sub-human nature also has a history: a beginning through creation and a definitive end in the final transfiguration of the whole of creation before God.
--Karl Rahner

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

to doubt is human

"It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that he suffers and dies and that, having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our doors to him. And yet--is this not the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love."
--Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week

The sea foam that iced the crests of the turbulent waves fell in a heap and swirled around my legs.
Small little clumps of sea bubbles were stranded on the beach, as the rest of the water was sucked back into the ocean.
The funny thing about the beach is that it is quite dead.
The waves die with a crash at our feet, all the beautiful shells are the cast-off exteriors of dead animals, and all sorts of dead items: sand dollars, jellyfish, driftwood, end up on the sandy graveyard.
And yet it feels so alive. As you stand in the shallows of the ocean, breathing in the stinging sea air, you cannot help but feel very, very alive.
And it's very strange that humans run down to the banks of the ocean to play, as if we had forgotten how many of our own kind stormy seas had swallowed whole. As if we had never heard stories of shipwrecks or typhoons or hurricanes. The ocean is such a deadly entity. 
And yet, as I stand in the foamy white surf, the tides gently pulling at my feet, all I can think of is the life that this ocean makes possible. 
I seem to be standing in a teeming expanse of life.
The horizon stretches out in front of me, challenging me to imagine a world larger than the one that exists in my own head, beckoning me into a reality that is beyond the realm of my own experience.
The ocean ruses around my feet, and all the stories that it has seen are truly alive in its salty waves.
The mystery of time is dissolved in its briny depths. And time is such an iron master of the human experience, which we fight against with every weapon we have: our intellect, our creativity, our memory, our faith. For we have a faith with truly believes in people with names who were born to certain people other people--also with names (names are very stubborn things. They make you stand out of the general and become a particular)-- who lived and died millennia ago. Whose stories, unlike those of so many other billions of humans, were not lost in the sands of time. Whose reality, for some reason, it seems harder for so many of us to believe in than the reality of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, or George Washington. Perhaps because so much rides on the men and women whose stories we read in the Scriptures. A very awful lot rides on the veracity of their stories. And if we accept them, we cannot be the same.
 But here, on the shores of the sea, it is easier to imagine the absurd particularities of Christianity. 
Because, here on the shore of something so immense and vast and universal stand I, a very particular absurdity. And the very fact that I am a human, distinct and separate than the water in the ocean, is an absurd miracle indeed.
By all counts, it is improbable and impossible that I can stand here.
And yet here I am.

If we attend to the witnesses with listening hearts and open ourselves to the signs by which the Lord again and again authenticates both them and himself, then we know that he is truly risen. He is alive. Let us entrust ourselves to him, knowing that we are on the right path. With Thomas let us place our hands into Jesus' pierced side and confess: "My Lord and my God!"
--Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazarath, Part II: Holy Week.

Monday, September 22, 2014

sed libera nos a malo

My First Day of High School
An Essay by Me

I woke up two Monday mornings ago, my alarm interrupting a dream I was having about an avalanche and a helicopter. Also, my friend Jacob was in our house and was apparently this fact was upsetting my younger brother. I also had to beat the avalanche home by snowboarding down the mountain. Of all the things I have ever done in my life, snowboarding has never been one of them. In this dream, however, I snowboarded down the mountain with great ease and grace, despite the mountains of snow sliding down the slope with me. I am not one to interpret dreams as dreams, not do I ever imagine that the visions we create at night are augurs of the day to come, but as I sat in the middle of a busy intersection in Upper East Side in a white Ford Escape with a bus coming at me from one direction, and a stream of taxis from the other, I thought again of that avalanche, and I wondered if my unconscious was trying to prepare me for the day ahead by convincing me that I could snowboard in the midst of an avalanche. Snowboard. Really, subconscious, dreaming self?

The day began on a high note: I made a smoothie. I have never really liked smoothies. Smoothies are like half-assed ice cream. I have never half-assed anything in my life. I either do it 500% or I just don't do it. Life is too short to do anything half-heartedly. (But it's not too short to shirk your duties, is the moral of this story.) I made a smoothie out of a frozen banana, and I said to myself: wow. Look how far you've come, woman. Your six-year-old self would never have been able to fathom that one day you would become a human who liked bananas. Much less a banana smoothie. So I made a smoothie, and felt like an adult. And also a badass.

Then, I went to school. Then, I quickly went home. And, in a few minutes, I found myself driving my roommate's car in the middle of Upper East Side intersection in a New York City traffic jam. How did I get here? I thought. Ain't nobody got time for this, I moaned. I had a chicken breast to marinade! I am slowly and surely learning the first step of actual, true adulthood: to cook dinner, even when you don't feel like it. That is the beauty of this community that I am living in: young adults only cook for themselves when they really feel like it and have the time to feel like it. Actual adults have to cook for their family, even when it has been a long day at work. This community is prime family training ground. A semi was driving toward me on one side, and another stream of traffic on the other. Caught between a semi and a taxi cab. That'll be a new urban proverb, I thought.

Eventually, I power-steered my way out of the traffic jam, with lots of panache, raw will, and a couple of expletives (but only the lady-like ones). Got to school. Felt flustered, but pulled my ish together. First day of teaching. Here we go. Feel the teacher. Act the teacher. Be the teacher. (My theatre degree comes in handy here.) I taught my first section of computers class. (My theatre degree does not come in handy here.) It went okay. I did not smile. I looked stern. I meant business. I let everyone know that I was here to teach. I really wanted to smile and be nice and say things like: I'm Renée! I love theatre and roses and rosé and rose-colored glasses! and you are a beloved child of God ALL the time, even when you're annoying or wrong or in detention! Perhaps this would actually be a better mode of teaching than the currently approved of method of being a normal, respect-cultivating adult. Perhaps I will try my own method soon. But not that day. That day, I was going to teach them how to Microsoft Excel like a m*$#@!&^%*#$ champion, like my *$(%#@& life depended on it. (Those are not the lady-like expletives, so I censored out those ones.)

So that happened. I feel like it would be a stretch to say it went "well." But it happened. And I didn't die or lose my temper. No one's voices were raised and no one lost a limb. I think that may serve as a good definition A Successful First Day of Teaching. But the day was not over. Au contraire, far from it. I was put in charge of a room full of seniors serving JUG (which most ordinary, boring folk call "detention", but Jesuits call Justice Under God. The more you know). I am not a senior. And yes, I have a full four years of collegiate, worldly experiences and stacks of theological reading to separate myself from these twenty-five young men and women. But, really, underneath my office-appropriate blouse and demurely cut pencil skirt (demure cut, but rose-colored magenta color. Vive le difference.), I am really just another bumbling human being, just like they are, who is trying to find out where to go and what to do with her life and who I should be and how I fit into the world, just like they are.

We are so different, I told the room of seniors in my head. You are from a different City, a different neighborhood, a different life than I am. You are so young. You are seventeen and so young.
Even when we say the same words, we speak different languages.
But we are so same, I told them, smiling at my secret. You and I--we think similar thoughts, we dream some of the same dreams. We have hopes and desires, aspirations and ambitions. We are not different. For all my four extra years of education, we are terrifyingly the same.

But somehow, I kept the room of twenty-five students quiet for an hour. It was about as easy as snowboarding in an avalanche. But I somehow managed it with the grace and ease I had discovered in my dream. Grace for beginner's and novices, as they say.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

it's all freshman year

There of course can be home moments when I am stirred into asking what am I really doing here. Then I tell myself (in regard to what is present even though inexpressible): you cannot flee into a greater clarity than what you have and you have no right to allow yourself, by attempting to take a more radical decision for your life, to fall into a greater darkness, simply because you could wish for a more radiant and compelling clarity than you now possess.
--Karl Rahner (sent via a wise and beautiful MTS-earning friend)

Way back in the dark ages, aka February of this year, my wise mother tsk-tsked at me:
you ladies are all too eager to know what is to come and have perfect control over everything in your lives. This leaves no room for discovery and development in relationships or careers or vocations or anything. Perhaps, she suggested, all the answers will not come all at once. Nor should they.
I am certainly not ready for all the answers for the rest of my life to come right now.
This, I thought, this moment, is freshman year all over again. 
After senior year--a year that is a compilation of an exhilarating several months of being confident, assured, self-possessed--a year of being the oldest, you are once again reminded of really how much growing you have to do as you enter the real world, in which you are the youngest.
But then I realized: life really is all freshman year. Senior year of college is an illusion. It is an illusion that you have reached a stage of singular importance and assurance and "having it all together" and you really have nothing of the sort.
I mean, thank goodness it is not freshman year, and never ever will ever again be that, praise all that is holy. I have not grown up a whole lot, but I will never again be that very callow and unsure young woman that arrived at Notre Dame a humid August Wednesday.

So often, I feel as Christians, we pray for humility, we pray to take up our cross each day, and we pray, as Mother Teresa does, to accept Christ in whatever comes our way: in humiliation, failure, in suffering.
And yet we have a silent coda to this prayer:
“But I know, O Lord, you will not actually let me fail.”
We think that if we just prove that we love God more than we love our own success, He will put us into the category of “people who I will allow to be successful.”
But that is not what God promises us. His promise is much deeper and stronger than that.
 His promise is that nothing will keep us from the love of Christ, and even if we are the worst failures in the history of the world, losing our jobs, destroying our reputations, loosing all those we love, He will still come to us, even in utter failure. He will reveal Himself at work in our lives in our pain, in our loneliness, in our humiliation. He will reveal Himself in our freshman year, years of embarrassment, un-surety, discomfort and restlessness.
Where there is confusion, impatience and more angst than we know what to do with, there also He will be.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. 
- Theilhard De Chardin

Friday, September 19, 2014

cibus sum grandium


The meaning is that Jesus' love "to the end" is what cleanses us, washes us. The gesture of washing feet expresses precisely this: it is the servant-love of Jesus that draws us out of our pride and makes us fit for God, makes us clean.
--Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week 
 
I am so in awe of Paul--Paul the Apostle, that is--whose beautiful meditation on love we heard at Mass only a few short days ago.
My word. We take it so often for granted. It is such a beautiful passage, so it is often quoted, so we grow used to hearing it, so the power of its oft-quoted lines glides off of us, without us being able to absorb a thing.
But if you listen, you will be amazed.
Love is patient.
Love is not boastful. 
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing,
 but rejoices with the truth.
How did he know? I wonder.
How did he write such a comprehensive list of what love is and is not? How well must you know Love to know all these attributes are true? And what a gift, that we can check ourselves against his list.
When I put my name at the beginning of the sentence, is it still true:
am I pateint?
am I not boastful?
I can barely get half-way through the passage before I am blushing, chalking up the counts against myself.
Do I rejoice not over wrongdoing, but rejoice with the truth?
Yikes.
Paul is pulling no punches.
This is a pretty thorough examination of self. 
If I am trying to mold myself into an image of love, am I succeeding?
But then comes the part that is certainly not about me, it is not a line against which to check myself: Love never fails.
I am one of the prophecies that will be brought to nothing, I am one of the tongues that will cease--but Love, love will never fail.
I will decrease, and love will increase.

There are so many times we deceive ourselves into thinking that the good that we do in silent, in the private recesses of our hearts, bears little concrete fruit. We are tempted to believe that good, in order to make much of a difference, has to be something splashy that Makes a Difference.
It is easy to see how the good we do can bear fruit when we see a person who feeds a hungry person or gives money to the man on the subway everyone is annoying.
It is easy to see how the good we do brings joy to others and makes the world a better place when we do concretely, tangibly good things: from little, mundane actions such as helping our neighbors with their lawnmower to giant, Mother Teresa-esque feats of goodness.
This is the sort of goodness that we expect to make a difference in the world around us.
It is altogether more mysterious how our own interior attempts at goodness have the ability to repair the world around us.
We do not think that our attempt on our own to model ourselves in the image of love will have any benefit to anyone other than ourselves.
We doubt that the celestial harmony of the spheres depends upon us.
And yet it does. 
Once, I had a friend who wrestled, very deeply, with doing the right thing.
She debated, going back and forth, mulling over the choice, holding it in her hand like a young baby bird, and wondering whether to let it go or hold it close to her heart.
She never told me what choice he made.
But she didn't need to. I remember feeling--not really feeling, no--but knowing very distinctly that she had made a choice. 
And it was the right one.
Her choice reverberated in my heart, sending small chords of goodness rippling through the music in my blood.
Creating harmony with all that was at peace within me, and sounding with harsh dissonance against that which was disordered.
Completely unknown to her, her own attempt at goodness set off a chain reaction, and I responded.
I do not understand the mystery of goodness, nor do I understand the mystic operations of love, but I do know that Love never fails.
And I am so thankful that Paul found this out so long before we did, and wrote it down, for us to discover in our time.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

the gentleman whose name I forget



"The rejection and crucifixion of Jesus means at the same time the end of this Temple. The era of the Temple is over. A new worship is being introduced, in a Temple not built by human hands. This Temple is his body, the Risen One, who gathers the peoples and unites them in the sacrament of his body and blood. He himself is the new Temple of humanity."
--Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week


I offered all my masses up for you,
feverishly, throwing them your way,
plundering my jealous hoard,
saved up for spiritual rainy days.

I offered all my Eucharists for you,
a conscientious, tender offering
you were my child, stricken ill,
I nursed you with the shelter of my wings.

Novenas of novenas just for you--
eighty one times eighty one is wearying--
lame syllables hung limp upon my tongue,
the words were always dry and tiring.

I went to church so faithfully each day,
lit candles, bootless red and steady flames,
reminders of my rattling, useless words
burning before your stone portrait's face.

Perhaps the prayers of pagans had more weight,
with burning meat and bloodied altar cloths,
They knelt on flagstones stained with coarse libations--
Kneeling on altar marble: cool, unblemished,
My ghostly words produce just pale vibrations

My cracked petitionary sighs
erode my straining vocal cords,
the rosaries played upon each finger
fold, as mountains do, to dust.

I offered all my masses up for you,
but better still than these, my goings-forth.
Remaining in the church was sweet repose,
her blue lights harbinger of our True North.

Lights in cryptic sanctuary windows
crystallized a thousand iridescent prayers,
I wondered at the many thousand years
of voices crying out in night,
but in that window, their request was granted
their colored voices echoing sunlight tears.

As I stamped your name into my Eucharist,
My eyes rose to the crucifix, and
looked upon the crucified, my look returned--
that look was love.
Love that faced the bitter blasts
of cold-hearted winds that shook the church
and pounded at the stones that still held fast.

Yearning for Tepeyac and winter roses,
we faced the bitter wind and dry.
The vast cavern that cathedraled us
echoed, like the Eucharists, your name.
I saw him cry
in that vault of obsolescent awe
and voices of the past.

In that cave of history,
our pasts and futures
faded into present mystery.
Shades that haunt our minds
were, in that dark church,
dismissed, dispersed, and ended:
for here, we've only light to find.

A thousand masses and a thousand being-sents,
I offered these because you needed them;
Yet as I longed to stay I understood--
the best gift I could give was going home.

Monday, September 15, 2014

the color of gratitude

One of my favorite things about Central Park is that there is an abundance of human nature.
While the grandeur of the natural world is scarce in New York City, the grandeur of human nature flourishes all around us in overabundance.

On a run through Central Park, I see beautiful little waterfalls or little brambles and rambles of woods and thickets. There are streams and lakes and sparkling  reservoirs of water, sunny lakes and calm ponds and benches around them upon which to sit.

But more importantly, there are the most wonderful specimens of humans that populate the park.
There is the grandma doing yoga among the dark of the tall trees, lit up only by a ray of sunlight. Grandma Yogi I have named her. I feel like she is just waiting for the brave young hero to find her, in his quest for a Mentor.
 There is the woman running past wearing a shirt that says: "Ping-Pong til I die." I'm all for genteel, organized party sports, but goodness, what a horrible fate that would be. It sounds like something out of a Grimm's fairytale: the evil villain is punished by being handed a red-handled ping-pong paddle, and it sticks to her hand, and she is forced to play table tennis until she drops dead from exhaustion.

Up by Harlem Meer, the elderly gentlemen congregate on the benches. They talk together in slow, languid English, or rapid, easygoing Espanol. They wear sombreros or baseball caps. They watch the world pass by them. They feed the ducks. They seem to grow out of the benches. They belong to the landscape just as much as the old trees and the rocks that sprout out of the hillocks. They are the masters of this park.

As much as the men blend in so naturally to the park, there are others who are so obviously of a different world than their surroundings, like a payphone in the wilderness. I have seen multiple people walking around with their iphones on a strange boomstick contraption.
As they walk through the park with their companion, they also record their walk from their point of view. Fascinated, I watch them digitally preserve everything their eyes are seeing. Mark Twain says nothing spoils a good walk like a game of golf, so I wonder what he would say if he saw these folks walking around with their iphone boomstick.

I ran past a woman who looked like a woman from a Brontë novel. I can barely explain what makes a woman look like she walked out of a Brontë novel, but she does. She had that sort of wide-eyed innocent look that was also made wise through the experience of misery. She had clear skin, a face that was perfectly face-shaped. Not round, not square, not jowly, no dramatic, high cheekbones or elfin pointy chin. The cheekbones and the jawline conspired together to create the shape of the face without drawing any attention to themselves. I was fascinated, because I had never seen a person who embodied Brontëan beauty as this woman did.

Then there was the bohemian couple playing violin by the Conservatory water.
A perfect Sunday afternoon might look like this:
reading Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth while a young woman in a peasant skirt with a red braid hanging down her back sings "La Vie en Rose" while the sun sparkles off the sailboat-speckled water, and elderly gentlemen with newsboy hats read books or hold hands with their spouses, while young children watch the bow of the violin moving back and forth and back and forth, enchanted by the music coming from this magical instrument.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

steal the honey from killer bees

The voice of beauty speaks softly.
 ― Friedrich Nietzsche 

I went to go see a play last week. 
It was called This is Where We Live.
The general idea was that it was the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a deadbeat Australian town (rather similar to ancient Greece, I imagine). And not only are they in a deadbeat Australian town, they are in high school in this deadbeat Australian town (that must actually be Hades). And not only are they in high school, they are in the same English class (convenient), and Orpheus' father is their awful, ogre-ish, evil English teacher! He spends entire dinner table conversations quizzing his poor little curly-haired son on geography and political histories and works of literature. Poor Orpheus (aka Chris in this play) wishes his father would actually love him instead of treating him like a little question-answering robot while Orpheus' mother unabashedly seeks comfort at the bottom of the bottle. They are astonishingly unconcerned about Orpheus' mom drinking herself into the grave. Perhaps this is because they are already in the underworld. #deep.
Much high school wow teenager very hormones.
But, from the moment that Chloe (aka Eurydice) began her opening monologue, I was mesmerized by the tapestries of words the actors wove around the stage.
Instead of backdrops decorating the space, creating their world around them; it was the actors' words that hung curtains of a world around them, and invited us into it.
It was beautiful. Mesmerizing. Spellbinding.
The language alone was enough to make the play the most beautiful piece of art I'd seen or heard recently, because of its cornucopia of beautiful words, striking verbal and visual images, and lots of fluid, quick language.
But also, what captured my heart more than anything else was The Look.
Seeing The Look on that bare, warm little stage melted my heart.
The Look is my favorite thing, because it is so beautiful and sweet, and you can't describe it, but you know it when you see it.
The Look is just pure desire.
Not dirty or filthy or untoward desire.
It's not the man on the street who does 180 degree turns when a hot mama passes by him. The Look is not rubbernecking or ogling or leering or clocking.
The Look is something born of  beautiful, intense, pure desire.
The Look is sheer longing shooting out of a human's eyes.
It is something best not crystallized and held onto--
it lasts for a moment and vanishes just as quickly.
It lingers in the air.
You can feel it as it sucks you breath out of you.
We talk about "chemistry" about the magical flutterings and pitter-patterings that thrill through two human hearts in tandem, but really we're just trying to capture what The Look means.
I remember seeing that in Rome: seeing a young man look at a young girl that way. It was thrilling: she acted as if she had no clue (and perhaps she didn't) that his eyes stared at her as if she was the sun and he would happily lose vision in both his eyes, just that he might catch one bold, brilliant glimpse of her radiant, celestial body.
Our Chris/Orpheus looked at our Chole/Eurydice in a way that persuaded you, positively convinced you that they must actually be in love, because you simply can't fake The Look like that.
Well, you can, because physical chemistry is as physical chemistry does, and two consummate actors, showing off their fine acting skills can fake The Look like you wouldn't believe.
But that, in itself, is sort of magic--that we can notice and reproduce something so intangible.
But The Look is one of my favorite things to see.
In a very harsh and unsubtle world, The Look is something tender and gentle that invites us to notice the wonder and beauty that can be found in subtleties.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

tagbey love and priest walls

Being in a position of authority is a peculiar circumstance. It is rather mind-boggling and fits oddly--like a pair of new dress shoes or unworn jeans. You know it's right, but if doesn't quite feel right yet.
So I sat with a friend, marveling in this new phenomenon of adulthood. As I whispered to him (through Facebook chat) about how I currently had twenty-some high school seniors in my charge, we wondered how one went about corralling a chorus of middle-schoolers or instituting absolute silence in a room of high school students.

The trick, we decided, was in remembering always that these students are in the tense, fraught, angsty throes of "becoming." They are very much in transition--they have not yet found their way into an "am," they are still much more in flux than that. An adult, to them, is someone who has finished their process of becoming--someone who has arrived. Someone who knows who they are, someone who knows what they are. Someone who has finished the process of becoming.

And adult, then, is someone who they deem can speak with authority to them. Someone who is confident in who they are and who they have become.

But, this is so silly, I thought. Because I have certainly not yet ended my process of "becoming," of becoming more and more each day the person I am supposed to be. No adult, no human has finished this process. My mother had not yet "become" her way into an "is." Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has not yet finished his journey of becoming, neither has Barack Obama or Queen Elizabeth or Werner Herzog. No living human being (look, we even have present progressive verbs built into our name) can claim that they have finished the process of becoming. For, goodness, the process of "becoming" is the very stuff that our human lives are made of. The only being that has ever been able to say "I AM" is not one that was created.

For a moment, I felt disingenuous for pretending that I had finished my "becoming," for acting as if I I had found the security and firm sense of self that eludes a sixteen-year-old, for projecting an authority that said: "I have finished the process of becoming."

But truly, what a necessary fiction. For we all learn when we are young that we must take turns when we are playing. So now, I thought it is my turn to play the adult. I am still a child, just like these other children: I am still becoming, still in flux, still in transition. But now, it is my turn to play the role of the teacher, to take on the authority of the instructor. It is not so much that I possess that authority myself, but there's authority that comes with the role. It is now my turn to be the teacher not the student, because I think that's what it means to be the adult: to leave behind your childhood in order that others may be children in your stead.

And that's not a role that is false or untrue to ourselves. It's not a role that ought to be worn with embarrassment or shame. The roles of authority we take upon ourselves are really not our own authority. They are a sharing in someone's authority who is much greater than ourselves. And we do not take up that authority for ourselves, but for others. We often refer to being an adult as referring to "taking responsibility" or "being responsible" or "shouldering our responsibilities," which is just a dryer and less compelling way to say "being an adult means to live for others." Selfishness, the besetting sin of childhood, is not the sin of adults (which does not mean adults are immune to selfishness, unfortunately). Adults can be full of pride, full of envy, full of many sins, [particularly full of self-importance]. But not selfishness. Selfishness's province are the sandboxes of childhood. As we accept this role that is really not of our own creation, but it is ours to accept, we can wear authority of adulthood with humility, sincerity, and without attempting to shrug it off our shoulders.
 It is inauthentic to pretend that we are children when we are adults, simply because we have the self-awareness to recognize that we not yet "are" but are still "becoming."

Here I am, going on and on about what it means to be an adult, when I have only twenty-two years of living to my name. I flush with embarrassment, just considering how foolish I sound. But, I also flush with a strange sort of guilty wonder when I walk to the front of a classroom, and tell twenty high schoolers to cease and desist their noisy flirting, joking, and yelling at one another. Who put me in charge of this classroom, I think? And I wonder that if, before long, these students will see through my outward vestiges of adulthood and discover the child underneath the surface.

I sincerely hope that, until the day I die, I will live with the guilty, sneaky joy of wondering if I will be caught out, if one day they will catch me off-guard, and my disguise of adulthood will be peeled away to reveal the child underneath, who is continuously and endlessly becoming.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

warm sidewalks toasting in the sun


 If shit is the new gold, then the sidewalks here are certainly paved with it.
Which means that you have to watch your step when you're commuting along these sidewalks. One must watch one's step at all times. One's guard can never be let down; constant vigilance is the name of the day. 
But, the other day, I finally felt my eyes glaze over behind my sunglasses.
It had been a long day, and I let my mind wander while my eyes still stared ahead.
Huh, I thought. Not able to move my eyes, but considering how I must look from the outside, this is a bad case of Commuter's Stare.
I was fascinated by this relieving feeling of staring into a vacuum.
I had seen Commuter's Stare all over the London tube and the New York subway (why is subterranean public transport such a hotbed of Commuter's Stare?), but I had never experienced it myself. Because I was usually a bright-eyed adventurer full of wonder.
My eyes were not full of wonder at the moment; they were using their depth-perception skills to find patches of sidewalk not covered in dog-shit. This is probably how they had fallen susceptible to Commuter's Stare.
This is very interesting, I thought. 
I am tired. I am spent. And I don't have the energy to look at the world with wonder.
All of a sudden, I looked up at a building I have passed many times before.
There, tattooed on the rough plaster, I saw those familiar words of comfort graffiti-ed on the side of the building.
And that was my favorite letter I received last week.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

lavishing love letters

Mama Lightbearer

Yesterday was Mother Teresa's feast day.
And needless to say, I missed Kolkata with all my heart and soul.
So, naturally, I made my way up the 6 train to the Bronx to find the Missionaries of Charity's small little house. As I approached East 145th Street, my heart begin to beat faster and faster.
When I saw the unassuming brick building with an iron fence in front of it, protecting a large, smiling picture of Mama T, my face broke out into a large, indelible grin.
And then, I saw two figures in white saris walk out of the building, down the road.
I paused, a brief moment, in awe of these familiar, beloved silhouettes.
Then, I ran after them, still grinning.
A policeman stared at me, and I ran past him, still grinning.
I slowed down to a normal human walking pace and called out: "Sister!"
They stopped, turned to smile at me and then the chatter of excited voices began, reunions and recognitions caught up in that happy chatter.
Devastated, I realized that I had just missed "Mass for Mother."
So, I contented myself with stopping in the dark church for a bit with the sisters, and then walked back towards the subway stop.
Feeling rather robbed, I threw myself a tiny mobile pity-party while a very unhappy lump form in my throat.
I was so sad that I had missed Mass. This may have been due to the fact that once a month women often feel violent bouts of feeling for no apparent reason, but meanwhile, I allowed myself to feel fifty shades of sorry for myself.
But also: this just wasn't any day: this was Mother's day. This was September Fifth. This was a day to go to Mass and think of the cool stone floor of Motherhouse chapel.
As I walked along the street, I thought once again of the sisters, robed in their white and blue saris and their halos of peace that surrounded them. And I couldn't help but smile.
With that smile, the entire scene of the Bronx street around me was transformed.
The tall, dreary buildings were no longer hateful.
The men walking by were no longer potential threats, they were beautiful images of Christ.
The women and the children playing the park were Christ.
The boys laughing on their front doorsteps were Christ.
The high school couple holding hands were Christ.
The woman looking out the window of her apartment smiled at me, and I smiled back, and Christ was present there.
As often as I ran to Christ in the Eucharist, I must, I remembered, seek Him in the faces of my neighbors on the street.
This--I remembered--was the real secret of Kolkata. This, I remembered, was the reason that I miss Kolkata each and every single day.
Because, there, I felt my eyes learned to see differently.
They learned to see clearly, rather than through the veil that I hang to separate myself from the world outside.
That smile, brought about by the sisters, ripped an opening through that veil, and I felt that I could see the world clearly once more.
In Kolkata, the Eucharist had not been fragmented, kept safely inside myself, inside my heart, inside a Church.
In Kolkata, the Eucharist had spilled over, out of myself into each person that I met.
This, I remembered, was the real beauty, the real joy that keeps tugging at my heart with little sharp pricks of nostalgia.
And so I (of course) popped into a church to say thanks for the reminder.
I walked inside the church nearest the subway stop, and my jaw dropped.
It was as if I'd walked across the Atlantic Ocean, into a Church in Rome.
My heart fluttered inside of me as I admired the unexpected beauty of the church all around me.
While I stood there, stunned by the beauty, I noticed several couples, elderly ladies, and mothers with small children trickle into the pews.
Wait...
Could it be...?
Is there going to be a...
And then a small bell rang, a priest walked out onto the altar, and Mass began.
Too surprised to do anything but stand there, breathless, I felt waves of peace washed over me.
So this, I remembered, is what gift feels like.



Wednesday, September 3, 2014

prophet on the 6 train

"Well, it's quite obvious," said Peter placidly, "that your main problem is that you think evil is more real than good."
Paul almost choked on his carrot cake. He sputtered, wordlessly, trying to navigate his utter indignation and swallowing the dense, walnut-spotted cake. The cream cheese frosting (absolutely delicious) was sticking to his tongue and slowing down the speed of his response. He took a long pull from his beer bottle and then turned to his beloved leader.
"Um excuse you?" was the first retort Paul could pull out of his arsenal. Not an excellent choice, but it got the point across. It was one of those rare moments where the word fit the thought verbatim.

Peter looked with sympathy upon this rash and loquacious young man. It was so hard to be young, he thought. Time still seemed to matter to the young. They put too much emphasis on time and then were dismayed to discover that they could not be patient. Patience, mused Peter, was second nature to the elderly, yet surprisingly difficult for the young to cultivate. Time eased his grip on those who were about to leave his clutches anyway. But the young--the young were very certainly caught in the thickest throes of time. Despite his brilliance, his clarity, his wisdom and expression beyond his years, Paul was certainly no exception. Paul was too bright really. Thy brilliance is the only cloud that hides thee, thought Peter. Paul was one of those rare individuals who would rashly and unflinchingly stare into the face of the sun. Paul was...what was the word...inspired. Yes. Quite inspired, truly. Peter relished the formerly rare and yet increasingly more numerous, always poignant, moments when Paul would say something, and Peter would turn sharply to stare at him, expecting to turn and see the face of Him, of the Master. It was uncanny, that was for sure. Oh. Goodness. Paul had been talking, and Peter hadn't been listening.

Now Paul was out of breath, so Peter took it as a sign this was his moment to step in.
"Do, excuse me. All I meant is that I think you forget, too often, that evil is like a shadow. It is a distortion of a body walking in the light. The tiniest piece of goodness is far more real than legion shadows of evil."
Paul sighed, and ran his fingers through his hair. Peter, he found, was usually right. But it was, more often than not, difficult to accept what he said without a fight. (Although he had learned the hard way that fighting with Peter usually went south for Peter's opponent.) Paul really wanted, more than anything, to retreat backwards. Backwards to where there were places of goodness and gentleness. Back to where Grecian orderliness and tidiness were the rules of the day. Back to where order and light and love were all taken for granted. Somedays, he felt that being the Apostle to the Gentiles was a bit more than he signed up for. But no one knocked him off his horse, offering him a different position, so he figured he was sort of stuck with what he'd got.
He decided to take the plunge and just tell Peter what was on his mind. As a general rule, Paul never said exactly what was on his mind. Unfiltered honesty was a dangerous policy. But, Peter was so damn intuitive, he could spot an off-kilter vibration in your heart a mile a way. It usually was best to just tell him the unvarnished, unfiltered truth.
"Actually, Peter, I think I forget mostly that the world around me is not divided up into little worlds--it's just the world."
"I don't follow," Peter responded, with a perfect poker face. Paul thought that Peter followed all too well. But he knew this pedagogical approach like the back of his hand. Peter was pushing him further into the truth. It was aggravating, but nonetheless highly effective.
"The world isn't divided up into tiny spheres of influence; it's all one big glorious dance, isn't it?"
"I'd agree."
"Thank you. Right, well, for whatever reason, the pieces of the dance that I am familiar with are not meant to be kept separate, sealed off from these other strange, foreign, uncomfortable passages that I've encountered as of late. They are meant to inform those, join them, add to them. There isn't a difference between Jerusalem and Rome. Or, I suppose even if there seems to be, there doesn't have to be. I don't know if that's an answer, but I think that's the only answer I can find to reconcile the two. Because there is darkness, and I don't think anyone will deny that. But if the light is kept away from the darkness, then the darkness will never become light. Whereas, if light and darkness meet, light always wins, right?"

Peter stared at Paul, and instead of seeing Paul, he saw Him who His heart loved so deeply. He saw the man who had told Him everything he had ever done. A memory flooded his waking eyes: the memory of the Master's face, distorted in a grimace of pain. Get behind me, Satan, he had whispered. Peter felt a sharp knife slice through his heart as he remembered how his own face mirrored the pain on Jesus'. Peter remembered realizing, in that suspended, hateful moment, with a cold, awful dead feeling in his stomach: "He is hurt." Peter didn't know that He could be hurt. He had always seemed so strong, so confident, so even-keeled and unflappable. "And I have hurt Him." The cold dead feeling didn't go away. He could feel the pain, some sort of interior agony ripple through his beloved Master and he didn't like it one bit. It felt like there were waves rolling in the earth underneath his feet. He felt sick.

And suddenly he was back to the present, sitting by the fig tree with Paul. Paul was still waiting for an answer to his question. Oh. Apparently it hadn't been a rhetorical question. Well, that was somewhat flattering. Paul usually only asked rhetorical questions. Peter knew this was mostly just habit, but he had often though about warning Paul against the pride which can lead you to think no other humans could possibly give you the answers. Now was not the time, though.

"Right. But after every time we gain the summit, we'll find ourselves crashing down again. Pride goeth before a fall doesn't even begin to cover it."

Paul pondered this unexpected answer. It seemed a lot like a non sequitur to him. But you never knew with Peter. So he accepted it. He figured that it could have been a lesson in connection. Perhaps these two statements were connected by some spiritual secret he had not yet uncovered.

Speaking as he often did, on an impulse Paul said to companion: "You are a good man, Peter."
Caught off guard by this unexpected affirmation, Peter responded in kind:
"I'm glad, Paul, that you were knocked off your high horse. You are quite a gift to all of us."
Paul often wondered why talking with Peter was harder than talking with Luke or Tertius or Timothy. But he think perhaps he understood why. Peter and he spoke the same word, but in different tongues. And they cared too much about that one word and about each other to be compromise their different languages.
It was never an effortless friendship. But Paul decided again and again that Peter was a friend worth the effort.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

descending from the starry night

what's beyond logic happens beneath will; 
nor can these moments be translated: 
i say that even after April 
by God there is no excuse for May
--e.e. cummings

After much walking, I saw a heralding angel crest above the dark green foliage of the trees of the park.
 Out of the low-rising buildings of Columbia's Morningside Heights campus rose a breathtaking Gothic façade, startlingly majestic.
A short while later, my small red umbrella and I stumbled into St. John the Divine.
Shaking the rain drops quietly off the umbrella, I looked up into this yawning vault of awe.
I have rarely felt such a tangible sense of mystery live inside a church.
Slowly (I can't imagine that moving at any other speed is allowed inside this sanctuary), I walked down the long, endlessly long, nave. It seemed to stretch on for miles and miles, and I would have gladly walked all of them forever.
The nave was all lit up with tranquil and mystical mixture of darkness and light.
The rose window, the third largest in the world, so they tell me, lets in pools and pools of deep, otherworldly blue starlight, even in the middle of the day.
Suspended from a spiderweb of iron, two pieced-together phoenixes hang above the heads of worshipers.  Incongruous with the order and symmetry of the church itself, these très moderne objets d'art were jarring, mechanical juxtapositions in this church of flowering marble.
These steel beasts were breathtaking compositions of rough scrap metal and colorful wood, their underbellies frosted with little ice blue lights. They seamed to be creatures breathing out red and blue fire.
Although Chihuly-like, flying phoenix sculptures are a rather outré choice of artwork for the nave of a Gothic Cathedral, they were, in a magical way, quite fitting.
Initially, I was suspicious of them, because they looked trendy, and had been installed in the nave in a fit of trendiness and a push to be relevant.
But, whatever the intentions behind the installation, they actually added to the atmosphere remarkably well, in their own unique, steampunk way.
They inspired you a sense of awe that was not quite comfortable.
As you walked under their starry underbellies, through the slender, elegant columns that blurred into a Lothlorien-like forest of silver light and marble trees, you could not escape the feeling of enchantment and danger. If a mythical creature had appeared in the shadows between the columns, I would not have been surprised. The phoenixes heralded a world beyond all things visible, and hinted that perhaps there was more power in that world than we would comfortably like to assume.
They suggested that something mystical dwelt in that church. Although, in reality, there are no magical beasts lurking in our curches, that hushed, heightened alertness is not an entirely incorrect feeling to have rushing through your veins as you approach the altar of the Lord. I thought of the words Josh Ritter croons:
The dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire.
and I felt that these phoenixes were not such a poor idea.
After getting lost in dark immanence of the nave, I wandered down into the transept. The north transept had suffered a fire ten years ago, and the sadness of a crumbling building permeated the entire cross section. I sat down on one of the stark wooden chairs to rest my feet and take in the view. Behind me, rain leaked through the roof far above me, and hit the stone floor with a melancholy plunk, plink, plunk, plink. I gaze up at the dark, smoky dome above me. It was sadly unpainted or undecorated. In a flash, I was reminded of my beloved Westminster Cathedral, with its tragically unfinished dome as well. Homesickness for England inundated me for a second.
Then, my eyes fell from the dome above down to the warm, dusky light of the sanctuary. There were seven lamps (a nod to John's own reference to the seven lights burning before the throne), they were elongated and sharp, like spindles of light. They looked like something from Grimm's fairy stories or the Arabian Nights.
I looked behind me, at the dark blue world I had just wandered through. And it seemed like an entirely different universe than the rich, hazy wonder of the sanctuary behind the altar.
I felt as though I saw this scene from the distance, behind a veil of angels' wings.
A group of trendy young youth, all dressed in black marched around the altar in their studded, heavy boots, taking pictures of the sanctuary and wandering around with a tourist's gait and posture: long, slow footfalls, constant revolution, to achieve a 360 degree view, and eyes focused upward.
And even they, so insistently distinct from their surroundings, their faces molded into detached, objective interest, seemed to be embraced by the tangible aura of the divine within those walls.
If I live to be a hundred, I doubt I will cease to be haunted by the mystery that swing beside the lamps in the golden sanctuary and lingers in the shadow-kissed starlight of the blue and silver nave.

Monday, September 1, 2014

fjords of honey

Portrait of a Coffee Shop:

The music running through the loudspeakers is Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." For some reason, this music does not fit the coffee shop at all. I can't explain why. But there's something about this coffee shop that suggests it should only play Norah Jones and The Head and the Heart. Nothing else. Dean Martin sounds incongruous. I wish there was a way to explain this logically. But trust my intuition on this. Dean Martin has no place here.

Furthermore, there is a pigeon casually walking through the open doors. It's summer in NYC, so the entire front portion of the restaurant is open, letting the noises and breezes off the street permeate the calm blue brick walls. This pigeon is waddling about, minding its own business, pecking crumbs off the floor. He struts about on the hardwood floors with a casual bonhomie and careless insouciance. He cocks his eyes saucily at the patrons, daring them to deny him admittance to his favorite café. By the table right on the border between the indoors and outdoors, a woman who is dressed in running clothes, drinking an iced latte, answering emails on her iPhone is worried by the pigeon. He is circling her table,  picking up crumbs that are invisible to us common men. She eyes him charily, clearly not happy with the situation. I am fascinated, and take a break from reworking two-year-old dialogue to callously gawk at a fellow human in dire peril. As the pigeon waddles his way towards me, I grin and think about texting my friend who is very afraid of pigeons. I used to laugh at people who were afraid of birds. Then I saw a clip (not even the whole movie, mind you) of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. And then, this summer, a bird flew in an open door, and threw itself against the ceiling, trying desperately to regain the blue sky. Gingerly, a team of us ushered the panicking bird out of the building. Looking up at the ceiling, I saw all sorts of holes in the plaster where the bird's beak had hit the ceiling. Yipes. Those were not pretty. I now understood the fear of birds. Although I still do not flinch when a pigeon flies at me, since then, I have given our flying friends a wider berth, and looked upon them with greater respect.

The pigeon wandered back towards Nervous IPhone Lady. Nervous IPhone Lady got increasingly more nervous. Finally, she stomped her tennis-shoe-encased foot on the floor by the pigeon, in an attempt to frighten him off. Affronted and offended, the pigeon spread his wings a bit and hopped away from the table. His general attitude was one of annoyance and hurt. How could that woman be so rude as to stomp at me? his beady little eyes seem to say. He ruffled his feathers a bit and then, realizing with resentment that his presence was no longer appreciated, he flew away. Shaken by her exposure with one of nature's flying rats, Nervous IPhone Lady got up a few minutes later, disposed of the last few drops of her latte, and scurried off.

Finally, now, this coffee shop is fulfilling its true telos, and playing Norah Jones.
All is right with the world again.