Wednesday, June 17, 2015

where did all the good stones go?

Before the inland sea the valley must have been a forest. And it seemed to me sometimes at night that I could feel both the sea and the redwood forest before it.

--East of Eden, John Steinbeck

When I was asked to take over the high school's community garden, the kind woman stood in front of my desk, with an eager and pleading smile on her face, and I sat in my chair, processing.

In my head:
'Oh, I'll check my schedule'. Just as we rehearsed now, Renee: 'I'll let you know.' 'I'll get back to you.' 'I'll check my schedule'. Here we go, 1,2,3:

And then out of my mouth came:

"Why, yes, I'd love that!"

So many painstaking years of progress negated in one enthusiastic and impulsive 'yes'. Old habits die hard.

Thankfully, it was the middle of February, and gardens didn't need any immediate attention or thought. So "The Garden" was a vague responsibility, looming off in the unimaginably sunny and warm future.

Then, all of a sudden, it was March and memories of planting seedlings in the basement with my father, in preparation for the breaking of the frost and the thawing of the earth rebuked me. I was not nurturing any seedlings, there was not a seedling in sight.

Then it was April, and the memory of warm sunlight and tilling the earth and planting seeds in neat rows while wearing kid gardening gloves prodded at my to-do list, and rebuked me each time I walked past the barren seed beds sitting out in the courtyard.

Then it was May, and a flood of despair prompted me to call my father.

My father has always been captain of our backyard garden, which is more like a miniature produce farm. From time immemorial, our backyard has been filled with lettuce, tomatoes, pole beans, raspberries, strawberries. There are blackberry brambles lining the tall fence that holds the basil and the squash. When summer turns to autumn, a riotous, uncontrollable tangle of pumpkin vines, encroaches on the territory of all her herbaceous neighbors.

Picking basil, weeding the lettuce beds, and killing squash bugs were all common summer Saturday activities. Under the eye of my father, who would be mowing or weeding, or setting up stakes for the tomatoes, or doing one of those particular, mysterious tasks that are required of a man caring for his earth, we would learn a bit about how to bring living things out of the rich Minnesota soil.

So, I called my father, and learned that I had not, in fact, doomed our modest little soil-boxes to an accidental Sabbath year of lying fallow. After coaching me through the preliminary steps, he sent me his own seeds. Thick, black beans from the hallowed pole beans that my great-grandfather gave him; brittle pumpkin seeds from the ferociously fertile family pumpkin patch; and sticky tomato seeds, stuck to paper towels, because there was never a tomato sweeter than one from my father's garden.

Then it was June, and I finally began to plant.
I took the seeds out between sun-showers, and stuck them in the soil, aided by my father on the phone and scribbled instructions via a quick Google search. I felt all the joy of getting black lines of dirt under your homemade manicure, and the smell of sweat mixing with the smell of fertilizer. I felt the joy of creating something: a garden, even though the fruits of the garden were yet to be seen. I felt robust and healthy, and fully alive, as I laid claim to a little bit of nature on an island that is not at all mine.
As I patted the last heap of dirt over my last seed, I felt a wave of success wash over me: the sort of success you feel after typing "Blackout" at the end of a play, or when you finally reach closing night, or you hit "Publish" on a blogpost. The success, however, was quickly succeeded by a pang of anxiety. Getting the seeds in the ground is really such a small step (despite the painstakingly long time it took me to accomplish it), and I realized the enormity of the task ahead, and how little of the outcome I could control.

What if greedy city rats chewed on my little seedlings? What if I drowned the plants with too much watering? What if I neglected them, and the sun dried them up into shriveled, parched little runts, panting, struggling to free themselves from the soil that swallowed them up. What if a flash flood came and destroyed my little vegetable charges? What if lighting struck, or a hurricane, or a choking, desperate drought?

I watered them carefully, trying to imagine the tiny little seeds sprouting underneath the quiet and undisturbed carpet of speckled brown. Each watering was accompanied with a prayer of encouragement, and invocation for my father's green thumb to rub off on me. I felt a thrill of hope when I saw a worm near some of my plants. All I know is that worms=good for gardens, and it really wouldn't do to press my knowledge beyond that.

Finally, I saw my first seedlings: the little beans, hearty and robust, were sprouting by the makeshift bamboo fence I had created for them, with rickety gardening stakes and duct tape.
And there, over in their corner, triumphantly sticking out from their small hills of earth, were the shining pumpkin vines. It was strange to see them as small little shoots, so tender and vulnerable, when I am so used to seeing them in their vigorous, unstoppable hey-day.

I am still afraid to weed, since I assume that every small green object might be the belated zinnias and the tomatoes (who are taking their sweet time), which I patiently and eagerly await each day. Being designated the guardian of a living thing is an activity of constant anxiousness.

As I plod through the little herbaceous plots, I feel a small thrill of being who I have always wanted to be, and doing something that is simple, rich, and Good. (Steinbeck's mystic prose running through my head lends a touch of grandeur to my gardening, that my pink flip-flops and slipshod way of planting do not warrant.) I distinctly feel that there is something necessary for my soul in owning a small bit of land, and coaxing something growing out of it.

Perhaps it is the need to feel a part of the earth in a deeper way than just consuming it; to know that I have given it a bit of my heart and time and elbow grease, and it will give me pumpkins to make pie of when the leaves turn crimson. Perhaps it is the need to feel a part of nature's cycle of growth and death. Perhaps it is the need to feel like not a passive afterthought on the face of the earth, but an agent of nature, a force of life, whispering kind words to small portions of the earth's crust, and encouraging small saplings into oakhood.
Perhaps it is that "itching land greed" Steinbeck writes of.
Perhaps it is the catharsis of creation.
Perhaps it is that something my father has felt, too.

Monday, June 15, 2015

the return of The Feeling

Or, An Open Letter to a Friend
(Because, sometimes you make something for someone, and you like it so much you want to keep it for yourself)

"Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man's importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men. [...]  If the glory can be killed, we are lost."

--East of Eden, Chapter 13, John Steinbeck

Dear [Name]

I know it is the 8th week of ordinary time. But I don't want it to be. It's not quite. We're in Pentecost week: sandwiched between the birthday of the Church and Trinity Sunday. We must acknowledge that this time is not quite ordinary. And time has been so extra-ordinary of late, we need a transition period.

Oh, we know that Corpus Cristi is arriving, because of the first communion banners that litter the parish church; the joyful, tacky red felt. Then, the Marian shrine in the back of the nave: just hordes and hordes of the most eclectic, colorful Pietas, with hints of grotesque sorrow in their plaster, Assumptions , and joyfully garish Madonnas, surrounded by bunches of silver, white and Cerulean metallic crepe paper--East Harlem's answer to Leviticus' "gold purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen."

"Gold, purple, and scarlet cloth and fine twined linen" was a favorite chant of [Name] and I in our youth. It was such a preposterous and inane antiphon in the otherwise most solemn and humorless book of the Pentateuch. And we are such mongers for the ridiculous and whimsical that we were overwhelmingly pleased to find something so mundane and human in the midst of grand divine revelation.

In a rare moment, we were on a train, and I talked about Kolkata (being on a train is not the rare part, the talking about Kolkata is). It was late at night, on the C train from Brooklyn. We were speeding through the ground in a slick and shiny subway car. We were in such a strange and manicured moment, designed to make us forget that we were on a precipice of death. The reality of death was so carefully manufactured out of the picture, thus reality was manufactured out of the picture As I told [name] and [name] about the Kolkata I missed not because of the poverty, but because of their messy, rich, sensual un-corporate culture I felt already closer to reality just thinking of it. Kolkata is closer to reality than we are and I miss it.

I have felt distinctly fuzzy lately. I miss the clarity of the university--the clarity of Notre Dame in particular. I feel as though I'd been living for those blessed four years in a star---surrounded by brilliant light, enveloped in it, consuming it, the hot light immediately revealing the shadows in my thoughts and actions, and burning away all that was not light--incinerating any particle that was not like unto itself. All that was not light was burned away so quickly that it never clouded the clarity.

And of course I took that for granted! Because I--as an adult--knew nothing else. And how blessed--unduly and unworthily blessed--I am that my coming-of-age took place in this cradle of truth; that the practice of virtue was not only encouraged, but prized, esteemed, and discussed.

I was there to cultivate clarity--I spent my days examining truth and puncturing inflated falsehoods. It was a luxury but what a necessary salvific luxury. I would be adrift without it. Now, life is different. Days drift by and drafts accumulate in my blogger writing box, and I never feel polished or complete enough to hit publish. A million different moments, sounds, words, thoughts, emotions, mistakes hurts,  Joys, victories, sorrows, and ideas fly by me each day and it's all I can do to just grab a pen or a keyboard and capture an outline of them, because I don't have room to commit them to memory nor do I have the time to transform them into polished pieces of art.

New York City is not a city suffused with the light of Truth. The Church here is so depressing, [Name]. There are so many beautiful churches: beautiful in every sense of the word: excellent, loving, Christ-like priests, beautiful liturgies, beautiful communities, beautiful physical church buildings. But they are suffering. Churches that were built by poor Irish immigrants are not longer being funded or attended by their wealthy descendants.

It breaks my heart to see the Church so poor, and stretched so thin. And also, there are so many parishes that seem to follow the sharp divisions of wealth in this city: there are the poor ones and the rich ones. The rich ones: like St. Patrick's Cathedral, have more than enough money, while the poor ones shut down. It's sad.

And I keep reading saints who responded to all the ills of the world with hope and mercy, and they shed some of their light on the darkness of my angsty bitterness.

The other evening, as [Name] and I sat in the hot June night air--it was a heavy and close evening, saved from being suffocating by the lightest of breezes--I could no longer write, or talk, or really think. Paralyzed, I stared up at the canopy of delicate, whispering leaves that shields our backyard from the harsh cityscape outside. The leaves were beautiful, outlined in the warm light of kitchen windows in the dark. I bored them with my gaze, fighting against something inside of me, the same fight I had been fighting for weeks, if not months.
The evening was exquisite, and I was dreadfully unhappy.

I have never felt deeply, troublingly unhappy, so I don't think I've ever had to admit being unhappy before. But as soon as I acknowledged: what I am right now is unhappy, suddenly, I felt a great peace. And I felt joy in the peace. I felt Joy in being this little lost woman in the middle of a large city--lost at sea, really
*see sea doodle above*
--her lone star hidden behind the blanket of city smog. How will she steer her bark without its light to orient her compass?

This is simply where I am on my journey: alone, in a cave at night. It is dark all around me. And it is absolutely vital for me to be here. There are all sorts of serpents to be rooted out, and monsters to be vanquished, that you can't do in the full light of the sun, surrounded by the strong fortresses of family. This stage of the journey, too will pass. All things pass: the light of star endures, and I set my compass by her.

One must turn all the scribbles of angst and darkness into art. And the unhappiness cannot be fetishized and wallowed in, as all Fitzgeraldian characters do: they wear their unhappiness like limp and luxurious fur coats, instead of battling it head-on, as a challenge to be overcome.

Life is still a drum-roll, and the orchestra's still tuning, and the glory that John Steinbeck writes of still awaits.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

why I am still Catholic

we can’t cheat death but we can make it 
work so hard 
that when it does 
take us 
it will have known
a victory
just as perfect as ours. 
 --Charles Bukowski, a song with no end

Denise and I sat on the phone:
she, in the pleasant hum of Southern summer,
surrounded by brunch with friends
and books in cool, quiet mansions;
I, in a buzzing Yorkville Starbucks,
surrounded by bustling families in yarmulkes,
lining up for the free bathroom.

We were silent: awed and scared.
The mystery of How to Find a Soulmate
in an Adulterated World
of Tarnished Charmings nagging us.
The compromise:
the tidal pull
of acclimating to another human,
adjusting your internal thermostat
to their unique ecology,
retaining the mother tongue,
while loving them in language
common to you both--

and the resisting push of self --
standing staunch and stern,
against the ripping tide,
obsidian cliffs, rebuffing rough waves,
polished by the saline surf
into solid fortresses of identity--
we are baffled by
 the compromise of love

There are relationships
stamped into our bones.
There are people who ring us true,
who strike us like a clapper
on the sound-bow
of a bronze bell,
ringing with the pitch of glory.
Beyond a calculation or a proof,
there are cement building blocks,
that lay the foundation
 of my core identity.
If they disintegrate,
the entire artifice would crumble.

There are relationships
that fly through our lives
like the express train through a
local stop.
They are the cabs
that we could hail,
if we but reach out our hands
to claim them,
to snatch them from the street.
They are nothing more
than modes of transportation to
our final destination:
the person we are meant to be.

How do lovers
mysteriously become
How do speeding strangers
become pieces of ourselves?
When do you stay
on a bus careening into traffic;
instead of hopping buses,
switching courses
in the middle of the intersection?

How do we determine the people
who stifle something in ourselves
and those that help us die to Self?

Perhaps there is much
that we must die to,
false idols and false deities we must destroy.
The caterpillar's chrysalis
must be shed
that she might evolve into
a flying creature

If I ever ceased returning to receive,
with dirty and unworthy hands,
the God-man in a gluten host--
such humility shames my shabby pride--
all in Me--
that is worthy of that name--
would die.