Friday, August 28, 2015

La nuit étoilée

Looking at the stars always makes me dream. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.
--Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo Van Gogh Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh Arles, c. 9 July 1888

It is so peculiar, all the little things that feel like home.
The couch in the family room that used to be in the front room.
The box of journals--each of their covers all too familiar--underneath my old bed.
The map of the interstate intersection.
The blackberry patch.
The adoration chapel.
Lake Harriet.
The Bath and Bodyworks in the mall.
All the super bougie shops by 50th and France.
A small book with a loving inscription.
The turbulent colors of Van Gogh's Starry Skies.
The familiar scent of an old perfume.
The smell of weed and fried chicken on the sidewalk.
Italian sisters blocking the intersection.
Familiar, happy faces at the open bar.
The cluttered dining room table.
The website of your bank. (I don't know. It just does).
French-speaking tourists flooding the park.
Your ears clogging and popping as the train goes underwater.
The view over the reservoir.
Walking down 86th Street.
Seeing all the familiar faces of the people you don't really know at Mass.
Your desk: cluttered with all the props from your show.
The smell of school.
The cold floor of your bedroom. (okay now I'm just listing random things)

When you are home, at first, you greet everything as new and beloved: you take in every detail and notice what has changed: what's been broken, what's been fixed. And then there is a blissful period where you just take everything for granted--you don't spend your days staring at the rich red paint on the wall, or bouncing on your sister's bed, or stroking the ears of your puppy--you just dwell alongside of them in a contented haze, and enjoy it.

Then, as you are about to leave, you remember that you love everything so much and soon you won't be around it. So you have to remember all the little details as much as possible. You sit on five different couches, so you can remember how each of them feels, and how each of their soft, distinct contours awaken a different shade of security in you and foster a unique hue of coziness. You lay on your bed and thumb through all your books, to remember how they smell and how the print feels underneath your fingertips. You flip through the favored ones to find that once passage that always bolster your spirits or breaks your heart.
You watch your little siblings, who are not so little anymore, so that you can remember not just their faces, but the way their faces are: how they smile, how they grimace, how they scrunch their noses up at you and yell: "Renéeeee go awayyyy stop watching me."
You lay on the grass outside, while your dog growls at your shadow, and you stare up at the sky. You try to memorize each cloud, each star blocked by the suburban light pollution.
You just want to soak in each beautiful moment, because the pain of departure has helped you become that much more aware of each of them.
I do not like leaving. Leaving is sad (unless you are leaving a bad play. Then, it is a monumental relief). But, leavings and endings remind me always what a gift time--and the limitedness of time--is.

Endings are always a grace, because we are beings living in time, and we do not yet possess the ability to sustain an appropriate awareness of the world indefinitely, eternally. Without the imminent threat of ending, we would be forever in that contented, happy haze. Which certainly sounds appealing most days. But, in that happy, contented haze you have the audacity to live your pedestrian life each day, surrounded by so many marvels of creation without really paying them any heed. With the jolt of separation, you may actually begin to see them for the marvels that they are. 
Being able to see how precious the world truly is makes all the partings joy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

the birth of bittersweet

Recently, I made a rare trip to the movie theatre with my sisters to treat myself to Pixar's Inside Out. I don't know if I have begun to weep more often and more easily, simply because I’m older, but if so, then that proves the storyline of the movie as something deeply true. For it seems that as we're older, the things that bring us such pure joy become intertwined with sorrow. And it seems that the simple, vibrant happiness of childhood, that exists with such high frequency and pitch is no longer sustainable as we develop into increasingly more complex beings.

Inside Out opens with the birth of a child, and the one singular emotion that dwells within a newborn child: Joy. The birth of Joy and the birth of our young protagonist are simultaneous, which struck me as a deeply significant statement that joy is somehow native to a human soul. Human life is, from its very first, something that is full of joy, and, existence, simply for existence’s sake, is a cause for rejoicing. Quickly, however, with the onset of the first hunger pangs, thirst or inability to express oneself to the large world surrounding her, the baby lets out her first cry of sadness. Joy, the emotion, is bewildered: what is this?

From the corners of the child's mind emerges Sadness, an unlikely heroine in a turtleneck sweater. Sadness takes over the console of the brain for a few moments, bumbling and hapless, feeling out of place and incompetent, before Joy swoops in to clean up the mess and restore happy equanimity.
Thus begins a thoroughly compelling coming-of-age saga, told from an unlikely perspective: from the view of the interior. 
With Joy as our primary protagonist, we see the collection of memories—here pictured as glowing orbs of color and light that churn through the factory of the brain each day—that accrue from a generally happy and well-adjusted childhood in suburban Minnesota.
As someone who also had a generally happy and well-adjusted childhood in Minnesota, this was a particularly poignant plot point for me. 
 In the film, Rylee (the young woman in whose head the story takes place), has core memories--foundational moments of joy that fuel her Islands of Personality--that define who she is. As we grow up, our core memories, these iconic experiences of who we are and have been, become touched with sadness when we grow up into something else. As we mature into this new creature, we have been transformed, from the inside out (as it were). By the end of the film, Rylee is fitted with new Islands of Personality, and a more comprehensive, nuanced emotional commode (equipped with a large red alarm light, titled "Puberty", which the emotions blissfully shrug off as unimportant).

Although the protagonist of the movie is an eleven-year-old girl, it resonated deeply with the emotional journeys that many of my peers and I have experienced over the past year as young adults moving from the safety of homelike liberal arts colleges into the adult world of big cities and new jobs. Moving from the warmth and comfort, and effortless Joy of home: whether that home is Minnesota, a University dorm, or a constantly encircling community of friends, the Freshman Year of Real Life takes its emotional toll.

Read the full article here.

Monday, August 24, 2015

laying down the sword; taking up the cross

“There is, hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes till an entire marriage reconciles them. It is arrogance in us [men] to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them, [women] to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ . . . Marriage heals this. Jointly the two become fully human. ‘In the image of God created He them.’ Thus, by a paradox, this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes.” 
--C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (p. 58)

So yesterday, Catholic preachers everywhere faced a conundrum regarding which reading on which to preach. There were three particularly juicy options, and the Gospel was the trump card narrative of the final passage of the Bread of Life discourses and Peter's stunning proclamation: "We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." Not an easy choice. The brave among them even dared to weave all three of them together.

The second reading, from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians, is what our deacon called an elbow-nudging passage. For it featured Paul's oft-mocked, quoted, and misappllied command for wives to be subordinate to their husbands.
And our deacon is correct in his assessment of how this reading touches the human race. It is all too common for listeners to focus only on the first part of the passage and think: "haha! Gotcha! Guess what! Females are not supposed to be equal to men!" And, when Paul begins to address men, the other half of the population thinks: "haha! men! things don't look so hot for you either!"

But this is precisely the attitude which Paul is correcting in us.
This is not a "Gotcha" passage, but an injunction to a cease-fire in the constant battle to be king of the hill.

So this delightfully challenging passage begins with Paul's command to all the married Ephesians (and perhaps all the single Ephesians, too)  "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21). This is the really radical statement.

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
(Ephesians 5:22-24)

There's really nothing new here. I wonder if any of the Ephesian housewives were perturbed or otherwise shocked by it. For although there is something greater here than just "wives! Do everything your husband tells you to do!" the foot hasn't yet dropped. Paul has certainly re-contextualized the dynamic of marriage, but he hasn't yet hit us with his best shot (as it were). So here comes what I think was the real bombshell, and turns this whole text into something really radical:

Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body.
(Ephesians 5:25-30)

And then Paul drops the mic/his quill. [ed. note: did he even write with quills? Google first century Palestine writing instruments]

Because this is really where Christianity is going wildly off script, in terms of prevailing cultural narratives of their time (and perhaps all times). Here, Paul is calling men to view their wives as their equals (and perhaps this is me reading this through a gloss of 21st century new feminism, and yet the beauty of this text is that it seems to support that reading): "He who loves his wife loves himself." "So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies." Certainly there is nothing here in this passage that denotes any member of this marriage as a lesser status than the other partner.

One part of the passage that I love is the portion of the passage where Paul writes:
he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.

The real splendor of the bridegroom is his own pursuit of sanctity. And through this pursuit, he also facilitates the holiness and purity of his spouse. Just as Christ, through His own act of goodness--His pure sacrifice of love--sanctified the Church, His bride. For, really, the heart of this passage is the mysterious call to men to "love their wives as Christ has loved the church." Here, Paul brings the heart of the Christian message--to take up one's cross, to lay down one's life in imitation of Christ--into the heart of marriage. And this is a mutual mission: marriage is not the subordination of one person's desires for the sake of the other, but an enterprise of mutual self-gift.

Paul's injunction to married couples is an injunction to a new sort of love. Paul is calling married people to something deeper than just a contract of control. They enter into a contract of love, of radical self-sacrifice to one another, in imitation of Christ's paschal sacrifice for His people. The reason Paul focuses so deeply on the role of men, I believe, is because this is a radical departure from the prevailing cultural script of male dominance.

Perhaps, then, if the man is the natural leader of the household (due to whatever reasons you want to have to support that statement), then he is a leader in self-sacrifice. Christians are not messing around with this command to servant leadership. To be first means to be last. And this is stated in no uncertain terms.

For, the whole point of Christianity is that it tells us our deepest desire--where we will find our deepest joy--is not through control, but through self-gift. Often, because of our own fallen natures, we grasp at power over others, and dominion over what little corner of the world we can exert influence over. Power is tempting. It is pleasant to be in control, and it is pleasurable to get to call the shots, and make people do what you want them to do.

But this is not the way of Christianity. Christianity calls each of us to lay down our lives in love for one another. In this passage, Paul is examining how intimately and particularly this call is seen in something as mundane as marriage. Marriage is not a lofty vocation: it has and always been the occupation of the many. It is common. It is messy. It is filled with taxes and laundry and fixing the siding of the house and arguing and quiet dinners of burnt bread. It has no vestal purity about it. To be a priest, to be a consecrated virgin has always been a revered business, because it means to be set apart, to be above the common people. But marriage is right, dab, smack in the middle of the messy universe. Married couples do not get to be locked up in a pristine temple, removed from all the hum-drum bustle of the world and crying babies. They are charged with the unholy task of making those crying babies.

But, in this passage, Paul is proves that this common vocation of the uneducated masses is actually a beautiful school of Christian charity. In a cultural milieu that emphasized (as most cultures have throughout history) that might makes right, and the man gets to dominate the household because he is the most powerful, and a man's home is his castle blah blah blah, Paul's injunction for a man to love his bride with the self-sacrificing love of Christ for the Church was quite counter-cultural. And it is still certainly very counter-cultural.

Despite our self-congratulatory insistence that we have achieved some sort of equality between the sexes, and certainly, our Western democracy allows women a greater autonomy than previous societies (59 days until Suffragette the movie hits theatres), we really, spiritually, are pretty much wrestling with the same demons our ancestors did. There is that fundamental division between us (the "sword between the sexes" that C.S. Lewis writes of) that locks us in an eternal power struggle between the sexes. All human beings are constantly wrestling with their own instinct to be in control. And the Christian vocation is the call to continually surrender our insatiable need to be in control. We must surrender it ultimately to God. And so we surrender it to our neighbor--to our spouse, our superior, our boss, our student, our sister--as a practical living-out of our surrendering of our lives to the Lord.

If this passage of Ephesians is challenging to us, it certainly ought to be. Paul goes straight for the jugular, and attacks the most fundamental flaw in our human nature: the need to grasp for power. We do not like to serve. We like to rule. It is hard for me to listen to this passage and hear the word "subordinate," because I am a human being and the siren song of "I will not serve" is always playing in the background, a harsh, discordant clash to the sweet invitation to "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to your word."
For these are the questions this passage poses us: are we willing to gain true freedom by relinquishing this grasping, greedy hunger for power? Are we willing to follow Christ, even to the point of following our spouse? Are we willing to lay down the sword between us, and to take up the cross and follow after Christ?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

in my blood, your vessel ran

For what is courtship but disguise? 
True hearts may have dissembling eyes.
--Thomas Campion, Advice to the Girl 

You know you've picked the right parish when they have a post-Mass reception that includes brie and champagne.
Champagne at 1pm tastes ebullient and elegant.
Champagne at 1pm tastes like the East Coast and wrought iron fences.
Champagne at 1pm tastes like: oh we're not in Kansas anymore.
Nor are we in Minneapolis.

We are not at home.

Finding yourself perched on the edge of childhood and adulthood: too young to have lost your youthful desire to be a doctor of the Church, too old to be humble enough to admit to those desires, you wander through the crowd of seersucker sport coats and sharp leather shoes.
Your jejune ideas are patted on the head by those just a few years older, and set to dry out with the kindergartners' finger paintings.

The air in August in the city is stifling. It feels like acid coffee from a bodega mixed with all the smog and smut of MTA's electric dragons running underneath the earth. The only wind is from the train pulling into the station, and the taxi that clips your sandal. And even that air is inert and listless. There is no energy or life in the atmosphere. It's as though the molecules just got shoved around, but all the atoms inside of them are limp and lethargic, enervated by the oppressive heat.

The movement feels false and foreign. It doesn't spring from deep within. It's like dog-paddling to stay afloat versus diving into a deep pool.

I stare into the falls by the Mississippi river, and I feel a different sort of listlessness.
Here, at St. Anthony Falls, there is no real motion or activity. The water runs through the lock and dam, eager to leave the cold north and find the clement Southern gulf.
The activity is not here--here is the quiet, still North where the falls gurgle joyfully downstream--the activity is there.
Here there is no motion, there is no movement.
Here there is quiet--a deity the MTA daily dethrones.
A quiet conversation on a subway platform is interrupted by the iron roar of the approaching subway, barreling down the tracks.
We pause. Endure the racket. And move on.

But here, there is quiet, uninterrupted by the MTA.
Here, there is peace.
Here, people do not roll about like tumbleweeds. They settle. They grow moss. They grow roots.
I roll around, and tread on all their toes, a sharp stone, not yet smoothed by moss.
And I feel vaguely out of place.
But not in a sudden way--in a way I have always noticed, but never bothered to attend to.

We are, perhaps, still not at home.

Because here, in the quiet--in the blessed, blessed quiet--the air moves.
The air moves here.
The air is alive with a crisp frost, even in August.
It moves with an energy spurred by the winter that is always just around the corner.
It darts across smooth lakes, rustling their surfaces with small waves of ripples.
It rushes across the cattails, and it runs in through the open front door, off the prairie, and into your home.
The air is alive with something here.
Perhaps peace and tranquility are ideal conditions for cultivating fresh, vital air--the sort of air that fills your lungs with strength and builds up broken spirits.
I am not a quiet person.
But I think this quiet, living air agrees with me.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

the gathering is not optional

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. 
Your people will be my people, and my God your God. 
(Ruth 1:16)

Friendship is one of the most misunderstood and greatest blessings of human existence.
One of the reasons to love to the book of Ruth is that it has an image of positive female friendship that proves that positive female friendship did in fact exist pre Fey-Poehler. (barely)

The above quote was (part of) the first reading yesterday at Mass.
And I was at Mass with all the elderly suburban folks who I one day aspire to be.
After so many masses in grand, empty churches in the city, it is a delight to walk into very mundane, small chapels where nearly every seat is full--even at 6:15 AM.

During the reading, I looked at the pair of friends near me who had matching fluffy white hair, wrinkles around their smiles, and matching pink striped shirts. These women were gathered together at Mass, just as my friends and I do. They had the same joy in one another, the same joy in being together, and the same joy in sharing this common faith.

One of the beautiful friends of my heart gave me a book entitled Love and Salt, which chronicles the spiritual friendship of two young women--fresh out of grad school and newly married--through their Lenten correspondence to each other as one of them begins her conversion process.

Their letters follow them through new jobs, first years of marriage, pregnancies, miscarriage, and all the daily in-betweens. One of my favorite passages is when the two friends (it is hard to think of them as anything else besides Ruth-Naomi or Frodo-Sam) visit a reliquary. They are rather disgusted by the bizarre, gory sight of relics which may be relics, and may just be the bones of a small animal uncovered by grave diggers. It is a very macabre sort of subgenre of Catholic devotion.

And, to a newly converting soul, rather daunting. But Amy does not balk. Reflecting upon the moment and the deeper, hidden holiness she found there, she writes to her friend and companion:
"And what showed it to me, that glimmer of holiness beyond the bones, was your presence there. At the time it took the form of a dare: I'll stay if you stay. If you can believe despite all this, then so can I. We stood there, amid the skulls, in awe of our shared desire to still believe, the desire our unspoken dare seemed to reveal."

And I think that moment so accurately captures what these friendships of faith mean to me:
perhaps I am not so crazy to dare to believe in rituals that seem to ancient and dusty. Perhaps these strange traditions and ancient rites that the rest of the world finds to be rather embarrassing, backwards, and incongruent with our ambitious, feminist, educated personalities, are actually just as full of beauty and richness as we believe them to be.

Perhaps this strong and silent desire that seems to pull me away from so much actually pulls me towards you. And it pulls both of us towards something--Someone--larger, deeper, and greater than we could ever understand alone.

Perhaps I can take this leap of love, because you are taking it as well. If you have the courage to embrace all the bizarre and humbling details of this faith, then I can have it, too.
If you still talk about confession and confessors, and finding forgiveness in the words of absolution, then so can I.
If you still reverently bow before the monstrance, and genuflect before the altar, then so can I.
If you can pray Our Fathers and Hail Mary's, and recite an ancient creed with full heart and voice, then so can I.
If you believe, despite all this, then so can I.

Friday, August 21, 2015

champagne ceilings

Color is one of the most baffling experiences in the human existence, because it's a physical reality we perceive; it is a fact, outside of my control.
But color is something ineffable. Its presence is enhanced, or perhaps introduced, by the names we do or do not have for them.
Our language occludes certain colors from our sight.
Not really. We still see the color; that is the light waves are still absorbed and reflected by the object, and the same wavelengths of light hit our retinas.
But without the language to understand these waves of light, we do not know what we are seeing.
Our brains have not been equipped with the proper language to interpret the vision.

Ancients looked up at the sky and saw more of the shape than the color.
They saw the curve of the horizon, and the clouds being ushered along by the wind.
But they didn't name the color of the sky blue.
Which, if you've seen a sky during a thunderstorm, or a sunset, or when it's just a mushy umbrella of white fluff over your head, then it almost seems to be a stretch for the sky to actually be blue.

But last night at twilight, I saw, peeking out of the rolling clouds of summer rainy days, a small patch of unadulterated indigo, so radiant it burned your eyes, so lush it seemed indulgent to gaze upon it.
I set my course towards this pasture of cerulean. I was almost tempted to reach out and touch it. It was so vivid, and so tantalizingly imminent.
I had never seen a sky so saturated with blue. A blue deeper and truer than the ocean, or Lake Harriet, or any body of earthly water the sky generally doth reflect.
(I was going to write "does reflect," like a normal human. But upon further reflection, I am strongly convicted the sky never "does" anything. In order to reflect this ontological difference between animal agency and the serene inaction of the sky, I will only write the "the sky doth." Or if I'm feeling really Chacuer-y "the skye dothe.")

I was shocked by the blue: are there endless shades of sky that I have yet to see? I imagined that I would never look at the sky the same way again, knowing that the atmosphere can achieve that height of color.
It was as if I had listened to a ballad composed by a friend. When hearing the music a friend writes--really good music--I am in awe that words and melodies such as these live inside this person I know so dearly. And I think I know the topography of their souls, yet there lies a whole landscape hidden behind their eyes that I never get to see. The music lifts the veil, and reveals this hidden universe inside their hearts. And you fall more in love with them, with the secret world they hide inside of them. I think I fell more in love with the sky last night.
The sky has an entire universe--quarks and quasars--shifting and swirling beyond its tranquil grandeur.
This gossamer veil of color burned like a blue flame. Behind it lay, I knew, eternity.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

even ha'ezer scrooge

Let thy goodness, like a fetter/ bind my wandering heart to thee.

For several years, I have listened to my friend wonder how she can ever be both a doctor and a mother. The problem of how a woman can get through medical school and start a family was a conundrum she pondered daily. I would listen sympathetically, offer my discernment two cents, and generally regard her concerns as unique to her vocation of being a doctor.

Then, I found myself very stupidly deciding to self-produce a show while also teaching, while also traveling with friends, and hosting family. And I found my energies pulled in a million different directions, and I wondered: will there ever be a time in my life when I'm not bobbing and weaving back and forth to a million different passions like a crazy person?

And then I thought: perhaps not. Perhaps this is what she means about the pull between being a mother and a doctor. Perhaps it is possible to have two different vocations tug at your heart.

And now I think I love it. I think I have grown overly accustomed to being torn in two. I love being torn between staying and going; between poetry and prose. I love longing for adventure and longing for home. The longing for home is not actually a longing for anything that truly exists. Homesickness is a longing for the past, or a longing for the future. It's a longing that pulls you out of the present moment, towards something that has existed, or exists in the future.

I have always missed the country when I am in the city, and enjoyed doing so. But now I have developed a perverse love of missing the city when I am in the country. I love wishing that I could be always on an airplane, and always laughing with my sister on her bed. I would be always gone, taking in every inch of the world; I would be eternally in my kitchen, taking in every movement on my mother's face. I love having dear friends peppered across the globe and a handful of homes tugging at my heart.

I have grown to love being dissatisfied, because, in the confusion and the longing, and the desires that swell and dissipate through the course of each day, there is one--only one--desire that remains constant. The dissatisfaction is truly clarifying. It has cleared the roiling, stormy cloud banks from the horizon. From the rays of this new sun that emerges, the landscape of the world is illuminated with light, and it has become so obvious it breaks my heart. There is one joy that stands uncontested. Nothing else can match it. Everything else is balanced by a pull in another direction. There is only one lodestone drawing my adamant will, only one triumphant Yes, and telos, one clear goal that beckons. There is but one place, and in one heart only, where at the very zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard blue burning of the sky, and a simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable, pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. 

Cords of infinite desire bind a wandering heart such as mine or yours or Ransom's to the Great Dance, whose center is eternally unfolding, whose motion is both sweet and still, and whose rhythm is the only resting place our feet desire.

"Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do."
--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

geocentric foibles

So I wrote on Mars One. Because it's current news, and I spent most of the summer debating its advisability or inevitability with groomsmen at weddings. The piece I wrote for Catholic Vote, however, is much more civilized, and really says: come for the Mars One, stay for the Laudato Si. Whereas this post I will now write will be what I really think about Mars One. It will be more like: Come for the Mars One, stay for the curmudgeonly moaning and wailing and gnashing of teeth over how Mars One represents all that ails the human race.

So, for one fateful week, my cocktail party conversation calling card was a provocative little number that went something like this:
Yeah, I don't really believe in space travel.
*hair toss*
After several disastrous attempts, I decided to pull the plug on that conversation starter, since it failed to launch any sort of successful conversation. (remind you of anything, NASA?) (But, honestly, the fault mostly lay in the delivery. [Could have used a bit less hair toss, more eyebrow arch, and just a brief dalliance into eye twinkling.])
Instead of ushering in a cordial conversation where we all agreed genteelly that leaving the atmosphere is a fool's errand, and collectively taking a blood oath to all stay safely on terra firma and stick to exploring coral reefs and the cookie aisle, people thought I was an ungrateful and uneducated wretch who did not appreciate the scientific and social benefits of meteorological satellites. Say what you want about me, but never let it be said of me that I do not appreciate the scientific and social benefits of meteorological satellites.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her New Yorker essay Project Exodus, (which has become a sort of credo for my gospel of geocentric humanism) saves me from any more embarrassingly catastrophic attempts at arch dinner party conversation, as she delineates the difference between scientific space exploration, and then the idea of human colonization. Ah ha. So there it is. One can look down one's nose at the idea of a moon base, and not be labeled a satellite-hating philistine. As Ms. Kolbert describes, there are two different camps of humans with their eyes on the stars: one seeks to understand space; one seeks to travel into space:

"According to [Erik M.] Conway [of Jet Propulsion Laboratory], there is a “disconnect” between the desire to travel into space and the desire to understand it. This “disconnect” is a more fundamental difficulty for NASA than decades’ worth of budget cuts. It’s a contradiction that’s built into the agency’s structure, which includes a human exploration program on the one hand and a scientific program on the other.

The planning for Mars missions so far has been left largely to the science types, but sometimes the human-mission types have insisted on getting involved. Whenever they’ve done so, Conway writes, the result has been “chaos.”
Conway puts himself on the side of science, and, as far as he’s concerned, humans are the wrong stuff. They shouldn’t even be trying to get to another planet. Not only are they fragile, demanding, and expensive to ship; they’re a mess.

“Humans carry biomes with us, outside and inside,” he writes. NASA insists that Mars landers be sterilized, but “we can’t sterilize ourselves.” If people ever do get to the red planet—an event that Conway, now forty-nine, says he considers “unlikely” in his lifetime—they’ll immediately wreck the place, just by showing up: “Scientists want a pristine Mars, uncontaminated by Earth.” If people start rejiggering the atmosphere and thawing the regolith, so much the worse.

“The Mars scientists want to study won’t exist anymore,” Conway writes. “Some other Mars will.”

Mr. Conway speaks sweet music to my little earth-rooted soul.

Because, while perhaps there is no moral judgement in human exploration of space (referring specifically to human exploration/colonization), I fail to see how there can be any sort of wisdom in it. As we are realizing how great a burden our ceaseless manufacturing activity can place on the environment--how potentially dangerous it can be for our atmosphere, oceans, and natural resources--it seems preposterously naive to suppose that shooting human beings off to another planet to tamper with its atmosphere and polar ice caps will not also have potentially disastrous environmental consequences. 
Furthermore, the only arguments in its favor are an alarmist (and short-sighted) panic that screams: We're going to blow ourselves up! We have to take over another planet for the safety of our species! Or an overly Romantic sentiment that waxes poetic about how human beings are always seeking new frontiers and that this is the New Frontier. It is our destiny to explore everywhere! Reach for the stars! If you miss you'll land in the asteroid belt and mine if for minerals! Human beings were made to explore!

Human beings were also made to breathe oxygen, and the only place we've really got that is here. So.

Secondly, there are certain projects human beings undertake that sometimes dumbfound me with how hubristic they are. I really just want to sit down the masterminds behind these project aside, give the dear little lambs a nice cup of tea and some scones and say: I'm going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in a nice little town called Babel, there was this tower... 
Examples of these sorts of projects include the Crossroads Project, fracking, the Human Colonization of Mars, the time my family made a gingerbread windmill.

And our gingerbread Candyland.

And our gingerbread Titanic.

(complete with white chocolate iceberg and a sugar cookie Cal boasting "Not even God could sink this ship")
We should make a gingerbread Tower of Babel next.

But, all this aside, something inside of me heart sinks when I think of human beings living in exile far away from earth.

The loam from our native bit of crust must run through our bloodstreams, and it must ache when we are far from it. We are dust, and to dust we will return. Which is a statement of mortality, eternity, and also an affirmation of deep kinship with the earth we dwell within. Living in a city that is so isolated from the rest of the world, I have found that I miss nature so keenly. I miss the beauty of nature, but also I find I miss the part of me that nature brings alive: the Joy, the peace, the carefree delight in everything around me. There is something about being out in nature that restores us to our proper context. I understand more of who I am when I am under a large blue sky, surrounded by tall grass and goldfinches swooping over the lakes than surrounded by steel skyscrapers and concrete. I watch the children climbing over the rocks in the small stream and I pity the children with no where else to climb but playgrounds made my adults.

It seems tragic to me to think of human beings living in pods in a sanitized, controlled environment. 
We are messy human beings. We are not machines, that can be programmed like the rockets that will take us to our back-up sanctuary planet. We do not run like clockwork, like our iPhones; but thankfully, we do not short circuit when submerged in water. We are earthy creatures that get mud all over our new shows, we get the sap of trees on our hands when we climb their branches, we lose our keys, we get grass in our sheets, we kiss people we ought not to, we draw blood and ire from our kin, and we stumble and scrape our knees. Living is not a tidy business.

We are supposed to drink in deep breaths of cool morning air, and have our faces soaked in rain, and bask in the sun on a lawn of overgrown grass, and pick berries off of brambles, and wade through the water of the creek that whispers over our toes as it bubbles downstream. The natural world is not just a helpfully calibrated environment that keeps us alive. It is, as Papa Francesco says, "a caress of God. "The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us."

As I run through the rain, I feel that boundless affection. As I walk through the deepening night sky--the clouds shot up with violet shadows and dying rays of crimson sunset--I sense the tender care. As I  walk under the slender shadows of trees lining the lane, and feel the night breeze on my face and the lights of the twenty-first century hearths shining through the windows, I silently repeat Emily Webb's cry: Oh, earth! You're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Sometimes, I listen to Emily's cry of joy, and I doubt its truth. How can this world be so wonderful? ISIS beheads white-haired scholastics and Donald Trump may be a contender for president; babies are bartered on black markets, and abandoned by their parents. It seems that the world is such a chaotic, unholy, disaster-ridden place. In moments like those, Emily's cry of girlish delight in a world she is about to leave behind becomes a bold statement of faith. This earth is truly wonderful. And beautiful. And it may not be the best of all possible worlds, it may be flawed and messy and dangerous, but it is certainly a garden worth tending.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

real living is not a handshake

I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal that the halo used to symbolize, and which we try to convey with the actual radiance and vibrance of our coloring.
--Vincent Van Gogh

One of the most exhilarating feelings is when you feel the vastness of the eternity of who someone is. As you look at them, the understand that they are a soul, that extends infinitely, actually penetrates your understanding. They are an eternal being; there is no end to them, or the mystery of them.  Looking these humans in the eye feels like standing on the edge of a precipice. You feel the absolute Otherness of them pulsing against yourself, pushing against you, tugging at you, shimmering on the edges of the boundaries of your self.

Sometimes this happens with a parent, when you look at them and realize you don't know what they're thinking. Or it will happen with a close friend, your sister, a near-stranger in serendipitous good conversation, or someone you supposedly know very well. No matter when, it takes my breath away as I confront the real miracle of other people. How can it be that there are two persons in this world!? How can it be that two eternal consciousnesses can coexist?


In the most joyfully baffling way, I am completely befuddled by the miracle of two separate human souls being able to fit into this small and comprehensible universe. I can hold the entire universe in my mind. And you can hold the same universe inside of yours, and so can the man with the amputated legs I pass on the street corner each day, and so can my younger sister, and so can the Vatican astronomer. It is the same world we apprehend, but we are entirely different minds and understandings. The very definition of our separate selves is division. For me to be me and you to be you, there is necessarily a divide between us, an untraversable chasm that keeps your consciousness separate from mine. But somehow, we are able to overcome that divide and encounter one another. How can this be? How can we somehow manage to cross the divide that exists between us with something as simple as a smile or a word?

This reflection brought to you by Martin Buber, since I am also halfway through I and Thou. I don't think anyone really gets more than halfway through I and Thou, even if they finish reading the book. I and Thou was was given to me months ago by a friend whose marks in his books are always buffoonishly cryptic, and mostly just scribbling--the majority of which I'm sure happened while under some sort of influence--but his aimless loops and underlinings and frantic circlings are curiously appropriate for my own relationship with Buber's spiraling text. I am beautifully baffled by it. And my mind turns in spirals, circling around a line of text over and over, trying to bore into the core of meaning that is so lovingly hidden within layers of text.

A human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbor, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not meant that nothing exist except himself. But all else lives in his light. [23]

He is Thou, and fills the heavens.

"The Thou meets me through grace--it is not found by seeking."

How did Adam ever comprehend the existence of Eve? Imagine an all-encompassing, primordial loneliness. There is no other creature like you. It is an entire universe--which you can hold in your mind-- and you. Then, suddenly, from your own side, has sprung forth another human.

 Another human, that is, a person like Adam himself, and yet, by that very stamp of being like him, entirely other. And there's the rub. Because, we possess the same properties of human-ness as one another, the property of being an infinite and eternal Thou, and wholly sundered from one another. I can never get inside the boundaries of you: I will always remain within the boundaries of my own infinite. But yet, we can grow to know and understand the other person. The I and the Thou can meet; two infinities can truly touch one another, and love each other.


This, it seems, is the mystery of the Trinity. How can it be that there is a Father and a Son? Both, together, united in eternity, endlessly existing together? Existing is a complex enough idea, and I think I've grasped that. But existing together is an entirely new idea.
Perhaps that is the mystery of the Trinity: that two or three beings can remain absolutely distinct and outside one another, yet participate in the same reality, can be the same reality. The world is a constant dance between the I and the Thou, and this fundamental gaze of lover and beloved is mirrored in all the meetings between I and Thou throughout the world.
The Father and Son's delight in the existence of one another must be the Spirit. It certainly must be a palpable entity outside of themselves. I imagine the joy in being so full of existence, and co-existing with another perfectly existing being must desire the existence of other such beings. And surely this desire has eternally existed within the love of the Lover for the Beloved.


This entire week, I have been thinking of that quote in Chesterton's Orthodoxy

But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. [80]

There is a Sanskrit word adbhuta, which means a perpetual wonderment and amazement toward the world around you. There's a part of an acting exercise that asks you to put yourself entirely in a state of adbhuta, to turn your entire being into wonder and attention at everything around you. You fully immerse yourself in this wonder and awe, and then turn your attention on whatever your mundane surroundings are, only to find that they are not so mundane. The dust specks in the air are flickering lights; the carpet has an entrancing texture beneath your hands; your bones, flesh, and veins are eternally fascinating. It seems that to practice living in that mode of encountering the world is to begin to understand the world for the first time.

Perhaps the stance of Father to the Son is one of perpetual, eternal wonder. And this wonder itself is the Spirit, breathed over the formless void of the universe, breathing us distinct little eternities into existence.

Perhaps God is eternally amazed; and it is we silly sinners who have Seen It All.
For we have lost the youthful glow of paradise and grown decrepit, and our Father in Heaven is younger than we.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

restless and rustling

Finally, I learn to look past the tired eyes,
the sagging thighs,
the earbuds,
stuck above the ears
and perched below
That Fucking Hat,
The city full of hustlers
is no longer sordid,
the city full of restless souls
is no longer depressing,
but, here,
on the 4am bus to Laguardia,
is finally something glorious.
And I know, with a sinking heart,
that I have finally found myself
in love.

The woman with the stringy ginger hair
alights right after the 33rd street Astoria stop,
She gingerly glances around the bus,
her eyes shyly darting
from face to face
and she seems to see all of us--
really see us.
She is too terrified to look at each face for too long.
I follow her gaze,
with trepidation,
wondering what I will see with her.

I look into the eyes of the men in the grey sport coats,
matching, unintentionally,
mirroring one another across the aisle,
and behind their exhaustion,
there is a majesty.

And the woman with a mesh shirt
and bleached overalls,
standing next to me,
rooted, like an oak,
to the shifting floor
of the bus's accordion joint
seems like a kindred spirit-
her rich black skin a film negative of mine-
and the slender man,
with the Adidas flat-brimmed hat,
and a nervous energy
pulling him out of his seat
at each stop,
has eyes that are alive.
Is this the airport?
Adidas man asks in half-Spanish and half English

There seems to be,
in each of them,
a deep and solemn dignity.
I can barely look into their faces:
their weary, guarded faces.
But their eyes are alive,
alive with the same fire
that burns inside mine.

Something searching,
something seeking,
a fire that's restless,
a fire that's yearning,
longing and pushing,
for something greater,
for something better that
the people still sleeping
in their Park Avenue penthouses
have forgotten to thirst for.
But we,
we are hungry for it,
we insomniac few,
we rag-tag band of strangers,
with eyes alive with the fire
of something better than living,
on the 4am bus to Laguardia

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

ekklesia chaotika

One of the reasons I love being home is that nothing is simple.
You would think that a simple neighborhood walk on an August afternoon would be an easy venture.
You would think that taking the dog on a walk would be a simple, no-nonsense endeavor.
You would be wrong.

Because if you're going to take the dog on a walk (partly to enjoy the afternoon, partly because he's put his head in your lap for most of the day, begging you for a reprise of your morning run the moment after it ended), then you might as well combine that journey with a trip to the local supermarket to get raspberries for the cake tonight.

So go back and look at the recipe to make sure that you've got all the ingredients we need.
Check the cabinets--double check the flour barrel--and add on one or two more items to our grocery store inventory.

Mother is coming.
So wait for mother. She's finishing up emails or something.
She has six children in various parts of the country, so she's a little bit like a distracted CEO, overseeing six different local branches of business, all clamoring for absolute attention to each one of their woe-begotten sagas. One of them has a flight cancelled the first week of her new job; another forgot his [only] suit at home; and still another is away at his first sleep-away camp, and has declared (via some wifi texting apparatus) that he misses home so much he "was a fool to ever come here in the first place."
She has a lot of emails to respond to.

Dog is impatient, so put his collar on, as a surety that this walk will, in fact, happen.
Sometime before dinner, at least.

Go play the piano.
Play the piano, because you are Improving Yourself this summer. Improving Yourself means practicing piano during the dead time that is instigating a walk and leaving the house instead of trolling through your best friend's high school photos on Facebook and leaving witty comments thereupon for her to reap the benefits of.

Stop playing in the third measure of the fourth system, because of a shriek on the stairs.
Dog has thrown up.
Why, Dog, Why.
We should have foreseen this, given the preponderance of dog farts that had been clearing rooms all day long.
Without ceremony, without an iota of concern, Dog has thrown-up all over the white carpet, and is now distressed because instead of on a walk, he is outside in the doghouse, while we clean up the mess.
Dog is barking.
Dog thinks we are going on a walk without him.
He does not like this thought.
He does not like this thought at all.
Please include me! he barks. I'm wearing my collar and everything! he barks. Don't go without me! he whines morosely, images of the two of us frolicking after squirrels without him haunting him.

Go upstairs to find an additional trash bag.
Get distracted by blogging.

Dog is back inside, licking your knee, tail wagging.
It's time It's time It's time.
Mother is catching her breath, after cleaning the stairs.

Dog looks at these two humans, impossible and intractable.
Dog begins to make more gagging noises, and we leap into actions.
Outside, grab the leash, make a mental note of grocery items needed in your head, time to go.
Dog wags his tail with glee, as he puts nose to concrete, hungry for the stray scents of squirrel or rabbit on a sunny afternoon.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

the calming of the waves

Back to the beginning:
this dusty old Cathedral,
which smells like ancient mold
and fresh varnish.
Like old habits
and antiquated routines.
It smells like something
familiar from the past.
From this vantage point,
an entire story unfolds:
a story of choices;
endless series of choices
forced into action
by the flow of 60 seconds per minute
forced into the plot by the necessity of motion
guided by what?
by momentary desires
such monumental fates rest on such chance decisions
such incidental factors:
the weather
empires and entire story-lines,
plot-points of the entire world rest on the state of the soul
and the state of the stomach.

How can one make any decisions,
knowing what great stakes are attached to them all?