Wednesday, September 30, 2015

make my words worth it

I want to go the new way, build a shack 
With one door, sit against the door frame. 
After twenty years, you will see on my face 
The same expression you see in the grass. 
--Robert Bly, The Call Away

Prayers are, by definition, words that are supposed to transform us. They are not just rote recitations; they are words that form us, shape us, that change the way we think. They shape our desires, they transform how we desire.

Novenas are perhaps the most stereotypically rote prayers. They're a prayer for number-crunchers and checklist addicts. They seem to be prayers that operate on a cost-benefit paradigm
Put in nine days of prayer; get xyz benefits from the saint of your choice!
Pray to St. Therese, and you will get a rose! (We promise! A rose! Of the color of your choosing!)
Pray this prayer five times, three days in a row, and bury a statue of the saint in your front yard to find seven years of good luck!

They seem to be leftovers of superstition.

But really, I have found, in these seemingly formulaic prayers, the the real treasure is found when you allow them to touch your daily actions. When you don't just rattle off the prayer, or read the reflection perfunctorily, but allow the prayer to not only touch your heart, but allow the prayers to transform the way you go about your day. When, as you are about to continue along your impatient and selfish path, you hear the words of the daily prayer--familiar enough now to be a mantra--cause you to pause. They check your routine. Your actions are halted abruptly by the formula you have recited. Your prayers are calling into question your habits of being.

And this is when prayer becomes an exciting, dangerous endeavor. You realize that you can no longer divide your self into the person you are while praying and the person you are while doing. The person you are in the presence of God is spilling over into the persona you adopt in the presence of the world. The convenient lines of private life and public life have blurred. Whatever you are in your daily life is now invading your silent moments of prayer. The colleague who frustrates you appears in your daily act of charity; that insignificant, mundane misery you constantly complain about challenges your act of faith. If you really are so full of love--for God, and for humanity not in the abstract, but the particular--why do you make this person the exception? Why do you give yourself a pass on being kind and gracious towards the most annoying figure in your milieu.

One day this summer, in the throes of my inaugural Marian consecration, I was mulling over a memory, as I do on my daily walks. My meditation, today, was rather morose. I wish, I found myself saying, with more than a hint of bitterness, that none of this had ever happened. The words of that day's reflection rebuked me as soon as I had mentally expressed those words. The words of that day's reflection had been on Mary's intense care for us. A soul entrusted to Mary ought to have faith that they are being cared for most tenderly by the woman who advocated for such a small, simple thing as new wine at Cana. If I really believe these words, I realized with dismay, the way that I approach the world must change. I cannot say these prayers and continue along in bitterness or anger. I cannot say these prayers and continue in my interior unrest.

These prayers bring with them peace, if only I will accept it. If only I will allow them to reform the way I act and even think. My habits of violence can be undone and relearned as habits of humility and grace, if only I will allow the daily prayer to reshape my soul into a better image. Like a patient, constant stream, the daily words of prayer will erode away my stony heart, and give my wandering soul a new path to walk.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

surging fire

Michael, Michael: Michael of the Mustering, 
Michael of the marching on the mountains of the Lord, 
Marshal the world and purge of rot and riot 
Rule through the world till all the world be quiet: 
--St. Michael in Time of Peace, G.K. Chesterton

This is the time of the year where, back in the Middle West, maples are turning red, and oaks are turning gold and red, like angels' wings or tongues of flame. They are banners of a changing world. The wind shakes the trees, their trembling music becomes a grand and glorious drum-roll for the nascent eschaton, shrouded by the storm clouds on the horizon. We are on the verge.

This is the time of year that the steady stream of tourists in Midtown slows slightly. The symphony and French and German chatter that fills Central Park is muffled now. We are no longer inundated with a thousand school groups in matching t-shirts or loud tour groups charging up 5th avenue. There is a lull, before the storm of ThanksgivingChristmastime.

Above our house shown the red blood moon, eclipsed by the shadow of the earth. The moon has stolen all the color from the leaves. The leaves are falling before they have a chance to turn. The paths are littered with green and brown leaves. A few have streaks of gold.

This is the time of year where, in small little alcoves by lakes, sitting on benches together under lamplight in the wee hour of the night, walking together through crunching autumn leaves and lilting blue sky, people begin to fall in love. This is the irrational season: where something in the turning of the world turns our hearts. The crisp air whets appetites, smiles are exchanged across glowing bonfires, hands find each other in corduroy jackets. Couples take shelter from autumn storms under the same umbrella; and they laugh together as the world rumbles beneath them, turning, turning.

There always seems to be a season for falling in love. It's always high holy spring or the cold of Christmas time or this part of the year--this strange interim--this corridor between summer and autumn. The antechamber of the year.

The ember days and Yom Kippur have come and gone, and now it's just one feast day on top of the other; Sukkot and Michaelmas and Our Lady of the Rosary: all of these great feasts celebrating something essential, sacred, ineffable, and grand.

This is autumn: archangels and winds of change, and harvest moons hanging in the sky, stained red with blood.  Nature is charging forward to its glorious end, and it never seems more fully alive than now, when it is dying.

Monday, September 28, 2015

New York Sadness

I thought about it for a minute. "I can't just get up and leave.:
They laughed "why not?"
The question haunted me. What was really keeping me there?
It wasn't like I had a husband and kids I was tied to, or an amazing, high-paying job. Why was I still here? I was young; I didn't have to be tied to any one place.
--Issa-Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl

I just read Issa-Rae's The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and one of the final monologue-essays in her book is an essay on her time in New York. I find her sentiments about New York City to be congruent to mine. It is a place that is cracking with constant sparks of excitement and opportunity; it is full of life and bustle and activity and it is sizzling with human emotion. And it is fundamentally not for me.

For the most part of last year, I wrestled with this; with trying to resist this city, but conquer it at the same time. I tried to, I think, mold it a bit into the image of the city that I wanted it to be. But New York City is not malleable. It is an adamantine monolith of a city. And it demands a lot from you; it also takes a toll on your Joy, your health, your lungs, and your hope in humanity.

I do think, however, that complaining about New York City is a bit like complaining about an ex-suitor. Any sort of griping you do makes you seem ungrateful and ungraceful, and is really about your unwillingness in your own heart to encounter an Other.

Cities remind us that the desire to escape from the problems of other people by fleeing to a suburb, small town, or a monastery, for that matter, is an unholy thing, and ultimately self-defeating. We can no more escape from other people than we can escape from ourselves.”
― Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

There are two sorts of complaining I do about New York City. One is the unholy thing that Kathleen Norris writes of above: a selfish desire to escape from other people. A very unfounded belief that the suburbs, the beach, the wilderness offers more peace than a city of 8 million people. For the most peaceful places I have been have been the most crowded and cacophonous. Peace, as a Dove Chocolate wrapper once told me, is not found in the circumstances, but in the heart. And if there is no peace in your heart, than even the Grand Chartreuse will be more restless than Grand Central Station.

Then, there is another sort of complaining I do, which is the sort of complaining you do about someone you have fallen out of love with, to justify why you have decided to break up with them. You know, when you make up all these little nit-picky excuses; all sorts of specks appear in their own eyes; because you are trying to distance and detach yourself from a person. Persons are utterly beautiful; they are sort of designed for you to fall in love with them. Everything about them is engineered to be loved. So it's quite a tricky business deciding you no longer want to love them and then executing that maneuver.

I think cities are somewhat like that. I am always shocked when I meet someone who has always wanted to live in New York City. I wonder what it is like inside of their heads. How do they see the city? Does it look so very different from the way I see it?

New York. I was walking along one day down to the bus and wrestling with the many different feelings that this place stirs up inside of me. Lots of hate and rejection. Sadness, oh, l'esprit of this city is sadness and sonder. But then, you'll run through the park and see the lights of the buildings twinkling in the night sky. You walk through Union Square and see all the stalls and shops and steady lamp lights. You walk through Soho, over uneven cobbled streets, twisting, winding, losing sight of everyone else. You walk through Fort Tryon Park or along the East River and rediscover nature; or through the West Village and see how beautiful each person looks. And then I feel feelings of attachment--I hesitate to say love--but certainly of appreciation. But whatever feelings, there is certainly no indifference. I am not a creature prone to be indifferent about anything, however, I suppose.

New York. So many times I shy away from the stark images it presents: the homeless widow sitting outside the subway station. The noise, everywhere. Everywhere. The crowded projects down the street. The trash littering the garden, despite the silent protest of its sign, inscribed with the words: "This is not a place for trash." These are the realities of New York that I despise. The dirty sidewalks and the broken windows, and the humans trapped in them.

New York. If these images are all I see, however, I think I'm missing some fundamental beauty in this place. There is nothing inherently miserable about 8 million people gathered all together, or there ought not to be, because that is just essentially a gathering of 8 million images of God.

Although I may not want to find God here, I may want to go other places to find God, this is where I am. And the task of being human really isn't any more complicated than finding God right where one is. It is so very simple. Find Him in the people that surround you; in the students you teach; somewhere in the silence hidden deep within the noise of the subway train and Metro North, rattling over the tracks. This is where God is, as well. He is not just in your favorite cities and places, in your best friends and in all the towns you feel like yourself in. He is here. In this giant machine of a city. He is in the smile of the subway evangelist; in the homeless man in the wheelchair on the corner of 110 and Lexington; in the eyes of the commuter staring out the subway window; in the sunset shining magnificently over the East River.

He is here. And there is peace enough in that.

Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the live of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. [...] A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as He continues to walk the streets of our city.
--Pope Francis, September 25, 2015. Mass at Madison Square Garden, NYC

Saturday, September 26, 2015

seagull sentinels

Sacred places are found in many unusual locations:
consecrated in a flash, by an unlooked-for moment of joy,
or sehnsucht, or pain.
One of my favorites is Sea Bright, and today the sea is particularly bright.

The sea-foam on the beach is whipping in the wind,
it lifts the lumps of foam up off the water,
and carries it further up onto the dry sand.
It sticks to my legs.
My legs are covered in a light layer of dun-colored sea foam.

I run into the water, which still retains its summer warmth,
despite the chilly breeze.
The high, sculpted waves are a wine-dark green.
They crash into the plateau of white, sea-foam water that floats between the breaking waves and the shore.

The sun is shining behind a film of gentle clouds, and a mist that lingers above the ocean.
The sun beams and the light have transformed the Jersey coast into a J.M.W. Turner painting.
The scene has become an invitatory psalm.
The waves higher than a boat, the fresh morning sky, and the sand in my hair and eyes and teeth, and my sea-foam legs, standing in the warm waters, facing the sunrise, are radiant.
As morning breaks, I look to you.

Friday, September 25, 2015

grasping for har habáyit

I have looked all over the world for the place where I am standing in right now.
For the abuelitas singing their songs with their nasal voices,
for the creaky kneeler in the pew, for the warm wood of the new chapel,
for the roses guarding the monstrance.

Each new adventure brings me back to here.

I was walking through the Village on a Friday night.
It was crowded with lots of neon lights,
pretty young things crowding the sidewalks in front of Ramen stores,
and the thirty-somethings in wine cafés and chic, chintzy bars, with just the right amount of kitsch.
And all the NYU students and young JP Morgan Analysts gathering at water holes with crowded dance floors and taco stands.

I was eating mini-doughnuts from a stand on Mulberry Street, and on my way to Brooklyn (and feeling so superior about it. Williamsburg is just the Village for snobs).
At night time, you can look into the eyes of all the people that you pass.
Somehow that is no longer as invasive.
There's a certain wonder that the shadows of night time and dusty street lights allow.
Everyone looks beautiful.
And, at night,
we are freed from our daily ritual
of pretending we can't see them.

There were crowds of people all around,
so many crowds of crop-tops and trendy wedge mini-boots and lattice-backed sheer blouses and tight jeans and finely trimmed beards and gages in their ears and too much cologne and well-polished shoes and sharp suits and

and, then--

I felt my heart turn into a homing beacon.
It sent out a clear, unmistakable signal--
a little flame--a burst of communication,
a burst of light, a signal flare--for someone else.
For a someone on the other end of the line.

I could almost hear them, through the static of the telephone.
I could almost make out another face, another voice.
But I felt their heartbeat--
I could feel it underneath my skin,
But my heart started to beat in time with this new beat.
Coming from outside of me,
it felt and sounded so far away.
But it was underneath my skin,
beating with my heart--
and intruder in my ribcage.

I felt my heart skip a beat,
then start again in time to this new pace.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

orion at daybreak

The morning star swims in a pool of milky light,
suspended between twin deeps,
Grapefruit pink, the sunrise burns away
the wispy clouds of night,
and turns the horizon into a
flaming line of battle;
the meeting place of two opposing forces.

Two opposing forces:
the steely spark of thought in constant motion,
of turning gears and whirring ribbons
that swim inside your eyes
greet mine, moistened by desire.
soft brown and gentle blue,
distinct, yet intimate.

Intimate: not coy.
Nothing there jejune,
nothing there insipid,
an honesty that is--
quite frankly--
All the layers of wit and repartee,
hanging hollow like an empty chrysalis,
brittle, unused, and pointless,
shabby and embarrassing,
like a fashion made obsolete
by the rapid bursts and swells of fancy.

Wit has strangely vanished.
My tongue,
like a hornet dismantled of his stinger,
is impotent in its absence.
the armor that protects us from such systems,
is gathering dust in our closets.
And we are left with nothing but
Twin deeps,
shining at one another,
across the chasm of a coffee table.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

haunted by the gloaming

In case you hadn't heard, I did a play in a bathroom this summer.
Once I returned to the city, I gave this bathroom a wide berth, because I spent too many hours, and had too many emotions in that bathroom to visit it again so soon.
But, I stepped in again, just to--well--use the bathroom, and I was hit by a wave of stories.
Theatres are commonly believed to be haunted. Each theatre has its resident ghost, its tales of strange, supernatural sightings or disembodied voices.

In spite of myself, I am enchanted by the romance of theatre ghosts, and find myself a skeptical believer. The work of theatre artists is surreal and magical--foolish dalliances with the divine. The work of theatre artists is half incantation and a prayer. It's something very lofty and yet something dripping sawdust.

Stories--the history of humans in that place--mark a place, and change it, transform it, in the way that I am transformed by concrete and skyscrapers and open fields and dark forest limbs. My heart bears the marks of brushes with Kolkata buses, and my personality is molded by the mountain air I've breathed in deeply.
We humans are molded by the places we have been.
And places are molded by the humans who have lived therein.

Theatres are just roiling, boiling cesspits of human stories.
Not only are they sacred spaces, where we come to bring to life again the stories of the past, they are places where persons fall in love, and fight, they steal and cheat, they turn strangers into sisters, and laugh and share themselves with one another. Although they strip the floor of paint each time the show comes to an end, the stories told upon that stage layer on top of one another, until the space is filled with an infinity of stories: from the trap room to the catwalk.
Walking into that bathroom once again, I felt the stories of the summer still hanging in the air, dusty, translucent curtains fluttering from the fluorescents. The space had been transformed by the stories that we told in it, and by our stories that transpired there.

There are stories weaving their way in and out of the bathroom stalls, that linger above the automatic faucets, the peer back at you from the lipstick-stained mirror.

Just like pieces of broken baby jar glass, there are fragments of stories stuck in corners, running over the still-sticky tile, and hiding where you least expect to find them.

This unremarkable, spartan high school bathroom was consecrated by these stories. A bit of the sacred hush of the theatre hung over the stalls and sinks and tampon vending machine. It's so silly: being a human, and having stories whose backdrops are drab environments like subway platforms and workplace kitchens, and high school bathrooms. But these are the absurd habitats of human stories: not just the majestic hush of cathedral or plush luxury Broadway theatre, but the unassuming milieux, where the stories of their denizens collect with dust and cobwebs in the corners.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

skandalon and moría

The Crucified One is wisdom, for He truly shows who God is, that is, a force of love which went even as far as the Cross to save men and women.
--Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, October 29th, 2008

Catholicism is a wacky project. We have weird phrases like Militia Immaculata, Trinity, and Eucharist and believe them.

I have seen too many teachers of the faith attempt to make the Catholic Faith, particularly the Sacraments, palatable to the skeptical mind.
But the sacraments are not mostly about "remembering the last supper" "the call to create justice in the world" "to create community" or "to forgive others and receive forgiveness."

And yes, yes, those are all aspects of the Sacraments.
But no.

The Eucharist is not primarily an intellectual exercise in remembering the story of salvation; it is not a meditative ritual of nostalgia. The Eucharist is a concrete participation in reality, transforming the substance through the ancient words of institution. An actual transformation takes place: in the bread, now body, which enters our bodies and transform us into Christ. This transformation compels us to go forth into the world and work to bring about His goodness, to strive for justice, to create beauty.

Baptism is not just a welcome ceremony into a community; it is not a glorified bid day for a sorority pledge. Baptism immerses us into the Paschal Mystery of death and Resurrection with Christ, so that we enter into the new life of Resurrection that Christ has opened up to us. It fundamentally transforms our very core of being, so that we are living in an entirely different dimension: that of a redeemed child of God. That is what it means to be a member of the Church, of the Body of Christ. It is a very grave matter. We don't think of the most important moment of our life occurring when we were a crying infant, wrapped in undignified infant baptismal clothes and diapers. But, for all of us who were baptized by their good Christian parents soon after our birth, it did. Whatever great acts of glory we achieve in our life, whatever great leaps of transformation transpire within us, nothing will ever amount to the great moment that completely transformed our souls when we were but a few months old.

The world is not a low-stakes enterprise. Living is not a mundane and stolid exercise. Life and death are on the line.

And one of the reasons I so dearly love the Sacraments is that they are a stumbling block and foolishness. If they are not deadly, gloriously, terrifyingly real, then they are utterly impotent. There is no comfortable middle ground of soothing sentiment or placating platitudes. There is no way to approach these sacraments with a facade of coolness, or a blase, aloof demeanor. Our guard must be broken down.

We are either creatures bowing in constant adoration before our Redeemer, Lord, our Origin and Life, and most beloved friend; Or else we are the most ridiculous idiots kneeling before a piece of bread. Either way, we are stripped of our garments, and must approach this sacrament unarmed, disrobed of our public edifice.

This is truly a stumbling block and foolishness; but its foolish wisdom exposes all of our frantic attempts at composure for the foolish frauds they are. Religion is not full of comfort; it is extremely uncomfortable. Nothing about it is soporific (except perhaps, a bad sermon--but again! not comfortable). All of it sharpens the senses, whets the appetite, grapples with the imagination. Religion is not full of comfort; it is full of consolation.

Monday, September 21, 2015

and babies moulded into quiet men

There comes the strangest moment in your life, 
when everything you thought before breaks free--
 what you relied upon, as ground-rule and as rite 
looks upside down from how it used to be.
--"There Comes the Strangest Moment", Kate Light

Francis*, I said, turning my gaze into a steely laser, look me in the eye, please.
He did, hesitantly.
You have one job. To read. Not correct your classmates' behavior. That is my job. I will do my job. And you, please begin your job. Please open your book.
In an act of unmitigated defiance, Francis opened his journal, and kept his book glued shut on his desk.
Touche, my friend.
I think every high schooler fancies themselves like Milton's Lucifer.
And he's got a point.

Who overcomes
By force, hath overcome but half his foe.
et cetera

Another school year has begun, and I am amazed by how much less terrifying teaching is when you actually know what you are doing.
On our first day of class, I looked out at my sea of students, and saw a look of fear etched into their faces. It was the primal fear that tears lurk behind. Oh my goodness, I realized. It's their first day of high school and they are literally petrified. How do I not remember this look on my students' faces from last year? And I thought: oh. Because I was probably just as terrified. I probably had that look of sheer terror on my own face.

As I commenced with teaching students how to use Microsoft Excel last year, I was foundering. I had no idea what I was doing, so I naturally clung to the rules like a life saver; and to structure and Class Room Management Commandments like a buoy in a hurricane. But there will never be a perfect class room, and as much as one tries to achieve a perfectly timed lesson or a lesson plan that follows all the Common Core Recommendations and hits all the Power Benchmarks or whatnot, none of that really matters. They are means to an end, and nothing more.

I'm reminded of this each day, when my students file in for homeroom. Although it's tempting to fill those ten minutes of the day with interesting lessons and learning moments, I'm reminded, when I'm stressed out and running late, that all that matters is that I greet them with a smile. That the first person who greets them in the morning says: hi, how are you? That I smile at them as they walk out the door and says, as my friend Mary always did for us in college: Do great things!

Whatever I achieved last year, I know it was not a failure, because we watched Dead Poets Society in class, and Luis found the movie on Netflix and watched the ending before the rest of us, and told me that he cried. It's my new favorite movie, he said.

In our lesson last week, we read Kate Light's beautiful meditation on transformation and transition: There Comes the Strangest Moment. Most of the students moved their pencils across the page diligently: and their answers were simply rephrasing the question into an answer form. But Christopher looked at the poem, and found something. And he beckoned me over to share his answers with my ears only, hesitant, unsure if they were Correct. He explained what he saw in the poem, and I was delighted. My delight, contagious, was mirrored on his face, as he learned for the first time that he was very good at reading poetry. And he shared his answers with the class, who were--in spite of all their teenage bravado and hesitance to seem nerdy or interested in anything worth being interested about--duly impressed.

Those are the important moments; the moments of simple Joy, or conversation, or seeing something in the world that has touched you deeply and will stick inside your soul. The moments where you are affirmed not in a trivial or callow way, but when the questions at the core of every high school-aged human's heart (and all of ours as well)--Am I enough? Do I have anything to offer to this world that is so vast and filled with so many people more confident and beautiful and talented than I? Am I worthy of all the Joy and love in the world, and more than that besides?---are answered with a yes. 

How many people thought you'd never change? 
But here you have. It's beautiful. It's strange. 
--"There Comes the Strangest Moment", Kate Light

*Names changed to protect the somewhat innocent.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

jaywalking down 5th avenue

My favorite sort of Saturday is a mixture of The Beach Boys' Barbara Ann and Chopin's Piano Concerto in E Minor (opus 11).
It's a mixture of the peace and quiet of the freshly swept backyard.
A mixture of sweating over GRE questions, and lounging around in exercise shorts, because no one demands you to wear real clothes on a Saturday.
Not even to Saturday mass.
Even the elderly Park Avenue ladies, who are on the Metropolitan Opera Guild, are wearing yoga pants to mass.

Sitting at the wooden table in the backyard, and pounding away at the keyboard, when you should be working on remembering how to calculate the slope of perpendicular lines.

Everything tastes like pancakes and maple syrup, and you still smell like sweat from your morning run, because you haven't bothered to take a shower yet, between the pancakes and the pencil scratches in your notebook.

There are lazy texts from friends buzzing on your phone; and a phone call to your father in the future.
There are snippets of plays being written, and three books open to where their bookmarks stopped last.
The sunshine is warm, but the sun's oppressive August heat is hidden behind felicitous, fluffy clouds.
A cool breeze floats out of the thin blue sky and rustles leaves down from the great tree.

None of them have turned colors yet--they are still green and living.
The breeze lifts one of them off its branch and it flutters through the backyard and lands on my head.
It is a comfortable moment, in the backyard.

My head is full of quantitative reasoning comparison questions and verbal reasoning reading comprehension questions and my tummy is full of pancakes, and I am quite content.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

the restlessness of tomorrow

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go.
-- "September, The First Day Of School" by Howard Nemerov

Walking down the street, I remember so clearly being drawn to this place, to feeling like belonging.
I remember the great sense of peace that fell over me walking to and from St. Patrick's last autumn. Stopping on Park Avenue, facing down St. Bart's and Grand Central Terminal, and the entire stretch of Midtown, thinking: I belong.

I belong here, right now. Although there is chaos and noise, and all abundance of daily disasters, I belong here, and I have found peace, right here.

I remember knowing, without any sort of reason, that I belonged here.
With an assurance deeper than faith, and a knowledge surer than reason, I was certain that I was supposed to be here, and that, just beyond the horizon, there would be trials and tribulations to cause me to question that peace. But that peace was there, despite of what would happen after that. Unshakable, real, and comforting that peace can be found even in places you're not "supposed" to be.

Now, what causes me to walk with quicker steps--no longer to and from St. Patrick, but St. Vincents--what hastens me with hope, is the feeling of belonging here. But not quite.

The peace of this autumn comes with a condition of restlessness, a prerequisite of wanderlust, and hints, like the crisp autumn breeze, of moving onto somewhere new.

Inside, instead of peace tucking me in, folding me up, and burying my root in soil, peace is rustling the sheets, and pulling up the roots. Something large, something expansive is stretching, growing, bursting out inside of me. Something so familiar and so sweet: a bit of the ol' peripatetic what-for, you know. An aching bout of wanderlust and curiosity and adventure is creeping into view.

Friday, September 18, 2015

peach trees and honeybees

From the peaks of the Himalayas to the sandy beaches of Orissa, there is no other country like the wild, warm, spicy, exotic, dangerous, hospitable nation of India.

It is an entire sub-continent suspended between abundance and destitution. It is deeply divided by class, by language, by religion, by gender, by many different people and their customs.
What unites it is wonder, awe.

Each corner of this vast country hides something beautiful to be discovered, something unique and precious to be shared with the world.

Mother found that among the poorest of the poor in Kolkata. She saw these starving beggars as Jesus, thirsting for our love. She has helped millions answer the call: I thirst.

While it's easy to complain about New York City's lack of nature, especially now, when Minnesotan markets are boasting honeycrisp apples, and Lake Harriet's shores are molting into a crimson throng of maples, there are certain places in the city that are full of simple delight of nature. Not Central Park. Central Park's trees are already shedding their leaves, although they haven't even turned a proper color yet, just a dun-like brown, or sometimes a weak, insipid yellow. Nothing like the full-bodied golds and scarlets of the Midwestern autumnal forests.

But enough homesickness.

There is a garden on the corner of Houston and Bowery.

The garden on the corner of Houston and Bowery is a saving grace. It is a small remanant of what was once a large farm. Try to picture a large farm on Manhattan. It's hard. This farm belonged to Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam. I love this fact, because it reminds me that the island of Manhattan was not always a concrete jungle, but maybe was once an actual jungle, and if not that, at least a semi-rural area in some of the northern regions. It lends the island of Manhattan more dignity, to think of it as more than just a giant canvas for graffiti artists.

The garden's name is no longer "Governor Stuyvesant's Farm" but "Liz Christy Community Garden", and it is named after Liz Christy, who was a New York woman in the 1970's, and part of a group of "gardening activists" called the Green Guerillas. And if you aren't obsessed with this Jane Goodall of tulip patches after reading that, get a heart. What's not to love about Liz Christy? She probably lived in Nolita before Nolita was a thing, and inhabited by bougie French perfume shops and white betches sipping Blue Bottle Coffee while wearing Lululemon leggings as pants.

And it is beautiful.
It is something out of Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, and you expect Mary Lenox or Sara Crewe to be wandering about in there, with an Indian guardian in tow.

It has a wild air of magic that is so natural and easy. The rest of SoHo tries to recreate this natural beauty in the bustle of shops and tea stores and over priced Italian gelato ice cream sandwiches.

But the Liz Christy garden is filled with sunlight filtering through vines of the trees. The trees are laden with fruit--with peaches, actually. So rich and lush, your hand reaches up to pluck them off the branch.
The paths are lined with large day lilies and all manner of colored flowers.
Lovers are splayed across park benches, lounging in each others' laps, and basking in the warmth of the sunlight and in one another. There are aspiring monastics walking through the tangled paths, reading and meditating, out of the harsh cacophony the city's symphony of sirens and street noises.

There are honeybees floating from stem to stem, and I float along the paths and suddenly I am hungry for mango. A sweet, ripe mango, dripping juice from each bite.
I want a mango. I am trying to remember what a mango tastes like. And a sweet lassi. And sweet curd. I'm trying to imagine sweet lassi, cold as ice. The cube of curd floating in the thick, sweet liquid.
I am hungry for India.

But I am back in New York, and I will buy an overpriced Italian gelato ice cream sandwich, and wander through the gardens that smell like earth after a rainstorm, and the sunlight will bask down on my face, and I will be lost in a warm ecstasy of fading summer, laced with the crisp notes of autumn breeze and homesickness.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

the motion at the heart of the cosmos

I think my favorite law of thermodynamics (if this isn't your go-to first date question, that will probably explain why you're still single. You've got to know their favorite law of thermodynamics, before you can possibly hope to build any sort of meaningful relationship with them. Back me up on this, happily married friends.) is the second.
There is certainly an explanation of the second law of thermodynamics in scientific-speak, but I prefer to refer to it as: "Everything is literally devolving to shit all the time, and we can't do anything about it." or "The systems of the world tend to disorder aka to effing shit up." or "Everything's nutso, and becoming exponentially more so each day." or "The universe is a cluster cuss."
When you reach the end of each day, you can certainly witness this. By the end of the day, all the events of the entire day have compounded on top of each other, and by the time your head hits the pillow at night, you are much more muddled and chaotic than when you woke up. All the plot thickeners of the day have dulled your mind and thickened your brain, and you got to sleep in a fog saturated with all the stimulations of the day.

But morning is such a serene time.
The second law of thermodynamics rings so true if you wake up in the morning, and before the day starts, everything is fresh.
Before the hustle and bustle of the day, before desire has pulled at your heart, or anger pulled harsh words from your mouth, or jealousy has corrupted a simple joy, there is morning, a time where you simply exist. There is Joy in the morning, and the invitatory psalm invites us to rejoice. For the morning is a time for pure existence, and pure existence is, of course, joy.

I love going on a run in the morning, because I get to see the world as it is waking up.
As I run through the marshy paths of the lake, near my house, the world is quiet. Before the sun is fully in the sky, everything is hushed. The wind ripping through the long prairie grass is gentler, softer, more subdued. The birds trill more delicately, gently, as if not to disturb the slumber of the world.
The trees rustle quietly, and the tin buzz of the cicadas has not yet precipitated by the midday sun.
The world seems so new, as if it has just been broken open, and this is the first day of all days.
The world seems fresh, as if all the stains of last night, and the mistakes and mishaps and ill events of the day before have been washed away.
It is a new day, and nothing has yet marred it.

In the city, you must be alert for places where you can see the sky. I didn't know that I missed the sky, until I went a whole day, and I had not once looked up at the sky, hidden behind grey fog and the soulless grey eyes of skyscraper windows. As I lay in my bed, staring at the warm lights of city windows still aglow--an urban substitute for stars--I noticed the moon hanging in the dark sky. With a shock, I realized I had not looked up once today for heaven.

I was dismayed, for I have never gone a day without looking at the sky.
Each morning I walked to school from Our Little House Off-Campus Senior Year, (a phrase so oft-repeated, it has become mantra), I would walk in the still of a South Bend autumn, or late summer, or early winter, or blushing spring. And the sky each day would tell me something new.

The sunlight streaming through the clouds would signal warmth when the rest of the world was frozen, the sky would signal storm clouds, or a hopeful sunrise.
The sky was a daily companion to me.

And so, as I return, I am more attuned to places where I can see the sky. And one of these is The Reservoir. At The Reservoir, the earth parts to reveal a vast pool of water, and the sky overhead opens up, no longer encroached upon by trees or high-rises, and finally has space to breathe. The tall sentinels of midtown office buildings are pushed down to the end of the horizon, and you have the space you need to step back and evaluate them. Their lights are matrices of moving color over the trees, and they blot the night sky with electric radiance.

Over the stately buildings of the Upper East Side, a very thin glow of translucent blue begins to appear. The glow increases, until a sliver of pink aurora fills the eastern half of the sky, peeking through the Park Avenue apartment complexes and stone churches.

For just a moment, the wild tang of sunrise fills the atmosphere. Dawn cuts through the slumbering blue of the city, it cracks the night time sky like an egg, and out pours the activity of the day.

An egg cracked cannot be put back together.
That's the second law of thermodynamics.
And so the day begins to run its course, the yolk and white running together, mixed more intricately together with each new hour, inseparable, intertwined, chaotic, messy.
Until tomorrow, after our blessed gift of sleep, which erases all the chaos of the day before, and a new day begins. A day that is truly new, that is born in the quiet of our hearts, when we are whole and pure, and sing a simple song of praise as our feet hit the ground.
And the day begins to run its course, tending towards disorder.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

expand your horizons, claude

"Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.
--G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

I took Nathan to the Met.
Nathan and I wandered through the Impressionists; through the Seurats, and the Pissarros, and the Degas's.
And then you wander to the sanctuary of Monet, and it's
Claude only paints his water lilies.
Two hundred fifty paintings of water lilies.
Claude. Why won't you branch out, Claude.
Look at something other than water lilies, Claude, paint something different: maybe sunflowers?
Oh. Good.
Oh, Claude, oh that's so nice
You painted a lovely bridge, Claude. It's a very lovely bridge. So good to see you painting things other than--


more water lilies
under the bridge.


Oh, Claude went to Rouen.
There aren't any water lilies there.
Perhaps he'll explore! He'll push the envelope! He'll develop down different paths, and perhaps paint a couple in the square, a romantic sunset over the fields, maybe even a Still Life With Baguette.

Claude is at the Rouen Cathedral.
He keeps painting the one side: the one side of the Rouen Cathedral.
There is more than one side to the Rouen Cathedral.
But Claude only paints one façade of the Rouen Cathedral.
He paints it during the twilight hours, he paints it at midday, he paints it in "dull weather," he paints it in the gloaming light, he paints it at sunrise, he paints it in high midsummer.
Over thirty different paintings of the same Cathedral façade.

This is the water lilies all over again, isn't it?

But I think Claude is telling us something here.
I think he is telling us that there is something to revisiting a sight over and over again.
Perhaps there are a million possible paintings of water lilies.
One for each new day that rises on the water lilies.
And if you are young enough and full of awe enough, you can find all the wonder of the world in just one water lily pond.

I was talking to Jenna.
I write the same thing over and over again, she said.
But she doesn't. She walks the same story over and over, and, just like Monet, she finds different shades and hues in each new set of water lilies, and different patterns of light hitting the Rouen Cathedral's face.

They say that there are just seven story lines we follow, though.
Perhaps we are just walking the same story over and over again:
Maximilian Kolbe writes that "everywhere in this world we notice action, and the reaction which is equal but contrary to it; departure and return; going away and coming back; separation and reunion. The separation always looks foreword to union."
All things are going forth and coming back, endlessly. There is, perhaps just one story. And it has many variations on one them, with myriad epiphanies throughout the world.
Eternity is not an infinity of new things to be discovered, but One Thing, pondered and written and praised and submerged in ceaselessly, discovering new depths and new beauties the further up and further in we go.

How can Truth be like this, Nathan? Constant revelations and surprises, and new depths and wonders being revealed. It's too much for the human heart to hold.

Perhaps Claude is closest of us to eternity: and so he responds as all of us one day will learn to do: pondering the beauty he is surrounded by over and over, and rejoicing in its ever-increasing loveliness by rendering it anew each day.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

adonai of rescue

It's just too much, he said. He sipped his margarita ruefully. He was smiling, though. There was a smile stuck on his face. But there was a deep sadness in his eyes. The sadness only another heart-broken person could ever recognize. There's something very heavy in their irises, and their pupils have tears hiding deep within their deaths. They look so very, very tired. But the whites of their eyes burn with the fire of restless hearts and sleepless nights.
Sympathetically, I sipped my own margarita in time to his melancholy. With each sip, I wished that cocktail could have been infused with Alice's magic potion. With each drop, I would dwindle down into a microscopic version of myself, until I could climb through all the ventricles of his heart.
In each chamber, I would pick up all the broken pieces, and say: oh I know this one. And yes, I know this, too. I know this very well indeed.
My friend, I understand this, too.
This being broken from loving far too much.
Heartbreak is such a glorious disaster. And human beings can never be immune to it. We are always falling right into it.
Heartbreak is an ailment that plagues us, but is also a tonic to so many of our faults.
We are not invincible.
And once heart-broken, you are never happy on your own again. For you remember how delightful it is to life and love with another person. And no amount of heartbreak will ever prevent you from desiring to live your life through the light of another.
That is the gift that heartbreak brings. It can rip you out of the complacency of self.
Either that, or lock you up in prison, your goalkeeper your own bitterness.
But there was nothing bitter in his smile. His smile was strangely joyful.
How we can be joyful in the midst of sorrow is the strangest of the world's many mysteries.


You'll love this, he said.
He sipped his milkshake gleefully. There was a twinkle in his eye.
He has grown a beard, but more importantly than that, he has grown a great amount of wisdom.
Most of it hidden beneath the surface, beyond human sight.
My friend told me the most wonderful story.
It was about how he decided to choose the date of his Marian consecration. (I recently described myself in a professional setting as "painfully Catholic." ecce.)
And he chose it, obviously, because someone told him not to. And, of course, being perhaps even more stubborn than I am, he instantly knew that it--of course--was that day of all days that must be his.
Such a small and seemingly inconsequential decision. And yet, when he was celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows with the Congregation of Holy Cross, of which he is a member, and she their patroness, such a small decision as to choose September 15th as his Marian consecration feast seems more significant,

And in these stories there is such hope: such hope that God works with all our foibles in writing the story of Creation.

His stubbornness, my overweening ambition, her insatiable eros, all these will somehow become avenues of grace. So we can say: O happy fault--to be a broken, stubborn sinner becomes a great gift and grace.