Monday, December 28, 2015

writer's block circa Christmas 2015

I can't write, because all my thoughts are of him.
I can't breathe, because each breath is him.
I can hardly stay awake,
when each waking moment is consumed with absolute desire.
And each memory an attempt to recall the taste of lips.
To remember the gentle pressure of his mouth on mine
the sweet touch of his lips on my hand,
the hand he held between his own.
And then lifted to grace with a tender brush,
Two soft lips meeting my white hand.
A promise of devotion--
fealty--his lips on my soft skin.

So I stare into his limpid eyes,
wine-dark with desire.
And I feel my entire body thrill and fail
I cannot move,
every inch of me is transfixed, transfigured.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Sharing Ben & Jerry's in Midway Airport

Joseph cradles his orphaned god,
as orphan luggage trundles by his seat.

Mary badgers baggage services
into holding excess carry-ons

until the longed-for
return leg of their journey

Deserted now, their airport seems
more prison than portal,

a sorry stopgap for
pilgrims stalled
and grounded nomads.


Someone's eyes are teary--
yours? or mine ---
as we pray a simple grace

over our sweet meal,
with closed eyes

and each hand closed
over the other's.

Our ice cream,
according to the posted sign,

is named "The
Tonight Dough",
(with Jimmy Fallon)

But we re-christen it
"A Gift for You"

Of the genus

Imagining my just desserts,
I never could have dreamt
of this--

of these hands,
those stumbling words of  grace,

your eyes,
smiling with the light
of twin blue suns
into mine.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

marked with Emmanuel

Christmas hath darkness 
Brighter than the blazing noon, 
Christmas hath a chillness 
Warmer than the heat of June, 
Christmas hath a beauty 
Lovelier than the world can show: 
--Christina Rossetti, "Christmas Eve"

 One day, this past spring, I stood outside my school and had a conversation with a small boy who was playing outside on the scaffolding. As we talked, I began to wonder: what if I was put here, in New York City, just for this very moment?

Encounters with strangers who have been Christ to me dot the course of my life, and--I think--change its course. These encounters often have the power to leave me with a word, a look, an impression that changes my image of the world.

So I wondered if this was another one of those moments: for this child, for me, for both of us. If this was an encounter that would change the course of our lives.

I was standing on the street because I had been late to a work event from choir. A very specific, peculiar, particular set of reasons had led me to stand there outside the school at that particular time. In an exercise of nostalgia, I looked back over my life, and I found myself charting a series of deliberate choices, and funny, strange, sad, seemingly unrelated events that had all led me precisely to that moment. Through the lens of this interaction, a story had been created where before there had only been a sequence of unrelated happenings.

I wondered if my entire life had been made for that one moment, that one conversation, those brief minutes on the sidewalk with this small child. And somehow that felt like enough.

It is incredible how our lives can be transformed through a narrative.

I wonder if that is how Mary felt at the foot of the cross, finally realizing: "Oh. This moment. This moment is not only what my entire life has led up to, but is providing me with a script of where to go and what to do next. This moment is explaining me to myself." Perhaps all the pondering in her heart since she had sat at the foot of the manger had finally paid off. Maybe it all became ruinously, gloriously clear to her in a single instant.

Or perhaps that moment, too, was simply another moment to ponder in her heart, to mull over, and try to make sense out of.


I am a fairly constant day-dreamer. In whatever spare time I find for independent, creative thought throughout the day, I spend a large part of it weaving imaginary worlds in my head. I anticipate many upcoming events of my life, and spin variations on how they unfold. I have been doing this for as long as I can remember, and, some days, I suspect it is slightly spiritually unhealthy. Day-dreaming seems to be not-living in the present. But day-dreaming is also is the way I tease out stories and spin dialogue in my head. So I foster the creative practice, while trying to allay spiritual costs.

But I am always struck by how the events that occur, when they do occur, never happen in any of the variations I had composed in my head. The events, as they occur in reality, are always tinged with a flavor of tangibility. They are real. And reality is marked with a certain sort of tone, a certain shade of certitude, that my imagination can't quite capture.

In my head, all my imagined worlds reek of me. They are lousy with me-ness. They are marked with my own imagination; and made in the image and likeness of myself. But events in reality are marked with the flair of their own Creator. They taste like God's doing. And one sure hallmark of God's doing, we have found, is unexpectedness.

They are like nothing we could conceive on our own. Our imaginations can conceive of how we would mold the universe.

But the story of the universe proves to us again and again that how we would mold the universe falls short of the creative scope that the narrative can weave.

In an onslaught of unexpected joys, I cannot help but think to myself: how much more real this is than whatever occurred inside my head. How much more true to God, is this story, and less true to myself. How much more Real, for being something outside of anything I could create. And how much more marked with love.

Perhaps this is why Christmas is so fantastic. For it is a story that is not marked with my own expectation or will, but is marked with Emmanuel. It is an outrageous idea, one I could not have day-dreamed all on my own: that God would come and be one with us. That He would not disguise Himself as a human, a bull, a swan, or a cloud of golden dust; but that He would empty Himself of all His grandeur, and become a crying, helpless infant crying--the Eternal Word lacking the power to say a word--wrapped in crude homespun cloth.


But once I understand that moment--that moment of the Eternal entering into the gross constraints of time--as the story through which to read my life; once I understand that encounter of Word and flesh as the narrative through which the world makes sense, I look at the world around me with new eyes.

It all seems to reek of Incarnation: the dog chasing the squirrel, with its owner tugging at the leash behind. The woman walking past me with her Starbucks cup, her eyes locking with mine. The men, covered in the dust of construction and sheetrock in an old brownstone. The families brunching in the dim light of the diner on a Sunday afternoon. The lady running past me in the cool dark of a Central Park morning, Natasha Bedingfield leaking from her iPod earbuds. The young man with round glasses an ocean away smiling at me through the fog of a frozen Skype connection. The old woman across the subway car smiling at me through the sea of backpacks and angry Wall Street Connecticut commuters. The man in the train, crying out for help for his son. The sausage and egg sandwich, hitting my stomach with warmth, as though I just swallowed a sun.

How can I look on any of these without awe? They are no longer just themselves, but epiphanies of an Incarnate God, dying to speak to me. The universe around me is stamped with God's God-y-ness. And each person is bursting with their own unique manifestation of Christ.

I love day dreaming and fantasies.
But I love the story the way that God has wrought it more, I think. For my stories are often snagged on the complexities of life. Life is filled with currents of dark motives and politicking. There is intrigue and a twisted story behind every decision, an entire backstage drama most of us do not get to see. I am fascinated by the terribly complicated web of history humans leave in their wake.

But Life is actually just radiantly simple. It is the truth that we encountered as young infants in simple illustrated picture Bibles and poorly painted crèche scenes. The entire mystery of the cosmos can be summed up in just this: the baby in the manger we have known since our childhood.

He provides the answers to our complex lives: and they are such simple answers. For He Himself is the answer to our constant questioning.

I would never have imagined a truth so simple and profound, an encounter so apparent and so mysterious that it transforms all of human history and my own.
I would never have expected Emmanuel.
I would never have dreamt it on my own, my imagination is too small, to full of me.

But this world. This story. This night.
It is bursting with Eternity. An Eternity that poured into our world 2,016 years ago.
How can Eternity be contained in just one moment? Just one night? Just one birth into the world?
And yet He was.

Ever since that night, all of creation seems to be shouting out His Incarnation. Incarnation is in my sister's face, and my father's laughter, and my mother's tired smile. It is in the baby crying in front of me, and the stranger offering me her seat on the subway, and the man hiding behind his book.

They are crying out Emmanuel.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

diamonds and toads

Some of the happiest hours I have spent at home this Christmas have been cuddling with my sisters on the couch in a pile of mostly unnecessary blankets watching Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. (The other happiest hours will be treated upon in due course.) Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella is a fantastic feat of story-telling, because it fills an old tale with new life, renewing it, without "reinventing" the story in any way. It succeeds in making the story unexpected. While I intellectually know what events will unfold, I found myself surprised and in suspense during the entire third act of the film. Will Cinderella get away from the king's men chasing her before her coach turns to a pumpkin? Will Cinderella be able to prove her identity easily with the slipper--WTF, Lady Tremaine. You are the worst. Will the prince overcome scheming stepmothers to find Cinderella and place the shoe on her foot?
If you have been raised in a Western country, you most likely know all the answers to these questions. Happy the film that can make you forget them, and fill you with sheer delight as the questions resolve into answers.

But, what delighted me the most about the film was the manner in which it found new depth and meaning in its characters, without fracturing the story at all. There was no modern twist (nothing wrong with modern twists. It's always fun--and often enlightening--to see our own contemporary social sensibilities applied to an ancient tale. But there was something true and timeless about Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. It feels like part of a canon that Ever After or Ella Enchanted have not been invited to. It feels canon in the way that Disney's 1950 Cinderella is.

But, no doubt because it is live action and not animation, Branagh's film is forced to find a third dimension to its characters. Lily James' Ella is good. So radiantly, beautifully good and kind. The most kind, beautiful, good person you can possibly imagine, and you cannot help but love her. Once the goodness of Cinderella is manifest, we, the audience, can understand how someone as bitter and selfish as Lady Tremaine would--of course--hate someone as intentionally good as Ella. And Ella's goodness is not effortless--it takes resolve, courage, and strength. As Cate Blanchett remarks in the bonus feature interviews (shut up), in this film you can see the "human cost" of a fairytale.

The film grounds the prince "Kit" (I think? Was that his name, was that just a nickname? It's unclear.) and Ella firmly in their families. Seeing these relationships helps us see these characters as fully human. And once humanized, and brought out of the realm of folktale, cartoon, or myth, the story takes root more deeply in our hearts. 

I am brought back to my girlhood, when Cinderella was a character who I admired, before I'd read feminist critiques, before the Bechdel test, before I'd learned a critical eye. Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella has an innocence deeper than criticism, that can weather cynicism. It's not a going back to innocence, but a movement forward, deeper, towards a stronger sweetness.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

magnificat anima mea

For Zion was saying, ‘The Lord has abandoned me,
the Lord has forgotten me.’
Does a woman forget her baby at the breast,
or fail to cherish the son of her womb?
Yet even if these forget,
I will never forget you.
--Isaiah 49:14

My favorite words in the entire New Testament are Peter's: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

They are one of those delicious lines in Scripture that open up worlds of different possible intonations and interpretations. Perhaps Peter's words are a firm rhetorical question, followed up by a staunch profession of loyalty. Perhaps they were uttered with florid sentiment and tears.

But right now, as I ponder them, they sound almost annoyed.
Lord, what choice do we have? There's no other viable option. The choice between following Christ and not-following Christ is choice between an option and a non-option. One either chooses Everything, chooses the entire cosmos, pulsing with love and beauty, or opts for nothing. One either chooses to become more humanly, or negate the very nature of oneself.

Peter's words are more frustrated, it would seem, than anything: what choice do we have but to trust you? You are Truth itself. We are bound to you by our very natures. This really sucks for us. We aren't really in control here. We aren't the agents of power in this scenario. We can't really "go" anywhere else. The only place else to go is nowhere. 
He asks: Will you leave, too?
Peter responds sharply in reply, the way my teenage sister does, when she's tired of you asking what she thinks is a stupid question (like: How are you? or How's your day been?) over and over again: I'm FINE! She'll hiss, wondering why these annoying family members won't leave her alone. I imagine  Peter responding in the same vein, acerbically and pointedly,  Lord, to whom shall we go? Like, what are our other options here, man? You and your crazy: "Eat My Body" talk are kind of It, in the way of Incarnate Truth. I mean, it's not like there are other Sons of Man we can just look up in the White Pages. So. Yeah. I guess we'll be along for the ride.

In my imagination, Peter is annoyed because he has no other options, and Christ hasn't made this one look any easier. In fact, Christ has now made the one option left--pursuing the Living Word--look like you're one of those crazies hanging around the cultish preacher-man who talks about eating his body. Nooo thank you.

Peter trusts that this "my flesh is true bread" talk is a legitimate something, and not cannibalism. But all he has to go on is that trust. Christ has made a promise that He has the words of eternal life.

The task of the believers, throughout millennia, from Abraham down to you and me largely seems to be cultivating that trust, waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. We trust. We wait, remembering what we have been promised. We have been promised so much.

And Mary sings her magnificat, reminding us of the glory of these promises being fulfilled. Her soul resonates with the glory of the Lord: of one who waited for God's action, and who finds it already at work in her life. What wondrous love is this, indeed.

Monday, December 21, 2015

the voice is John, the Word is Christ

However, let us observe what happens when we first seek to build up our hearts. When I think about what I am going to say, the word or message is already in my heart. When I want to speak to you, I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine.
--From a sermon by Saint Augustine

In a letter earlier this autumn, a friend wrote of his frustration with human communication. Isn't it terrible, he wrote (and I paraphrase), that I could speak for hours at a fly, buzzing around my room, and never be able to induce it to leave. No matter how many words I would volley at the insect, it would remain irremovable.

But, if my brother walks into the room, one harsh word on my part could effectively push him away from me. One cruel word could send him out the door. Or, not even an intentionally hurtful word, but simply a misplaced, ill-timed, or misunderstood word.

Words do not possess a material power. They cannot induce the natural, non-sentient world to action (or can they?), they cannot move matter. But they can move a human's spirit. Sometimes far too easily.

Humans are so susceptible to injury through words. And, often, the injury is not intentional. Our days are fraught with miscommunication and misunderstanding, most of it harmless enough. But some of it can cause us, like my friend, to wonder what is wrong with humans. Why is our primary mode of communion and communication so prone to mishap?

Not to glibly glide by that very important question, but we live in a broken world polluted with violence, sin, and chlorine molecules eating up the ozone layer, so what can you really expect? If I do myself the favor of stopping to ponder the human condition, I am surprised that humanity's communication mechanism is so prone to error, and recognize that this strange fact invites further pondering. But, here, we will simply accept that our inability to communicate well is our participation in the broken cosmos, and continue on.

Because, what is more interesting than the failure of communication, is its success. The fact that human beings can share a common language, when we are all living such radically different narratives, is nothing short of a miracle. The fact that we can find common touchstones of experience, and give name to them, and then speak those words to others, and those words resonate deeply inside the other person, who understands them is quite astonishing.

Communication is so perilous. What you say is so apt to be misconstrued. And what you say has the power to hurt or the power to heal. Opening your mouth is a dangerous business, Frodo, as Gandalf might warn us.

So the Christian narrative is quite astounding, because the eternal Logos humbled Himself, and took upon the faulty, limited mantle of human speech. The Word spoken before time began came into our world and spoke with us. He did a lot of things, as well, and performed many signs and wonders. And, finally, offered Himself up for us, descending to the darkest sufferings of human existence, out of love for us. That He might speak to us from every corner of human experience.

But, then He ascended back to Heaven. He had moved forward, opening up for humanity a new ontological state: a new form of existence with God.

And what did He leave us? A lot of words.
I mean, He left us more than that. A Church, and His Body hidden inside a wafer of bread. But.
How are we to understand what He left us without the words that teach us the meaning of what we see, of what we taste, of what we touch?
What a terribly fragile method of communion to rely upon: to leave salvation of the entire earth to twelve men and three years of words you spoke to them.

And what did these twelve men do?

They simply spoke.

They didn't conquer nations.
They didn't really do all that much,
except proclaim the Word.
And the hearts of those who heard them leapt for Joy, like the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth.
And somehow that was enough.

As the faithful pass the holy water from hand to hand,
So we faithful, we must pass the word of God from heart to heart.
From hand to hand, from heart to heart, we must pass the divine Hope.
--Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Charles Peguy

Sunday, December 20, 2015

and now even human love

"Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitude of life. [...] faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product."
--Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

I started at the words on the screen, in awe of how normal they were.
They were simply a message: about a book, a thought, a particular beauty or a particular joke. And I was going to respond. The exchange would be rational, joyful, much like any other millions of exchanges.

But something had changed. Inside of me beat a new awe and wonder, a new posture of amazement towards a person who I knew so well and yet knew not at all. Not at all. Know a person? Know a cavern of mystery with endless passages to endless rooms of stories coiled upon stories? What audacity to lay claim to such beauty.

What can one do in the face of such glorious mystery, but smile, and let your heart beat several times too quickly, and feel blood burst inside of you, churning with warmth and heartache.

How can everything change so substantially, in an instant, with one word?
All the accidents remain the same, but the interior reality has been utterly transformed.

Christian Wiman writes: The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment of all.

The daily consecrations would seem to obscure the miracle of transubstantiation that occurred between our hearts.
But they do not.
The daily consecrations illuminate the precious gift of love made available to us at the altar of our ego, that we bow before, subdued and kneeling, doffing our vestige of self.

I have never thought of the consecration as a dangerous moment.
But how terrible, to know that you have the power to usher into your very hands the Lord of Love, the Paschal Lamb Himself.
What human being would dare to speak those words?
To turn the bread--the conceivable, human, quotidian bread--into panis angelicus.
It would be safer to simply eat the bread.
The vulnerability of the Eucharist; the searing, shameful honesty of it just smotes my heart.

Once you say the words, you cannot take them back.
You cannot retract an ontological leap, a substantial shifting of the very nature of the bread.
Once you say the words, they become truth. And you must learn how you relate to this fresh new reality.

You must take up a posture towards the truth that is spoken. There is no life anymore pre-illumination. There is only forward, whatever that way means.

Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.
--Christian Wiman

Saturday, December 19, 2015

tufts of spring in darkness

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.
--A Blessing, James Wright

It is a false spring in New York City this year.
The sun shines warmly from the South. It blinds me as I walk down to the library.
It reminds me of walking to the gas station-cum-donut shop on the West Side Highway, and the heat radiating off the clean cement and the sparkling Hudson.

The man is washing his hot white, sharp-edged sports car outside of the projects. The stereo is blasting music. He splashes water all over the gleaming hood. It is a scene from summer in the stark winter air.

Confused, the trees have begun blooming.
There is something wrong with this; I am disturbed by the trees that are blooming prematurely. The birds are in distress. Some of them have halted their migration in its treks. The birds of spring sing in the morning dark.

We walk through the rain storm, laughing, and suddenly I am in the summer. Running through Chelsea in a thundercloud, with my laptop--oh precious laptop, vessel most treasured--trying to skirt raindrops and dodge deluges.

I am sweating in the subway stations. We walk by Christmas trees in our light summer coats. I wear summer dresses, bare legs, and stop just short of sandals.

I can't help but feel that we are being strung along. At any moment, the other foot will fall. This December spring is fraught with suspense.

Right now in Minnesota, it is 25 degrees Fahrenheit, which seems more right and just. That's a winter you can trust.

But I trust this December spring--this Indian summer--almost in spite of myself.
As someone who loves the snow and ice, and detests the warmth, I thought I would find myself more disappointed in this heat wave. But it mirrors an inner summer inside my heart.

And so I'll save my dreamings of white Christmases until I am home.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Saturday morning canned champagne

New York City, unlike London, hides beneath a lot of affectation. Walking down the street requires lots of assumed runway swagger. Fine athletic wear or a fur vest is de rigueur for a stroll through the park on a Sunday morning.

The park on an unseasonably warm December Saturday morning is a dog lover's paradise.
Canned champagne in the park, while walking the Maltese Bichon, is a couple's paradise for brunch.
Women holding hands in chic pants walking drooling Alaskan malamutes. Three beautiful huskies, unrelated tumble over each other, frolicking through the yet-uncovered leaves.

A cockapoo leaps gracefully over a fence to retrieve a ball thrown by his master. It is the most effortless, seamless leap ever witnessed.

I stare at all the dogs running and rolling all over the lawns, soaking in the sight. I love this. This is a different scene from my dark morning runs in the park.

But I love those runs, too. I pass the same runners each day. The twins who run with the exact same delicate clip. The woman my age who, no matter how cold it is, wears running shorts. The man and the woman who walk together at a brisk pace, from 96th street down towards Columbus Circle, laughing and talking energetically about business deals going through and the day ahead. The shaman who lives down the road from me, where all the black cats hang out, who speed-walks past the Lake.

I recognize them all each morning, like clockwork. Rain or shine, wind or muggy fog, we greet each other quietly to start the day. The city feels quite small in the mornings in Central Park, before the sun comes up. Just Orion in the sky and the sound of footfalls on the pavement.

I love the sight of the stars over the foggy morning city, and the quiet rustle of human and leaf moving on the ground.

If you want to know a city, morning runs are the best time to get to know it. In London, on my first morning run of many, I tripped on a flagstone, and swore at the ancient sidewalk. Then I laughed. For I instantly understood London. Philadelphia is quiet and beautiful in the mornings along the Schuylkill, and the Museum of Art shines in the morning sun. Washington D.C. in the morning is stuck in the mist and fog of its history. Paris is magical and delicate. Kolkata is noisy: always noisy.

And New York. New York, during these morning runs, is not a mystery anymore. It is just faking it til it makes it. It forgets its past to race towards the future. It is a series of small villages all smashed together on one island. It pretends to be cosmopolitan but is really quite insular. It is cozy and confined, like a provincial town, ensconced in quiet satisfaction with its own merits.

One year ago, I felt stifled by New York. I was overwhelmed by its urban sprawl. I felt trapped by the buildings and squashed by the skyscrapers.

Now, I love it the way you love the small suburb you came from. For New York is no more and no less than just another city. There is a whole vast world outside of New York; New York is not the world, I scream at the city, trying to take it down a peg. Trying to free myself from its spell.

But New York is a monolith. An enigma, and despite its squalor and crassness, it possesses a well-cultivated allure which is none the less charming for being a sham. Or there's some truth to the sham. Maybe.


There are two blue jays in the park. They are robust and healthy, singing musical rebukes at one another, dodging each other from branch to branch. They are vibrant, living blue. In high relief against the backdrop of dead leaves and forest behind them. They are so natural and free from manufacture. They do not belong in the dead wood. But they still sing together, turning the winter Saturday into spring.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

coughing towards bethlehem

Our thoughts are not easily God's thoughts, nor our wills His will. But as we listen to Him and converse with Him, our minds will be given to understand Him and His designs. The more we come through prayer to relish what is right, the better we shall work in our mission for the realization of the kingdom.
(Constitution of Holy Cross 3:22)

Living in a big city is not always easy.

Preach, Papa Francesco. Preach.

I talk about New York like it's a human; a lover.
A person who I have wrestled for graces and blessings all year; with whom I have weathered a tumultuous relationship.

Whenever I come back from NYC after being out of town, my gorge rises. I feel a wave of contempt churning inside of me.

I'm done, I vow quietly, furiously, running late to a meeting because the MTA sucks at everything except fucking you over. I'm done with dodging scaffolding and pedestrians and cat-callers and loud buses roaring by. I'm just done with the smog and the dirt and the noise.

Then, I settle back into the rhythm of cacophony, and I adapt to the chaos, and I forget to be dissatisfied. This will continue for a while. I'll roll out of town into the autumn world outside of the island, and I remember how much larger the world is outside of New York, and I miss being a part of that larger world. I miss being under the sky and in nature, actually in the world.

Formation is not supposed to be easy or likable, I remember.
I was complaining for the umpteenth time about New York City, when I remembered, and was rebuked: Formation is not supposed to be likable.
You are not supposed to be good at it.

You are simply supposed to be there.

After much travel, perhaps too much travel this fall, I remember that I am supposed to be here.

All the different threads of stories that could have been eventually trailed off. I am here.
But it is only here, in this terrible and beautiful and awful, shallow, delightful, radiant city of Manhattan that I would be who I am now.

All the other paths hint that life had planned the inevitable. I would have landed in a spot so similar to where I am now.

But I have chosen Manhattan, which meant I chose a great adventure. I chose to add new dimensions of myself, foreign even to me. It meant I chose to struggle through the shallow self-determined materialism to find a deeper joy.

Living a big city is not always easy, Papa Francesco reminds me, but the people here are hungry for Him just the same. They are thirsty for the light. And we are still called to be lightbearers and chose the light, in the midst of rush hour traffic and subway signs.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

last day of the year

I am fascinated my M.C. Escher's images of his father. There are three, in particular, that I saw at the museum, and I was struck by the deeper image that was born from the dialogue between them all.

His first, earliest portrait of his father is stern and foreboding. The stark lines of the linoleum print are authoritarian. He looks reserved, critical (border-line disapproving), and rather impersonal. It looks almost like it is an image of Any Father. Nothing warm or personal exudes from the linocut.

This second print is fascinating. With its odd, sinuous geometric shapes it appears to be more of Escher's ilk. But it also manages to obscure the actual human of his father even more. This is a geometric representation of a human. It is an allusion to a person through a formulation of shapes. It i more personable than the linocut of his father. Bent over whatever he is examining through his lens, Escher's father is captured in a vulnerable and honest moment. His focus is all outside of himself, intent on whatever he is 

The third image is of Escher's father on his deathbed. I wish I could find an image of it online, but I cannot. This seems fitting, however, for it is a very pensive, private image. It is in pencil, so malleable and expunge-able. It is an image of deep sorrow, but also great wonder. Escher does not attempt to see his father through any other lens than of his father's own person. The sketch does not capture Escher's skill, but simply the sweetness of his father's face, peaceful in his last repose.

Enthralled by Escher's attempt to capture the likeness of his father, I meditated on how I often feel the same drive to write the images of my own parents. But, perhaps all children do this. We come from these mysterious, wonderful creatures. During our childhood, we are so content to call them "mother" and address them as "father," and leave it there. They are simply mother and father and parent to us, and that is all we know them as, and all we need to know.

But then, there comes a break. 
We become adults, and we can no longer see our parents as simply our progenitors, but we must know who they are as humans. Who they are with lives distinct from our own, with lives that were there before, and will continue after the fatal moment of our births. 
They are enigmas. 
But we came from them. To have our own origins be an enigma to us is torture.

We are desperate to know them, so we paint them all the colors that we can.
We distort their images into geometric shapes, stretched to the far limits of pictoral reality.
We, like Escher, reframe our parents' faces to try to understand our own.

At the Rancho, I found pictures of my mother on her college graduation day.
She looked like me. But not at all like me.
But her hair was shining with the lustre of the 80's, the golden glow of opportunity, and a computer science degree. She was supple and alive, and the most twenty-somethingish. I found that picture the same day my sister sent me this:

Just 10 short years later the girl with the shining 80's hair would be the smiling mother in the sandbox with her husband by her side, and her two children squirming in her lap. Already then, her present tense was "Mother" and I knew her as such. Just 10 years later the girl in the green sweatshirt would be transformed into a woman with two children, and the green sweatshirt girl with her hips and jeans and air of wild expectancy would have vanished.

I know the mother in the sandbox, for I was the baby in her lap.
But I want to know the girl in the green sweater. The woman who became my mother. My mother before she earned that title. 
I want to know all of the stories that took place in those 10 years between the pictures.
Because I am living in those 10 years.
And I want to know that she has been here, too.
That she knows what it means to be twenty-something with the world at your feet; and a masters degree and husband on the horizon there somewhere, but just an abundance of present tense to live in until then.
I want to know all of the heartbreak and mess that she has lived through, too. Because I was born from-- from out of--born into-- that heartbreak, mess, striving, triumph, and grace. 
I was born from her. Her story has made me.
And I am a part of her story.
Our stories are bound together pretty fatefully, we mothers and daughters, and yet they are so disparate. We cannot be a part of one another's stories unless we let the other in.
Will I ever find my way to the inside of this woman whom I was once inside?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

fury of clarity

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:
--Christian Wiman

We are down at the Rockefeller center tree, the mecca of the terrible bustling nonsense of New York City "Christmas."
Dutifully, I adore the Swarovski crystal star atop the giant tree. We pay homage to the glamor of Tiffany's and Harry Winston, and Bergdorf Goodman's gaudy, bejeweled mannequins. We approach the line of pilgrims that wind their way around the Saks 5th Avenue Window display, admiring the chic, wintry tableau.

Suddenly, I am ensconced in a circle of quiet. The spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral rise above the tumult, like dreadful, silent frozen candlelight. And I am enveloped in their mystic quiet, caught in the web of silent meditation they cast forth from their gothic façade.

All around me are the twinkling lights, pulsing, shimmering, radiating energy. Above me is the noisy music of the light show, the crowds are clamoring all around me, jostling one another to see the window displays and snapping photos. A family is pushing by me, mothers carrying large bags of gifts, there is yelling instructions for the family photo shoot.

But I am suddenly lifted above of all of them, I turn slowly, and the world spins slowly on its axis around me. The tourists are crying out in all sorts of language, I am surrounded by a babel of noises, and a cacophony of faces.

In just an instant, the city has shifted, so I am outside of all the noise, while completely inundated by it.  I am in the eye of the Manhattan hurricane.

This is an old blessing. A familiar comfort, and an avenue to falling in love with this city. For all that I desire is just space. Space that allows me to breathe without bumping into other people with my purse.

I have this space. Space seems to span out from me infinitely. And I, cocooned in an impervious bubble of peace, can observe with wonder the kaleidoscope of the city around me. As I turn, watching with awe, the mundane scene of holiday materialism is transformed by the kaleidoscope tiles shifting, tilting, turning the lights and people and voices into a mutating wheel of colors.

And I feel my heart beat. Pulse. Throb through my entire body. Calling out like a homing beacon for the voice in the silence. Crying out for the face I glimpse in the infinite quiet all around me.

Monday, December 14, 2015

you have no more misfortune to fear

The quiet gothic columns of the church were speckled with ocean currents from the stained glass windows. Each carved and rounded pillar became violet, like the absent Advent candles.

This is Gaudete Sunday.

It is my favorite Sunday of the year.

Where we sing Philippians 4:4 ad nauseum. But it is a necessary reminder. For to rejoice in the Lord always is quite a terrible command. How can we rejoice in the Lord when we are suffering so deeply? When we are hurt? When our world and our selves are broken by sin--how?

The answer occurred to me during the fifth time singing: "and in all pray-er/ and supp-li-kay-cee-ohn" that prayer is a vital part of finding our way to rejoicing in an evil world.

Prayer, for me, is too often a duty that I am neglecting, and therefore think about as little as possible, in an attempt to distract my guilty conscience.

But Paul instructs us, right after his command to rejoice: "in every thing, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God."

With thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God. Pre-emptive thanksgiving professes a trust in the goodness of the Lord, and the presence of Emmanuel with us. Whatever comes from our prayer, the outcome will be worthy of the thanksgiving. For it is the prayer itself that is truly the gift.

Prayer is not so much something we have to do as something that we get to do. (This sounds like a terrible turn of senseless rhetoric that a mother would use on a petulant child: you don't have to help clean the kitchen; you get to help clean the kitchen! But I think there is really and truly a distinction here. Prayer is desperately important for us to be the homo adorans we were created to be; but we do not have to pray to survive. Or perhaps we do, we just don't always recognize our prayers as such.

Prayer is an avenue for joy, because, through prayer, we take all of the disparate elements of our lives and offer them back to God. And God is waiting to received the disordered elements of our lives and arrange them into clarity. The heavens are not closed, they are simply waiting for us to open, that they might rain down grace upon us, whenever we are ready to receive.

Prayer is an avenue for peace. And peace, ever increasingly, has become synonymous with Joy. Prayer, Joy, peace, desire-- they all have welded together.

And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 
--Philippians 4:7

Sunday, December 13, 2015

heretical namesake

Does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to define and explore belief, or do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the word are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn? 

We need a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it.
--Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

All my dearest friends, I think, have a list of books they are constantly reading. There is a list of "Things To-Read" that seems to increase exponentially with age. It gets longer as the years get shorter.

One factor in our ever-increasing lists is, of course, one another, who also serve as an impediment to reaching the end of our lists. As one person discovers an author, reads a new book, obsesses over a series, they quickly share it with the others. As this new world opens up for them, they rush to share it with each one of us.

They encourage us, incite us, cajole us, and sometimes force us (sending the book you've repeatedly told them to read as a Christmas or birthday present is always a good move), to read these books. They reference this new touchstone of knowledge constantly, they quote from it, they sing its praises. Until, finally, we read it too. And we fall in love (or not) with this new vision.

Together, we weave a world of shared words. We mold a common mental universe. Our conversation expounds upon itself, springing from this rich wealth of riches we have discovered with one another.

Our communication is livened by this shared world of mutual touchstones. And our communication deepens the communion.

And language, that hackneyed, broken vehicle of communion, redeemed, runs smoothly, like a miracle. It works as it was meant to do: the words serving as catalysts for deeper understanding darting between the speakers. The books on our list bridge between our broken worlds, and create a shared cosmos of understanding.

We have created something all together, we are, in fact, still creating it and always will be, the threads of understanding working themselves together, multiplying until they have woven something adamant and audacious: a new cosmos we exist within, together.

Perhaps this is why so many of my friendships have become retreats: they are, right now, not my daily companions on my journey. They are not the characters who populate each daily adventure. They are those who I retreat to; to reflect on the work that I am doing, on the person I am becoming, of the love I am growing into, they are those that I run to when the daily grind has ground me.

But that is not where they should stay.

The world that we've woven is constantly expanding, as new figures arrive in it. An ever expanding network of ideas, novel literature, and new humans with fresh ideas and new threads to contribute, this sub-cosmos pulls into it each person we encounter and befriend.

This universe of shared understanding is constantly expanding, modified and edited by our new companions. As friendships blossom--daily friendships, the companions, compatriots, and fellow sojourners--the friendships you form with fellow travelers, wearing down the same paths as yourself, so too new corners of this fabric blossom with new life.

Friendship is a wild grace. It sprouts up in dark corners, and flourishes in desert. It offers sweet encouragement and daily challenge.

Friendship is a wild grace, because it offers no relief from the Other. It is encountering a human person head-on. It is a brutal awakening to the world outside your own. But the grace of relationship is the one that saves us; for it breaks down the walls around ourselves. It knocks our pride flat out on its back, as we stand trembling in awe of the other and shaking in the frail shoes of our naked vulnerability.

But once we are finally vulnerable, we can begin to commune; we can communicate with others, we can achieve that union we were made for, that we struggle so childlike to achieve.

The words from our books ameliorate our sad attempts at voicing our love for one another, at voicing our quiet brokenness that calls out for companion.

We read. We write. We weave together a quiet bower of friendship in the vast, bent universe.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

roses in December

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
--Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

her first scrape on her white knee,
the first tear in her calico skirt.

the first blood stain on girlish pink cotton,
the first inkling of long years of fertility.

her first kiss, filling her flower with its 
first timid blush.

the first rush of blood to her cheeks,
the first throbbing inside her maidenhead

her first betrayal and the first lies,
the first earthquake underneath her feet.

the first wrinkle and the first furrow
of worry on her forehead.

the first grey hair on her head,
the sign that summer will cease one day.

the first pregnancy test,
accompanied by desperate prayers.

her first stretch marks,
and the first ripples of cellulite.

her first skin tag, an invader on her breast,
a week after her grandmother's first mastectomy.

the first time she realized her body would bruise and revolt,
when the world was on the attack,

the first time nature stopped working in her favor,
when the universe was on the offensive

her first childbirth and first child,
the first time her world is utterly shifted

and shattered.
and put back together.

her child's first steps,
like her own, but now remembered.

Friday, December 11, 2015

I have had good dreams

It doesn't sing. I can't sing it. It needs more song.

His scarf was tied in a whimsical and useless knot around his neck. No coat or jacket. 
And a wedding band and watch on the same hand.

He had sheets of music staffs covered with delicately drawn cords. 
He stuffed the music in his backpack as the train approached 96th Street.

There was something about his hounds-tooth scarf that made him seem like someone familiar. I felt that I had the right to look at him. 

So I looked at him, and his sheet music, and tried to read the music on the sheet, tried to read the story in his face.

The dreams I dream at night are specific. They take place in locations I know the names of, just not the words that go with the names.

They are populated with people like the man with the hounds-tooth scarf and music in his hand. People whose faces are a cipher, but whose spirits are familiar.

I close my eyes, and I see my hands soaked in wine.
I see pungent rot on sidewalks.
I see old friends crying, and strange, stern women guarding prison doors.

I see trails meant for running, and muscles atrophying inside.

I see a lot of new images; new places I have never seen before.
My dreams are filled with new colors and old houses. New environs with old shades of crimson.
They are filled with different color schemes, and characters pop out of the woodwork of my unconscious, pieced together from new friends and watersheds.

Sweet words and bitter feelings weave together a new symphony of dreaming.

Time ripples and wrinkles until it is as senseless as my dreams, more colorful than waking, more temporal than words, and as fraught with missed encounters.

We are weaving a new world out of this dreaming.
Old dreams resurrected, new formulas forming.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

and the violent bear it away

Love destroys the lover if he cannot obtain what he loves. It goes where it is led, not where it ought to go. Love gives birth to desire, it bursts into flame and that fire draws it to seek forbidden things. What more is there to say? Love cannot accept not seeing the thing that it loves. 

--Sermon by St. Peter Chrysologus

 Today's Gospel is one of those passages that are so important for us to hear, because the strangeness of the words ought to jolt us out of our bland acceptance of Christianity. We expect to hear things like: "Do unto others what you would have done unto you!" "Blessed are the poor in spirit" "That which you did to the least of these.." etc., etc. Since we expect them, we become immune to them. Their vigor, power, and radical newness with which they entered the world and plowed through First Century Palestine are dulled by our dullness, fermented by centuries of repetition.

And then, some days we hear things like: "I come not to bring peace, but the sword."
or, today: "And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. " (Douay-R
What the fuuuuu
"the violent bear it away"
What does that even mean?

Looking at other translations (the original Greek: biastés), the passage only seems to grow more mysterious:

violent men take it by force. (ERV)
and [the] violent seize on it. (Darby)
and men of violence take it by force. (ASV)
and the violent take it by force. (King James)
and violent people have been raiding it. (New International Version)

So what is this all about? What kinds of violence is happening to the Kingdom of God? And who are all these people bearing it away, seizing it, and raiding it? What does it mean for us that the Kingdom of God is being raided? How? How, if the Kingdom of God is within our hearts? What can exactly be raided?

One thought that comes to mind is how often violence has been done in the name of the Kingdom. Common narratives such as conquistadors, crusaders, and their ilk come to mind. Perhaps the passage references these violent men who have seized the Kingdom, and bent it to their own purposes. It would seem to accurately predict all the violence that would bear away the Kingdom of Heaven.

Another image that appears, however, is the image of the violent seizing at the Kingdom of Heaven, which slips from their grasp. No matter how it is assailed by the violent, the kingdom seems to be always beyond their reach. It may be raided and plundered, yet it seems to remain standing. There is a core of peace that belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven that the violent cannot seem to force from it. This passage is reassuring, comforting. For in the midst of all the violence that fills the world, the Kingdom of Heaven will endure, silently, in the places of quiet peace in our hearts. Peace that the world cannot touch.

Then, I think of the violence with which I approach the Kingdom of Heaven. I wish to take it by force. Look, Lord. Look at how good I'm being. Look at how I've earned my spot in this Kingdom, look at my virtue, look at my brilliance. Look at me. I try to grasp the Kingdom with my own power, by dint of my own goodness.

But the Kingdom of Heaven does not belong to such as these. The violence of the proud cannot understand the Kingdom, where the yokes are easy and burdens are light. Where we are instructed to sit back and rest, and let our feet be washed. Where we must rest and let Christ Himself feed us.

Finally, I read the word of Peter Chrysologus, and see that love destroys the lover. And it seems that love itself is a force of violence. Not of evil, but of great power, capable of great destruction. Destruction, I generally think of as bad. But so much of grace seems to be destructive: breaking down the pedestals we place ourselves and others on, breaking down walls inside our hearts, breaking down the shining barrier of self we ring around our selves. Love is a violent force; a force that possess great vehemence and fervor.

And I wonder if this is the Kingdom of Heaven: those who are almost sick with love, whose great desire to see the Beloved whom they can not yet see nearly destroys them. I wonder if the violence of their love is causes them to seize onto the kingdom and hold onto it for dear life. Love--that violent, careening force--drives them to continually seek Him who their soul loves.

Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

tugging at roots

My house says to me, “Do not leave me, for here dwells your past.” 
And the road says to me, “Come and follow me, for I am your future.” 
--Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Floating at the top of the slender half-liter glass, the white foam bubbled quietly, the hiss of carbon dioxide sizzling towards the surface. The cloud of bubbles floated serenely on the amber liquid. A thin drizzle of some glistening red liquid marked chasms in the foamy bed, like rogue autumn leaves sinking into fresh snow.

I blew gently on the foam, watching it whirl and bank on the rim of the glass. Captivated by the motion, I churned the foam with the straw provided (why?), and watched it swirl with the beer beneath it.

Paul says he can be all things to all people; but he may be the exception.
I am quite offended that I cannot fit all the activities I wish to participate in, all the projects I want to complete, and all the conversations I want to have into one day. It seems wildly unreasonable. But I, like all humans, must prioritize. Which means not doing everything each day or everything all at once.

This imbalance of time, this lack of eternity, creates a pull inside each day. A tension between all the relationships that cry for one's attention, far-flung; from California to Maine; from India to Africa and back again. One's heart is dragged all over the world. All the places that were ever home call to you, demanding your return. All the people who hold a piece of your very being beckon to you, offering you the remembrance of who you are when you encounter another soul.

And then there is the immediate moment. There is the present, that seems to be always in conflict with the future. The future yanks at your arm, dragging you forward into it, demanding intense preparations and at least one of your eyes on it at all times.
But there is now. And the now is disappearing so quickly and dangerously. The now seems to be the joint prisoner of the past and the future. But the present doesn't allow time to stop and think about it: There are the students who are asking for you: for your attention and your love, and just your presence. There are the people all around you who need nothing more than just your presence, and the simple jobs that need nothing more than your simple attention. There is a city full of darkness that needs a light.

My eyes were heavy with champagne, and the posh, tall room was lousy with mindless luxury.
I remembered what restlessness was like.
I will always be somewhat peripatetic.
Perhaps restlessness comes and goes in waves; starts and stops in bursts. Perhaps restlessness is native to everywhere that is not an airport. Perhaps restlessness is the fate of any human who has come to rest.
But I am at peace.
I am at peace here, in the present--in the now--with all of its currents and tides dragging me every which way. They pull at me, but do not drag me under.
I am at peace here, in the eye of the maelstrom of constant activity and dead, rushing air.
I am at peace here, in this place where the past and future meet.

And I say to both my house and the road, “I have no past, nor have I a future. If I stay here, there is a going in my staying; and if I go there is a staying in my going. Only love and death will change all things.” --Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Thursday, December 3, 2015

sunrise and moonset

Even in his

Absence, I
Revolve in my
Sheath of impossibles
--Purdah, Sylvia Plath

As morning breaks, I look to the tops of the pine trees, turning from black to faded green in the dusky periwinkle pre-dawn sky.
I see the moon, glowing, disappear behind the trees.

As morning breaks, I see the sunlight, the pink fingers of dawn, liquid from rising above the East River, reflect on the warm bricks of the Harlem town-homes and the mirror of the high rise apartment building on 5th Avenue.

The sun hits the train tracks, and I suddenly notice that there are trees growing out of  the stone walls that support the elevated tracks. Trees. Not just branches or weeds, but entire trees.

They make me think of the tree that my dad would always try to trim, right outside our kitchen window. He would lop off branches constantly, in an effort to tame the wilderness. But it kept blooming new branches constantly. It looked almost comical: this old, ragged stump of a tree who kept insistently bursting with new life.

The trees that grow in the train track walls are my New York.

My New York is Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters. It is the peace of the tip of the island, and the bustle of actual living creatures snuffling through the park greenery.

My New York is sunset in Washington Heights, opposite the Jersey cliffs. It is a view of the George Washington bridge, a safe distance from all that traffic.

My New York is the quiet moment between when you sight the headlights of the train down the subway tunnel, and when the engine roars into the station. It's a moment of silence, filled with wind. It's the sweet burst of motion on your face in the stagnant subway air.

My New York is Christopher Street after twilight. It's the candelabra lighting elegant sofas, glimpses of bookshelves through the brownstone bay windows, and a fireplace inside a mansion I spy on my walk back home. My New York is wide brown front porches with smooth stone, like wedding cake icing.

My New York is the Met in the morning, before the crowds arrive, before the Halal food vendors and the hot dog hawkers have set up shop. When the only movement is my feet on the pavement, the fountains silently trickling water, and the sunrise creeping upwards, slithering up the side of the building, like morning glory creepers.

My New York is Marcus Garvey park in autumn, Carl Schurz Park in the summer, and the warm entryway between the inner and the outer doorway of my home in winter. It's tiny, cowboy-style Catholicism, and redoubtable abuelitas on their kneelers. It's great danes at the Great Meadow, and the hidden statue of Jeanne D'Arc in Riverside Park. It's a soulless daisy-colored bakery with prepackaged black-and-white cookies. That is My New York.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

devil in disguise as a fair woman

"because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not."
--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I'm so sorry for you.
I wish that I could erase all your guilt
I wish that I could erase all your self-loathing
and your pain.
I have the power to create,
yet have not the power to expunge.
What is written, not a jot will be undone.

If I were a man,
I could--one day--absolve you of your sins,
as you so have me of mine.
I wish it were as simple
as a tender: I forgive you
or a gentle: but I know you.
But that tree of knowledge has always been our downfall
and true pardon remains within subjunctive clauses.
once poisoned by the knowledge of good and evil,
our mouths are smarting from its tart juice.
Our hands are stained from grasping for its low-hanging fruit,
our consciences smarting from the smacking from its low-hanging boughs.

She spoke too soon,
she lost some face,
but inspired a movement
of falling grace.
She was the fair woman,
the devil in disguise was me.