Saturday, January 31, 2015

cynicism saturday

The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.
 --Lizzie Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

 So I'm surfing the internet, doing research on child pornography, which is probably the number one way to grow depressed about humanity. Then, these men come into the coffee shop, and sit down at the table next to me, and they start this conversation about female genital mutilation. So, of course, I'm eavesdropping on their conversation and completely not focusing on whatever I'm supposed to be doing. In an effort to fact-check one of the conversation partner's dubious assertations regarding female genital mutilation statistics, I start researching countries that have the largest number of incidents of female genital mutilation.

So, of course, I grow more depressed about humanity. Goodness sakes, is there nothing comforting about the human race?

There is something very glum about the reality of the waking world, and the inability of human beings to act in a way that is morally responsible, good, or virtuous, myself included.

Perhaps this is when the heroine of the novel begins to express over the corruption of the world: when she realizes that the brokenness that infects the world is somehow kin to this brokenness inside of her. That there is a fundamental flaw in the entire universe, which is terrifying, but more horrifying still, it reaches into her own heart. She is not exempt from the sordidness surrounding her.


And everyone thinks New York is the most wonderful city in the world and I can't even get to like New York. Seems like I'm the most dissatisfied person in the whole world. Oh, I wish I was young again when everything seemed so wonderful.
--A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

Poor Francie, I thought. I walked up the street, eating a sandwich from our neighborhood sandwich shop, run by a beautiful family from the DR, complete with surly-yet-friendly teenagers with chirping iPhones and energetic two-year-olds running around.
I noticed the molding on the beautiful, ancient apartment buildings. I noticed the sunlight sparkling on the shiny windows of the new apartment building. I felt the reflection of the sun's warmth of the red brick buildings, the strong clay radiating heat and cozy brightness.

I looked at the hill ahead of me: at the top of this hill was a different world than below the hill. I had not noticed this yet properly. I had not drunk in the grandeur of two worlds delineated so clearly by the slope of the hill, and yet bleeding together by the passage of people to-and-fro like eddies of water stirring up the riverbed, blending each current into the next.

What frustrated me most was that I had forgotten to look at the world like that: not just in terms of my own feelings or experience, but in terms of what was really going on--the deeper reality underneath my daily experiences. For, it seems that if I only look at each day through the lens of Me, I find that there is much to be sad about.

And this is the truth that I think all grouchy, grumpy, irritable people exhibit so well. I love them so much more than falsely cheerful people. They are usually dreadfully funny, which is unfair, because they usually are unhappy in their irritability. But they also seem to be unafraid of the unfairness and ugliness in life. And life is full of unfair and ugly things.

But that cannot be the end of the story.

The other day, for example, I was feeling dreadfully lonely. I was feeling lonely in an aching way I have rarely felt before. It was one of the most intense feelings of alone-ness and solitary-ness that I have ever felt. It was like a punch to the stomach, and it seemed to be exacerbated by all the beautiful things around me, that would normally be comforting and soothing. The fan vaults, the songs, the crisp twinge in the air that makes for the perfect walking weather, which would usually be a thousand lovely love-letters, were torturous reminders of my inescapable loneliness.

Somehow, by a vision not my own, I realized that the loneliness was not something that I could escape, because it was inside of me. I was absorbed in myself. The only thing I could see in that moment was me; how I felt, what I thought, where I was. 
Perhaps it is not the world that needs to change to soothe my aching soul. 
Perhaps it is simply I who needs to change, so that I might soothe the aches of the world. 
Perhaps the beauty and goodness is throbbing all around me. 
Perhaps it is my vision that needs adjusting.


'This that I see now,' she thought, 'to see no more this way.' Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day. What had Granma Mary Rommely said? "To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory." 
--A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith.

Friday, January 30, 2015

things we're all too young to know

people fall in love in mysterious ways
maybe just the touch of a hand


What silly creatures we are; so in love with serendipity, and obsessed with situations that could never possibly transcend coincidence.
We put ourselves at the mercy of circumstance, and figure ourselves too lazy to lift ourselves beyond momentary encounters.
I find myself more willing to let myself wander in mazes of nostalgia and halls of past realities than to muster up the courage to resist the pull of past, and embrace the uncomfortable, inescapable now of the present.
The past is so safe: there is nothing unchanging within it, and there are wells of emotions to wallow in, all unaccompanied by that distressing urge of the present that demands us to take action.

Knit my heart, three-person-God, 

do not batter it down. 
Already, it is in ruins, 
awaiting someone to stitch it back together.

The amount of sacrifice and self-control that love requires is fairly astounding. And I wonder, all too often, if any of us are actually capable of doing complying with love's requirements.
Self-control is such a funny word, Paul cited it just the other day in his letter to Timothy, and it does seem to be very out of place in Paul's eloquent raptures about God's love and power and might and transcending boundaries and faith and blah blah blah.
For self-control suggests dryness, not the vivid activity of love. It suggests a negative, not a positive. It suggests stoic joylessness and denial of who we truly are in order to achieve some heady, detached ideal.

But, really, that thing--designated by the unfortunate and inadequate phrase "self-control"-- is the Good News that we speak so often of, and forget what it means.
That we can shake off those blinders that block out anything else in the world besides "Me." We can truly transcend just our Self. Our entire person does not have to be controlled just by that Something Wrong inside of us that insists: me, me, me.
A deeper, truer way to love has crashed into our world, and ripped it open to expose that Something Wrong in our hearts.
Self-control is a hard word. It is trying to describe an action, which is less controlling our selves, but really, denying them. But, by denying them, allowing the I inside of us to actually become an I, free of the demands that the self places on us. We are free now to encounter a Thou. To encounter another person not just in terms of our own self, but in terms of reality.
There is no longer just one way, there is not just the way that we see written in romantic comedies or in all the different narratives that inculcate our imaginations with the notion that the other person is an avenue to our emotional gratification.
Rather, we have found a deeper, truer way to love. A love that exists deep within the mystery of reality.
We have a new Sabbath; a new model of how to mirror the action of God.
There is now a person whose actions we can model, whose example of love we can imitate.
It is not easy. No one ever said it was. We have been told again and again: that this saying is hard and who can accept it.
And we sit in our Sunday dresses and think: oh indeed yes. How very ancient this text is and how little it is speaking to me, personally. It couldn't possibly be pointing a finger at me, directly, and saying: 'this saying is hard and who can accept it.'
Then, for some strange, irrational reason, I am dismayed when I struggle to accept the hard Truth; and I want the easy Truth instead.
Our dear Thomas Aquinas defines acedia as the sadness that comes realizing that the good is difficult to achieve.
Acedia is my constant companion, no doubt.
Then, I must laugh, breaking the sadness.
What has ever led me to believe that the world is an easy place to live?
What knowledge of history or the human race has ever birthed inside of me the entitled notion that making a life on the face of a stubborn globe is an activity that can occur, absent of blood, sweat, and tears?
Why does the Something Wrong inside of me think that it should be easy for me? 
There is no end to the ridiculous notions that Something Wrong will feed me, and that I will swallow, unquestioningly, like an idiot.
Trapped in the web of falsehood our Something Wrong weaves inside of us, the sharp blade of truth is a welcome savior. Even if it cuts us to the quick, it is that sweet sting that strikes you to the core.
Then, in those moments, you know without a doubt that you are quite weak.
It is tempting to see our own weakness as an argument against the brutal strength of truth itself. But such a line of thought is not even an argument as such.
It would be like asserting love could not exist, because one time our hearts were broken.
Our own emotions are not the activity of love; they are often the symptoms or by-products of situations created sometimes by movements of the will, created sometimes by simply a mis-alignment of stars.
Our emotions can hardly be an argument for anything, much less the wellspring of reality.
Love is something deeper, sterner, and more demanding than we want to believe; and, therefore, sweeter, clearer, and more tender than we could ever conceive.


The book of love is long and boring 
No one can lift the damn thing 
It's full of charts and facts and figures 
And instructions for dancing 
But I, I love it when you read to me 
And you, you can read me anything

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

tunnels in the park

A snow has fallen on New York City, as you are indubitably aware of by now. Unless you have cut yourself off from all possible sources of news, which might not be an unwise plan, honestly.



Although the snowfall is impressive, and not negligible, the snow has not brought with it Armageddon, the Apocalypse, or the Eschaton.
It has simply brought snow. Which, in most parts of the city, just looks like thick, salty brown sludge. It is neither magical nor dire, it simply is an obstacle that must be removed from my sidewalk. As my civic duty dictates, I must remove this snow, in order to leave a path for pedestrians to traverse. 
I set out to do so this morning, and finally my cold little Northern blood took to this foreign city. Here was something that I could understand: clearing snow off your little patch of sidewalk. Just as in the cold Northern suburbs, there is a man who has a snowblower, and his driveway or sidewalk is cleared long before yours is. Just as in the suburbs, you find time to chat with neighbors while you are both doing this necessary task that nature and weather has forced upon you.
There is a common bond among us, as we fight to clear a path for ourselves among the obstructions that nature has set up in front of us.

There is a certain sort of pride in clearing your bit of sidewalk, and salting it carefully, so that the abuelitas walking by, and the young men with their Pomeranians carefully fitted out with wool doggie boots, have a clear patch of pavement to set their feet.
It's that pride that comes from a job of manual labor well-done.
I finally begin to feel a stake in this crazy concrete jungle, as I proudly and resolutely move snow off of what has somehow now become "my" sidewalk, into the gutter or the planters on the side of the house.

After I have finished my task, I take off for a run through the Park, in the snow. And this is something I understand even more.
The Park is filled with quiet: the quiet of snow in a woods on a winter evening.
It is also filled with activity: the activity of children sledding down hills, and fathers taking their daughters ice-skating, and steering them around trees on sleds.

And this is something I can understand: running through snow, as it blankets everything in the world, dampening the dry city with its icy moisture, a quiet damper for the constant noise, and washing over the dust and dirt with a sweet wash of pristine crystal.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

sing me anything

And now here we were, she a teenage adult, and me a teenage child and she wanted to talk about free will and I didn't have anything to say.
--Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing

Mama had a crease between her two eyebrows. 
It was slightly closer to the left eyebrow than the right. 
Sometimes, I would creep down the stairs after bedtime, to get milk from the kitchen. And she was reading by the fireplace, waiting for Daddy to come home. If she wasn't really reading, and was really just waiting for Daddy, she would look up, and chase me back upstairs, laughing, without a line on her face. But if she was really reading something, then I would see the line between her eyes, and I could sneak into the refrigerator without her looking up. I think she was lost in her own world.
If I asked her to fix the hole in my doll's sleeve, she would look at the tiny needle and the thread, and she would knead her lips together, and draw her eyebrows closely together. The line would darken between the ridges of her white skin.
The line would appear when she would write a letter or write in her blue book.
What are you writing, Mama?
A story for when you grow up, she said.

I watched it when Mama would talk to Daddy, and it would crinkle up when she stopped washing dishes and listened to him very hard. You could feel that her ears were listening with everything, and she watched his face, as if she could hear him through the way his eyes and lips and nose moved. 

Sometimes, if I had a story about the scrape on my knee and why I was crying; or the girl at school who had said words that made my insides feel like an unripe pear, Mama would look at me very hard, and the line would appear again, a familiar ridge on the topography of her face.

It would appear sometimes when I watched her before church started. She knelt on the kneeler, even after Daddy had already sat down, and she would look at the man on the cross. Her eyebrows would knit together, and the line would appear between them. He was silent, and didn't move; just continued to look down sadly from his uncomfortable perch. But she was listening to him. I could tell, because the line appeared.
She laughed a lot, and the line between her eyes wasn't there when she laughed, unless she squished her eyes up real tight, and squinted so that she couldn't see, and only the tears would stream down her cheeks.

I asked her about the line one day. I stood up on her lap, my little blue jelly slippers (I was inseparable from my blue "princess shoes" for my entire fourth year of life) digging into her soft lap. I traced the line between her eyes with my finger, not even noticing the tenderness with which her blue eyes looking into my dark brown ones.

Mama?
Yes.
What is this from? I asked, as my fingers rubbed the line, trying to erase it, like a stubborn iron attacking a wrinkle in one of Mama's shirts.
It's from living.
And from what else?
It's from thinking a lot.
And what else? And listening?
And listening.
And worrying?
Sometimes.
She smiled.
It goes away when you smile.
I know.
Do you worry more than you smile, Mama?
No, I don't think so.
When did you get it?
It started forming when I was your age.
I don't have one.
No, not yet.
When will it come?
Maybe soon.
Will it mean I'm old then?
No, it will just mean that you have learned something.
It will mean that I've listened?
That you've listened, yes. And that you've lived.

She didn't tell me that it would mean that I've lived through sorrow and joy, that I've learned to listen to people I disagree with, and that I've learned to look closely at the world.
The world is too beautiful, Mama once told me, to not look so closely that you hurt your eyes.
What about the people that don't look closely? I asked, they don't have a crease between their eyes?
No they don't, laughed Mama. 
Then she was serious: but I don't know if they've found anything worth seeing.

Monday, January 26, 2015

entelechy

Indeed, in the magnificent mathematics of creation, we recognize the language of God. 
--Pope Benedict XVI, John of Nazareth, Vol. II



brave_quote61_lowres 

Cranky, hungry, and frozen with November cold, my sister and I boarded the subway, and I realized that we could ride the 6 train to the end of the line to see the abandoned City Hall subway station.

As the conductor intoned "This is the last stop," we looked at each other with guilty excitement. Thrilled by the sense of illicit adventure that enveloped the simple scene of two sisters and a sleeping man in a hoodie in an empty subway car, we looked at each other with expectant eyes. What will happen next? Will we be able to stay on this train? Will we get stuck in this car forever, lost in the belly of the city's maze of subway tunnels?

Slowly, the train began to move, and we held our breath, now racing away from The Last Stop, into something unknown. We expected that eventually the train would turn around and send us uptown once again, but we weren't sure, and in that uncertainty was our adventure.

--

"Am I meant to be doing this?"
"Is this what I'm supposed to be doing?"

These are questions that often roll around in a college-aged, twenty-something's mind.
We ponder these questions, discern these questions, wrestle with these questions far too often.

When really, the answer to these questions is to just go. To move forward. In the middle of a sticky Kolkata summer, we were told: Don't stagnate. Don't get lost in trying to figure out the next step, that you forget to keep moving forward.

We are made for growth, for the passage of time, for the change that arrives with the seasons. We were made to grow through different seasons, to weather different storms, and to bear the trials and the joys that arrive with each adventure.

Yet, we also long for permanence. We long to find a place where we can set down roots; where we know: this is the community I will dwell in, this is my small little garden I will tend.

One snowy Christmas night, my mother and my sister and I snuggled up in a cozy booth, and we shared some insanely decadent dessert that was smeared with chocolate and caramel, and we sipped wine conspiratorially, and spoke of heartbreak and love and all the experiences of womanhood that we had never shared with one another over the years.

And I thought of late nights laughing and crying on the floor of our kitchen, crying to my mother over boys, and laughing over the tears. I have been so hungry, I thought, for these moments that do not change, for these certain roots that can't be moved or shaken. I am anxious, I thought, for these gatherings, in simple surroundings like our suburb's small answer to New York's swanky steakhouses. I have grown to love, I realized, the small nights, that are decorated with a dusting of sweet, light snow, that are spent consuming a decent amount of wine, and just enough of a strong, rich dessert to satisfy your sweet tooth, without overwhelming it.

It reminded me of a snowy night in South Bend, of stepping through snowdrifts on the way to the ballet. It reminded me of sharing umbrellas. It reminded me of the smell of warm wool on a cold night. It reminded me of kisses under Christmas trees. It reminded me of wine-soaked snow days, and our little hammock hanging in the corner.

It reminded me of so many moments where the permanence of the moments swells over you and wraps you securely in its arms, assuring you that you have found a spot where you belong.

Perhaps life is just a race towards that moment of permanence that is not subject to time. And perhaps all these oases of solidity are signposts to remind us to keep moving; to encourage us to go forward; and to prevent us from stagnating where we are.

--

As we barreled around the corner, I could feel it. The train began to curve; I could sense the nose of the subway turn from South to North.

Then--

Look, Becca. LOOK.

There, outside my window, misty in the foggy, mysterious underground kingdom, shrouded in dark, was the City Hall subway station.

It rose out of the bleak wall, like a dusky jewel. It had a majesty that was only heightened by its melancholy air, accumulated through many years lying fallow. It glistened in the dark tunnel, an entryway into another world. It hinted that there was more outside of our dark windows than just a dirty tunnel wall. There was a whole world down there, ripe for exploration.

We spun around the corner, and, all too soon, the ornate cavern of the abandoned station was behind us. Our subway continued on, leaving the unknown and foreign behind us, speeding back into the world of lighted stations and cars filled with commuters who do not notice what lies outside the windows.


But unfortunately not the whole language. The functional truth about man has been discovered. But the truth about man himself — who he is, where he comes from, what he should do, what is right, what is wrong — this unfortunately cannot be read in the same way.
--Pope Benedict XVI, John of Nazareth, Vol. II

Sunday, January 25, 2015

city sign of peace

In the city, the sign of peace is a distant wave.
We do not shake one an-others' hands.
We do not touch one another.
We cordially signal a nod,
and say politely: "Peace be with you."
We are removed, parted from one another, a sanitary distance.

One rather mild December day, I had the urge to walk Madison Avenue back home. I couldn't really explain it, except that it wasn't I was loath to take the subway, and even when I thought about walking in that direction, my feet seemed to hesitate of their own accord. There was a prickle inside of them that said: Stop. Not that way. Bargaining with this bizarre instinct that told me to walk fifty blocks, I told myself: I'll walk, and if a bus comes, I'll take the bus. Somewhere deep in the center of my brain, I knew that I absolutely would not take the bus, and I would simply walk, but I couldn't explain why this was a reasonable course of action, so my sensible self compromised with this instinct that itched inside my feet.
After about twenty blocks, in which I had been securely ensconced in my own head the entire time (walking is the best because you can create dialogue, prepare for imagined scenarios, work through arguments, solve problems, and just think), I saw an elderly woman walking toward me.
She was carrying a grocery bag on either arm.
Suddenly, she fell.
This woman fell flat on her face.
She must have lost her footing or tripped on an uneven piece of sidewalk, or goodness knows what, but all of a sudden, a human who had been standing upright was flat on her face in front of me on the sidewalk.
It was the first moment of my life I had been the one who had to respond to something so urgent, not because of any specific tie or relationship I had with the person in front of me, but simply by virtue of me being the one human there. Simply my presence on the scene vested me with the duty to respond, and quickly.
My heart pounding, I ran the few yards that separated me from this woman. I whipped out my little dumb-phone and called 911.
The woman was struggling to stand up, but not speaking.
I knelt down on the sidewalk next to her, and, while I was trying to relay to the paramedics exactly what had happened: "Well, she just fell." she moved her head onto my lap.

[I always feel that 911 dispatchers never have a great enough sense of emergency. It's probably because they are trained to counter-act your urgent panic with calm and reason. They ask all sorts of details about who you are and who the person is and exactly what body part is bleeding, and you're like: I don't know! It's an emergency! Adrenaline surging through my body! Can't think! Must act! Which is why I ought to thank God daily for unflappable emergency dispatchers.]

I sat there, on the phone with paramedics, with a woman's head bleeding onto my magenta pants.
A sweet, elderly Methodist couple on their way to Church stopped and stood with me until I got off the phone.
We helped the woman, who was struggling to stand, stand up. We gave her a tissue for her bleeding lip. And then, she started walking home. So we walked with her, tried to communicate that the EMTs were on their way, and if she could just wait a minute, they'd probably want to make sure she was okay. The paramedics arrived, and had to chase her down the street, as she had made up her mind to go home and couldn't be stopped.
So the sweet Methodist couple and I walked with her to her building, and informed the doorman that she had fallen, and he said he would call her daughter, and we left.

They went off to church, and I went home, and the strange intimacy of the moment faded into the cold night.

I stepped off the sidewalk, into the crosswalk, and thought of my feet. How they steer me, and--so far--have not thrown me off balance, or have buckled underneath me.
As I thought of the woman whose head had lain in my lap, I suddenly thought of Shakina.
She was thrown into my memory with a sudden lurch, like when your foot hits a piece of uneven sidewalk, and you jerk forward, suspended between recovery and falling.
I thought of Shakina: of walking with her down the stairs, of how she would throw herself at you, laughing, grinning, and giggling with a joyful mischief, and expect you to support her. That was the game, and Shakina played the game of "throw my entire weight at you," because she trusted that you would support her.
Sometimes, she would lose her balance on the stairs. Sometimes she would lose her balance due to the enthusiasm that wracked her body. Sometimes she would lose her balance, because Manju had snuck up behind her and pinched her.
At a time like that, she would look up at you, as your arms shot out to catch her, to pull Manju away, or your hands moved to steady her body, shaking with energy, and she would holler at you, with eyes that reproachfully said: How did you let that happen?
I thought of all the times I held Shakina's hands as she walked, and I thought of the woman whose arm I held to lift her up off the ground.
They seemed to be the same person.

In Kolkata, we bowed to one another.
There was no contact between hands;
but we seemed to be intertwined--
your spirit in mine, and my soul in yours.
The veil that kept us cordoned off 
was sundered.
And in your eyes, I saw you say:
"Christ be in you."



Friday, January 23, 2015

come naturally on the floor

“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love”
 ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Last night, one of my housemate dragged us all out swing dancing. Although we were all cowardly, tired, and loath to try new things on a Thursday night. Not having really experienced dancing outside of the modern date-dance, where you are stuck with one partner the whole night (even if he's an excellent partner, in which case the verb's connotations are unflattering, but still accurate. Enchanting or boorish, you're still stuck with that partner.), I was pleasantly surprised by the adventurous experience of dancing with multiple partners.
Naturally, I compared them not only to one another, but to stereotypes that exist in Georgian and Napoleonic literature of men at dances with which I have previously had no understanding of, because I lacked the experience to provide context to them.
But now, I certainly do.

Top Ten Stereotypes of Men at a Dance That I Previously Have Not Encountered and Now I Have:

1. The Old Man Who Dances So Fast and Energetically, You Cannot Keep Up With Him

And he is so preoccupied with leaping joyfully, he can barely register he's left you behind, reeling in the dust-storm his stomping heels have kicked up.
It takes two to tango; it takes one to make a fool out of themselves
 And you're like: I'm stepping on everybody's toes. You're gyrating like a caffeinated praying mantis. When will this song be over?

2. The Old Man (so many old men!) Who Dances Really Well, But You're Like:? 
I mean, you're a wonderful dancer, but this feels like a daddy-daughter dance (which are delightful, in their own right: like at commencement celebrations and weddings).
I hope all of these men find a partner who is their equal in skill as well as age:

Get this man an Ellie

3. The Insecure Boy
 He'd Rather Talk Than Dance, And He'd Rather Get Fresh Than Talk.
After the music finishes, he tries to flirt with you while you're sweating and you're like: I don't need to talk to you in glib tones about my job as a school teacher, I just need you to stop wincing every time you miss a beat in the music.

Help.

4. The Pompous Leader. 

Who can't seem to manage to cue you into what he's doing. He's doing something. We're not sure what it is. It involves a lot of footwork, and not actually leading you anywhere, which leaves your dancing looking less like dancing and more like two breathing faux pas colliding into one another. Occasionally, he will condescend to remind you of the basic steps, and he promises you that your "beginner's nerves" will leave you eventually. And you're thinking: Actually, I'm banking on you leaving me eventually.
"Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it someday," he tells Greer.
5. The Artiste

He's all about "feeling the music."
This song has an "unusual beat."
Beware of sudden movements, derived from an overactive marriage of imagination and time signature changes in the music.

You may be feeling the music, but I'm not feeling this, bro.

7. The Duty-Bound Chivalrous Gentleman

He feels honor-bound to dance with every woman in the room. No woman shall go neglected in his presence. Let it never be said of him that he did not do his duty; or was never a gentleman; or never completed his offices with the distinct heartlessness of a robot.

He's already planned out what to say on the dance floor. Perfect.

8. The Boy Who'd Rather Dance Than Lead

He's great, has flashy moves, and carries himself with style, but it's a one-man show. And you're like: If you want to show off your fancy footwork, go join the cast of Newsies or something. If you want to dance with a woman/another human being, and not just your reflection, then I'll be here all night. You'll find me in the middle of the dance floor.

Throwin' shade on the self-absorbed two-stepper

9. The Wallflower

There are plenty of women on the sidelines, and I sympathize with your need to rest your feet or whatever, but I'm here to sadly inform you it's your civic duty and ask one of them to dance, even if she is only tolerable, and not handsome enough to tempt you.

We all do, bro. And we get over it. Hit up the cash bar.
 
 And I apologize on behalf of our culture at large for not providing you with the social upbringing necessary to equip you properly for this task.

10. The One that Sweeps You Off Your Feet.


Amazing, how a simple thing like two bodies moving in synchronized motion--perfect harmony of leader and follower, a perfect communication of intention and motion-- can produce such undeniable feelings of exhilaration.
And I see now why Jane insists that a fondness for the dance leads so easily to a fondness for one's partner.

(Also, coming up with a round sum like ten was hard. Mad props to Buzzfeed writers who have to make lists of fifty or one hundred or something.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

not 'til the sky

We found love right where we are.
--Ed Sheeran

Last Friday Night (yeah we danced on table tops. JK, we absolutely did not. Katy Perry, look at your life, look at your choices), I was complaining about New York to my friend's friend. And we just went to town; venting every frustration that had been boiling up inside us. 

 For my entire life, I've been hearing: "Renée, you will LOVE New York." This is entirely due to the fact that I am a theatre and travel lover, and am a semi-intelligent/sort-of-worldly human who likes the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' culture sections.
These opinions do not take into account the following facts: I abhor people taking advantage of one another; I would prefer my sidewalks free of dog shit; I can't live without trees; and I like being alone so that I can think out loud; and I really dislike not being able to see the sky. I hate the crush of endless city all around me, it makes my soul ache for the sky. The skyscrapers encroach on my beloved horizon, blocking me in. One night when I was driving on the highway back home, I realized how much vast expanse of sky was above my head, and how soon I would be back in the prison on the asphalt jungle or concrete jungle or what have you, and I began to weep. 
I'll miss you, oh dear, dear sky, I cried. 

(Then sighed a little wistful sigh of extreme satisfaction, as I roared down the highway in the sexy family mini-van. There is nothing so satisfactory as indulging in a little melodrama, every once in a while. You feel like the heroine of a Edwardian novel--or perhaps of a Fitzgerald short-story-- and there's something so lovely in just saying: "proportions be damned!" in a devil-may-care manner. You feel like a plucky, reckless bastard; and nothing washes down a shot of emotional aggrandization like a chaser of flippancy. It's very soothing, if but momentarily.)

Most of my prayers, come November, sounded like this:
Dear Lord, I hate New York. Let me just wallow in the fact that it is SO hateful and here's a laundry list of reasons why. I just love the sound of my voice, so I'm just going to keep talking and talking.
P.S. New York sucks. Everyone here likes the Yankees. I am clearly in an alternate universe.

The thrill of exploration wearing thin, the city's imperfections were more readily apparent than its beauties. Each time someone would ask me about New York, I would compare it to Kolkata, and that comparison would sting my conscience like a nettle.

For each time I compared the two cities, I thought of one of my first hot, sweaty, miserable weeks in Kolkata, and, in a black mood of resentment, I stood behind my friend as she unlocked the front gate of the hostel (always a process). Her shirt had emblazoned on the back the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Each time I complained about the inhumanity of the 6 train or the depressing sight of business men rushing past people with nothing, my memory would pinch me, saying: Hey, moron! Remember how "hate does not drive out hate"? Remember that? Still want to complain about the harshness of the bleak city-scape, you self-pitying hypocrite? Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the circumstances), I am excellent at ignoring the voice of criticism and persisting stubbornly on my course.

Until, one day, on such a cold day, such an undeniably, awful, January-cold day, the conjunction of two events conspired to drive a lesson home to my willful head.
Firstly, I had two lines of an Ed Sheeran song stuck in my head from the moment I woke up, and could not stop singing them the entire day. I was making myself sick, as well as everybody else around me.
Secondly, a man by the subway, on this cold, cold day, the stinging cold sparking tears in his eyes, accepted my loose change with the graciousness of a queen. How could your contribution be not enough; when you are giving it from a desire to help?

As I walked away, my momentary shame lifted by his generous and kind words, the line of the song flashed through my brain once more.
All of a sudden, that night, that street corner, that moment in time--a frozen image, accompanied by the soft lights of the Starbucks on the corner, the green globes of the subway entrances, the serene darkness of the park, the rush of traffic on the busy cross-street, the comforting, overwhelming presence of the church, with mothers and their babies rushing by along with the stoic commuters, and the harsh wind whipping down the hillside--became irreversibly blessed.

It was not the biting cold that brought forth tears in my eyes then; but the sense that I had, instead of refusing to encounter someone in the cold, finally accepted his invitation. That moment of love seemed to signal to a deeper love, deeper than all the easy hatred, that pulled me underneath the surface into a mystery that only that man, on that corner, in that desolate city could provide.

How could it be that such an exquisite love exists?
And yet, it must, or else I think my existence, by now, would have evaporated into waves of hate; if left unchecked by this particular, personal, wild brand of love.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

anchor of our soul

And you think of all of the things you've seen, And you wish that you could live in between, 
And you're back again, 
Only different than before, 
After the sky. 
--Into The Woods, "Giants In The Sky"

The most magical place in all of New York City is the Flatiron building. Its name alone conjures up images of steel manufacturers; it evokes domestic, antique images; and its architecture lives up to the name. Existing in the peaceful environs of Madison Square Park and Broadway, the Flatiron building emanates and aura of serenity. It is this little bubble of genteel and elegant calm, somehow barricaded from the oppressive noise and chaos of the city all around it.

The Empire State Building, with all its glamor, hubbub, noisy tourists and Penn Station traffic, rises just north of its delicate sister, a prominent younger sibling of this ancient enamel ship.
As I walk by the Flatiron building, rushing to a theatre in Chelsea, I don't mind the rush. The enchanted square seems to have transformed my bustling into a movement more measured and transfigured my sweating speed-walk into a more graceful dash.

As I emerged from the dark theatre, I blink in the soft dusky light of a cloudy and foggy day. For a moment, I see the city with new eyes, and I truly love it, for a fleeting time. I love New York City, because it is the Flatiron district. Because here, nestled between the glass prow of this elegant steampunk building and the decadent Eataly, this is a place where Home Depot is housed in a beautifully carved, white-washed Victorian façade. Here is where you can dodge an adorable mother with a baby pram and dog poop in the same step; where you hold a crisply printed doughnut bag confidently in your hand while chasing down the 6 train.

Here, you step out into the crosswalk, and the rush of Broadway traffic sweeps you off your feet, and the buildings, a multitude of worlds all crowded onto one block rise above you, colorful, unique.

Are you paying attention?
Watch closely, they all command.

For a second, there is that warm wave of companionship washing over the scene, and the sense of being in the middle of an unfolding adventure sweeps over the sidewalk, carrying you with it into an endless succession of scenes, which will reward your attention with beauty opening up into beauty.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

jubelruf rahamin

“Need-love says of a woman “I cannot live without her”; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection – if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all."
--The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis

Whenever I encounter the stunning revelation of being understood; of having a friend write words to you that mirror your soul to itself, I am awed.
How bittersweet it is, wrote my friend, that I am engaged in work that I fail at daily.
Oh, friend, Amen. I thought.
[Had she read my diary? I wondered.]
I am living day-to-day, performing tasks I am not necessarily good at; these are not tasks I was trained for, I was not prepared for these. I can not dazzle and dart and coast through the day. The tasks at hand seem to demand a deeper sort of care and attention, and I find that as they require my own vulnerability, I am vulnerable to them.
I am not naturally a disciplinarian, a Microsoft Excel guru, or a manager and instructor of thirty students at once. I do not like being the "mean teacher" or trying to parse between lies and truth, and attempting to force a student who does not want to sit down and read to do so.
In many ways, when found in a situation in life where my talents do not aid me, I want to flee. Flee to a comfort zone, where I can rely on my own abilities, intelligence, and feel secure in my ability to achieve.
But I cannot begin to speak of the immeasurable joy that being awful sometimes at my job has brought me.
No longer am I in school, on stage, or in an environment where I am comfortable and at ease, relying on my own powers to pull me through the day.
Instead, I find myself on most days questioning my judgment, my ability, my success. I find myself unsure of whether I am doing what I ought; when all I see is how I can improve. When all I hear is my voice ringing unsurely in my ears, or how I am still hesitant and lacking in confidence and authority, it is hard to muster up the usual self-confidence.
In every day interactions, the constant affirmation that I crave is lacking.
It is not wrong to seek the affirmation of others; it is not evil or bad to yearn for people to single you out for being not anything other than yourself and beautiful because of it.
But these cannot be our need, from which we derive our sense of self-worth.
How much sweeter are these accolades when we can see them for what they truly are: a gift born of another's generosity and kindness. They are not compliments we are owed. We are not to live as though expecting every moment for our co-worker or supervisor to tap us on the shoulder and say how they bask in the light of our incredible aptitude. When we can see these affirmations (when they arrive) as a blessing given from the loving heart of another, then we can cherish them more deeply and instead of twisting them into the supports for our own fragile ego. We can accept them sweetly, and offer them again in return.

Only one love, Christ tells our frantic Martha, is needful. Only one.
In a world with so many needs and wants, it is hard for us to stay so focused on the one thing that is needful, and to accept all else that happens as a trial to be borne, which will reap, at the journey's end (if we weather it with fortitude), a gift for our weary souls; or else an obvious blessing to be received so joyfully and without thought to grasp.
Only one constant and steady thirst for love can possibly hope to be satisfied and to satisfy.
And perhaps the singular joy of failing in your own abilities is that you can finally see clearly that thirsting love offering the shaky structure of your self the support it so obviously needs.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

lanterns meant for you

After supper we went to the television, 
innocents in a magic land 
 getting more innocent,
 --Stories by Stephen Dunn 

Unlike lovers they possessed no past, unlike man and wife, they possessed no future.
--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

I got home on Monday to a letter. One that had not only a note from my dearest friend inside, but also Honduran dollars! (Nothing like a Christmas bonus from Auntie Jenna). It's beautiful currency, and I'm glad I can't use it. If cash wasn't good for buying things, I would appreciate its delicate appearance so much more; putting it to use spoils it, I think.

 One can never feel quite alone or desolate, when you come home to a letter in your mailbox. Sometimes on long days, I envision a letter, scrawled all over with spindly handwriting waiting for me in my mailbox. Knowing that, through the slant of the letters and the curls of each capital, I will get to see a little of a friend. Not their face or their smile, but perhaps a bit of their mood, and a part of their heart. I know that when I pick it up and read the contents of this small sheet of paper, no matter how unwelcoming my surroundings are, I will feel instantly at home.
--

One night, my family sat at the table.
Actually, there was only four of us. 
Which was such a strange sensation.
When I was younger, there was never just four people at the dinner table. 
But the four of us sat there, and my mom and dad had to deal with car payments. I guess that's what a lot of being a family means: dealing with car payments and unexpected loans and all the boring details that keep a household running.
But then our dinner didn't end with cars and mortgages and my mother (who never drinks) declaring that she needed a glass of wine. It ended with a well-placed joke or two and laughter.
As we said our after-dinner grace, we were all still choking back giggles, which would erupt in the middle of our prayers. My little brother's eyes were speckled with lights of laughter as he looked back and forth between me and my dad, who was laughing as he said his words of thanksgiving.

And our dog snuffled into the dining room, and we shooed him out. It is this just being together that makes family so beloved. Home is so ordinary, and that's the magic of home: that earlier that morning, I'm riding subways and running about a vile and tempestuous city, and then that night, I'm sitting on my own couch in Minnesota, annoyed at that one patch of upholstery that always seems to be fraying, and it seems like I never left. When I go home, I'm transported back to a time when I irrefutably belonged in the contours of our living room sofa, back to a time when the only bathroom I knew was my purple one, back to the sunlight in my kitchen shining for me. I am surprised, when I slip back home in my mind, how natural it feels to imagine myself walking in our kitchen.
When I am scared or unsure; distraught or lonely, I will imagine myself walking in my kitchen: how warm it feels, the perfect lighting, the well-stocked cupboards, and the clutter on the counter.

The physical reality of being home provides such an interior comfort.
And I mourned being away from it for so long. Until I was laughing with, and complaining to, a friend on the phone (there's another thing: the telephone. I marveled as I spoke with him how far away he seemed, yet his voice, like the words on the page, could bring so much of him to me. How strange, this human project of communication is. We splinter ourselves to share ourselves with others.), and he said: Well, in going away, you learn to truly value it.
Which is such an over-used proverb. Yet, perhaps--like all the simple realities--more profoundly true than I would like to think. Although I would rather live close enough to home to visit every weekend, perhaps I would never realize how treasured a place it is if I did not leave it, even for such painful stretches at a time.
Perhaps, if someone or something never leaves us longing for its presence in a seeming absence, we will never understand how deeply we desire it.



Friday, January 9, 2015

cloud honeymooners

Take me somewhere where
the air goes on forever,
the sky is like the ocean,
and we can roll around
and run in vast, soft
seas of frozen precipitation.
I'll climb the cumulus mountain
and you will catch me when I
fall through the vaporous slopes
into the rolling white meadows,
billowing beneath.
The world is overcrowded
and the melting polar ice
cap flood is coming,
So take me to a higher altitude,
where there is only
you and I and an entire
world for us to
adventure in alone.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

practice of truth-telling

to Denise and Meredith. Two women who have taught me how to see the Truth and how it can create a unity between two people who would remain otherwise distinct.

"Lately, I've been trying to think of spiritual truths more like the laws of physics than like human laws. If we are selfish, it is not that God will punish us or that we would be just fine if God eased up the rules a bit. It's that being selfish chips away at our happiness the way a river washes away rock."
--Love & Salt, Amy Andrews & Jessica Mesman Griffith

This week, we have been holding auditions for "Our Town". Auditions and try-outs are my favorite parts of theatre: watching people take on different roles, and seeing how easily a person slips in and out of each person's skin. It's positively magic. The art of acting is using your own person to find the truth of another person. But, the beautiful mystery of acting is that while trying to tell the story of another person, you are forced to reveal a deeper part of yourself.

You cannot get up onstage and lie. If you get up on a stage and pretend to be sad or pretend to be sorry, then your whole performance rings false. In order to act out the story of someone giving an apology, you must actually, on some level, apologize the way you would. Thus, if you are paying attention at all to this ritual (and it is mind-boggling how many actors are not), you learn a bit about yourself, because you are forced into a state of self-awareness. You learn how to tell the truth about yourself: how you look when you are overjoyed, how your face crinkles up when you're trying not to cry, how your voice wobbles when you are hiding a secret. When acting, you are becoming adept at telling the truth about another; and in the process, you reveal who you are.

Perhaps, also, what you are also revealing is a deeper truth about the world. A truth that says that all humans love with the same hearts, and that love does not really change from one scene to the next. That regret and sorrow are less subjective responses to individual stimuli and perhaps are woven into the mechanics of the world. Perhaps there is an order to the universe that we cannot break on our own. Perhaps there is a deep truth, underneath all our different experiences. Our experiences are, in the words of Marilynne Robinson, fragmentary. "Sometimes it is hard to believe that they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties." There is a pattern to experience we cannot change: there are laws to the universe that govern not only the physical but the spiritual dimensions. Why should this not be so? Why would the physical realm be governed in a pattern of beauty, while its counterpart is ungoverned chaos? There seems to be a continuity in Hamlet, Our Town, and Antigone that makes them resonate so powerfully today as well as yesterday.

The problem is, we rely too deeply on our own experience, especially when it comes to the world inside our heart and soul. We have an incredibly difficult time imagining a world outside of us. This is the affliction that our post-modern insistence on non-offense has placed upon us. We are not allowed to assert anything beyond: "Well, for me," "As I see it," "In my personal opinion" "This is true for me." Instead of this prohibition on discriminating thought and unwavering belief leaving us more open, accepting, broad-minded and free, it has left us islands in a sea of doubt: we are not allowed an insight into the lives of others. Who are we to dictate the truth of someone else's life? So we remain cut off; all our possible bridges of connection burned before the chance has come to build them. Thinking, without hope, that there is no way we can ever really understand anything. If left with only the dim assurance of our changeable and unreliable experience, we have very shaky ground upon which to stand.

But there is: there is a Truth. A Reality, that we all participate in, but is veiled from us; revealed to us solely by our fragments of experience and insight. Relativism and our socially fashionable passive resistance to selecting a denomination of belief does not actually aid us in understanding the world. We are all cut off from each other; our experiences are known only to ourselves. The only way that we can ever perhaps to begin to understand another human is to access that deeper Truth that resonates in all our lives; the Truth that we find by digging through all our fragments of experience to the reality underneath. With a joy we do not even dare to feel, we begin to hope that maybe we are not as alone as we ought. Maybe, just maybe, we can be a we in a world that too often leaves us feeling like a poor and lonesome me. If we cannot assert that there is a Truth, then we will forever remain alone. Apart. But, if perhaps, we tentatively assume that there is a foundation on which our entire world rests, we can begin to see each human life as not some inaccessible narrative in which we can never share, but as a unique and divine branch of individual story, sprouting off the central vine of life.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

irrefutably indelible impressions

'Women are messier by nature', said Miss Edwards, 'they are naturally picnic-minded'
--Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

Lips meet in the cold winter night
two flames burn bright
hearts aglow,
not minding the gentle,
quiet snowfall,
Dark before the day the
lovers' candle burns for one another,
full of the wonder that was each other
in the soft sweet lips of
the partner in
certain, unyielding bliss.
Future pain expunged by joy,
the first pure kiss
in Christmas snow
of a sweeter brown-eyed boy.

~

Our vanilla candle
next to
the Hershey's chocolate flame,
The peach wick flickering,
burning low,
down to the very last drop,
gives way to the Christmas-treated scent.
No one can smell the sandalwood.

~

pah pah pah
wake up, arise
pah pah pah
please find it in your heart
pah pah pah
the rumble of the track
the buzz of the movie
on the iPhone
the clatter of the underground,
the heat rising through the vent
and clogging up the atmosphere
and everything smells
like rotting weed and
body odor.
pah pah pah
I'm sorry, brother,
thank you sister,
pah pah pah
the Asian man
across from me,
is shocked.
pah pah pah
his honest face reads
my mind and says it.
pah pah
77th street is next
pah pah pah
the N train is not
running to Queens
pah pah pah
please take the 7 train instead.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

clouded with mutual breath

We are waiting for snow 
the way we might wait 
for a train to arrive 
with its cold cargo- 
it is late already, 
but surely it will come.
--Interlude, Linda Pastan

This morning, I decided to wear flats on my walk to work.
I remember locking eyes with my rainboots, who steadily suggested:
you know it's going to snow today.
My nylon-clad legs thought of themselves wrapped cozily in the knit lining, sheltered from the wet white snowflakes by blue rubber.
But stubbornly, I pulled out the delicate black slippers, and thought of Sara Crewe in London snows, while really just commending myself upon my inherent and irredeemable laziness.
Of course, as Murphy's Law and poetic justice demands, the snow is falling fast and thick upon the hamlet of East Harlem.
I can't even mind it, because it looks so soft and sweet, lending an air of quiet to a clamoring city.

While discussing lesson plans with the dean, we heard the clamor of a marching band outside. It's the three kings parade! she exclaimed. We can't miss the camels!

 I instantly thought of the velvet monstrosities that stalked my childhood Christmas pageant play. Other girls got to play the Madonna, dressed so elegantly in blue polyester robes; or the lead angel (the sole player allotted wings) bringing good tidings to the miniature band of shepherds herding their flocks by the communion rail; and one of my friends was even the star of Bethlehem--oh how she blushed when her five points knocked into every one of the heavenly hosts of toddlers perched on the bleachers 'round the crib, tinsel halos all askew. But I, in my moment of stardom, got to play the camel leader. A role whose dire importance in the Christmas narrative Holy Scripture sadly neglects to record.

Thus, on my big march down the aisle. I took hold of the colorful cord--a makeshift halter for the rowdy beast. Inside this moveable, mammoth costume were the most good-natured fathers in the parish, who would bring the camel to life most realistically, meaning that (short of spitting at the congregation,) they would make as much trouble as possible as we lumbered down the aisle. The man who helmed the beast would make the styrofoam ball eyes (fitted out, of course, with the most grotesque eyelashes) stare at small babies, or would move the head, attempting to kiss the cheeks of ladies decked in Christmas finery. Then, sometimes, the back two humps--desiring more attention, or a longer saunter down their runway-- would simply stop, and refuse to move until coaxed insistently by a blushing, confused, and altogether flustered camel leader. When they reached the crib, the camels would genuflect so beautifully and soberly, like a goody-two-shoes pastor's daughter or a trembling cherubim, and not at all like the mischievous merry-maker who had joyfully trampled over all the hushed solemnity of the occasion.

Thus, we took ourselves to the front windows and peered out at the street; and I ran into the faculty workroom, to announce the joyful arrival of the camels.

Looking out of the large front window, we watched the small float bearing the three kings, finely dressed, pass by. Behind them was a small shed for the stable, with a plump little baby Jesus inside. His mother held him up, so he could see the cars and passers-by around him. He looked somewhat dazed, he certainly wasn't sure what all the fuss was about. And I wondered if the little Infant looked the same, when so many years ago, three foreign kings, smelling like desert wind, spices, and hot sand, and their noisy entourage barged into his quiet suburban house.

And behind that float-- the camel. There was only one, and he was dancing so vigorously, his costume was all mussed, and at one point, his head was significantly lower than his humps, which happens when you leave one man to bear the burden of the entire camel. And we watched and laughed, as the band music trumpeted and the drums beat, and folks rushed outside to take pictures, and the neighborhood seemed to come alive with smiles and kings and the peaceful dusting of snow.

I stood in that window, my face pressed close to the glass, and I felt a fondness for the scene unfolding, that I had become a part of. The snow pelted quietly down, covering the filthiness of the winter streets, and the awe and joy of Christmas that we had been longing for so long finally manifested itself.

I felt, then, a great gratitude to be one small girl, in one small red schoolhouse inside this gentle snow-globe world.

Monday, January 5, 2015

traffic lights twinkle at Holywell Corner

His eyes were riveted upon the manuscript again, but he breathed as though he had been running.
--Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

She went to bed thinking more about another person than about herself.  This goes to show that even minor poetry may have its practical uses.
--Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night


There are fewer things more satisfying than a well-told love story, woven in deft and swift words that signal that there is more to eros than perhaps swiftly beating hearts and racing pulses, but not to the exclusion of beating hearts and racing pulses. And, call me incredibly old-fashioned (because I am), but I think the best love stories are painted in overly clever turns of phrases and blushing cheeks.
It is difficult to be a young single woman in possession of one's own romantic dreams, to sometimes appreciate a good love story. A "good love story" meaning a story of a love that does not endure by itself, but has to fight at selfishness separateness, self-centeredness and loneliness.
Sometimes, I would just rather read bizarre mythic stories about Jesuits on distant planets, and non-fiction biopics about the history of cancer, and forego reading about any sort of romance altogether, for these stories sometimes only seems to heighten the sense that my own particular version of this story is still off in the future.
But it is vitally necessary to read these love stories full of rationality and sensibility. To laugh at the Heathcliffs and Cathies, and their sad, sentimental children, and to learn to laugh with the strange misadventures of Darcy and Lizzie. To learn, along with Elizabeth Bennet, that happiness in love is not a matter of chance, or willy-nilly serendipity, or fate, or SoulMates Who Complete You Completely Entirely Utterly.
A woman who wants a happy love life ought to chose a partner for herself using her brain, common sense, and intelligence. Even if she encounters a charming young man who makes her feel like a load of fireworks has exploded in her stomach, perhaps she should ask herself if that charming sweet-talk is really what she desires, or does she really desire a deeper affirmation of "You and your [fill in the blank virtue/attribute/talent/good quality] inspire me to be better." And then suits the action to the word.
Happiness in love is possible for Elizabeth Bennet because she choses a spouse based on reason. This may sound boring and un-romantic, but it is actually the most romantic thing in the world. It is not dry and passionless, and her romance with Darcy is certainly exciting, emotional, and thrilling. But she doesn't fall for Darcy because he turns her head, flatters her, or makes her feel like the most attractive woman in the room. She falls for Darcy, because she finally realizes she has made a crucial mis-step in judging him: she sees his true character, recognizes his worth, and (since she knows herself [step one of any successful romance: know thyself]) she is able to see that he is truly a partner who could respect her, complement her, and make her happy.

This love story: a story of two very flawed, but very good humans learning to love each other through a rational application of virtue, is the story that Ms. Dorothy Sayers weaves in her masterful Gaudy Night. For her protagonists fall in love with one another's goodness. They are two proud, unyielding spirits who finally see perhaps a chink of vulnerability in the other person. And their response to that vulnerability is kindness, courtesy, and consideration. It is a deeper respect for a person they once thought invincible and unassailable. It is reasonable and yet transcends reason. It is made of the deepest stuff of human existence, something deeper than feeling and thought and emotions and logic puzzles, it is made up of the will. And it is a shame that Cathy and Heathcliff, and their many hysterical, starry-eyed offspring (perhaps Noah and Allie and Jack and Rose, as much as I love them all, are certainly prominent offenders) have deluded us into thinking that romance is something mindless and emotional--that it is sparks and no fire--that it is all chance, fate, and a little pixie dust thrown in. And of course, falling in love is something that is perfectly out of your control, because it involves another person, and we can't control other people, as much as we often wish to and try to.
But it is less haphazard and more structured than perhaps we often imagine it to be. It is less like a wild goose chase and more like a patient, steady journey. It is less like the chaos of musical chairs and more like the spontaneous rhythm of a dance.

 They stood next to each other on the dock,
their souls uniting,
full of the wonder that was each other.



Sunday, January 4, 2015

dilexi te, diligam te

The scene was a summary of His Incarnation. Rising up from the Heavenly Banquet in intimate union of nature with the Father, He laid aside the garments of His glory, wrapped about His Divinity the towel of human nature which He took from Mary; poured the laver of regeneration which is His Blood shed on the Cross to redeem men, and began washing the souls of His disciples and followers through the merits of His death, Resurrection and Ascension.
--Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume II, on the significance of the washing of the feet.

Can any body body body help me help me help me
Can any body body body help me help me help me
--Man at 51st Street Station

One of the most challenging aspects of living in a city is running into people who are asking for help--day in, day out--in never-ending waves. Each day, you encounter one of your brothers and sisters who is crying out for your assistance: they are on street corners, in subway stations, in the train cars, on buses.

It is overwhelming and discouraging to be surrounded by so many people who are all so helpless, who are discouraged or desolate. It is discouraging, but perhaps what is even more discouraging is how easily we walk by them. I do it, just like everyone else. But, what shakes me to my core is the nagging pull at my heart and mind that says: this person is an image of God. This person is Christ to you. This is your brother and sister and you are walking right by them, leaving them as hopeless as you found them. I think that we are able to do this so easily is that everyone else is doing it. We've created a culture of weak, cowardly comfort: of walking right by those in trouble, instead of walking up to them, or walking with them. As we watch everyone else walk right by them, we, too, turn our backs on them and deafen our ears.

Yet, there is a quiet movement of people who do not walk right by these people. A silent band of humans who reach out and answer these people's pleas--the business man sharing a Nutri-Grain bar with a man in Penn Station, kneeling in front of him and listening to his story; a father with his children on the S train, handing a man a $20 bill and a blessing; a couple inviting a young man into Starbucks with them--these people are reaching out past complacency to care for the people around them. They are responding to the world with honesty and an authentic embracing of reality: this person is Christ to me. I will treat them as I would Christ. Their example is an inspiration and invitation to join their ranks. Their example is a quiet protest against the norm of ignoring those in need. It whispers naggingly that we can either chose this simple heroism or chose complacency--we are not forced into complacency--it is a choice.

Also, I find myself inspired by conversation with my fellow thoughtful friends who are now young professionals in cities, who wrestle with these encounters each and every day.
How do we do this? How do we live out this very uncomfortable but ultimately very simple call to love each person that we meet? We find the answer is very easy, but takes a lot more strength than might be expected to put into practice.

After one such conversation, I found myself a few days later on a train car that was bombarded with humans clamoring for my intention. With the words of my friend stinging my ears, I found myself reaching into my purse into a small little pocket of loose change. But even more demanding than that: I always maintain that the Christian life is annoying, because it cuts into my reading time. Well, I got to put that pithy little proverb into action. As I was reading Jesus of Nazareth (the first volume by Papa Benny XVI) on the subway, I noticed a seat open on the crowded car, so I squeezed into it. The gentleman to my right moved to make more room for me, and as he did so, he bumped me with his elbow. He apologized; I smiled a forgiveness. He took his earbuds out and asked: "What are you reading?" I, practiced in the ways of the city and having learned the hard way that friendliness is unfortunately usually rewarded with vulgar invitations and insinuations, respond, uninvitingly:
"A book."
Unfazed, the man continued to ask about the book--in a very un-forward and respectful, but insistent way. Lord help me, I thought, why do humans think that it's a good idea to ask someone what they're reading when they are clearly in the act of reading, which you are interrupting by your act of conversing? Fume fume fume.

But I was reading a book about Jesus. So I couldn't very well put on my stone cold bitch exterior and send this man on his way, as I usually do [a lone woman on a subway can never be too careful, unfortunately]. One just can't act like a bitch when reading a book about Jesus. The obvious dissonance between those two actions is just too obvious to be glossed over, even in the least self-aware of persons. There was something about the honesty of the moment that demanded authenticity. I was reading a book about a someone who could also reveal Himself to me through this person next to me. And how could I ignore the invitation in the voice next to me--the desire to speak with another human, to be acknowledged and listened to, to be paid attention to, if only for a brief train ride--how could I ignore that invitation, while I was reading a book about a Person who makes that invitation to me everyday? So I closed the book cover (and I can't deny I gritted my teeth a bit) and turned to encounter the image of Christ talking my ear off next to me.

I would rather encounter Christ in the safe and orderly words on the printed page. I would rather find Him neatly contained, tamed, inside a tabernacle. But the lion of Judah is far from tame, and I find that He is nearest to me in the wild of this unbearable city. He is found in the uncomfortable, sordid, painful moments when I decide to look up at the person next to me and walk alongside of them in their world, to empathize with their life, if only for a moment.


"Not one word [is mentioned] about whether you belonged to the church, whether you were baptized, whether you celebrated the Eucharist, whether you prayed. […] Not one doctrine, not one specifically religious act of worship or ritual turns out to be relevant to the criterion for the last judgment. The only criterion for the final judgment is how you treated your brothers and sisters.”
--Michael Himes, Doing the Truth in Love

Friday, January 2, 2015

back to what I was before

Last week winter bared its teeth. 
I think of summer and how the veins in a leaf 
come together and divide 
come together and divide. 
That’s how it is with us now 
--The End of the Holidays, Mark Perlberg

Friends are important for many reasons. Mostly because friends are people who have entered your life, and there is no greater good on this earth, really, than another person. To encounter an image of eternity such as a friend is perhaps the greatest joy available to a human being.

Furthermore, when you encounter such glorious specimens of eternity: truly encounter them, not just stave off your own loneliness with stiff socializing over chips and salsa, you begin to realize how truly incredible it is that we live in a world populated with other human beings.

My world is so defined by me: my family, my city, my home, my daily routine. How miraculous it is that I can encounter another. That I can find these other forces invading my life, and not only influence and impact my life, but become a part of my life.

Friendship is a beautiful intertwining of fates: where you affect me, and I am touched by you, and we are never the same. Where I bare a part of my soul; where some vulnerability of thought and opinion, ideas, and intellects meet and two human beings stand before each other, with nothing screening their authenticity.

So how vitally important it is to find friends who draw out of us our most authentic selves. Because it is our friends who ask of us more than most others ask of us. Our friends demand that we be nothing other than ourselves, and how refreshing it is to have friends who demand nothing else but ourselves, but demand our very self. When friends ask us how we are, they are not following routine courtesy, but are instead inviting a conversation to open up.

Friends can remind us of who we are, when circumstances and environments have sent our identity underground. They remind us of who we are for them, and who, therefore, we can be for the wider world. They remind us of our beauties and our virtues when we have all but forgotten them.

Sometimes, several days of dwelling alongside of friends is a healing force. Living is an activity that is best shared with others, and just living alongside of dear friends is a beautiful, refreshing retreat. To watch their faces as they speak, to see their moods written across their face, to remember how they smile and laugh, and to just feel their presence and their soul in close proximity, is such a joy. And other times, all you get is just a meal or a quick cup of coffee or just a brief hug and a walk together. But even that is such a blessing: to share a brief moment with a friend who is always accompanying you on your journey.

And as I walked away from dinner, through the beautiful cold of Chicago's night, I was warmed by the thought of how very sweet and easy these reunions had been. Although the departures have all the sting of unnatural separation, they are softened by the knowledge that they are only temporary and temporal. An eternity of love exists between two souls that no earthly separation can ever touch.

On this feast of Gregory and Basil, I find myself so thankful for the friends I am surrounded by as I ring in this new year, and the friends that are far away. Annually, today, I find myself in awe of what friendship is: that two people can love each other so dearly, so selflessly, and with such great goodness, that two friends can turn each other into saints.