Wednesday, February 25, 2015

tearing down our golden calves

Masons, when they start upon a building, 
Are careful to test out the scaffolding; 

Make sure that planks won't slip at busy points, 
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints. 

And yet all this comes down when the job's done 
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone. 

So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be 
Old bridges breaking between you and me 

Never fear. 

We may let the scaffolds fall 
Confident that we have built our wall. 

--Seamus Heaney

Praying in the Lady chapel of St. Patrick's Cathedral in a different lifetime ago, I saw a little sparrow fly towards the altar.
Birds in the city are in so much more danger than girls in the country. They are always flying into buildings and getting caught in places. There are two many edifices blocking out the sky.

And then, the poor little lost sparrow landed on the golden tabernacle, as I was praying for the dying woman. Just as easily and gently as this little puppet bird landed on the house of our Lord, so none of us, I thought, are abandoned.

But it is scary when the scaffolding fall away from you; when you are forced to step where only your words had ventured before.

This cannot, I think, hold up. A lifetime ago, I thought that there was no way that the wall would stand. Because I cannot picture the wall, I can only see the scaffolding; and I think that the scaffolding is the wall. But the wall is hidden somewhere inside the scaffolding. And if I never tear it down, if it never breaks and folds of its own accord, then the wall will never see the light of day.

I imagined the scaffolding crumbling as I stood on the sunlight grass of May.
I smelled the lilacs waving in the lazy air. I felt the warmth of piss on my leg.
I felt the stiff wind ripple through the cool air, I heard the buzz of humans all around me.
The scene was so different from how I had imagined it, with the scaffolding torn away.
I was inundated by sun, and overwhelmed by nausea, and I sat on the bench, speechless.

And the woman I had prayed for wandered into the scene.
She stared at me, curiously.
She did not believe in coincidences, so she clasped me in her arms:
I'll pray for you, she said.

This is what the world looks like from on top of the wall, I thought, as all around me the scaffolding tumbled to the ground.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

lingering litost: or, the geography of yearning

I become keenly aware of a feeling I've never experienced before. It comes from outside me, fills me and the room. It's longing, in a shade I've never known before: for something I can't name but that I know viscerally is unbounded, an object or state that's protean, divine. [...] it's a melancholy laced with joy and expectation. [...] These opposite qualities make the feeling nearly unbearably bittersweet, and also so transporting that I never want it to end. Even if I could figure out what it is I'm in longing for, I wouldn't want the desire to be satisfied, as that would kill the feeling.
--Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich

And I'm sitting in the warm, decadent living room, which would look like any other New York old money house wife's, except that there are the unicorn tapestries hanging merrily on the wall, lending a touch of infinity to the dimensions of the room, and decorating the space with an air of mysticism.

Well, what do you mean by joy? asked the man. And I automatically, in my head, turned the word to Joy, because C.S. Lewis and Northerness and That's Just the language I know.

In my head, I knew exactly what Joy was and what it wasn't. I knew that it was more majestic and stern and permanent than happiness. And I knew that Joy was most often found in what other people would call pain. In what could easily be misery, there are usually the greatest opportunities to find Joy. But I was struggling to find words to describe exactly what I meant now. Because what I meant now was not how I had learned what Joy meant so many years ago.

But what I meant now was Joy as the antithesis of mournful pride; Joy as the peaceful knowledge that one is loved, even in the midst of hardship. Particularly, perhaps, in the midst of hardship, Joy is the belief deeper than knowing that I am loved.

Then, I remember what Joy felt like: the first longing I ever had that I wished could go on forever, the longing that felt too large for me to grasp. My small young mind was inundated with a sense of goodness too large for it to comprehend, and how it wished it could understand it, and that longing to understand was Joy. That insatiable thirst was Joy. 

When I first read C.S. Lewis' description of Joy, I remember that first, primal image bursting again into my heat, breaking all the reservoirs of desire open once again, as I nodded in assent and wonder, astounded that another human had language to so perfectly describe the numinous emotion that I had felt once long ago.

As I read Katherine Russell Rich's Dreaming in Hindi, I found the passage once again that made my heart beat faster, and at the same time stop. This. I know this feeling. I know this tugging at your heart by something larger than your comprehension. Ms. Rich's book is a memoir of her time in India, when she immersed herself into the dry desert heat of Rajasthan as a sort of second baptism: emerging from her endeavor to learn a second language a new woman.

Her book is a fascinating examination of how we learn a second language, and how language itself, and these other languages that we absorb, can change the way we see the world. Her adventures are familiar because they remind me of my own adventures in India, and the one day when I realized I'd hardly spoken in English at all. But more importantly, now, I'm reminded of the adventure we all embark on each and every day: to learn to hear the world through someone else's words.

Too often, I expect the Truth to sound much like my voice, to speak a familiar cadence, and to use the same sentence structure as I do. I imagine that their grammar of beauty and narrative style are much like mine. I am surprised and usually disconcerted when they are not identical to mine.

 Each day presents the new adventure of learning to add new and deeper definitions to words whose meanings you thought were set in stone. Each day presents the opportunity for another baptism, of seeing the world with new eyes. Each day is a foray into the foreign and an abandonment of the familiar.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

lilies in the midst of Lent

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices 
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices 
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel

--T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

We are so easily influenced by whatever pleasing images are around us,
we are so apt to pursue what the people around us are pursuing.
If you are surrounded by a group of people that values That's What She Said jokes, and makes them all the time, then you, whether you like it or not, will find yourself making them in your head, usually quite often.
If you are surrounded by a group of people that decides the Most Important Thing is coming away from the bar with a pretty young thing attached to your side, then you are going to also begin to attach more importance to this than perhaps you otherwise would have.


These are rather trite examples, but they are the ones I have experienced first hand.


You notice, all of a sudden, several months in, that you have changed.
Because you have placed value on these things you would otherwise not have, you have been warped a little bit.
And you barely even noticed, because you weren't trying to change anything about yourself. You weren't conscious of anything different about your daily routine. But a change took place: a change in your mind; the images that fill our world, like it or not, can have a great influence who we are.

The awareness is the key thing. If you were never made aware, then the images would have just seeped into your brain, teaching your heart what to desire, teaching your eyes what to admire. But now that you are aware, you can startle yourself out of just passive acceptance.

You can take a critical eye towards the narrative that surrounds you. But only if you have discovered what that narrative is, only if you have gained a new level of attention.

Lent is this time set aside where we can begin to detach ourselves from whatever we need detaching from, and step back to take stock of where we are and who we are. This is truly a blessed time of the year: a gentle, somber time. When we retreat inside because of the slush and ice outside, and retreat inside of ourselves to do a pre-emptive spring cleaning. And when we push against the mindlessness of the world outside, the unthinking idea that life is just sensations, emotions, and moments, strung together, with no object.
This is the time when we can clarify the object, sharpen our senses, remember the telos.
This is the time where we can loose ourselves from the false images that press upon us.

And then, once freed, you can begin to live in the joy that is another way.





Friday, February 20, 2015

not your grandmother's cathedral

“I’m a walking contradiction, a walking perplexity. I’m living a life that the larger society says isn’t possible.”

The other night, I dreamed that someone told me, with an angry, spiteful voice: Renee, you have no joy.
As I listened to them in the dream, Sleeping Renee decided this person didn't matter, and she wasn't going to listen to those words anyway. But, deep inside my mind, in the part of my heart that never slumbers, I couldn't help but be shaken by those words.

I read the article that contained the above quote from Rev. Spencer Howe, and many other beautiful quotes from the young men that make up the vanguard of the new evangelization.

What struck me was the necessity of what everyone from Teresa of Avila to Papa Francesco calls Joyful Saints. Without joy, there cannot be, says Mother Teresa, any true holiness.

Without the constant knowledge that you are being held in the arms of an inevitable and unvanquished love, any Joy is fleeting.

I know this to be true, but it is all too easy and tempting to let the annoyances and imperfections of everyday life get in the way of this joy. It is very tempting to let the particular tragedies life deals out--both large and small--to stop the wells of joy from spilling over.

But, if you know that you are in the middle of a love story greater than you can see, then how can you find it in your heart to be anything but Joyful?

And if you have felt this joy, you must share it with others. If you keep it to yourself, you'll find that it has, somehow, disappeared. It will have dwindled to nothing, and a petty bitterness will have taken this place. Rather, if you consistently practice spreading to everyone around you, it will grow continually, until you have become that walking contradiction: that sign to the nations of a different way of life and love.

A sign that there is another way the story can go.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

of a song I can't get out

In the morning when I wake 
And the sun is coming through, 
Oh, you fill my lungs with sweetness, 
And you fill my head with you. 
--Bloom, The Paper Kites

I am in a crowded room,
a sitting duck in this
thickly populated banquet hall:
I yearn for anonymity,
but
the speaker says my name--
and I shiver in this nascent
infamy.

I hold my breath, because I think her voice
is yours.
It's not. She said my name,
but looked, instead, at you.
Squirming in my seat,
I'm paralyzed
in this dreamy atmosphere.

You watch me from the other side,
a stranger face in a crowd of
forced familiarity.
I want to raise my hand and call your name,
to force your gaze,
pry it from behind
the formidable fortress of the speaker.

If I could bend the waves of light,
refract them so that your eyes
were bent to look at mine,
then, God help me, so I would,
and bend the iron bars of space
so you and I would see the other
face to face.

I'd tell you what you'd need to hear,
my words would sting your ringing ears,
and your impotent excuses,
your bland and sorry
reasons for her ill-usage
would finally fall dumb.

But you will never say those words,
And she will never see them,
and all my hopes of hearing them
are nothing more than desiccated,
barren phantoms
of ordinary midnight day dreams.

I toss and turn and think I am awake,
I check my mailbox, expecting
that you have sent a word--
a word, at least-- to soothe
the hurt of seeing you asleep.

But you are cruel in my imaginary world,
and the only word you deign to whisper
stings my pride.
So, in return,
I paint your portrait in one hundred thousand
false, dissembling colors,
each layer foisted on
by the acrimony of my
vacillating, bent desires.

The blood is pouring into the sink,
she is dismayed to see how
white the skin is.
It is cold in here.
I wish the segment of my dreaming brain
that summons up these ghastly images
I could be extracted with the alacrity
of plucking out
a rogue chin hair.

She watches you, and tries to say,
all the perdonames
of twenty-three years
accumulated on her lip.
Each day, for years, she's longed to look at you,
as she is looking at you now;
and hear you say what you are saying:
that forgiveness is unnecessary
to personages who are so in love as
you and she once were.

But she has never said those words,
and you will never see them.
And all those fictions that you wish were truth
dissolve,
like hail warmed by summer rain,
as your dream fades into
the sunlit morning of her yellow room.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

tagbey love in bars

She said, “I will not teach you how to Dougie, thank you very much.” Darcy didn’t know what to do. He had never been turned down in the club before.
--'Pride and Prejudice' in the Club, Colin Stokes for The New Yorker

Ladies.
And gentlemen.

To begin, a disclaimer:
I am not a college student.
Therefore, I do not feel the need to "go out."
You know, that whole college routine, draped in solemn ritual:
getting ready
pre-gaming
another pre-game
going to a bar (I guess this is the game??)
going to another bar (for arbitrary reasons known to no one!)
post-gaming (what?)
going to bed at 5am.
It is a pointless ritual we engage in to distract ourselves from the fact that our lives have no meaning.
Kidding.
Obviously.

Every now and then, however, a girl's gotta dance.
And when a girl's gotta dance, girl's gonna dance.
No empty dance floor, lack of good music, or creepy men hemming the edges of said dance floor is going to stop me.
Usually, I have not the energy to do this, because lo, I am an instructor at an institution of secondary education, and I have not the stamina to live a life of meaning, sleep, be cheerful and kind, read all the books on my ever-growing list of books to read, and also engage in the energy-draining "going out" ritual. 
But again, sometimes, a girl's gotta dance.
Particularly when you are with people who know you very well, and will not make fun of you for your wedding-reception-ready dance moves.

However: one thing came to my attention this past two weekends:
There are creepers in bars.
And there seems to exist this false idea that only beautiful people attract creepers. I am sure they attract more creepers than the rest of us, but most creepers are equal opportunity creepers: they creep on whoever is within the closest creeping distance.
Being a straight woman frequenting bars that do not identify as gay, I have only encountered creepers of the male variety, but no sex has a monopoly on creepiness. Accordingly, I am more than one million percent sure that there are creepers of the female variety, but again, as you can see from circumstances cited above, I am statistically unlikely to encounter those. 
Thus, my comments are couched in the language of a female person, encountering creepers of the male variety, but, you, dear reader, may find yourself in different circumstances, and I believe these comments can still help you turn a situation born of nightmares into a pleasant night dancing with your companions.

Instance the First:
Pro-Tip #1: the Truth Shall Set You Free.
I was at a place which had been one of the hallowed spaces of dancing during our undergraduate careers, known for it's ridiculously muddy floors and impeccable musical playlist.
And this person, this human, this man, who was clearly--poor dear--intoxicated beyond description, continually forced himself upon our group of friends dancing. To provide you with an accurate mental image: obviously, all of my friends and I dance like we are at a wedding reception. None of us make any pretense at having impressive dance moves, nor or our dance moves in any way sexual. We have not the art.
After several subtle attempts at shouldering our ways to the other end of the group, and watching our backs, the girls among the group of friends were frustrated to no end with this man's repeated attempts to do what the middle-school kids call "grinding", (an apt term for a form of 'dancing' which is about as pleasant as it sounds,) with us.
Kinder remonstrations, such as: "Could you give us a little more space to dance, please?" or "Oh, excuse me, you seem to be trying to touch my posterior, and could you move your hands now, please?" landed on deaf ears, so I was forced to resort to the honest, brutal truth:
"Excuse me: where are your friends? You need to go find them, because none of us want to dance with you.
Did this feel harsh? Yes. Did I think to myself: you are the worst person in the world? Oh, absolutely. But loving people does not always make you feel like a nice person or give you warm fuzzies.
And if someone is trying to "grind" with you, and you do not want to "grind" them back, then, really, you are well within your rights to bruise a few egos.
I would rather be thought a shrew than be ground upon like so many coffee beans.

Instance the Second:
Pro-Tip #2: Enlist Bystanders.

This past weekend (Galentine's Day/Valentine's Day), I was visiting a friend in rural Michigan, which you wouldn't think would be a hot-bed of culture, but you would be surprised.
We found ourselves at an excellent establishment for dancing, which had a dance floor with mirrors and disco balls and colorful lights shining on the floor, which reminded me of my hometown roller-skating rink.
It was, as the poets say, perfection.
Except, one thing you might not know about rural Michigan is that there is a preponderance of single men on the hunt. Desperation, thy name is rural Michigan.
Accordingly, we were surrounded by a veritable army of dancing men.
There was one particularly enthusiastic young man who we told repeatedly variations of the phrase:
"Go away, please."
He was, to his credit, a persevering young man and would not, in fact, "go away."
Finally, putting on my best teacher face (firm, yet neutrally kind), and in a voice made shriller and higher by scream-singing to Whitney Houston and what my dear friends call the "Snow White Effect," I told this young man: "No means no. I'm not trying to hurt your feelings. But Go. Away. Please. No. Means. No."
Two other young Michigan woodsmen were hanging out by the speakers, and overheard my conversation. Their faces registered surprise as they listened to the exchange.
Feeling unalterably cruel, I explained myself to them: I'm not out to hurt anyone feelings, but no means no, you know? Then--a thought:
Could you do me a favor please? Next time he comes around, could you just pre-empt him, maybe? We're just trying to have a good time dancing together, ya know?
This technique worked to excellent effect. The two woodsmen stymied this young man's next attempt, and thus the evening was saved.

This probably sounds mean, but it is also very mean to try to "grind" with someone who doesn't want to "grind" with you. It is very impolite and not-nice, particularly when there are many ways to enjoy dancing in others' company, including, but not limited to: wedding-reception dance moves, and swing dancing. 
As someone who works with high school students, I have learned that setting boundaries is the key to fostering respect. And when someone steps over those boundaries, you do not encourage them or indulge them, and you do not grow angry or upset. You put on your best teacher face and say, in a calm, clear voice:
I have asked you not to do that, and you have done that, and here are the consequences.
I guess what I'm saying is that dealing with intoxicated humans is generally the same thing as dealing with high school humans. And, that your night at the bar, dancing with your friends, will be a lot more pleasant if you just employ a few tried-and-true classroom management techniques.
An unorthodox application of classroom management techniques, to be sure, but nevertheless, I believe I have proven, an effective one.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

shall I write it in a letter

When the evening pulls the sun down, 
And the day is almost through, 
Oh, the whole world it is sleeping, 
But my world is you.
--Bloom, The Paper Kites


We are still--my friends, peers, companions--and I, trying to figure out what exactly we must do to give our lives away. We are still caught in the angst of not yet being complete humans and not having finished the work of becoming the people we are supposed to be. Part of this is because we are conscientious humans that think life is not just an extended shopping spree or weekend bender, but I think part of this is due to the fact that we really hunger for greatness, and let the complications of life worry us too much.

After many such conversations with young women this weekend, I was struck by the simple majesty of the mother of two young children in front of me at Mass on Sunday.

This mother and her husband entered after the processional hymn, during the opening prayers, in a rush, in a tizzy, breathless and hurried. How I remembered doing the same all too often when I was growing up, one of many young kids preventing my parents from getting to Mass on time with our antics, tantrums, and general haphazard manner of approaching mornings.

What struck me first of all was that these two parents looked like children themselves. They were so young, perhaps even younger than myself. But, the deeper impression that seeped into my perception of the scene was their stunning beauty. They both looked so full of peace and joy, even when their two-year-old son made a fuss about moving from mom's arms into dad's.

I was rebuked. Although I make a fuss about eschewing 'the world's definition of success' and all that, I really do--far too often--define success as how many degrees I will earn, how many people will know my work, and how much of an impact I can make, how much I can change.

As I watched this mother--dressed in a simple hoodie sweater and jeans--hold her baby so sweetly and make faces at her son, tears filled my eyes (thankfully, they didn't turn around, otherwise, they'd certainly think: why on earth is this creepy woman behind us is staring at us and crying?). This woman was just so beautiful, and the work she was doing was so worthy, I was overwhelmed by the fact that she would not be recognized for her work. That what she was doing: the hard, beautiful work of raising two precious souls, was actually looked down upon by so many of my peers, and by the world at large. Her motherhood was taken for granted in the eyes of the world, instead of being celebrated for the everyday heroism that it is.

Her little daughter laughed with that adorable, cherub-like baby laugh when her mother made faces at her; and her little son giggled as they read through a familiar book. I felt that I was looking at the holy family themselves: a small space in a dark and selfish world where love was free to rule. The light that radiated from them shamed all the parts of my heart that clung to all the silly promises of self-interest. The beauty of something so simple and ordinary as a mother caring for her fussy toddler during Mass is a beauty we overlook far too often. What greater achievement could I dream of than of learning to die to myself in all the simple, mundane, annoying ways each day brings, and giving all my love away?

Monday, February 16, 2015

loveTHEONotreDame

Perhaps there are advantages to being an outsider. One gets too accustomed to names. At any rate I found it extremely touching that a university, a community of scholars, a great football team, should call itself quite simply and by the two lovely words, Our Lady. 

It is natural, as a human, to think that our Thing is better than equivalent Things. Our country is better than the other people's country; or, as a taxi cab driver tried to argue with me at 1am coming back from LaGuardia, "Our God is better than Your God," which was his explanation of comparative religions. I nodded politely and hemmed and hawed noncommittally, while praying that he would stop comparing humans practicing different religions to mosquitos worshiping Super Mosquitos and drive me directly home.
When we were in a safe distance of my home (i.e., I could make a run for it if things took a turn for the worse), I suggested that maybe religions were not fundamentally about violence, but were easily appropriate for violent causes needing ideologies to back them. For good measure, I threw in that perhaps human beings were substantially (not just accidentally) different from mosquitos.

Lesson learned: from now on, I'm taking public transit.

Back to my original point: we all come equipped with a natural, healthy dose of patriotism. If not directed at our country, it usually attaches itself to our family, our hometown, our city, our state, our house, our sports team. We choose favorites, not because they are empirically better than the competition, but because they are ours.
Ironically, this favoritism can often blind us to the true merits of its object, not out of a lack of love, but because we often do not step back and objectively judge the object of our affection.
I love my mother, and believe her to be the best of all mothers. But, in fact, many of my friends or relations--or, perhaps, strangers--could have a truer image of how successful my mother is as a mother. They are able to judge on her objective merits. I am, in a sense, blinded, by my unwavering (and warranted) filial devotion.

This was mostly how I felt towards Notre Dame.
I do not boast to my friends that my mother is the best of all mothers, because I know they also have mothers of whom they believe the same truth. Thus, we sort of bear the truth that Ours is the Best silently in our breast, and respond to others accolades with an embarrassment which is necessary for those who believe something to be true, but wouldn't be caught dead admitting it.
I felt this sort of embarrassment for Notre Dame, and when people would comment on my school of origin, I would make a self-deprecating remark about football and white privilege, and change the subject as quickly as possible.
We all have alma maters, and none of them have fight songs proclaiming: we think we're only just as good as everybody else. In general, the rhetoric of schools (particularly in the field, court, or arena) is the rhetoric of: we are the greatest, we are the best, and any self-respecting person with a healthy dose of irony is going to be skeptical about such rhetoric, and wary of any inkling on their part to believe it. It is one thing to unabashedly assert yourself on the football field or what have you, but it's all a pretense, we know, this language of competition. We know that we, and what we rejoice to call our own, are not really empirically the best-- it is just ours, and endlessly beloved for being so.

The motto of the Laetare Medal is, I understand, "Magna est veritas et praevalebit". I like to think it applies even to the humble vocation of the novelist. In my last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, I tried to show how, while truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of others.
--Walker Percy, Laetare Medal acceptance speech, University of Notre Dame, 1989

So, it came as a surprise when I realized that Notre Dame, the University of Notre Dame, means something--something quite important--outside of my love of it. Even if I did not love it, if I, in fact, hated it, the University of Notre Dame had an objective meaning and importance outside of my own experience.
As I was reading Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos, I was struck by a casual mention of Notre Dame at the end of the book. In a fanciful thought experiment, he designates the University of Notre Dame as the cradle of a new civilization that is born out of the smoldering ashes of a nuclear catastrophe. Just like the first universities, Notre Dame becomes a center of learning and truth for this post-apocalyptic new world, which propels them past basic survival, into a true thriving.
It is just brief mention, and hardly central to the book at all. But the very casualness of the reference made it all the more poignant.
For the truth is, in this context, Notre Dame was shorthand for Catholic learning. It was chosen as a figure that continued the noble tradition of the liberal arts as a pursuit of Truth, as a road for humanity discovering their fundamental humanness.
It was an image Percy chose, because, theoretically, any read of his book would recognize the image, and understand what it signified. They would recognize the image of Notre Dame, and understood exactly what it stood for.

If only one kind of truth prevails, the technical and abstract truth of science, then nothing stands in the way of the demeaning of and destruction of human life for what appear to some to be reasonable short term goals. It is no accident, I think, that German science, great as it was, ended in the Holocaust. 
--Walker PercyLaetare Medal acceptance speech, University of Notre Dame, 1989

Analogously, the very name of an Ivy League school instantly summons up images of its own: Old Money. Tradition. Prestige. Money. Ivy on brick. Intelligence. Exclusion. Inner Rings. Money. Stone Buildings. Rory Gilmore.
They are impressive images, but none of them are the ideal image of the university that brought such enlightenment to the West: the university as a place where truth is valued and sought. Where the ideas cultivated are supposed to instill in a human being a drive to make the world a better place, not to secure one's own status as a Mover and Shaker, a Person of Importance, but for the sake of the world itself.

Notre Dame seems to be in a sort of crossroads right now, an identity crisis I can sympathize with, because I was once a teenager and I get how that works. But, instead of looking to the road less traveled, Notre Dame seems to be very enamored with the Ivy League images of prestige. And doing what everyone else is doing, because everyone else is doing it. 
This university, right now, is like a thirteen-year-old girl, who, doubting her self-worth as she compares herself to her peers who have better figures, better make-up, and better houses, but still retaining an inkling of her fundamental worthiness tells herself "I am great, because I can be whatever I want to be!"
When, really, the truth is she is great, because there is only one thing that she can be: herself. And the world hungers for her as an individual, unique and glorious in the gifts only she can offer the world. 
The world will never want for institutions built on prestige, exclusion, and the tantalizing image of the inner ring, but the world certainly hungers for institutions who are selfless, humble, and dedicated to the pursuit of Truth. Institutions who are not built on injustice and privilege, but challenge their students to fight injustice, that encourage their students to turn their privileges into blessings for the world.

I was walking through campus with a friend who highlighted this same point of Walker Percy's: the University of Notre Dame stands for something, and there are millions of people who look to it as a representation of that something. The beauty that Notre Dame offers is one that springs from its own religious denomination and tradition. It does not however, only apply to those students and thinkers who are Catholic in denomination, nor does it demand a religious affiliation from the student, it simply demands a concern for truth, for the human experience, and for justice and mercy to prevail in the world.
It is not, like many worthy Catholic colleges, interested in cultivating specifically Catholic thinking for Catholics, but in passing on the vision of beauty and truth that is cultivated within the Catholic religious tradition to others, to apply it however they can, wherever they can. This university believes that the ideals of Catholicism ought to be shared, to be given away, so that the world will become a more beautiful place as a result of this human beings who have become more selfless, more compassionate, and more articulate.

One does not gain anything by pretending to be something that one is not. It would pointless of me to say that because I am Catholic, I cannot understand anyone who is not Catholic and does not share the same beliefs as me. Rather, as I am aware how deeply my own beliefs effect my behavior and color my worldview, I am eager to learn of other's beliefs as well; to hear through what lens they view the world. I am eager to exchange ideas and opinions, to share the truth as I receive it, and humbly listen to the truths I can learn from them. Through these exchanges, my knowledge can only grow. Thus, dialogue is born. 
But, if I tried to suppress my own beliefs, if I do not articulate them clearly even to myself, I could never achieve this rich, edifying dialogue: only confusion. A polite confusion may, indeed, be more politically correct, but it generally fails to inspire compassion, it does not usually help us understand our neighbor, and it is certainly not a powerful impetus for change or reason to work for justice.

I do not think it is hubristic to think that Notre Dame stands for all these things: rich dialogue, the pursuit of truth, the formation of human beings into generous agents of change. 
For, in fact, if that is truly what Notre Dame is, then its call is one of humility. It is called to acknowledge that its greatness does not lie in impressive architecture, football, or any of the things that may, on the surface, appear to constitute its greatness. Its greatness lies in the fact that, for several decades, a small school in Western Indiana has called itself by the simple name Our Lady. And, like Our Lady, its mission is nothing more than to bear Truth in the world. To foster Truth, like Our Lady, within herself, and bring others to find it within themselves.
If Notre Dame could live up to her namesake who watches over campus, she would find herself perhaps less caught up in competition to move several seats higher in the college rankings, and perhaps more occupied with humbly seeking to fulfill its own mission. To be, for the world, an image of something different--of something greater--a University whose primary concern is truth, not because of the glory it will give them, but because of the glory it can reveal in each student whose encounter with the truth brings them to life.

The novelist likes to irritate people by pointing this out. It is his pleasure and vocation to reveal, in his own allusive and indirect way, man's need of and his openings to truths other than scientific propositions. He is one of the lowliest handmaidens to the truth of the Good News, but if he, or any of us, succeeds even a bit in this task, then I say laetare indeed, let us rejoice
--Walker PercyLaetare Medal acceptance speech, University of Notre Dame, 1989





Friday, February 13, 2015

and I saw her trembling

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 
--John 11:21-22 

So. What's your name? I asked.
Martha, she responded.
I smiled to myself. It's not every day you hear someone tell you their name is Martha. 
--
I walked into the small diner.
Can I get you a cup of coffee? asked a voice above my head.
There was a man sitting on the bar stool at the counter.
Oh, no, I said, I'm fine.
Deflecting, because that's all you do in the big city: deflect. Avoid. Shield yourself.
Thank you, though.
And I turned back to the table.
That's a real nice thing you did.
Oh pssshhh.
Deflect. Avoid. Again.
I look back over at this man.
People in novels always have "kind faces." I used to not know what that meant, until I saw this man's face looking at mine, and not looking away.
There was something so very fundamentally kind in every feature of his face.
It was very smooth; very open, nothing in his feature was closed off, crooked, or secretive.
It wasn't a face that struck you, or smote you, or grabbed your attention at the first look.
It was the kind of face that the more you looked at it, the more you wanted to. The goodness seemed to pour out of the pores on the smooth skin. It radiated from the clear eyes, eyes that refused to waver from mine.
Peter, he said, extending his hand.
Renee, I said, extending mine.
Our hands clasped; it was a very warm moment in the midst of a bleak night.

In the winter, the city is very cold. Instead of hibernating through the months of slush and snow, you simply retreat inwards: into your parka, your scarf, your hood, and your mind.
A human interaction, someone breaking down the invisible fortress you carry around with you, comes as a shock--like hot water on your frozen fingers.
In that moment, his warm smile, his bright eyes, his colorful scarf became imprinted in my memory.
I felt my face flush as I felt him watch me pay the check and leave.
It was a moment; a bright and lovely moment that painted the whole evening in a fresh coat of vibrant new life.
The winter is so grey and dreary, it is in desperate need of something vibrant and alive, colorful and cheerful.
The beauty of a city is in the number of faces surrounding you; in the number of human lives you walk into and out of each day, with an unaware nonchalance.
 I would rather spend time in books; or in the trees and lakes of the Northern woods; or driving down and open highway, with nothing but the clear, dark sky full of stars and night wind running its fingers through your hair.
But it is better and more beautiful, although I have to force myself to think this, to be surrounded by walking, living, breathing images of God, whose hearts and souls can teach you more about beauty than a thousand sunsets, clouds, or forests.
It is harder, because a sunset can't hurt you, and clouds don't annoy you. Forests don't lie to you, and night winds and stars don't disagree with you and say unpleasant things when you rub them the wrong way.
It is harder to find beauty in the messy, broken people around you, rather than in the safe, de-anthropomorphized beauty of nature.
To be surrounded by 8 million people each day would seem suffocating, until you realize that that means you have 8 million opportunities to encounter God.
And the people who issue the deepest challenge to you: the man on the subway with his cap in his hands; the person who lies to you; the student who calls you 'stupid' are the people who pose the clearest question:
"Do you love me more than these?"
--
Peter and Martha, I thought, walking away from the coffee shop. Who would have thought that I would have met them both on the same night?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

marshmallow flame

"It was a good thing that she got herself into this other school. It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other words were not unattainable." --A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

Sometimes, you can get so lost inside yourself, so stuck in your own head, you forget to watch the world around you. I walk by so many people and places each day, and while I look at everything, I don't actually see it. Even when I see it, I don't let it move me.
But there are some moments that cut through your thick veil of lonely self-absorption, and slice through the curtains you've drawn around yourself with their piercing loveliness and beauty.

As I looked out from my small perch in the corner of the coffee shop, I feel like the windows were not just looking out onto the avenue, but on to the entire world.
As I read my book, I'm suddenly in awe that I can read.
That there are, on this printed page, small little spaces and letters that, strung together, create a thought that someone had many years ago. And here I am, reading it now in this cozy little room that smells like roasting coffee beans and fondue pots.
With a burst of energy, I wish that every single person could read these words. That everyone could just understand why their education is so important. Not to check off boxes, or just to jump through hoops to get ahead in life, but so that they might become more educated. So that they can understand these words on the page, so that the words on the page can reach them, mold them, touch them. And so that they themselves can write their own words; so that their thoughts can be preserved in a work of art or knowledge that will be able to preserve, for the humans who will follow after them, a bit of the beauty of their own life.

There is a particular dignity in coming home from a long day of work, and knowing that you worked hard.
After eleven hours of working: of using the energy inside of you to add to the goodness of the world, you feel a peaceful sense of worth.
We all have pent up inside of us this creative energy that demands that we forge something beautiful in the world; either in ourselves or outside of us.
I thought of the sort of creative energy that it takes for a woman to birth a child inside of her; the sheer will-power it takes to rear an infant into her full humanity. I was moved and awed by this creative energy that has led humans to do all sorts of specacular things. That there is this sense of co-operation within humans: we have been given such a glorious world, and it is, like a child, already fully alive and distinct from ourselves, but needing our creative input.
A baby needs to hear words from us, in order to learn how to speak, or even think,
A child needs to watch his family and friends to learn how to walk, how to move, how to act. Without his family, the child cannot fully become what he is intended to be.

The sort of desperate necessity that the world has for the beauty each one of us has to give overwhelmed me in that moment. In that moment of silence, in the sweet, bustling, buzzing unrest of the city avenue outside my window, I wished that each person walking by knew that the world was longing for them. Not just the ordinary, everyday version of themselves. But the part of themselves that sparkles in their eyes when they tell you about a project that they are passionate about, or someone they love, or when they listen hungrily to your voice speaking the truth, or when you listen to their story.

No wonder we are so desperate for love. We know that we are needed, we often just have a hard time  seeing it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

extravagantly

Each year, on new year's day, I pick a word for the year,
and throughout the year I try to unpack what this word means.
--Dianne Traflet, Seton Hall University

So many of us young'uns, myself included, dream of when we are rich.
We dream of the days that we have millions of dollars in our bank account, and we think of all the noble charities we can give to, and we think of all the people we can help.
We dispose of our imaginary wealth with a happy benevolence.
I just want to be rich, we say, so that I can do this for so-and-so.
I just want to have money, so that I can give it away easily.

My friend said something along those lines as we walked through the snowing streets. Her words hit me, as I bore my box of doughnuts through the snow. What I realized, while carrying doughnuts through the slushy East Harlem sidewalks, was that if I do not practice this generosity now, then I will never be able to achieve it.
How I treat my small wealth now is how I will treat my large wealth later.
We love--I especially love--to indulge in the pipe dream that changed circumstances will change how we behave.
We like to think that, even though we are selfish and petty with our siblings, we will be selfless and charitable with our spouse.
We like to think that when we have a job that excites our attention we will spend our free time doing more than watching TV.
We like to think that, when we have more money, we will be more generous with it.

If I do not have the self-restraint to walk by the cupcake shop without buying myself a cupcake (this is a very ascetical practice. You don't even understand how many cupcake shops I pass all the time), then I will never have the discipline to deny myself a wardrobe of designer clothes.
If I do not give a dollar to someone in need that I pass on the street; then, when I have a small fortune, I will never give them twenty.
If I do not learn how to give gifts to dear friends now; then, when I am wealthy enough to buy them yachts, I will never do so.
[Friends, I'm doing this for you. When I'm rich and famous, feel free to ask for a yacht, so I can regret writing grandiose statements about virtues when I'm young, idealistic, starry-eyed, and poor.]


All I have is who I am now.
If my life were to end tomorrow, I would not have all the credit of the person I was intending to become, all I would have to bring with me is the person that I am today.
Thus, the dreamer tries to learn the hard task of bringing your dreams into the present: all the dreams that I have in the future must be begun right now. There really is not this magical time-to-come where all the latent dreams inside of me decide to spring to life.
There is only the time that is now: time that has been given to us to shape and mold in the formation of truth. We have been given a certain amount of time to leave our mark on the world, to let our legacy be one of truth and goodness that none of the demolition machinery of world can raze.
Let us begin.



Friday, February 6, 2015

brown-sugar snow

The smell of smoking meat,
roasting on the halal cart swirls with the
exhaust from the stalling food truck;
rich, bloody spices, and gasoline,
rush into my nostrils, burning them with warmth.
The acrid smell of burning,
roasting, singeing
stings the inside of my nose;
and hits my face
with all the force of a
jagged slice of ice sliding off a roof,
and falling--with the force of an Empire-State-launched-penny--
onto the harsh sidewalk, whose pores are rigid
with frozen water, cracking the concrete,
forming soupy craters of slush,
and basins of putrid drizzle.
The falling ice lands with a soft plosion,
in the marsh of melting snow and dirty
salt.
Unlike the sweet serenity of the Park,
the city streets are marinated in a salty slime,
the odor of fresh snow drowned out
by the earthy scents of
sizzling fat, and cars' exhaust,
and body odor underneath down parkas.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

oh, the ups and downs

When it’s late at night and branches are banging against the windows, 
you might think that love is just a matter 
of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else, 
but it’s a little more complicated than that.
--Adage, by Billy Collins

 I stormed into the faculty work room, and made a bee-line for my desk.
Furiously, I grabbed the verboten jar of Nutella surreptitiously tucked away at the back of the bottom drawer of my desk, behind the ACT registration tickets and annual action plans.
I'm done. I'm done. I announced finally.
It had been a day of dialogues such as:
"Ms. Roooodeeennn, can't you just get rid of Z consequenceee????"
"X, if you don't do Y, you won't receive Z consequence. So, X, don't do Y."
And the only response given being a blank stare.

It had been a day of monologues like:
"Class, I gave you five minutes to do the assignment, and you used those five minutes to laugh with your neighbor. We are moving on, and I'm sorry if you didn't have time to finish the assignment and reap the points that will be gathered from said assignment."
"What did I ask you to do? And what were you doing? Was that what I asked you to do? How can you change that?"
"Did you just throw the thing at A? Okay, then what exactly were you doing?"
"Dear Class, you are wasting this time talking to one another, so I have added another minute onto our class. And if you want to keep talking, I can keep adding minutes."

Those days are not fun. It is not fun to be surrounded by twenty-odd young humans, in the throes of all sorts of angsts and joys and human dramas, who are acting like a bunch of insufferable snots. It is even worse when they are children that you actually care about a lot, who you want to see act like perfect angels, but instead are acting like insufferable snots.  You know they are smarter than the idiotic choices they are making: "Dear student in the back row: stop licking the computer." And you wonder what is wrong with you that they are making such idiotic choices under your watch. For, surely, if I was a divine creature, possessed of all wisdom and teaching excellence, with creative lesson plans and PowerPoints Mark Zuckerberg would salivate over, then they would never misbehave. Perhaps it is my fault, since I am not perfect, that they are not also being the most perfect they can be.

I also candidly, unabashedly disagree with the system of discipline that exists at the school; and most days I can swallow my displeasure with it, grit my teeth, and carry on; but there are some days--like today--that the system's inability to effect change in these students drives me absolutely to the edge of all reason; and I stomp into the workroom, grab the nearest spoon, and shovel Nutella into my mouth, while ranting to whomever will listen.


So, I stormed up to the Chapel, like Winter Storm Juno, with Nutella stains on her lips. And there, I was greeted by a parent.
What.
I was expecting to be all alone. No one cares to visit the computer teacher. On the totem pole of importance, he is certainly the bottom rung.
This woman looked so familiar, because I had seen her face so many times before in the face of her son; except decked out in faux-nerdy hipster glasses. And I felt like I knew her quite well already, as she came and sat on the soft wood chapel chairs with me.
She frittered so elegantly, and fluttered so beautifully, with such soft and tender love and concern over the sheet of paper that marked her child's progress through the year.
As I spoke to her, I started, against my will, to feel tears spring to my eyes. Her eyes shone with absolute love for her son. I felt my heart melt into a large pool of butter. Through his mother's eyes, I could see her son as something new: this glorious little human being, full of so much potential, and all the annoying classroom traits were but as naught. C, I told her, will do great things. Which perhaps is just the sort of comforting drivel you tell a parent, but, in that moment, I really believed it. Her son had worked so hard to get here; and if he kept working hard, I didn't see how he could go anywhere but somewhere good and glorious and great.
The ability of each human to do such great things struck me so deeply then, it cut my heart. I thought of how wonderful it was that each student at the school was here; how much harder they worked than most of their peers; what a higher standard they were held to. I wanted each of them to know just how capable they were of achieving such great heights. I wanted them to know that I would do pretty much anything to get them there. And I wanted them to know I didn't like them very much for throwing paper around the classroom, but I didn't love them any less for it. In fact, I wondered if there was anything that could make my love for them diminish. Because when you love people not for what they can do for you, but for what you can do for them, you find your love just grows more plentiful the more you give it away.

Let this first, be a lesson to all of us, to never eat too much Nutella, for it creates a chemical imbalance in our bodies, and absolutely destroys all possibilities of emotional equanimity, and makes us quite sentimental at the end of very long days spent dwelling among high school students.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

a counter-argument to chastity

The topic is bogus. Chastity's dumb. We should just use people instead of loving them. Because I want to, and it feels good, so there. If those aren't good reasons to do something, then I don't know what is. I don't know why you're trying to ruin my life/fun/romance. Sorry you hate living and touching people and breathing and being happy. 
And smiling. 
You probably hate smiling and sunlight and especially when they go together. 

When you fall in love you'll ~*~*~GET IT.*~*~*~ You'll get how I can't keep my hands off of my romantic partner, and how that's just us expressing our divine right to sexual expression, and definitely not an outward manifestation of concupiscence, because I'm ~**~in love~**~. 
So that means I get to do anything I want. 
And if you tell me I can't that means you hate everything in the world, especially other people. 
 And, like, if you're not in love, you don't get it. Being in love changes literally everything, including moral norms. 
And P.S. you are the most judgmental person in the entire solar system, and probably outside of it, too. 
 So siddown.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

old words with new echoes

we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to 
hold fast to the hope that lies before us. 
This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, 
which reaches into the interior behind the veil.
--Paul, to the Hebrews

The older I get, the fewer opinions I hold.
The enlightened middle-aged woman, looking chic in some stereotypical New York yuppie outfit, pronounced her freedom from the bondage of opinion.
Her words hit me hard on the head, and bounced around inside my inner ears.
I kept my nose stuck in my book, however, and did not acknowledge her presence or her statement of self-aware intellectual abandonment.
--
Having too many opinions about the way things should be is a very peculiar form of torture; because the more ideas you have about the way things ought to be the more frustrated you are going to be with the way things are. If you have very set ideas about the Way That Things Should Go, then you are going are going to get yourself tied into all sorts of knots over the many various ways in which the world frustrates your idea of "The Way That Things Should Go."
This is an angsty, soul-wrenching situation to find yourself in; and every single day is going to find your ideal image of reality crashing into the reality that persists outside of you.
Collisions are never comfortable; and this particular set is no exception.
But, still, I can't see the solution as being to relinquish my hold on solid ground and just abandon myself to the tempest of whatever will wash over me that day.
Perhaps maintaining a sense of "What is Right" and "What Ought to Be" causes an undue amount to pain; perhaps it causes discord between two people. There is a torture in holding opinions that you find you can't abandon, and finding a someone who disagrees you.
Perhaps that is a sharp price to pay for having a worldview that will not be compromised.
 --
Perhaps the trick is believing in a truth that demands that the world itself become the arena of salvation. Perhaps it is better to believe in a truth that seems beyond my powers to achieve. Where every imperfection is blatantly obvious, but those weaknesses are not condemnations, but causes for hope.
The more imperfect everything is, the less you can rely on it; and the more you can only rely on the one thing person worth relying on. Christianity, says Papa Benedict XVI, is not just a new philosophy or moral law, or set of spiritual practices. Christianity is an encounter with a person. "We are only Christians", He says, "if we encounter Christ." If we are brave enough to truly encounter each person, then our world will be changed. If we are brave enough to look our students in the eye, or smile at the man we would rather run past, or reach out to help the mother struggling with the grocery cart, then our lives will forever be changed.
The trick of Christianity that I still do not understand, that deep mystery I still wrestle to wrap my mind around, is that, once we have that true, deep encounter with the Risen Lord, then all our daily interactions with people are no longer just inane, commonplace activities. Our daily encounters become opportunities for us, in which we can repeat that one, true, deep encounter with Our Lord.
If I only understood that, I think, the fewer opinions I would hold, and the more Truth I would know.

Nevertheless we must not think that Paul was thus closed in a blind event. The contrary is true, because the Risen Christ is the light of truth, the light of God himself. This [encounter] expanded his heart and made it open to all.
--Benedict XVI, St. Paul

Sunday, February 1, 2015

we'll take the scenic route

the road there being dark, narrow, and shoulderless, 
and home, with its lights, not far away.
--Robert Wrigley


Pieces of home
Going home is always a fascinating process. You find that you fit back into the old places and relationships, terrifyingly easily and automatically.
It is beautiful to be there: in a place that has molded your heart, which has had such a hand in making you the human being you are.

As I walked into the Como chapel, I was home.
But in a way that I am home at the Church down on Lexington avenue; and the way that I am home in the lady chapel at St. Patrick's; and the way I am at home on the bus between Islington and Waterloo; and the way that I am at home at Mother's tomb; and the Place du Tertre; and in the colonnades of St. Peter's.
Although those places were all equally home, there was something so blessed in being at home in this place, of all places, where I first learned to be. 

In a place where you learned to be human, you will always have a place.
Although the friends who walked the paths with me were gone, I still walked the old familiar walks.
As I walked along sidewalks that still bore my footprints, I laughed out loud. I thought of so many times I had contributed to the erosion of this cement.
And there I was, back again, walking as if I'd never been anywhere else.
It was glorious, to slip back into old walking routines. I thought of all the prayers I had offered, walking down this concrete trail. I thought of all the memories stuffed behind benches and under trees. 
I thought of the quiet moments. 
There is the loud Notre Dame, and how I love it: the laughter late at night, and the earnest conversations over drinks, the wanting to fix everything in the world all at once, and the frustration with all that needs fixing.
But that Notre Dame is always with me, if perhaps not as tangible, palpable, or as evident.
This Notre Dame, the quiet Notre Dame, the Notre Dame of solitude and peace, will always be here; particularly here, on this insignificant parcel of land in Western Indiana.
It it will be here, waiting, for moments of retreat, for moments of silence in the surge of forward motion.
What could have easily become simply nostalgia, repeating over and over again like the track of a song stuck in my head, became something deeper. 
Instead of nostalgia, it felt so much more like gratitude, thankfulness for all the moments that were now past, wonder and awe that they ever could have been, and unadulterated joy that they were so;
gratitude that I had learned something here, walking through cold winter nights back from the bars, walking to the cave of candles, walking through the quads, always lighted by the golden woman on her perch. 
I learned something here that I could then take with me, to all the other homes I must make.


Dove always knows