Sunday, November 29, 2015

in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine

We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

I am a very prideful person, and I do not like to be told the things I already know, or (heaven forbid) be thought ignorant.

As I sat across from this man, who was rattling off platitudes I had heard too many times before. I was tired of the simple answers, and didn't like to be thought ignorant (there's that old pride). I felt my eyes grow dark, and the space between my eyebrows crinkle together, and I felt a scream of frustration choke up in my throat.

So I took a deep breath, and thought to myself: What are you expecting, Renée? What sort of answers do you think you deserve, that are more advanced than the simple truths that apply to everyone? Really. Why do you think there are mysterious, esoteric answers, hidden from the children and the simple, reserved for you?

Perhaps wisdom is listening to the same simple truths over and over again, and having the humility to understand that there are no other answers. There is no way around the truth that you cannot understand your life until you have finished it; that often the story of our lives is a narrative spun with the warp of strange choices and coincidences into the weft of confusion. There is great mercy in antecedent and permissive Divine Will, and great wisdom to be gained in remembering the difference between the two. There is great humility in accepting all the silver linings, no matter how seemingly small, as graces.

And I failed, as I stewed in my seat, to find the wisdom to listen to the hackneyed word being sown on my ears. I bucked against hearing all the familiar apothegms I had heard before. Disappointed, my eyes filled with tears, as I realized I was back at the beginning, in familiar stomping grounds of the well-trod spiral path. I realized that this road would be longer than I had anticipated, and I would have to keep searching for answers. And that search would probably lead me back to the very same answers this man was proposing--the truths that are unchanging, but so very hard to truly plumb.

And I felt lighter, as I looked at him, and made my best effort to let go of all the bitterness coiled up inside me like a viper. I breathed, and tried to breathe into my heart space for some humility. Space for seed to fall that was not choked by weeds.

To be a human means to be misunderstood, I think, but even more it means to misunderstand. We spend most of our days trying to communicate with each other, and ninety percent of the time, we bungle the job completely. Somehow, if you maybe dig a bit deeper, and listen just a little more, then you can find understanding, in the midst of all the misunderstanding. And that is actually quite miraculous, actually. That we, bent little hnau, can understand each other at all. The miracle of my eyes meeting yours and a bond of communion passing between us is astounding. There are so many signals that could misfire, words that could be misspoken. But the fact that I can picture your plight, congruent to mine, is quite a feat of empathy.

My resolution for this new year of mercy is to have the humility to assume that each person who tells me something I already know is doing me the favor of facilitating a re-encounter with a truth that could stand some revisiting. Since all my knowledge is, necessarily, limited, I will not vaunt the little knowledge I already possess. The people I admire most, esteem the most, and consider the most wise are all humans who listen patiently and with humility while being told things they already know. And are usually gracious and generous enough to find something fresh and beautiful in old truths being trod out before them ad nauseum.

If you have the humility to listen to simple truths, over and over again, knowing, as all wise folks do, that the truth only becomes more beautiful each time we encounter it, you will be rewarded with something new being eternally unwrapped from the ancient.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

lights in the maple key

I woke up at 4:30 AM to the smell of fresh coffee, which someone had started boiling, in anticipation of Black Friday shopping.
I couldn't sleep, because my body is so used to short hours of rest, it doesn't know how to overstay its welcome in a bed.
I looked outside the window right above my bed. The bed that I always sleep on at the Rancho.
The bed whose quilt used to be patchwork girls with charming calico bonnets. The bed I slept in with my sisters, when we all fit in twin-size beds together. The bed I slept in with old boyfriends'  college sweatshirts. The bed I've slept in as a child, girl, woman, adult. That bed.
It has a little window above it, so I looked up. And I saw the moon. It's a moon that's full, or at least mostly full. It's that moon that's just past peak fullness, so it looks a little bit of shadow has shaved off a small sliver of the perfect silver disk. But it shone bright and white and cool above the sharp peaks of the pine trees outside.

Today is the last day of the year. Not of the calendar year, but of the liturgical year. I am thinking of endings today. I am thinking of the world that is winding down, stripping down til it is no longer dressed in any of her sumptuous, extravagant raiment.

Annie Dillard meditates on the importance of the seasons. She wonders when the first human began to realize the rhythm and the cycle of the seasons. Without the calendar year, the ebb and swell of nature would be hard to pinpoint entirely. The difficulty with weather is that it is not a generalization, it is a particularity. We do not experience winter as just a swath of "cold, snowy days." Winter is a season of fierceness: sometimes harsh winds and snow blowing through the fields, other times sun, unhindered by clouds, turns the snow-clad world into a mirror of light. Spring can be very cold, or a muggy summer warmth. And autumn, without the defining motion of leaves floating ground-ward, would be a grab-bag of all sorts of cold and hot and lukewarm golden days. What would all these days mean, without the narrative and stereotype to make sense of them?

How terrible, Annie Dillard imagines, it must have been to weather the first winter, without the assurance that spring would come again. The world would start falling apart, and you had no promise the trees would ever grow new leaves. Imagine how traumatic autumn would be, before you knew that this was just a season, not a new, permanent condition. Before autumn became a playground for white girls with pumpkin spice lattes, it must have been a season of great anxiety, not joy or Uggs.

How long would that collective memory of the cycle of the seasons take to build? Several years? Several generations? Perhaps that is why human beings began to tell stories: to remind their progeny that spring would come after every winter.

Friday, November 27, 2015

thanksgiving at the Rancho

I am writing out in the sun-porch of the Rancho. The Rancho is the most beautiful place, now, in the fall. I've never been in the Rancho in the autumn before. I’ve only been here in high summer, when the light is aggressive, and you hid from the sun and the noon day heat.

But now, here, in the dim and golden light of autumn, the Carolina woods come alive.
And I have a front seat to it all in the wide, warm sunporch. Instead of hiding from the sun inside in the cool basement or the shaded screened-in porch, I spread out on the wicker furniture in the sun-porch, and watch the quiet backyard.

 I am far south enough that the desolate grey of November has not yet arrived. The world is still rusty and warm. There is still a thrill of green undercurrent in the midst of the dun, and the crusty brown leaves carpeting the forest floor. The pine needles weave a carpet of burnt and faded scarlet on the floor of the woods.

You can see right through to the creek. All the trees that hide the water from the house have lost their foliage. The forest looks bare, and the yard looks bigger, without the hard border of the dark woods on the green grass. The yard is covered with the shimmering neutral tones of the dead deciduous leaves. The topography is hidden under this thick seasonal blanket. And quiet descends upon the garden and the pond. The wood seems desolate and dead. No deer slice through the shadows, just several squirrels scamper through the leaves, kicking up a flurry of noise and movement.

 Yesterday, on my run, I saw two kinds of road kill.
I was watching the road beneath me, because I was on the look-out for snakes. Although it's November, it's warm, and you can never be too careful.

So I was watching the road beneath me, and I saw a squished spider. A very sad form of road kill. It was so small, and so close to the safety of the grass. Then, I passed the deer. I saw it, and gasped. Its empty eye sockets looked like something out of a Western--definitely not like something that belonged near the entryway to the nouveau-riche subdivision outside of which lay its final resting place.
As I passed it, the stench of decaying organs hit me full in the face. It was morbid and stagnant, turbid and rotting in the soft pine needles on the side of the road.
A crow cawed from a telephone wire.
On my way back, I saw a crew of vultures crowded around something on the side of the road. I realized that their meal was the deer. There were two vultures picking at the carcass, and two of them on the other side, waiting their turn. I shuddered. There was something so repellant about the heartlessness with which the vultures pecked away at the eyeless, life-less animal.

And yet, this is a part of their nature. It is a part of the design of nature. Nature's roadkill removal service. The vultures do not know anything else other than scavenging at whatever dead things they encounter. I wonder how that happened. When did the vulture evolve from the first bird, and what made it develop a taste towards congealing blood? Why does death whet its appetite?

I imagined, as I passed them, and they nervously looked up, that the vultures felt gauche, for they stopped pecking and watched me warily as I ran by. But, perhaps, I thought, they were waiting for me to drop dead, so they could have a dessert after their deer dinner. Or maybe they were embarrassed about their feasting on death in the presence of something living. Actually, they felt none of these things. That was all just my imagination. They were feeding, and stopped to make sure I wasn't a threat who could turn them into lifeless carcasses themselves.

I had never gotten such a close glimpse of vultures before--it felt odd to get such an intimate view of these winged memento moris--and they looked strange and silly. They were shaped like gargantuan crows. But instead streamlined heads and elegant black beaks, they had rough, bare black skin hooding their heads. Their sharp beaks were curved, measly-looking affairs.

One of the those vultures looked at me and waved his wing, a gesture that looked uncannily like a casual greeting between friends, between comrades. I was affronted by the gesture of bonhomie--that he would try to include me in their fraternity of death. I felt traitor to the poor deer, as I simply, watched them chew its dead boy. I felt that it was only a great deal of chance and grace that I was not beside the deer, roadkill myself, being picked at by vultures. It seemed arbitrary grace that I was alive and running, as the deer ought to be, and that animal was decaying on the roadside.

We were out by the pond, after my walk. Skinny the cat darts around in the leaves, and leaps up on the stone slab seat, grooming himself. And my grandmother took the net, and started combing through the garden pond, choke with leaves. She pulled out a small tree's worth of leaves. And one tadpole. The tadpole is so fat around the middle. It looks swollen, with the charm that roly-poly babies possess. She sweeps through the water once again and picks up a salamander. The salamander's tail is translucent and spotted. It squirms and squiggles in the net.

We throw the salamander back into the pond and go in for dinner, with Skinny the cat following behind, after lapping up a quick drink of pond water.

I am now sharing the sun-porch with Skinny. I have my legs thrown about unlady-like on the wicker loveseat. Skinny is curled up in the strong-backed chair in the sunlight, napping in the golden afternoon rays.

Friday, November 20, 2015

catechesis in stone

I gasped, in spite of myself, as a sparrow popped out of the mottled brown and red of the pillar.
It sprung out unexpectedly of the colors of the dead things.
Birdsong in November is such an unlikely occurrence. And the appearance of something living is a miniature miracle.

The North Woods in Central Park is one of the few places in New York City I dare not go. Its lush foliage makes it a place of shadow and mystery, even in the summer. It is unscuplted, it is not manicured. It is actually nature, unlike the rest of the park, which is nature for New Yorkers.

The North Woods is the place I always ran by, thinking of the Central Park Jogger Case, the Central Park Five, thinking of my friends' concern about my wandering feet and how they lead me often into places where I shouldn't be.

I never, I am almost ashamed to admit, ventured into the North Woods until a fall day with my mother and little sister. I was curious, we were north of 96th Street, and it was time to discover where the sound of falling water was coming from. Our adventures led us to "the Ravine," a place of beauty I had glimpsed often from the well-lit running track, but never dared to come closer to.

This weekend I realized that it was the last weekend of autumn. The leaves are almost all down, and they are losing their crisp autumn smell, and fading into the dead, dank wet of November and early winter.

And I thought to myself: now is the time to explore the North Wood. Now, before the spring when all the shadows and the sweet green leaves return. Now is the time, in the golden sunlight of a November Saturday.

And so I darted up through "the Ravine" and found a creek. The most beautiful, clear creek you've ever seen. There were large stones that stuck up out of the running water, and I hopped from each, looking for the origins of the creek. From one such perch, I turned and looked behind me. This was not New York City I saw. I saw the burnt brown wood of autumn, the musical stream, the sunlight hitting the slick rocks.

I saw the stream bubbling, whirling, gently gurgling on its way from its mysterious source to "the Ravine." This creek was in the City yet certainly not of it. And yet, here she is. Running and turning, constantly churning towards her destination: the small waterfall that everyone sees from the paved and barren running path.

I don't know what it means for a piece of the landscape to be in the City and not of it, when a stream is not created, but born of the earth itself. But I know that that stream has not embraced New York City and what it means to be part of New York City. That stream may be stuck here, in the midst of the grasping and the hustling, and the constant striving for self. It may be running here, in the thick of shutting people out, and turning a cold shoulder to our fellow man, but it certainly doesn't operate by those rules. This stream is in the city and diametrically opposed to what this city stands for.

I stood in the stream. I was in the stream and of the stream.
We were in the city and not of it.                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Thursday, November 19, 2015

even the sparrows are transformed

As I ran along the banks of the Schuylkill river, I thought to myself: what are the mechanics of Resurrection?
How exactly does a human being pass from this world into the next? And, by "next world", I mean union with God, which is a reality we all experience in the day-to-day. We all experience something of this participation in the life of the Trinity.

And yet, those souls who are no longer enfleshed in human bodies. They have passed away from this world. This world, with its riots and noise; with its endless movement and break-neck speed. They have passed beyond this world. Into what? Where have they gone, exactly?

They are experiencing the fullness of Joy in heaven, of course. Final, total participation with God. In time or out of it? If they are already in heaven, they have shuffled off the coil of the human clock. They are no longer bound by time. So where are they now? As in, this moment I am experiencing as I type. This moment I experience as I run along the banks of the river, as I stare at the mausoleums crouched upon the hill, this moment: now. Where are they?

They must be, I suppose, beyond this moment. For in this moment, that I am experiencing, they are not here. Their bodies are rotting under the pristine stones on the hill. Their bodies are not a part of the beatific vision they are enjoying. In the great dance, their bodies are still wallflowers, waiting to be brought into the center of the rhythm. They lie dormant, still slumbering, waiting.

But, in the eternal moment the dead are experiencing now, have they lept forward--Benedict's ontological leap--into eternity? Have their bodies now joined them, so that they have passed through the last things already, their bodies and souls united in celebrating the Joy of the Trinity? Have they already experienced the entire fable of humanity, culminating in the eschaton, and their mortal bodies being reborn into a dazzling new creation?

Perhaps they are, somehow, now in the true present. They are living in what is Really Happening. We are still in the past, and trying to reach them. We are lagging behind them; with each tick of the clock, we are struggling towards them; towards reality; toward the eternal moment.

They have passed, with Christ, through the mysterious barrier of death, and now enjoy life--life in abundance, that we are daily working towards.

I think of all of this as I run past the cemetery on Laurel Hill. And I think: no wonder Resurrection has caused such a ruckus in the physical world. Once the gates of heaven had opened to admit the first human body, did not all of history shift, mysteriously? Time itself has been re-done.

I watch my hands write, the ink fall onto the paper, I watch my students at work, the commuters on the subway. Who are we? We mysterious beings caught in the past, living our way into the future present. We are caught in the tension of time and the end of time; death, which means the beginning of something else. Tenses are muddled together now, blurred like the grey sky and the raindrops falling down the glass that is my window.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

cathy and her effigies

The spider spins her web,
she twirls fantastic shapes out of wicked, winding threads.
I watch her,
fascinated,
by the hypnotic gyrations of her swollen spinnerets.
Her abdomen is shaking from the force of her silking;
she darts, and drops,
spinning from a slender spool of hand-spun silky web.

The milky web,
the filmy maze,
the dizzying haze of filaments
combining to create a labyrinth of sin.

Abuelita Araña sits in the middle of the labyrinth,
winding all the silk into a tight and lethal knot.
The fly's wings, little gauzy strips of emerald and pearl flutter uselessly,
bootlessly,
one last desperate cry for life,
trapped, as he is in he midst of death.

Abuelita turns him,
over and over,
like an egg that's over easy,
like a roast chicken on a spit,
like a grain of sand inside an oyster shell,
turning the rough and hairy fly into something soft and palatable.
A delicate entrée wrapped in silk.

Encased in innocent and naïf white,
the fly becomes a tankard of wine-dark nectar for Abuelita,
She sucks the blood from the compact package,
a drop falls on the web,
and glistens in the twilight sky.

She looks so beautiful,
drunk on the death she has created.
I am fascinated,
enchanted,
captivated by her swollen abdomen
and calculating, shining eyes.

I shiver as the sun sets over the reservoir.
And she goes on,
spinning, spinning,
like before.
Eternally, perpetually,
always the same daily ritual:
sucking off each victim
as he falls into her dewey web.
And always spinning,
spinning shapes of silk
darning deadly patterns,
and weaving warning signs
of sticky, sickly beauty
into the dewey evening sky.

Monday, November 9, 2015

thinking is an outdoor activity

"wandering on foot can lead to the wandering of imagination and to an understanding that is creation itself, the activity that makes introspection an outdoor pursuit. [...] Introspection is often portrayed as an indoor, solitary thing, the monk in his cell, the writer at her desk. Woolf disagrees."
--Rebecca Solnit, "Woolf's Darkness"

This past weekend, I went hiking in Vermont. I had had it in my head to "go to Vermont" all autumn. I had wanted to go in October, but that was not to be. I also had it in my head to see the stars, but that was also not to be. I miss the night sky as the night sky really is; wet with limpid, liquid stars.

But I was glad that I went to the mountains in November.
The mountains were covered with dead trees. The color of dead trees is a strange translucent brown; it's eerie and enchanting. The evergreens at the peaks are the only signs of life.

But somewhere, underneath that naked cover of life-less trees clamber bears, moose, followed by leaping deer and scurrying squirrels. There is a lot of dormant life.

I clamber up rocks covered in giant waves of dead leaves, and tramp through woods disturbed only by the moaning of the wind and the creaking of the shivering branches in the cold breeze.

I sit on a rock covered with bright green moss, and stare across the woods-covered mountains. And I can think. I can think with a clarity and a precision that gets lost in the rush of the city. I felt my thoughts churn out and order themselves systematically. Fresh and bright, just like the sky around me.

I wandered through the birch trees, with their bark peeling off, revealing the tender pink skin underneath. In the middle of the birch trees it was absolutely silent. There was no wind, there was no noise at all. I closed my eyes, and quieted my thoughts.

I felt like I could spend forever in the sweet silence of the mountain birches.
But it was no longer time for rest, but time to keep walking.




Sunday, November 8, 2015

October Rumspringa

We have decided that “papa” means someone.
A neighboring tribe has decided that “padre” means that same someone.
A small child growing up in that language makes a sound, calling out for the person who protects him from the dark, who is taller than the deep end of the swimming pool, who lifts him on his shoulders into the cherry blossoms of the spring tree.
A girl grows up in a different language, and calls for the person who plays tea party with her in her little pink playhouse, who lifts her up to put the angel on the Christmas tree, who tucks her in at night and sings lullabies to her about laughter. 
They are different languages, but the same person.
Different forms of speech, but the same love.

--Genna the Goldfish Solves It All: Or, Enhanced Comprehensibility

I am out of town; wandering out in the fall countryside.
And I am sitting in the fall sunshine, remembering all the different places in the world where you can experience autumn.
And it's tempting to try to claim that autumn is the best in any number of them.
Autumn is the time that I fall in love with New York, because New York in Central Park makes me feel like When Harry Met Sally; and running through Hell's Kitchen (as fast as possible) is better in sweater weather.
I feel myself getting all soft and squishy as I realize: oh wait, this place is not so bad.
But I'm also the most restless: because autumn is weak in the city. The trees don't catch on fire, and the colors don't take up the entire horizon, like they do out here, not in the city.

--
It seems so strange to think it's been over a year, but somehow through shared emails, spaced-out letters, and lots of prayer/participation in the Eucharist it seems we haven't been too terribly far (though geography sure suggests so).

Friendship is such a comfort.
And this is what I have discovered this past year, when my daily life is not spent constantly surrounded by my dearest friends, by the community of people that I love and cherish so deeply, who understand me better than I understand myself: that friendship from afar becomes doubly cherished.
Your friends--the dear people who have helped you understand who you are--become a retreat. They become a space of kindness and gentleness in the lonely cosmos.
Friendship has become balm in Gilead. It has become something very different than it ever was before. We are scattered all over the country, and we are separated by great distances. But the friendship still comforts, across the distances.

--

I have made some terribly poor choices in my life. I can't really quantify them, because terrible, poor, bad, wrong choices can sometimes hit in you in the face like a giant wave of shame, or they can just accrue quietly, like one too many white lies or selfish, snippy, snide remarks.
But making poor choices is nothing to be afraid of, I think. Because there are so many choices that you simply realize were wrong, and then you correct the course.
Perhaps this just means I have never made a Really Big Choice: like whether or not to murder someone, or to get married.

I used to be afraid of getting all those small choices wrong. But it seems that, as I get older, grace becomes more complicated and vague; less easily comprehended and certainly more tortuous, not straightforward at all. I have to learn that grace pops up in the stories as we live them, and it is difficult to look at the story and find the primary arc of action.

We live day-to-day episodes, and the dramatic thru-line seems to be cloaked right now. But perhaps that is what it means to be in formation: everything has yet to be formed, because it is still in the process forming.

One of the most destructive and shameful aspects lying is that it convinces us that the facts ought to be a certain way to be beautiful, or we must live a certain way to be good. That if the story is different from the one we imagine than the one we have invented in our minds, we have done something wrong. We try to cover up our own faults, terrified of what others will think of the story we have written. The story we think that we have gotten wrong.

But the story can be complicated and inexplicable.
It can be messy, imperfect, and disgusting.
It can include detours and pitfalls, terrible obstacles and terrors we never envisioned.
Because the story contains grace that we could never imagine when we were just born, before we had read our first fairy-tale.
The story is so much more beautiful than you or I.
The story is so much more complicated, messy, imperfect, and glorious than you or I.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

you will be the mayor, of course

The Atlantic is hopping on the Nicomachean Ethics bandwagon and attempting to dissect friendship, trying to discover how it lasts, what it is, how it changes. And why it changes. The article is so pedantic, and terribly depressing, as they try to discover what can keep friendship together, in the face of a complex world that seems intent on tearing friendships apart.

I think it comes from a deep place, also, of worry. We know that friendship is so important, and we worry that we will not get it.
Or we will have it, then it will disappear.

And there is reason to worry.

Because friends reveal such beauty to you: such wonderful depths of the human experience have been revealed to me through my friends: such joy, such deep, tender love, such kindness and such peace. Such comfort, such courage.

Friends have taught me all the different facets of what it means to be human. They have encouraged me to become more human, they have carved different facets onto my own soul.

Friendship is truly indispensable, I feel, to being human. It was rightly regarded by the ancients as the highest form of love, because it is about nothing more than discovering the human soul in front of you. A soul who shares your same desires; thoughts and loves, a language of describing the world that you thought no one else would ever share with you.

Friendship is such a deep mystery and grace.

For when you know someone--not as they reveal themselves to you--but who they really, truly, deeply are, you suddenly discover you can't grasp them at all. What really does make them tick?
What is really going through their minds? What motivates their actions?

You don't really know.
And the more you know them, the more you realize you may never fully understand them. But you know them, in a very mysterious way I can't quite place. You know who they are in the moments of time where they simply exist.
You know who they are in that fundamental, primal place of just being.
You know who they are when you are not around.

And that is not something you earn by wishing them "Happy Birthday" on Facebook. It's not something you hold onto by making sure to call them once a month. It's not something you can manufacture or piece together by yourself. It just seems to me to be a gargantuan grace. The most wonderful and essential grace of human life.

And I don't think The Atlantic understands this. They are very worried about losing something that is so deeply beautiful and spiritual, but without understanding the dynamics of grace that sustain this earthly miracle.

It really is a miracle that we, creatures who can only see the world through our own eyes, can learn to see the world from the orb of another. Our engines of empathy can inspire us to shift our center of gravity entirely, to include another person. If not for each moment of each day, but at least for a 90 minute phone call, we can be entirely immersed in the world of our friend, and see the world through her eyes.

This is a miracle. And miracles, of course, are unphased by time.

Friday, November 6, 2015

you can see lady liberty from the g train

Prospect Park is a jungle. And I was lost in it as the sun was setting.
Where am I? I wondered, as I passed unfamiliar trees and meadows.
Where am I? is a question that often echoes through my mind as I wander through the halls of the high school or through the soul-less streets of midtown.

I walked down Park Slope towards the 7th avenue G train. Brooklyn is a borough that has so much inside of it. From the outside, it looks like the Brooklyn Bridge and Williamsburg, a gentrified graveyard of the Hipster (2008-2013, RIP). But, on the inside it contains, like Prospect Park, a jungle of life, urban and suburban labyrinths of neighborhoods, and a rich history. The subway map doesn't account for it well. Brooklyn curves so much more than the subway map. It is full of curves and hills and and lots of beautiful, old homes.

When you are riding the G train North (Queens-bound) from Prospect Park, you are riding underground, like a regular subway. And then, the subway pops up above the ground, it crests with the breaking waves of the skyscrapers on the cityscape.

And it is breathtaking. To be underground, then, without warning, above it.

It is magnificent. I hope I never forget to be delighted by flying out of the dank dark of underground tunnels into the luminous ink-blue of the night sky.

--

I forget that formation is something that is supposed to be uncomfortable. Formation reminds us that the ultimate goal is great, but there are many deaths to self and portals that we must go through first, before we reach our destination. I called New York City my novitiate last year. Mostly because I was being annoying, and I was jealous of my friend who got to go to the real novitiate in Colorado, on the side of a mountain. Why don't I get to be on a side of a mountain?

But I reminded myself that New York City was my novitiate the other day. Sometimes our past selves are our best teachers.
Because New York City is a place of formation.
Not because it is conducive to self-reflection and quiet meditation (it's not), but because it is a place of profound dissatisfaction and discomfort.

I do not feel at home here. I don't know why.

I love cities. I love London. I have always loved London, from the moment I set foot in it. I am enchanted by the sidewalks; I am charmed by the cobblestones; the alleys; the twisting, winding streets. I adore Paris. Paris is like knowing your way around a dream. I knew Paris' streets before I was born. I love Chicago. I love D.C. I love Rome. I love Krakow.

I have a deep fondness for these places. For Boston's Beacon Hill, for Chinatown in D.C., for the madness of the Chicago Loop.

But I do not love New York in the same way.

I don't know why.
I thought perhaps it was because God is difficult to find here in the chaos and the commotion.
He is. But He is not far.
He is in the face of the CFR sisters, and the abuelitas at morning mass, and the aggressive-looking woman on the subway, and the lonely bus driver late at night.
I thought perhaps it was because this city is so oppressive.
And it is. But it does not kill the human spirit.
There is beauty riding each C train, and speed-walking past you on streets, and sitting on stoops in your neighborhood.
You are surrounded by eight million images of God.
But I still don't love New York.
I love the sunrise over the bridge on the East river.
I love walking down Christopher street in the starlight.
I love my students. I love walking through East Harlem in the fall.
I love Riverside park in April. I love the Cloisters and Bushwick. I love the thrill of the subway breeze. I love SoHo in the sunshine. I love Washington Square Park in the rain. I love the shabby, haunted chic of Rivington Street. I love all of it.
But I'm always pushing against it. Pushing against something in it that is vitally askew.
I'm always fighting not to be sucked into it; swallowed by it.
And I'm always wrestling with that question.
Wrestling with that lack of love, for no reason.
For no other reason other than that submitting to New York would be like losing part of myself.
And I am not going to lose that part of myself.
Perhaps the reason for my discomfort is the mixture of island cramped conditions and suffocating urban sprawl.
Perhaps it's just part of the formation.
Perhaps the feeling of falling in love with the small pieces of beauty each day, but hating the lifeless concrete is part of the formation. Feeling ill-at-ease and out-of-sorts.
But landing in bed each night feeling like you are living the adventure you have always wanted to, and feeling right at home in it.
Perhaps that is a sort of novitiate.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

taken by a terrible humanity

Sometimes, images pop out of life, and clearly demand to be told. The story pops out of them so clearly, demanding to be given a voice.

Like, the image of a little sister from the Bronx, looking for all intents and purposes like one of the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, her blue dress and gown traded in for practical black jumper and wimple with straight-forward black veil, sitting in the middle of a circle of high school students.

My high school students are so much cooler than I ever was or will be. And they project a New York insouciance, their street cred lightly resting on their shoulders with their beats by Dre headphones.

But they sit in that circle, looking up at Sr. Jude, with unabashed interest and excitement. Because, we are in drama club. And drama club is a magic circle where you are allowed to say swear words, and speak all the silent thoughts you keep in your head, but this character somehow says on this page.

One of my favorite things is watching a student read through a monologue for the first time. They are so unsure. They read through the lines either quietly and with an awkward, stilted rhythm, or with Too Much. Too much emotion, overcompensation for the terrible vulnerability that is eating away at their insides.

As I watch, I look for what is standing in their way. Where are they trapping all the emotion, that should flow out of their breath, onto their words, and off their tongue? They are hiding the tension of desire somewhere in their body. Is it tensed up in their shoulders? Are they carrying it in their jaw? Is it being pushed down, down, deep down below their lungs. Our breath carries our hearts with it. We hold our breath to keep the world from damaging our hearts.

So I clap for them, after the first time they read through their speech. And applaud them for their bravery. Because telling a story always requires bravery. First and foremost, bravery. And that is something to encourage in another human.

Then, depending on what is holding them back, I ask them to try something. Something they didn't think was acting, something they are unsure about, something they don't understand quite why they are doing it. But it frees up the breath inside of them, and it frees them from their stifling self-consciousness. It lets the desire of the character: to be heard, to be loved, to be understood become free, untangled from all the encumbrances we put on our desires.

It is in these moments, which I wish everyone could witness, when I truly believe in theatre. I see what great goodness this form of story-telling and this form of art can give to humans. It frees us from ourselves a bit, and also helps us to discover ourselves.

Not ourselves as we wish we could be, but ourselves as who we truly are.
It breaks down barriers; the barriers we place in between our breath and the world outside.
It breaks down the barriers between our hearts and our heads.
It breaks down the barrier between our stories and others' stories.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

without cost you are to give

Last night, sitting in our laundry room, I spoke with Meredith:
How does one change selfishness into love?
How do you live out your call to self-gift, while you are trying to build up a life for yourself?

And I thought of the quote that hangs above my bed:
Find love; and give it all away.

There is a problem with this statement. We are so tempted to think that the semi-colon separate the two actions temporally. They are not separated temporally. It is not a sequential order of events. They happen simultaneously. As we seek to give the love all away, we must continually thirst for and discover the fount of love itself. And as we journey towards finding love, finding where we are supposed to be, we must be continually pouring out the love that we discover.

But you have to build something.

It is easy, however, to get very caught up in one end of the equation and not the other. And, when I am too focused on building up something for myself, I forget that I am called to give it away, freely, as gift.

I find that, in a city where there is little space for yourself, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to grasp whatever you can.
In a city where resources seem to be up for grabs to the person who can grab the fastest, it's easy to become a vulture, trying to get everything you can for yourself, amass treasures here for yourself.

In a Fifth Avenue storehouse of treasures, the Frick Collection, which is the highly enviable art collection of Gilded Age tycoon Henry Frick, housed in his sumptuous mansion, and one of my favorite museums on the planet, I sat in the green, cozy sitting room, and started at Constable's painting of Salisbury Cathedral, hanging majestically on the opposite wall.

I was aghast, for a moment. Because this magnificent piece of art was there, for me to behold, because of the generosity of the maker. This piece was a gift--literally, for Constable's friend, Bishop Fisher of the Salisbury Cathedral--and was a gift to me. The artist had poured not only his time and money and paint into making this landscape, but him self. Although he was no where to be seen in the image--there was not even a human figure in sight--somehow all I could see, staring at the soaring white spire of Salisbury was the infinite goodness of this man, who dedicated himself to capturing a sunlit morning in the meadows of Salisbury.

I stared at all the paintings around me, and this great art was born, it seemed, of great goodness. Perhaps they were prodigal drunkards, or terrible husbands, flamboyant Casa novas, or had gorgon-like tempers, so perhaps they may not have looked good, and quiet, and demure. But they had made something beautiful and good, and true. They dedicated their life's work to capturing the beautiful and true in nature, in the faces of their portrait sitter's, in stories of the past, in the intricacies of the human body.

There is nothing petty about this act. There is no room for meanness or stinginess in art.

Art strives to capture what is great inside of us. What is great grows alongside what is petty and self-interested, unfortunately. I don't know how to completely weed out what is petty. Perhaps paintings help. Paintings help a great deal. And the faces of my students when they ask me to show them where the "Column Break" button is in Microsoft Word. Or the face of a young woman when she has felt the thrill of being vulnerable and honest, and performing a story that comes from deep inside of her.

And the Eucharist.
The Eucharist helps a good deal.
Recently, as I walk in single file up to receive, I feel my own smallness of heart and stinginess of spirit. And I feel the great, pulsing glory of sheer gift that is waiting for me. Absolute, total generosity who is pulling me towards Him. I am so different from You, I think.
You are so good. So generous.
So utterly full of love, that gives and gives unceasingly, without thought to cost.
I am obsessed with counting the cost.
I have tallied the costs carefully and budget accordingly.
You give without budget or tally or spreadsheet.
You pour out every single atom of your Self.
You are Gift.
How can I dare to receive?

How can I not?
How do I dare to stay away?
How else will I ever learn to make myself into gift than by receiving Gift Himself?


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

delayed emergency surgery

A harsh awakening--
a startle, and a cry--
a glance towards the phone,
to be sure that you 
still breathe,
that your death was just a dream.
Two weeks is too long to wait
to rid myself of your weight.

Suddenly, it's all become quite clear: if we do not heal our own wounds. Or rather, if we do not find healing for our wounds--
if our wounds are not healed, somehow--
or, at the very least, if the process of healing has not yet begun, has not yet been attempted, then we will simply pass on those wounds to others.

If we never fight the voice inside of us that tells us we are only beautiful and worthy, only healthy and happy at one hundred two point two pounds, then we will never be able to validate the beauty and the worth of others.

If we never wrestle with the hurt inside of us that screams instead of praying, that reaches for anger instead of for mercy, that points barbed arrows of blame, instead of painting the larger picture, then we will never discover how to forgive.

If we never find the core of selfishness inside of us, and work to dismantle it, bit-by-bit, it will choke out all our goodness. There is a tiny seed of self-interest inside of us. Like the wheats and the tares, self-interest and virtue grow side-by-side. We seek to do good work and make good things, because it is right to do so. We cultivate our talents, and network charmingly, and smile at our colleagues, because it is good to do so. It also, apparently, gets us "ahead in the world."

But that selfishness has to be quaffed.

Otherwise it will grow, and grow, and lead you to twist the world into the ugliest of images: yourself. Your vision distorted, your sense of judgement off-kilter.

Wounds do not just sit quietly on our hearts, they reach out into the world around us and mark it with mirror images of themselves, leaving a trail of nasty, jagged scars in their wake.

This is why I always wonder why my students insist that original sin was "one person doing something wrong so long ago, it's got nothing to do with me, my baby brother. What did they ever do wrong?"

Nothing, of course. A baby did nothing wrong. It did not intend to cause its mother horrible pain in childbirth, but it did. The most joyful act in the world: the entrance of new life into the light of day becomes a gruesome--and sometimes fatal--agony for the mother.

How could this be, unless there is some ancient sin, a rupture and a wound so deadly, that its scar still puckers the fabric of our world today. The break of selfishness into the cosmos of love, the advent of self-interest in the economy of gift, the fall into the chaos of hurt from the order of receiving freely was so cataclysmic, we still reel from it today.

We reenact this original sin as our own wounds fester, unhealed; our grudges lie, unforgiven. We reenact this macabre drama. This story of hurt breeding hurt.

To delay the forgiveness of these grievances, to delay the healing of these wounds seems as foolish as delaying an appendectomy or a gastric bypass surgery. And yet we do. We delay, we stall, we procrastinate our peace.

We think: tomorrow will be the day.
But tomorrow never will be the day, if we cling so desperately, grasp so tightly to our yesterday.

Monday, November 2, 2015

to fulfill all righteousness

“I promised myself that I would maintain momentum. "Maintain momentum" was the imperative that echoed all the way downtown. In fact I had no idea what would happen if I lost it. In fact I had no idea what it was.” ― Joan Didion, Blue Nights 

I am very bad at scheduling.
I am currently too overwhelmed to dedicate time to anything that interrupts from the breakneck daily routine that I have set for myself.
This is not healthy.
And, although I have a morbid tendency to over-schedule myself, and my appetites tell my better self I need to have it to be satisfied, it does not, I have found, actually make me happy.

So I spent a month with pneumonia and a bruised rib instead of going to see a doctor. Because not only did I not have time to schedule an appointment, but I was baffled by trying to find a doctor who took my insurance who lived in my neighborhood who was not booked until December.

What have I learned from my month with pneumonia?

Before I am next sick, I will decode the world of co-pays and deductibles, so I am fully armed with information when entering into the scary rabbit hole of health insurance.

More importantly, I take my health for granted. I assume that I will always get better, and that nothing I will do will have a lasting toll upon my body. I have always gotten better in the past, so I assume the future will hold the same experiences.

But, as I lay in bed one night, coughing, and feeling a piercing ache in my side as I heard a wheeze in between breaths, I wondered if my rib was actually broken, and had punctured my lung. I felt the wheeze and the slow burn of the angry rib. I wondered what the wheeze and the slow burn meant together. I thought, lying there in my bed: Renee, you're an idiot. Why have you not yet gone to see a doctor? Your body could be hurt beyond repair.

November is the month of the dead. Of dying. Of contemplate the ending of the year, of the universe eventually, of the cultures of the past, of the world (permanently, and as we know it), of life, of the trees on the leaves.

The leaves on the trees, I mean.

In recently watching a video of Katie Couric interview my new musical love, Skrillex aka Sonny Moore, I was struck by many things. One, of course, the jarring dissonance of their exchange. They barely spoke the same language. Secondly, a particularly interesting moment when Mr. Moore said: "I don't write music for old people, no offense." And Katie Couric laughs and says: "None taken." And Sonny Moore gets flustered (realizing that the self-exonerating coda he tacked onto the sentence was, ironically, the very thing that rendered it offensive), and protests: "I'm not talking about age, ya know? I don't care how old you are; I'm talking more about a state of mind. Like, I'm twenty-seven, I'm not that young."

Katie Couric smiles: "That's pretty young."

I am beginning to slowly realize that twenty-[fill-in-the-number] is not that old, so that my body operates now in a way that it will not later. My body now has advantages that it will not possess later. I am reaping all the advantages of youth, where I can foolishly put off going to the doctor for a month. That is why Katie Couric smiles at young Skrillex, and remembers how her body worked at twenty-seven, and how young it felt to be twenty-seven. She smiles, and knows that Skrillex cannot even imagine how young he is, because he has not yet learned to be older. And being as old as you have ever been does not mean that you are old.

But perhaps twenty-[fill-in-the-number] is old enough to feel that you are no longer young. In that, the world seems to be growing more mortal. Too many people have died for you not to encounter the fact that avoiding death takes effort on your part. That effort means that you now think about your friend's father with lung cancer when you reach for that drunken cigarette. It means that you think about your uncle's liver before you do vodka shots before the football game. Physical health no longer seems like a guarantee. And mental health? Dream on, Horatio.

You think about your mother's back as she trips on a piece of New York sidewalk.
The world seems more twisted and iron, with spokes and spikes poking out into your path. And your parents suddenly seem fragile.

Happiness no longer is a guarantee. Happiness seems to take effort.
Happiness seems like it is something that takes hard work: controlling your temper, owning up to your mistakes, acknowledging where you have gone wrong, saying you are sorry, allowing for the slow work of loving and the slow story of living to occur.

Health and happiness, which seemed like foregone conclusions have become painful, pain-staking pilgrimages. No longer set destinations, but slow, patient pilgrimages.

That's what I think of when I watch Skrillex and Katie Couric sit together. I think of how health and happiness are harder the older you get, and I think of how comparatively young and foolish I am.

Perhaps one can only be wise when one's knees stop working.