Monday, October 31, 2016

a spooky foray into politics

How often have a twisted a story to protect my fragile sense of self? How often have I ignored a potentially painful wake-up call, and protected myself in the comfortable haze of ego? How often have I failed to acknowledge wrongdoing or offer an apology? Does my stubbornness get in the way of reparation? Do I fail to forgive a friend, to see things from her point of view? Do I take ownership of my own agency in painful or hurtful situations? How often do I ignore the challenge of reality; a challenge that forces me to examine my own identity and actions, and extends the same generosity towards others that I practice with myself?

The next time I pick up a stone to throw at Donald Trump’s fragile masculinity, ego, or grasp on reality, may that stone instead turn into a mirror which reflects my own overweening ego and robust pride. Read the full examination of conscience here.

A brief note: I could also write a similar examination for Hillary, I suppose. Which would be fair and bipartisan of me. But I think it would be less entertaining and simply amount to: don't be corrupt (and for the love of all that is holy don't use a private email server).

I certainly don't agree with all of Hillary Clinton's policies, and she isn't my first choice for president ever (and full disclosure: not actually the choice I choosed this time). There's a reason that Obama handily bested her in 2012. Hillary has had a real pock-marked political career. Whatever this shady sitch is with the FBI and emails and servers and whatnot, it doesn't make her look the best. And I'll listen to you tell me that the Clinton Foundation is accepting money from suspect foreign governments, or that she's promoting a broken healthcare system, or that she's beholden to various corporate interests, therefore working in the interests of Big Money. I hear you. I feel you. And I see you.

But what I see when I watch Hillary Clinton during this hullabaloo of a 2016 campaign, and what so many other women see, is someone living a narrative I have felt. She is enduring an overbearing buffoon authorize himself, on the basis of his manhood and no other available empirical evidence, capable of a job he's laughingly unqualified for, which she is supremely qualified for and with which she is intimately familiar. She has waltzed through his hot-headed lambasting with a calm, unshakeable demeanor.

As I watch her wade through the vitriol a man who is far inferior to her foists upon her with poise and (somewhat robotic) humor, I am inspired. As someone still not saintly enough to laugh off being condescended to, I still find the struggle of being a woman in a man's working world irksome at times. In that regard, I count her as a hero. Perhaps I am more enamored with the Idea of Hillary Clinton, than the actual human candidate herself. And maybe that's part of why she's so successful: she is functioning as more of a symbolic figure in this campaign than actual figure. Despite the reminders that continually pop up that the real Hillary is flawed, and not our perfect feminist angel, the symbolic weight of her candidacy has propelled her campaign. Throughout this campaign, she has proved to millions of young women--and young people in general--that you can't let bullies yell you down. And that's admirable.

Now I'll go read about WikiLeaks' emails and some more Clinton-era scandals and get all un-inspired.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

a wee little man

Zacchaeus is one of those Biblical pericopes that still has not evolved past the bible school song for me. I hear Luke's story of the man that climbed the sycamore tree, and involuntarily start humming the tune that accompanies that story's narration.

So, when one of my classmates mention that his assignment for his preaching class was on today's Gospel, I was curious. Why should I care about this story? I asked.

So, he said, the story begins with the line: Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. So, where was he going? Wondered my classmate. He tolle lege-d and discovered that Jesus was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem for the passover. He was on his way to die.

Knowing the trajectory of Jesus' travels, the entire story is imbued with a deep significance. As Christ is approaching the advent of his hour, the hour for which He came into the world, He stops, and encounters this smallest of men. Although Jesus is approaching the climax of his mission, which has cast its cruciform shadow over his whole ministry, he is drawn to care for this sinful human hiding in the Sycamore tree. The Son goes to save the entire world, but will pause that dramatic journey to save just one human being.

Is there any love more intimate?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

if there is solace in love

my soul is quiet in the sunlight
pouring through the silk screen of the
spiders' webs outside my window.
In the pure brightness of clear
morning air.
No stain has touched this yet.

peace is found in the navel orange that is
rising in the autumn sky,
catching the quiver of the sycamore
leaves, hanging on the trees
by brown and drying threads
the sycamore leaf is fringed in gold,
a halo-ed, hallowed, holy leaf
her green now dappled with
burnt color.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

the gift I mean to give

Adulthood means laying on artifice as thick as cake frosting. It means wrapping your personality in layer after layer of cool, impenetrable armor. It means lots of masking your identity in pretension and dissembling. 

And I get it. It's necessary, in a way. To build those bridges--networks, people call 'em--you have to know what words to say, what articles to have read, what television to reference. You have to accumulate the social capital in the coinage of a realm that's not your own. In order to get through the day, you sometimes have to push inconvenient emotions to the side, and ignore small stings.

It's easy, in the hustle and bustle of trying to navigate the exterior world, to let division arise between the external self and one's eternal being. It's easy to avoid gazing at the interior landscape. You shudder, thinking at what you might see there. You hide it away: oh that old thing? No one wants to see her. They--and you--are much more interested in this gauzy, glamorous creature that has evolved. This new apparition of yourself says all the right things, knows the right tune to play, and has calculated metrics for success. She's a hit. 

The problem is that all the Self we file away to "Later" is the good stuff. It's the stuff that is the real meat of living, underneath Instagram moments and twitter feeds. Below perfectly coiffed hair and impeccably tailored cocktail cultural commentary is the quiet heart of our humanity that so often gets ignored.

We are so afraid that if we drop our cocoons, we'd have to face that cringeworthy reality: an old self, which we've outgrown. We are so afraid that at our core is an embarrassment of a caterpillar: a clunky and childish version of ourselves, a burden on our new sophisticated, grown-up status.

What a surprise, when you peel away the layers of artifice, and shake off the immaterial, mannered self, to find that what lies underneath has transformed. You expect that when you unwind the chrysalis, you will find that embarrassing old caterpillar underneath. When you crack open the chitin shell you've built around your vulnerable soul, it's a delightful surprise to find that a winged creature has formed in the meantime. 

This is the gift that honesty has been trying to give us all along: ourselves. Which, if we had been paying attention to, we would have noticed how they'd grown: bright and beautiful, richer and deeper than before. Underneath the artifice, something magic lives, and a little humility and honesty is all it took to set it free.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

all is in an enormous dark

We are speeding--a verb used generously here-- through the trees that hem the South Shore line to Chicago. We glide past the glimmering reeds and shining ripples of Hudson Lake. The trees shimmer above the sky-clear water. The first strains of Familiarity play on Pawel's iPad. I smile. This is autumn.

October in Indiana is finally cashing in on its beauty. Cows wade through lush green, dark muds, and hearty wheats. The cornfields in Amish country are a husky burnt gold, the sunlight is more robust and brilliant, flashing off the golden, scarlet leaves. The forests are full of dying sunlight, outlining their slender, shimmering trunks. A few trees burst through the yellow golds with bold crimson-tipped leaves.

I am slightly annoyed, harsh critic as I am, that all of the trees are not turning into watercolors at the same time. I wish that all the leaves would turn their autumnal colors at once; I want a symphony of beauty, not just grace notes. I want a uniform response to the change in season from the trees.


Sitting at lunch with a friend, we discussed the peculiar phenomenon of human narratives. How is it that two humans can have two completely different stories for the same series of events? How is it that two people who shared a common journey can interpret that journey so differently? It is very odd, but only natural. No two human beings are going to respond to a situation exactly the same, just as no two trees responds to autumn exactly the same.

Like the trees, humans are arrested in various stages of growth; of coming to fruition. Their display of fruit is never going to be identical. As a narrative comes to a defining moment, one of the messy things about these crossroads is that it becomes apparent that these two human beings are operating in different seasons. Watersheds and crises reveal interiors that the quotidian course of life is designed to conceal. 

Like the trees, humans are not programmed like robots, to respond to stimuli according to a developer's code. Humans and trees respond to the events of nature in a variety of ways, and their eloquent, polyvalent responses are recorded in their leaves and in their narratives. How much richer our experience of the world is, knowing that there are many different versions of our stories out there. And all of them somehow lead to the full Truth, capital T.

I can no more force another human being to see a story from my point of view than I can force the trees to change. That is both infuriating and liberating. Infuriating, because of all the breath we waste trying to get others to see things from our point of view. But liberating. Once we have finally exhausted all our hot air and breathe in once again, we are free from the task of trying to turn the leaves to scarlet before they're ready. We can simply continue on with our own story, and leave the other trees to sort themselves out.

Monday, October 17, 2016

christ in times square

We, all, with one accord, driven by one deep impetus, push our way towards the front of the swarming mass of people, jostling for the privileged place of in the front, pinned against the NYPD barriers, by the crush of crowd behind us. Like a crowd of teenage girls in Sperrys from Westchester, we strain our necks to see the prophet we have come to see. But something greater than Ham4Ham is here.

We are not dedicated fans dressed in haute rap colonial garb, we are the homeless. We are the addicts living on the street corner. We are the man with the dog you pass without a glance. We are the boy eating the tuna on the subway. We are the woman with the grocery cart and the girl with the book and the sad face, tucked in the corner. We long for attention, but fear too much. We are wary of crowds like this one.

But not today. Today someone has come to speak to us. And we are here to listen. He touches the face of the woman next to us and smiles. If he would do the same to us! There are others here, of course. There are two loud men in suits. They are young. And possibly drunk? It's 10am, but they smell like expensive whiskey and the trendy speakeasy bar around the corner. Their shoes are very nice. And their hair is matted by a French pomade made from babies' tears spun into a delicate silk, not by the crust of street dust and soil from park benches.

They shout out to our prophet. It is not quite heckling. It is a question of that class clown in high school who wanted to get the teacher off-topic. Because they are afraid of serious thinking. And following lines of thought outside their comfort zone. They want to pretend to learn, but never leave their zone of proximal development. He listens to them. And responds with a laugh. We all laugh in return, even the two loud men. They seem non-plussed. And, for a moment, sheepish. For a moment, as they drop their swagger and the posture that comes with suits, they are not two braggadocios, but human beings. We lose sight of them. But perhaps they stay to listen.

Our prophet turns to us: and weaves a story with his voice. More mesmerizing than Lin-Manuel's raps, funny and humorous--better than the stand-up acts we've seen here-- more alive and biting than Colbert, a story that cuts through the chaos of Times Square's morning air. A story that we've known all along, but is new today. The fire engine sirens, the pounding of the 1 train underneath our feet, the honking of the taxis, and the purring of the tour buses, all subside into quiet, and the only words we hear are this man's story.

'Rest, Eat, Drink, Be Merry!' cries the heroic antagonist of his story. We can hear the bitter ring in his voice, it matches the bitter ring in ours. We have not rest. And it is not ours to "be merry." It is the lot of those who smell like money at 10am. We are surrounded by their large barns, holding their harvest. "Your life will be demanded of you." Our prophet's voice sends shivers up our spines. We are surrounded by careening trains, by the dangers of bombs, by mass shooters, collapsing skyscrapers, hurricanes, earth-quakes, homicides, overdose. It seems, any day, that our life will be demanded of us. And what will we have to leave behind? What will mark our time on earth? To whom will our carts and plastic bags belong then? It is not a glorious inheritance, but these are the boundaries of our small kingdom. We have not stored treasure up for ourselves. We have nothing to leave here.

But what is it to be rich in what matters to God? Our prophet leaves; he slips into the crowd, and we lose sight of him. He is gone. What is it to be rich in what matters to God? Are we rich in that way? we wonder. Unclear. We disperse, but our bags are lighter now. The man next to us who was bent over is walking straight now. There is a light in our eyes and a lightness in our step, because someone saw how fully human we are, and made us that again. Our activity has new purpose, a new richness, because we have some hope. And a mysterious new goal: to be rich in what matters to God. This strange man with his strange sense of wealth and kind, unsparing sense of humor has brought us hope. The artist next to us, wearing strange patterned leggings and a brightly colored blazer, her hair also matted--into trendy dreadlocks (saves money on shampoo)--is writing furiously. Her pen flows with the fire from the prophet's voice. She has found hope, too.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

the force of something lovely

 a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
--Luke 10:38

Theology is not for the faint of spirit (although it's ideal for the faint of body. No hard labor here). Staring down with mystery day in and day out is a recipe for a vertigo of the soul. Especially in studying something like systematics or the scriptures. The precariousness of history smacks you upside the face, and I can feel my mind drag my soul down rabbit holes of deconstruction. Each meal is flavored with bitter, salty doubt.

As I listen to the daily readings at mass I think: well, was this even true? True, as in, historically accurate. True, as in cold, hard facts. The sort of true that you don't find in your mother's love or a conversation with a friend. The sort of true that is available nowhere in life, outside of math.
There's no reason why it shouldn't be, but there are no compelling reasons that I can see for it to be.

I glance up from my words, and the morning sun shines across the backboard of my desk. Slats of light, elegantly cut from my blinds shimmer across the pictures of friends, my Hamilton playbill, and old birthday cards fixed on my pinboard. The sun creeps her way through the green light of the trees and scatters my kitchen table with warm light.

Something about that light is so magnificent, I have to write about it. I don't know what strange and sudden instinct it is inside of me that demands that beauty be praised by caging it in monochrome and one-dimensional lines on a page. But it is not a choice. It is an impulse beyond my control.

As I read of Mary sitting at the feet of the master, I think: this story is beautiful. And I believe. I believe that this story is the product of the force of beauty. Compelled by a beauty they can barely articulate, someone saw something quite beautiful, and they had to capture it in words. Perhaps everything else is muddled in the historical record, perhaps everything is garbled in the oral tradition. But the beauty of their original vision endures.