Monday, September 19, 2016

corps de ballet

I.

She dives through the air,
hanging from the light
without a safety net.
She will fall until
she finds the ground below her too far,
and doubles back.
up her invisible rope.

II.

Laden with dew from early morning fog,
silk threads of spiderwebs hang limp and damp,
bejeweled with liquid crystals
encrusting the fragile fabric of
a woven home.

III.

She's perched--
a queen on her
webbed throne--
life radiating out from her
succulent body,
woven into the threads that
support her abdomen,
swollen with blood.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

the death of the last Apostle

Margaret sits in her armchair. Her armchair is a cozy, white-and-yellow gingham chair from her mother's sitting room. Maggie remembers sitting in it many afternoons as the sunshine streamed in through the window, slats of sunlight shining through the crisp white shutters on the windows, creating shimmering, quivering bars of light and shadow on the floor. Dust danced in the sunlit air. Splayed out across the braided rug, she would read Nancy Drew or Agatha Christie and feel the sunlight bake the shiny maple floor of the sitting room. Then, the vinyl played the Beatles or Johnny Cash.

Now, it plays Chopin. Even on sunlight days, the blue raindrops of melancholy piano fills the room. And Margaret reads P.D James when she reads. Most days she just sits and watches the dust travel aimlessly in the sunlight. The sunlight catches all the soft grays and silvers on Margaret's soft head and lights up her fluffy white hair like a constant golden hour.

Margaret is very old. Most days she can't quite remember how old she is. She can remember how old her daughter is, however. Her daughter is sixty. But doesn't look a day over thirty, Margaret thinks.

Margaret has a world of memories in her head. Very small ones, like baking an apple pie in October, with fresh apples picked from the apple trees out back. The apples are small and very tart. They have a few holes from birds' beaks or worms, leaving them looking somewhat misshapen. But they are rosy and warm with autumn sap.

She remembers when the city paved their street one summer. The smell of tar and fresh asphalt baking mixes in her memory with the sounds of children running around the yard playing tag, and climbing trees out in the back, and her daughter running inside with blood dripping from her knee.

She remembers lying out in the dark November night, watching the Perseids under flannel sleeping bags, and drinking hot chocolate with grainy synthetic marshmallows. She remembers the odd ombre mauve of the night sky, and the small streaks of light against the inky vault of sky.

She remembers the feel of cold water from the waterfalls trickling over her toes. It feels like mountain air and mist rolling over the rocks, tumbling through the moss and through the dogwood trees.

All these memories fly around in sunlight like specks of dust. And will vanish in the corduroy shadows when the blinds close.

Friday, September 16, 2016

first time sandwich-maker

The young boy behind the counter, in his black uniform, and bright yellow apron, worked at the pace of glaciers carving the Mississippi.
Instead of reading, my eyes kept wandering off the page up to counter behind the deli glass, mesmerized by his methodical, gentle movements.
He lifted the egg white discs off the industrial baking sheet with thoughtful, delicate motions. Gently, he slid a plastic-gloved finger underneath each gelatinous circle and loosened it from where the heat had melded it to the pan. With the utmost care, he stacked each circle on the other, lightly placing a thin sheet of waxed paper between them. His movements were meditative and precise, full of the prayerfulness of monks illuminating vellum.

Hot oven, he called tentatively as he pulled the toasting bagel out of the industrial robot-like oven (nothing of the home or hearth about it), warning his fellow workers of the danger of the oven door. But he had the certain authority of one who is following the safety protocol to the letter, betrayed by his novice zeal.

He gently placed an egg disc on the hot bagel. Next, he cut an avocado. Thoughtfully, and with precision, he sliced the green fruit into wedges.

He scooped them from the dark rind, and gently splayed them on the bagel's top half. He carefully arranged the slices, so they fanned out, a lush peacock's tail on the burnt bread background. Meticulously, he turned each one so that it rested on her neighbor, until the bagel half was covered with undulating waves of green.

Once the sandwich was assembled, he carefully wrapped the bagel in foil, tucking in each corner, folding it to make a clean and perfect package.

I'm sorry I got avocado on here, pointing to the ticket, extending the foil-wrapped bagel cheerfully, arms stiff with shyness.

Oh don't worry about it.
And thank you.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

you gave me backbone

and if I could I'd go back further
to the times before I knew you
to the pictures that sometimes scream inside my head
as if there are some kinds of sadness even you cannot contain
I'd hold your hand there in that shadowy darkness
whisper that it will be ok
we'll be together soon
--Mother, by Alvy Carragher

My "field research" over the entire year has been the relationship between mothers and daughters. As I witness interactions between friends and their mothers, my sisters and our mothers, or other mother-daughter pairs in general, I have been jotting down mental notes.

The relationship of mothers and daughters is anything but easy. There is, it seems, a toxic but inevitable play of resentment and guilt that colors the deep intimacy of mother and daughters.

As a daughter, you know that you have inherited the world from someone. This world is given to you from a certain perspective, we come into the world already carrying our parents' baggage, and the sins of our parents certainly bear fruit in us. How could they not? We do not experience the world as an impersonal laboratory or a pleasant vacuum of nature. Our world is, quite literally, the people we are born to. We first enter the world contained inside the body of another. How could we not be affected by her beating heart, her nightmares, her laughter, the food she eats, the emotions that run through her fingers and her spine, and the stories that she carries with her each day. We are captive to this person. We cannot ask or choose our parents, we are given to them, and from the very beginning of our journey, our course is marked by particularities we cannot control.

How can you not resent these imperfect creatures for being imperfect? How can you not despise their scars, because you see them reflected so clearly in your own heart?

From all my research, I have found that mothers feel immense guilt for not being perfect. It makes so much sense. We see our anxieties and imperfections begin to mark our children; how could we not hate ourselves for being absolutely, vitally perfect?

But we inherit so much more than a set of qualities from our mothers. We do not simply inherit blue eyes and genetic predispositions for anxiety. We inherit from them a story, a living story that we are part of. We are born into a narrative. Like all stories, it is full of pain and imperfections. It is full of scars, wounds, and sadnesses. And we are born into a wound. Our very birth creates a wound inside our mother's body. Our arrival in the world is marked from the start with woundedness.

But how miraculous that our arrival is not into a company we must earn to keep. We are born into a web of relationship even as we breach. From birth, our identities are etched with a character we did not ask for. Our very self is fraught with meanings we never intended, but were born into.

We are born into the world our mothers made for us.

Even in the hurt, the family bickering, and the pain, there is something beautiful in all that.

My mother would say little on the way home,
her eyes now and then filling with tears.
Perhaps she was thinking of that garden,
the one she tried to replicate year after year,
every last pole bean and zinnia,
the one she left to me.
--Mothers and Daughters, Jo McDougall

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

mechanics of mercy

Their wings drooping like cloaks,
dipping into the swampy summer waters of the lake,
two vultures perch on the branches that
turret out from the bank,
two dark swans roosting in the trees.

The daughter vulture
looks up into
her mother's carrion-hungry
eyes.

We only have a few fish,
she says
well that's enough,
her mother croaks,

The fragments are abundance
as it is.

Monday, September 12, 2016

weather patterns

Lord, there will be storms
cold will not displace
heat without a
war
and summer
will not be usurped,
or give o'er her kingdom
without a fight.

The nip of a new season
bites our face,
with careless
concupiscence,
lascivious lover
that she is.

Hidden in sunshine,
the autumn wind
surreptitiously
sneaks into the
flowering goldenrod,
black-eyed susans,
and cornflowers,
whispering of
their imminent
end

Sunday, September 11, 2016

naturalia

How is it that reading
small lines of black and white
invariable and unchanging
dead and cold
is supposed to uncover
the mystery of force
and growth,
change and love?

How will we come to know
the love that blows the
grass up from the ground,
that pulls the sun
from sunup to sundown
if we never run
in dappled forests,
sunshine pouring
through rustling leaves,
fresh and virginal;

if we never spin
under the sun-roof of the sky,
her blue so deep it burns our eyes,
saturated with violet sun,
so close we can almost touch
her plump and fulsome clouds
that migrate from horizon to horizon;

if we never marvel at
the elegance of swans,
the simple mechanics of a
summer squirrel,
hoarding his nuts away for autumn;

if we never see
glassy lakes mirror trees,
so perfectly,
a new world is created in the water;

if we never raise our eyes
from simple sidewalks
to see a sky pock-marked
with lights from other worlds;

if we never look?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

it's on again

Darling when you wake, remind me what we've done
That can't be shared, or saved, or even sung

There are some songs that hold within them worlds, stories, and movements of our lives.

I began to play Familiarity, and the twinkly strums of the Punch Brother's strings filled Meredith's room, with the throbbing, abrupt, erratic beats of the rhythm punching underneath.

As we listen to it together, I find myself suddenly not in her room. Although my body may be there, the interior me is transported back several months. It's as though my body is simply an empty shell, inhabited by different hermit crabs. As the song begins to play, I swap out the current crab for an older, more familiar crab.

You know it and so do your friends
And you can sing together 

Instantly, I felt myself back at my desk at school, in the midst of April ennui, pounding away at lesson plans, editing spreadsheets, or grading computer quizzes. I could feel my feet tapping away under my desk, and turning to make faces with Joe, listening to the buzz of talk in the faculty room hum behind me.

A ringing bell, or programmed drums or both
I couldn't tell but I rejoice

During the crescendos, I feel all the possibility and promise of May pour back into my heart and veins. Spring in New York is full of vitality: of sap rushing through living things: of blood rushing to the head. Like ivy, it overtakes me, it seeps into my blood like intoxication.

We've come together over we know not what

As the drums spin off into an allegro, I repress the urge to jump on my bed, as I did one June afternoon in my sunny East Harlem bedroom. Unbidden, a smile creeps over my face, as my heart pounds in time to the music. I feel sidewalks under my feet. I see the East Village around me: that stretch of Avenue A between 14th and 13th street. I hear the roar of summer wind around me.

I see an end where I don't love you like I can

The tender, lilting voice of the violin milking melancholy chords reminds me, with a sharply sad sweetness, of the lake outside my window at Kylemore Abbey, and the smell of mountain air rippling across the lawn into my room. I'm reminded of the ascetic concrete floors, and the luxurious pillows. I'm reminded of the damp greenhouse of the mountainside, of climbing waterfalls, of rolling down hills. I'm reminded of the rich abundance of July, and the fresh feeling of floating through the day, the soft trills of melody billowing through my room along with the sunshine and mountain wind.

Though I'm not sure where we'll go
To worship more than what we know

As the final, spellbindingly suspenseful notes, gently drip out of the speakers, inconclusive and elegant, I remember all the feelings of the beauty of living inside of a liminal space. Where life is moving forward, the world is shifting under your feet, and each day pushes you forward into something unfamiliar and new. But, in the background, there is a theme constantly humming, running up and down like the opening notes of the mandolin. It weaves its way into every morning as you brush your teeth in the sunlight. It works its ways into your day, as you sing it softly to yourself in class and into your toes tapping inside your shoes. And it lingers behind your eyelids as you fall asleep to the sounds of the ambulance sirens roaring by.

Now, it contains all of those moments, and each punch of the drum brings them all flooding back to you: an entire world contained in each note.

As long as you're there I won't be alone

Friday, September 9, 2016

things as they are (circa April 2016)

Those who are waiting are waiting very actively... If we wait in the conviction that a seed has been planted and that something has already begun, it changes the way we wait. Active waiting implies being fully present to the moment with the conviction that something is happening where we are and that we want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, believing that this moment is the moment." - Henri Nouwen, The Path of Waiting

My friend sent me the above quote last week, when I was waiting.
Over the past couple of months I have been waiting for many things: waiting to decide on a graduate school, waiting for winter in New York to end, waiting to see my boyfriend, waiting for all the puzzle pieces of life to drop into place.

About three weeks ago, I was jolted from my passive waiting, as I visited Grad School A, and I thought: this is what is happening. 
I didn't want Grad School A to be what was happening. But there it was.

And if that was what was happening, then I needed to fix my lack of want towards it. My emotions and desires were bucking and pulling away from the reality presented. When our emotions are jarring with reality we have two options: conform reality to fit our desires, or conform our desires to fit our reality. And the latter seemed like the more plausible option at this point.

--

The word "waiting" to me instantly signifies a suspension of movement. When I think of the word "waiting" I think of everything coming to a halt, a pause, a stagnation. You are simply stuck, you cannot move forward, as you sit and wait for the light to turn green.

Waiting, however, is actually where all the real work of living happens. The real journey is the story of what we do between now, when what we want is just a desire, and then, when we are united to it.

Over the past months, I discovered each moment of waiting was such a grace.

Seeing this waiting differently started on a run one very warm weekend day in February. I thought to myself: How embarrassing will it be if I don't get into Grad School C? That is what I thought.

Whoa, whoa, Renée, I responded (to myself). What does that even mean? What's that attitude all about?
Well, it means, if you don't get in, you were not smart enough, and not intelligent enough to get in. In short, not worthy.
Interesting, Renée, so conversely: if I do get in, it will prove that I did it, all on my lonesome. That I am the End-All-Be-All-of-Magnificent?

Or, rather, will it not be simply gift?

Is it not true that the only reason we have received the gifts we have is because of the goodness of others? We find the gifts we do because of the goodness of the men and women who have mentored us to where we are now; the goodness of our parents; the kindness of many thousand strangers.

Are not the good things we received simply gift upon gift?

--

When I was waitlisted at Notre Dame, my prayer of waiting became: Lord, help me to see what is happening. Help me to see things as they are, not as I would have them.

I have these desires: may they not blind me, but rather illuminate the path. Help me to see the deep reality of the present moment, and the movements occurring within it. Help me to see the present moment, because the present moment opens up into the future.
What is is the story. Not what might be.

We have to find the story to find reality. Finding the story means accepting our part in it: our denial is part of the story, our inaction, our actions, the things in our control, what is out of control, our despised emotions, our ignored emotions, and all the deep Mariana Trenches of mystery that slosh around inside of us that we explore painstakingly, with care, with only one small submarine light for guide.

But that is what waiting is for. Waiting is a search for the present moment, and trusting that what is truly present will guide us into the future.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

the foundations

a small drop of blood,
sprinkled on the altar,
clots and clings to the white marble,
staining the porous stone.

the thick,
wine-dark,
violet drop
trickles down her alabaster leg,
descends,
leaving a small red stream
and scent of iron--

a pure oblation

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

she does not lack roots

We are thus called to translate into concrete acts that which we invoke in prayer and profess in faith.  There is no alternative to charity.
--Papa Francesco, Mama T's Canonization Homily

I was walking through Chicago, waiting for my train. I passed a young boy, who was holding a sign, saying: I'm a good kid. And asking for assistance.

How did I walk by him and do nothing?

But I did do something. I smiled (weak) and prayed for him.

I blush to write those words, which are clearly (so clearly) not enough.

Which caused me to wonder: is prayer an action?

There are people who live on the margins. Even at Notre Dame, there is a homeless man who stands on the street corner by the golf course. On the other side of the fence, there are very rich children, among them myself, living lives mostly ignorant of the homeless man who stands on the street corner by the golf course.

I wonder what charity looks like towards this man. Right now, I smile at him from my car and wave. Because I'm not bold enough to do nothing, and not good enough to do something.

---


Is prayer enough? I wonder. I do not know what prayer is. Is prayer an action of charity, when no other action is possible?
Prayer is certainly not an excuse. It is not a band-aid to place on wounds when we are too lazy to fetch the First Aid kit.

What is prayer?

Is prayer not our conversation with God? Is not prayer an intimate moment with God, a moment of relationship with Him. Most of our relationships are mediated through words, but also through silence, quality time, and giving gifts. It seems that prayer is all these things. It is learning about the person we are in relationship with, it is listening to them, it is sharing ourselves with them, it is letting them into our life.

Perhaps prayer is cultivating right relationship with God.

So where do other people have a place in this?

It seems that God, who contains the whole cosmos, has an interest in us understanding Him.
It seems to me that the whole cosmos, then, has the potential to reveal God to us, and that we will know God better and better as we know the whole cosmos better and better.
It seems a good place to start is the human being next to you who is, I'm told, an image of God.

It seems that self-portraits of an artist reveal a lot about who that artist is.

So it seems that other people have a place in our prayer, too.
Perhaps the more we dive most deeply into God, the more other people have a place in our prayer.
If prayer is cultivating right relationship with God, perhaps praying for other people is cultivating right relationship with them.

Right relationship meaning relating to them as I ought to, as is their due, according to their dignity.

So perhaps, as I pray for someone, I heal something in our relationship. Or heals something between them and God, or dares to enter into their relationship with God. Perhaps prayer is placing ourselves as a mediator between God and the other. That is quite bold, to insert ourselves into that relationship, where angels dare to tread. But how powerful that then must be.

But back to us: with prayer, our relationship turns into something less of self and more of reality. (It seems to me that growing up means growing more and more out of the shoebox of your own experience and into the wild and glorious world of reality.)

So perhaps, as I pray for someone, I have brought them into unity or community with me. If I have brought them into community with me, I may have more clarity on how to act towards them with love aka caritas. Because my relationship with them is not just a projection of my self or will, but is a relationship of reality. A relationship of love.

It seems to me that charity means bringing those in the margins into community with us, in quite a real way. Which seems to me to be a form of prayer.

But perhaps it is better articulated as such: perhaps prayer is not charity, but charity is prayer.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

first principles

what do you want?

Bury your unhappiness
deep into the soil
and watch as nature takes what is honest
but selfish
and knits it into
the pattern of her many lives.

To reach the mountain peak--
     feel the pull of soil
        underneath your fingertips
         
            test each rock
                for solid grip
                    and footing---
suddenly
your face is brushed
by a bracing wind
no grass withstands
just gorse growing in
sheltered crevices

listen--
to the silence of the wind
to the muted bleating of the sheep

nothing burns here
but rock and stars.

Monday, September 5, 2016

song of the displaced

things should not have occurred otherwise than as they are

I want to soak up
the poetry of the world
that ekes and oozes
out of every corner
of the grass and
shimmers on the undersides
of oak leaves
I want to satiate
my spongy soul
on reality which flickers
in the wings of doves
riding a gust of wind
or does that lope through
speckled shadows
and then squeeze her out,
until the last drop
hits the page
and I am at a loss.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

let us return to the stars

So they turned their minds away from intelligible reality and began to consider themselves.
--Athanasius, Against the Gentiles

Last night was a clear night. Miraculously, there was no permacloud. I noticed this while driving in the taxi from the airport back to home. And the driver had the windows open, and I tasted the cool night air. And it struck me how pleasant the night was. It was not sticky and hot and humid as so much of August was. What a nice night this is, I exclaimed, in de riguer taxi small talk.

The driver agreed and conversation ended there. And I stopped the click-clack of texting and just sat and felt the breeze on my face and noticed that there were stars.

So I dropped my bags at home, got in the car, and drove out into the darkness. I kept driving until I felt that I was on the border of getting lost and being lost. So I pulled over into a parking lot appropriately close to the darkness of the river.

I turned off the headlights of the car (which made me feel like a villain in a Nancy Drew novel). I sat on the hood and looked up.

I have seen night skies filled to the brim with stars. So that no part of the surface is free from small indications of interstellar light. There were too many lights from homes and the Seventh Day Adventist church near-by: even the few lights of homes polluted the sky too much.

But it was a real sky. There was not a cloud in sight, and the horizon was trimmed with an elegant fringe of treetops, uninterrupted by a turret or steeple. The stars of the always-visible Ursa Major pointed up to polaris, and my eyes followed their line up to a field of stars. The night was full of lights. And I stared upward, gazing into the whirling dizziness of the universe.

The sky was littered with stars, which was what I was hoping for: to look up and see even the shy stars that disappear quickly in well-lit suburbs. The stars were scattered across the sky, in varying depths and densities. Their brightness did not appear like the calculating brightness of mechanical lights. They felt alive: bursting with fire and even more motion than the airplane lights that cut through the bottom of the night sky.

I wondered what the ancients thought about these miraculous lights in the sky. Did it give them a sense of perspective and depth? Perhaps even they tried to tame them, by putting them in set spheres and orbs. Humans are always trying to box the universe in. Or drown it out with their own din and clatter. I think I imagine that the ancients were more in touch with the universe, because they were less technologically advanced. I suppose all that means is that they weren't as successful at drowning out reality. The instinct to contemplate anything besides that which is is very strong in us.

But the universe, no matter how much I try to ignore it, shove it into the limiting shoebox of my experience, or drown it out, is there: pulsing in the sky, alit with cold fire, whirling, dizzying, magical, enchanting, mystifying and full of awe.

It pulls me out of my little heart into a deeper love. It fills me down to the soles of my feet with fear, and sends shivers up and down my spine of beauty. This world is inexplicable. And may I always remain speechless in the face of her majesty.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

lights we cannot see

cities are throbbing bloodstreams
pedestrians flowing through lanes of traffic
like so many million erythrocytes
the fun flows freely here
and we grow intoxicated
on glamorous anonymity.

our lives are spent
trying to convince our hearts
that anything else
but
the midnight sky
the ocean's cry
the tickle of fresh grass
sunlight hitting old trees
snow falling in silence
a blooming tomato plant
holding our infant brother
weeding basil in the garden
that terrifying love
which rips open our hearts
and stamps its insoluble
face upon our memory
will make us happy.

Do you want to be well?
reach for the nearest substitute--
you are too afraid for joy.

the city is a great place
to forget how happy the stars made you

Friday, September 2, 2016

a detonation

Faith is a blind leap
I believe because it's absurd
and is not beauty just absurd?
the sunset: absurd
a mother's love: absurd
the curve of the oak tree's
vein-y bark: absurd
my father's crows-feet: absurd

Is it not absurd to leap towards another human being
to think that they can contain in them some thing 
salubrious
for you
what in this world can be proved
beyond the magician's doubt
is it not folly 
to think that there is a magic to the world
that I can look at another human being and see them
see them not just 
a projection of myself
or a synthesis of all their parts
but a true shape
is there not an absurdity 
to the beating of our hearts
that somehow know one another

if we break down all our mysteries
to find what is sure
boil everything down to
something we've named
first principles
(ignoring the deep mystery
and magic 
roaring underneath them)
all we are left holding
is a resilient sprig of beauty

Thursday, September 1, 2016

this path of mine is beautiful

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
--The More Loving One, W.H. Auden

Someone made an excellent point in class: light works by participation. Once you see the light, you are one with the light, even if you are in the darkness. Because your eyes have seen the light. Light cannot be seen without entering into you a little bit. You have to become familiar with the light, because it gets into your cones and rods and corneas and makes itself known there.

Even if your whole life if you sit in darkness, you are still in the light. You have still experienced a bit of the light inside of yourself. Or, rather, the light is in you. It is in your eyes, it's vision still bounces around in your memory. You cannot erase the memory of the light. It will always be there. Perhaps hidden away in some deep memory you never excavate. But it is there.

Once there is light, darkness is not quite complete. There is a little wedge of darkness that is no longer darkness, but light. Darkness has lost its comprehensive character, and just becomes a shadow. Shadows are darkness that exist because of light. Even the shadows--the darkness of the shadows--becomes partakers in the light.

Once there is light, there is nothing more than light.