Tuesday, January 31, 2017

talitha cumi

The would-be believers who sometimes ask me for help with prayer often say it seems hypocritical to turn to God only now during whatever crisis is forcing them toward it. But no one I know has ever turned to God any other way. ... Maybe saints turn to God to exalt him, from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding a tin cup.
--Mary Karr, "Facing Altars"

On the rocky shore, the crowds crush in around Jesus, alighting from the boat. As he faces the sea of faces on the shoreline, the man of sorrows is already bearing the burdens of them all. He steps off the boat, into the throng of smelly, sweating humans, into their lives, into the hopes shining in their eyes, the curiosity lurking around the corners of their smiles, the suspicion, consternation, doubts, and fears creasing between their eyelids. The pains that wrack their limbs and weary their hearts. He senses the weight of all these lives, and bears them on his young shoulders, like so many lambs.

A man is elbowing his way frantically through the crowd. He is clearly a wealthy man, a fellow who ranks. Normally, perhaps, the crowd would part before him, but there are too many people, too unconcerned with others' problems to make room. The man bursts through a mother holding her son's hand, collides with a disciple, and falls to the ground. Is he injured? Is he mad? Jesus reaches towards the crumpled figure as the disciples lift him off the ground. Rabboni, he cries, catching his breath between words, as a man who is not accustomed to running does after a long sprint. My little daughter is at the point of death. Tears threaten to spill out of his eyes. One escapes. It trickles down a gully on his face, a route clearly blazed by many sister tears before her. Come and lay your hands on her, I beg you, he grabs Jesus' sandals, so he cannot walk away. Come and lay your hands on her, master, he looks right up into the face of God, Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.

Jesus considers Jairus, clinging to his feet, pleading with his panicked eyes. He is Jairus' last resort. That much is clear. This is a man who is grasping at a last chance, reaching for a miracle, even though he is a skeptic. He has no where else to turn. Jesus sees he is the last resort, and does not resent that status. The Alpha and Omega is accustomed to serving as the final recourse for those who prefer to stand on their own two feet, forgetting from whom those feet came. It is to be the final hope for the hopeless that he has come into the world. He lifts Jairus to his feet. Take me to your home, he says. Jairus crumbles at his feet again, to kiss them in a wordless thanks. Quickly, says the Master, as the disciples lift Jairus to his feet, kindly, with a reverential compassion. Jairus turns, and barks instructions to his servant, as he shares directions with Peter. Jesus follows, surrounded by a swarm of souls, swallowing him up in their crush of life, their interest now doubly piqued. 

A woman is in this crowd. This woman is unclean. She wraps her skin around her frame tightly, careful not to touch the righteous ones around her. She wraps her cloak around her, as blood leaks from her body underneath her dress. She has sought for healing everywhere, and has alway departed with empty hands. She has sought for something to fill this emptiness inside of her, for something to staunch this eternal flow of blood. She has held so many men on so many dark nights, feeling emptier than loneliness. Her empty arms are less lonely than their embraces. None of these doctors have remedied her ailing heart. Each walks away, carrying a bit of her away with them. She has been depleted. Each new love tearing new holes, leaving new cavities of emptiness crying for something--or one--to fill them. They have taken all that she has. There is nothing left.

And still the blood flows. 

She has darted and bobbed and ducked through the crowd. She is--her breath catches in her throat--she is right behind him. She should call out. This man can heal her. Right? Surely he must be able to. She should call to him Rabboni. Master. Sir. Make me well. She cannot dare. What will this crowd say, knowing such a putrid woman is in their midst? He will send her away. He is a righteous man; he cannot touch her.

He has stopped, stooped down to speak to an elderly cripple with a gammy leg. She is right behind him. She cannot speak. With a flicker as quick as serpent's tongue, her fingers dart forth and clutch the rough wool of his cloak. A flash of something runs through her body. What is this? Some lighting has charged her blood with life, has rinsed through her sore and broken body and touched the vital spirits of her heart. What is this new feeling?

Who touched me?

The question is gentle, curious. A power has left him. He did not will it to do so. Not, at least, consciously. Most of the crowd does not hear his question, as the man has simply addressed it to his disciples. They are peeved with the ubiquitous crowds. They did not sign up for this. You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say "Who touched me?" says the man who looks like the Master. This man has his hand on Jesus' shoulder. The Master removes his brother's hand. Who touched me? he says to the crowd around him. 

Does she dare to come forward?

Who touched me? 

She cannot hide now.

She steps forward, trembling. Trembling in fear. What will this man do? He is a righteous man. Her touch has made him unclean. 

mysterium tremendum et fascinans
Trembling in fear of this new life inside of her. What has happened inside her blood? What holy mystery has miracled inside her?

Sir, I touched you. 

The crowd parts around her.
She falls to the ground. He is opposite of her. Looking into her face.

She cannot meet his gaze. But she knows he already knows the story. He knows about the men. He knows about the emptiness. He knows about how cracked and dry her heart is, empty. No doctor can heal me. Nothing heals me. I am desert. Desert, irrigated by blood.
He demands the truth, although he knows it all already.
She tells him.

I am unclean.  I thought, 'If I touch his garments, even, I will be made clean.'

He kneels down. He is squatting in front of her, and lifts up her chin, looking into her face. He is, again, the last resort. And he is not bitter at being so, he does not begrudge her this one last recourse.

Daughter: your faith has made you well: go in peace, and be healed of your disease.

Now that she has seen his eyes she cannot look away. She takes his hands and kisses them, burying her face in them in gratitude. He rests his hand upon her hair in blessing. No doctor can heal as this man, no embrace has felt as sweet as the blessing that flows through her blood.

Here is what she has been seeking all her life.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

take that and eat it

To kneel and pray in this sate is almost physically painful. At best, it's like talking into a bucket. At worst, you feel like a chump, some heartsick fool still pasting up valentines for a long-gone cad.
--Mary Karr, "Facing Altars'

In the sun-soaked wooden ordinary chapel, it seems hard to believe that this is all quite real. The rainbow prisms of light refracted from the stained glass windows dance across the warm wood floor--are we not just these?--prisms of light that dance for a while here on the floor, and then fade as the dance disappears in the shadows of sunset.

I think my mind is pushing too much to the boundaries of the world. The world feels like an elastic cage, which can only bear so much expansion before it snaps. Do my fellow mass-goers in the chapel feel this dread?--the dread of being just a puff of light on an unknown floor, which can be snapped, blown away, flicked into oblivion with nary a finger. Or do they keep their minds in check and keep the horror and the angst at bay? Are all our minds careening towards the outer limits of our worlds, flinging themselves towards the cosmos' peripheries as quickly as they expand, reaching to the fringe, where all that reality fades into empty void?

It is quite difficult to make peace with reality, particularly when there exists this sun-soaked world of eschatos in the midst of war and suffering. Which one is real? How can both be?

My mind is spinning into dark inside my body of prismatic light. What are the visions of our eyes but so many molecules, light, shadow, movement, deceptive in its stillness? What are our memories but records of these pathetically piecemeal past impressions? None can be trusted.

The anchor in this world of dark seems to be the Eschatos Himself, hanging, dark wooden corpse in the midst of this light chapel. He seems quite real. But is He? I see myself, a small, quivering beam of light clinging to that dark wood, praying He is the one solid anchor in a world of fleeting forms.

Friday, January 20, 2017

kiss of peace

In our heart of hearts, there is nothing we know better than that our knowledge ordinarily so-called, is only a tiny island in the immense ocean of the unexplored.
--Karl Rahner

Walking towards the library, in the brightly-lit snowy morning, the nutty flavor of the espresso rolling over my tongue, tasting of Italy's blue sky, Mediterranean sun, coffee shops in Trastevere. This is the sort of coffee you can get behind. It has a lush body, thick legs, and it walks all over your papillae with hot confidence.

The snow is falling down in thick, fluffy flakes stuck together is small clusters that melt on your eyelashes and ice your coat in crystals. This is the sort of snow you can get behind. Gentle, it falls with delicate sensitivity. It sticks lightly to the ground, and builds upon itself, until it has knitted itself into a tight tea cozy covering the earth. You kick the snow on the sidewalk, and it flies up in a sparkle of frozen fireworks.

The permacloud has descended over South Bend, after a brief respite of glorious sun. But the permacloud made it possible for trees to grow here, south of Lake Michigan. Trees can grow even here, in the midst of the Indiana plains. And though it makes us feel like we live for five months underneath a blanket, it gives us the beautiful sycamore outside my window, the birch and pine trees that line the lakes, the glorious, craggy arboreal monoliths on God quad.

It is easy to write off the permacloud as annoying. It is easy to write off another human as discovered. But we cannot love what we are not constantly rediscovering. It takes away my breath to find that each new day the earth looks just as beautiful as she did yesterday, but in a glorious new way. The monotony of nature is not monotonous. It is divine. Even the people that we see each morning bring surprises. We discover that his eyes are blue. How could I never notice that before? I am constantly in awe at how the world grows past us, beyond us. The limits of the universe are expanding past our knowledge even as we speak, we can never outgrow her.

We know better than anything else that the essential question facing us in knowledge is whether we love the little island of our so-called knowledge better than the ocean of the infinite mystery.
--Karl Rahner

Thursday, January 19, 2017

a brief and no doubt illusory

I just watched a squirrel fall from a tree, heard his bones crack against the pavement as he let out a small squeak of terror and protest. That small but vicious crack struck a chord of pathos magnified by its tiny nature. It was not the sound of giant knuckles cracking, but of delicate structures smashed against the hard cruelty of manufactured concrete.

Where was the soft, absorbent earth of mother nature, that could have rushed to meet her little child and ushered him to safety with a gentle roll and tilt?

Squirrels are those invincible little pests that we allow ourselves to grow annoyed with, because they have an unflappable air of invincibility. Canada geese are avians of the same ilk. Nothing about squirrels (particularly of the Midwestern variety) appears to be vulnerable or fragile. They rummage through garbage bins with disgusting nonchalance, they approach us to beg for our food with eerie boldness. They saunter about with the insouciance of an animal who possesses a much higher rank on the food chain. It is easy to laugh at an arrogant creature, but watching the world deal a blow to the pert little rodent calls for tears.

I watched with dismay this morning as a goose, capsized in the turgid St. Joseph river, paddled her small webbed feet desperately in the air, attempting to right herself. Her wing had caught on something submerged below the frigid water, and her attempts to pull it free were fraught with the desperation of an individual surrounded by a complacent collective. Finally, she wrestled her wing free, and paddled quickly away, her companions barely registering the scene.

The squirrel who fell was chased out of the tree by a vicious and territorial little rascal. I watched the squirrel's descent, and marveled to see that he leapt gingerly away, nothing broken enough to handicap him. He hopped quickly away towards a neighboring grove of trees a secure several feet away. The bully chased another squirrel down out of the tree, scampering around the knotted knobs of the pine tree, shrieking loudly.

The injured squirrel scampered off, running over the shoes of a graduate student walking towards the parking lot. The graduate student seemed unconcerned, the squirrel seemed to have larger concerns than the possible threat of this human.

My first instinct was an image: of lifting up that fallen squirrel and rocking him gently in my arms. Consoling him in his pain. It's an anthropomorphic instinct: to attribute to the squirrel human-like pain, and to wish to give him a humanly antidote. In chapter 9 of The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis meditates on animal pain, and begins by invoking the utter mystery of the animal world: we know neither the ultimate reason why animals were made nor do we fully understand who these creatures are. All thought about them must be, to some extent, a projection (which human beings have been doing, in mistaken but not misfiring empathetic instinct, since the beginning of time) of ourselves and our experience of the world upon them, and stutters and stumblings in the dark.

Pain, it would seem, occurs in them, but perhaps it is incorrect to say they feel it, particularly the mental anguish that accompanies human pain. I wonder what sort of pain the squirrel felt as his bones cracked on the pavement. But I thought then that I would never want to greet that pain--whatever its appearance, in the smallest or largest creature--with theorizing or indifference. The world is full of too much human pain, it seems like that would exhaust our empathy. But I hope I greet all pain--human and animal, pain I have caused, and pain through natural causes--with that instinct to rush towards it and sweep it up in my arms.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

some thoughts on feminism

Praying the Litany of the Saints with friends this evening, I thought of what a beautiful prayer the litany is to begin the year. There, we pray with all those holy scholars, hermits, simple folk who have gone before us. We begin the new year in a community, reminding ourselves that we always are in community, and our community transcends the one gathered in the wooden chapel at twilight.

Yet I found myself taken aback, as I sat in Malloy chapel, praying along with my friends, that there were so few women named in this list of the blessed. Given that fifty percent (roughly?) of all humans created are women, I would assume that fifty percent of those enjoying the beatific vision are also women. I would presume, in a topic that does not bear presumption, that there are equal numbers of holy women as men.

Yet in the litany, the women were tacked onto the end, just a small fraction of women amidst a large list of men. I am not advocating for the removal or diminution of any of those men. But I thought of how our lack of female saintly figures is going to impact our image of sainthood. Saints are not just virgins and widows. I thought of the saints I have seen in my own life: my mother, Simone Weil, Flannery O'Connor, Annie Dillard, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, so many sisters, daughters, mothers, single women, women who make art, women who teach, women who care for corporations, women who carve out the Kingdom in this filthy world, women I have been privileged to witness living out holiness. Perhaps they will quietly go into the darkness, their witness never being recorded. But it is not they who will be hurt if they are not remembered: it is the Church who will be weakened for forgetting the brilliant lives of half her members.

It is not the Church's fault she has lived in a world that has tended to forget the lives of women, a history that is focused mostly on the feats of men. But it is something to be conscious of. And perhaps the Church can (does, and has) lead the charge in being a keeper of women's stories.

Just a thought.
--

Speaking of stories, I recently watched Hell or High Water, which is an excellent contemporary Western cowboy movie, set in the sticks of West Texas. My grandmother hails from West Texas, and she had just been telling me how paradisiacal she thought it was in her youth, when I encountered the less-than-Eden-like world presented in David Mackenzie's 21st century Western. It's a beautiful film: about brotherly love, about the tension of modernity and tradition, about honor, sacrifice, and love. It's the quintessential American bandit movie: the outlaw as the quintessential Individual who stands up to The Man.

It's a beautiful film. As is Lion. As is Manchester by the Sea. As are, I'm sure Moonlight and Hacksaw Ridge. As I made my way through the Golden Globe Best Picture nominees, I was struck by how all these movies are all about men. The ones I have seen so far are all beautiful pieces of art: deeply felt, elegant, meditations on filial and familial relations, on pain, on moving on, on the simple and catastrophic tragedies that shape our lives, and how we mold ourselves around them. But they are stories about brothers, not sisters; they are stories of fathers, not mothers; stories of men finding themselves and women as their guideposts along the way.

These are true stories. They are beautiful stories. They are stories worth telling.

But if we never see the inverse, again, it is we who suffer.
If we never see stories of women finding their way home, of mothers healing from deep tragedies, of sisters sacrificing for each other, of women coping with change, and the men they encounter along the way, then our picture of the human race will only be half-developed. Rich stories will be left un-explored.

--

This week, the Women's March encountered their own drama, as they removed the pro-life group New Wave Feminists from their list of event sponsors. I had so desperately want to go to Washington to march, and seeing this news, and the backlash against this pro-life feminist group from fellow feminists filled me with great frustration and sadness.

I thought of a passage from Rowan Williams' book on the Resurrection which speaks of Christ the victim. God is ultimately identified with our victim. No matter what, God is always on the side of the person we have oppressed. "God is with the powerless, the excluded," writes Williams. We must see the face of Christ in ALL victims or none at all, argues Williams. We must not simply see God in those it is fashionable to stand in solidarity with. We must see "Christ as criminal, Christ as madman, Christ as alcoholic vagrant: all this and more is implied in the unconditional identification of God with the victim." (Resurrection, p. 19)

The moment we begin to oppress someone, the moment we inflict violence upon someone, Christ is always identified with the person we have hurt: our mother, when we speak sharp words, the cat-caller on the street we spurn, the unborn child. Oppression and violence are not wrong because our victim is innocent or guilty. Oppression and violence are wrong because our victim is human. A human who is Christ's image, even perhaps a morally culpable human, should never be violated or victimized. Christ, the scorned man, the man despised by others, is always identified with the victim.

Feminism is a position of non-violence. Therefore, violence towards the unborn is entirely unacceptable. Of course, it is a woman's right to choose what to do with her body. That is entirely undeniable. But, there are, of course, limits to every right. There are correct things to do and not do with our bodies, which are not dictated to us by men, but spoken to us by our hearts. I completely understand why women are pro-choice, why many women see this as a necessary option in a world that is mostly against them. As much as I disagree, I would be proud to march alongside them, knowing that we have a common goal of working for a more equal world for women, even if there is division between us. But I really cannot understand why fellow feminists would reject marching alongside a woman who believed that women can achieve liberation and equality through non-violent means. In fact, non-violence is the only way any group of humans will ever achieve true liberation and equality. Violence enslaves. And violating our sacred bodies, and the rights of our sacred offspring to live is never a path to liberation.

Also, in the sexist world we live in, it would strike me as a fairly obvious assumption to make that more young female children are killed than young male children. Women seem to be the victims of abortions on both end--from a society that forces them into this option, and those infant women who are killed. And Williams reminds us that God is with the victim--the invisible victim, the victim that is uncomfortable for us to acknowledge--and woe to us who perpetrate the harm against them.

Just a thought.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

in the sea's lips

Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal
--T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

In the middle of a busy morning, which had already been dusty from much traveling and from busy thoughts, I read a bit of Thomas Merton. Merton's clear, clean words, infused with the fresh air of monasteries, the taste of the medieval lingering in his modern phrases, washed my day in light, leaving me with a new, clean slate of peace.

I have taken for granted the power of good words to touch our heart and refresh our minds. Beauty, it seems, is necessary for our imaginations. If we don't expose our imaginations to beauty each day, how will we make it? How will we be trained in it, if we do not seek it out, exposing ourselves to its rays, letting our skin be burnt in its warmth?

Similarly, I was at mass with my friend in the warm Jesuit church in Ann Arbor, with Christmas decorations garlanding the rafters, and I felt my entire soul scrubbed clean again. No wonder we are enjoined to weekly mass attendance, we are being chiseled into images, and the liturgy is a sharp refining tool.

She was the ultimate and necessary source of the lover's good, a 'shock of beauty' that reoriented his mind to a new life and outlook.
--Andrew Frisardi, Introduction to Dante's Vita Nova

Poetry and prayer must be daily rituals, because the power of poetry and prayer is the transfiguring force they exert on our imaginations, our minds, and our hearts. They transfigure our desires into things more transcendent, they transform our minds into open receptacles for the divine. They influence the way we live each day. They bring our minds to a higher awareness.

They mold our lives into models of themselves. They push us to find the beauty in the mundane, the smoldering presence of the divine in all our daily lives: the woman sniffling into her tissue, the men laughing together in Burberry scarves, the man sleeping in the airport chair, the sparrows frantically flying through the terminal, and the little boy dancing with his mother. All such marvelous creations we learn to reverence by the practice of seeing. Poetry and prayer push us to see the world beyond just our own small vision.

We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning.
--T.S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages"

Friday, January 13, 2017

a simple grace

We praise you, Father, for your gifts
of sun and water on the rocks,
for doughnuts, fried to taste like
butter,
smothered in maple-bacon-chocolate-raspberry.

A small thanks, growing into heart-bursts of praise,
for the sitting together in the warm summer sun,
and watch the sunlight glisten on the lazy waterfall,
follow the small avian dramas of the mallards and the ungainly goose with
blotchy red patches on his beak try to win a mallard lady.

Sitting in Denise's Greenville park, on the damp stone wall, under the quiet trees,
sharing together the words and stillness that make up a a friendship,
my soul relaxes into silence as my tongue sings in her native tongue.

All these moments, I trust, will fade one day into an eternal moment.
Watching the squirrels scamper along the stream's banks,
it seems impossible that the end of all our movement is darkness and nothing.
The impossible, incessant march of existence must lead yet another rhythm,
a motion that encompasses our silence, the way our quiet speaks volumes.

In the sunlight of the park, I think I have a foretaste of that end,
as I turn my soul into a sponge to soak up each moment,
to drink the happiness from each ray of sunlight in the park.

We thank you, Father, for your gifts
of light and laughter in our speech,
for beers shared,
for pains bridged,
for sorrows borne,
for boys lost,
for boys to come,
for kittens mewing at our doors,
for love that leads to endless day

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rancho days

Rolling up, through the slender columns of the Carolina forest, the little red car crunches over the untouched snow, which completely blankets the winding gravel driveway. Slowly, she creaks towards the house, tucked back behind the trees--it's a chalet dropped in the middle of the woods. The house rambles around on the inside, but looks compact and cozy on the outside--the Rancho.

They say that monks are called not just to the monastic community of brothers, but to the monastery itself: the trees, the mountain, the soil. Their vocation is to the place: to ponder forever the light of that sunrise, or wash forever in the sunsets of that latitude. They say a monk knows he's found his monastery when God calls him through the soil.

The Rancho calls to me that way, could pull me into a vow of stability. A vow to wake up each day and watch the world from the light of those coordinates' sun.

I wake up and the blue birds are singing outside my bathroom window. The woods are covered in days-old snow: it snowed on Friday and hasn't thawed out yet, though the sun begins to shine now. As I roll out of bed, I see the chickadee fluttering past the window, behind a droplet curtain of snowmelt dripping from the roof.

I watch the chickadee, some titmice, and the bluebirds gather 'round the bowl of birdseed on the small back porch. The blue bird bullies away the titmouse, the titmouse retreats to the balcony's edge, then both of them scatter, flapping off into the woods, as a black shadow swoops over the deck and onto the roof. After a moment, the shadow flies to the pole of the bird feeder directly across from me, and reveals itself as a hawk, slate-winged, with a black band across his tail feathers. He sits eyeing his backyard domain, which is eerily still, silent, no trace of bird to be seen.

I could sit on the sunporch for hours in the wicker love seat for hours, staring back at the cocky hawk. He flies off--no easy targets to prey on visible--and I pull out the birdwatching binoculars, to gaze at the thawing world of the woods, each round picture through the glass interrupted by drips of melting snow. I zoom the lenses in on the toasty golden leaves still clinging to a singular tree, then on the ridged bark of the tree trunk right behind it--cut to a snow-trimmed fallen log. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, exerting the magic power of bent glass upon my eyes, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, guiding my eyes unconsciously between two sides of the same scene.

Each corner of the backyard is filled with endless beauty etched into it, that I could examine all day, hawk-like, through these binoculars. Sunlight dapples the backyard, the trees that border the clearing ripple with all the hidden life in the shadows of the woods. I sink back into the cushions of the love seat, watching the sunlight, the tress, the shadows moving between them, the water dripping off the roof.

Slowly, three tawny, elegant shapes emerge from the shadows between the trees, the largest leads the way, accompanied by two fawn-colored shadows in her wake. Ears twitching, the deer leads her charges to the hawk's bird feeder. The backyard is frozen, even the two tadpole ponds sunk into the hill are frozen blocks of ice.  I stand, and the deer, sensing my movement in the sun porch, stiffen, staring at the sunporch's window which hides the presence of danger.

The snow slides off the roof of the sunporch, miniature avalanches, melting off into tiny curtains of beaded water.

--

Fog descends on the Rancho the next morning. At breakfast, I look outside the windows of the sunporch, and see that the backyard clearing is covered in a heavy, dour mist. Not even the hawk's bird-feeder is visible. The trees poke up out of the grey clouds like teeth.

We drive the car down the winding gravel trail, and we sink into the mist, just our headlights cutting through the fog, our eyes blocked by the skulking clouds. We reach the bottom, to find that the slight wind by the house has cleared the air. The snow melt is dripping into the rainwater bucket, making a racket like a miniature Niagara.

It is so dark, with only the full moon (hidden behind some higher fog) to light the driveway. It is rather eerie, to be exposed to the woods in the dark. I turn on the porch light as soon as we are inside.

--

The Rancho is that blessed place that is chock full of Pulitzer prize-bedazzled novels, heavy books on the dressers, magical realism and Gabriel García Márquez, anthologies of Almodóvar, and the Coen brothers film collections spilling off the shelves. I find a 1990 New York Times editorial by Anna Quindlen about her daughter inspiring her to fight for a better world for women. It sticks with me all day. I read Doerr's novel late at night in bed. That is the Rancho.

Texas blood flows in the big-boned house, and its reina is my grandmother, a woman from whom I can understand myself descending. If looking at her is a glimpse into my future, I am content, but she is most certainly not a crystal ball. She is her own story, entirely, and I am happy to be etched into her epilogue.

--

Late at night, I finish Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I imagine the inscription I will write for a friend in the front cover. I fall asleep, dreaming of Saint-Malo, snails that bob on rafts of bubbles, feeling the heartbeat of the story underneath my skin, and wallowing in the iridescent writing of the novel. I come down in the morning to discover a puzzle box on the sunporch. I laugh: what a strange coincidence. This house is never not surprising. I am not much for puzzles, but after reading of Marie-Laure's fondness for them, and remembering when Kyle first brought one to rehearsal in June, am intrigued by this one.

I stand in the sunlight and fiddle with the smooth wood box. I put it down and leave it for a bit. I will return to it later, shake it a little to listen to its secrets, and then sit down at the kitchen table to solve it. There is no diamond inside. Which is just as well. It is a new year, no need to dig up old curses.

I watch the cardinals gather at the corner of the house, chattering in a cluster. The squirrels scamper across the clearing of the backyard. I remember how green everything is in the summer, how it smells of growing things, and the woods teem with movement. Life is so abundant, no creature is cautious. I think of the hummingbirds that feed by the porch.

Winter is more still. The creatures are more conservative with their precious commodity of survival.
--

I walk downstairs to the breakfast table. There is a "Modern Love" essay printed out from the Times and sitting at my place. I read it. I look out the window: the world is bright and golden, and all the snow is melted. It looks like a regular autumn or winter at the Rancho, the ground thick with limp, dying leaves. The grey-green grass, jaundiced and bright peeks out from the decaying rug of leaves.

The squirrels sniff at the corn left out for the deer, gobbling up the golden nuggets before the hawk returns. The chickadees fly off into the branches of the toast-leaved tree. The creatures movements have thawed slightly with the snow.
And I sit, in the love-seat, in the sunlight, watching them all, soaking in the stability of my monastery.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

I'm just thinking...

...of riding the subway up from downtown (maybe Astor Place or 14th Street?) from some awful play I've gone to with Charlie, or from a small movie theatre with Joey, up to the 103rd street stop, where I would alight, along with several tired looking mothers with their children, a playful couple laughing together and holding hands, and some assorted men with flat-brimmed hats and fur-lined, hooded sweatshirts swinging plastic take-out bags, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU stamped in red.

I would perhaps help an abeulita with her grocery cart or a mother with her stroller up the subway stairs. As I reach the top of the stairs, a woman would be asking for a subway swipe at the turn-style, her eyebrows knit up in a plea, so I would swipe her through. If you have an unlimited, why wouldn't you? A drunk couple would be shouting at each other, their slurred words drowned in the din of the departing train below, the subway officer at the ticket booth shouting over them as she gave directions to two sisters and their crying children. 

I would lope up the stairs into the cool dark of the East Harlem after midnight, the stars and streetlights shining brightly in the chilly velvet sky. The taqueria right across the block would be bumping with urban youth seeking late-night snacks. Several taxis would scream by, slowing down hopefully as they approached me, but I would ignore them as I shoved my hands into my pockets, and started up the Lexington Avenue Hill. The tallest hill in Manhattan south of 125th street, it seemed, was right at my doorstep. 

I would speed-walk to the top, and jaywalk across 102nd street. I would hurry by the sketchy gas station (read: drug front) and the neat white houses with the lights always on and the decorative door wreaths we are sure are brothels. Lexington Pizza on the corner of 101st and Lexington is dark, all the curling black metal chairs stacked on the tables. I like it best when I come home, and the corner is still full of lights, and couples laughing over pizza together behind the shining windows. When I come home and Lexington Pizza is dark, it feels late. The street feels more deserted then. 

I would cut across the street--I live on the south side of 101st--and walk down the middle of the pavement, looking over my shoulder for the always-feared phantom rapist I'm positive is close on my heels. I cross up onto the sidewalk, once I'm passed the vacant house, and there's a rustling in the trashcan. My heart is in my throat. A rat pops out and looks at me. I pause a second, but he scurries back into the garbage. A man and his dog walk ahead of me on the sidewalk, and then they round the corner onto Park Avenue. I am past the stoop with the toucan mosaic decorating the front, I am almost to my front door. I bound up the white-washed stone steps, reaching into my pocket for my keys. I race to open the door before the phantoms of the night get to me. I push open the first of our doors, and pause in the foyer, pushing the door behind me and catching my breath. Safe. I open up the thick oak door that is our interior front door, peeping through the window to see if anyone is awake, looking for the lumps of roommates on the sofas and the blue glow of the television, and then I push open the warm oak wood, step in the door, and I am home, enveloped in the high ceilings, the dark corners, the peeling paint, and the hissing radiators of CasaBlanca.

I would automatically drop my keys and purse on the dining room table, check my mail pile, and head to the kitchen--perhaps Sean has made cookies. I make sure the kitchen door to the backyard is locked (a roommate is prone to states of inebriation, and, in such, leaving the backdoor wide open), raid the refrigerator briefly to examine my late plate, and then bound up the steps to bed. My room is on the third floor (the second, if we're counting European style), and it is bright, warm, and beautiful. It is haphazard, put together with old volunteer castoffs left in the house, lots of postcards and unframed photos, and a lot of command strips. But it is a cozy little nest. I can see (and faintly hear) the elevated train tracks right across the avenue from me from my window. I throw myself onto my giant, fluffy bed, and stare up at the ceiling, letting all the adrenaline of the journey back home course out of my blood, as my heart slows from a pounding to lighter beat, and my muscles relax into the covers.

This is home. This is New York. 

My heart is aches for it so hard I feel it twist my chest into a million knots. My friend accuses me of wishing for the past. I know that these happy habits of being are now memory. But can't I have them back again? If I go back to New York, will the city feel the same? Will it feel warm and comfortable, in a way that I can wrap around me like a blanket? Will it feel metallic, bright, hard to the touch, exciting friction forming as we push against each other? Cannot I not simply return, and find all these beloved moments again in a new way? Will the city be a the same old partner, a comfortable relationship to slip back into, or a new partner, a new lover to push against, pull at, with whom to dance the back-and-forth of relationship?

Is this longing for a past that is now wrapped away in rosy hues, or is it a longing for some future way of being I can find again?

I cannot stamp out this longing for the city: for late nights and quiet mornings, loud with the presence of God before the noise of the city drowns us, for subways roaring by us as we lean against the subway walls and talk until our train comes, for late nights waiting for the E train, my head throbbing from exhaustion, for cursing at the scaffolding creating bottlenecks in sidewalk traffic, for Brooklyn Bridge and 7th street, and picnics in Tompkins Square Park.

It feels not like the past, but like the present--other and distant--calling.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

new vintage

I have shed you like old wineskins,
cut you from my heart like
an infant's fresh foreskins--
a clean cut,
severing your polluted
toxins from my body's blood.

Suddenly (it feels so sudden),
a switch is flipped,
you have slipped into old tall tales,
no longer The Story:
you are not the key,
but just another lock,
on another bridge,
which will be clipped,
sinking into the Seine.

Freedom feels ill-fitting,
too loose and baggy,
I can barely believe how
spacious,
open, and receiving
a heart can feel once
your boulder moves--
we find the tomb is empty,
room for all the world in there.

Before, you were that boulder,
plugging up the open spaces.
I lift you, Sisyphean,
find you are nothing,
but a pebble,
Easy to flick away, lightly.

New wineskins for newer vintage,
fresh foreskins for sweeter lover,
switch illuminating
dark boulder as light pebble,
strange transformations
healing wrought.

Monday, January 9, 2017

intimate touch of reality

they tasted the sweet exultancy of the fear of God
and all day long, God Spoke to them; the clean voice of God, in his tremendous peacefulness, spending truth within them as simply and directly as water wells up in a spring.
--Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (by way of Paul Elie)

You're studying theology now? people ask, their voices slightly askew with askance. But it's a necessary pursuit, I silently respond. Where else can I go but into truth to make up what is lacking in me? I escape into theology to escape from myself. I escape into the study of God to heal my own hedonism. The teeth marks of my own carnality, stamped upon my shoulders and bicep, bruising purple and a sickly, jaundiced green are a call for that escape seared into my skin.

It would seem counter-intuitive, perhaps, to heal a malady of the body by an exercise of the mind. But theology, I realize is not a purely mental undertaking. I find myself frustrated with the academic cage so many place it in; for theology is always of the body. Theology is not just done on one's knees, it forces the theologian to her knees. Theology transforms our selves, our bodies, our ways of being. As it infects our reason with pure truth, it ought to trickle down into our vital spirits, transforming our very heartbeat.

And our actions. Rowan Williams writes that a conversion of the Christian that does not find itself enacted in this wounded, hurting world, is only half a conversion. If Christ is truly risen from the dead, then His followers must seek to enact the healing of Christ the victim in the world around them. Christianity is not a mental religion--Christ's body is missing. Christ's body is resurrected: the not only idea of Christ is alive, not just spirit of Christ is alive, but Christ's body is in a resurrected state. Theology has everything to do with bodies.

I read of Merton, of Day, and in their stories, I find soulmates. I see fellow strugglers, who also could be lost in the heady carnival of the world, who wallow in poverty, riches, decadence, and hurt, who have fathered and mothered children. They too, have found their soaring spirits trapped in bodies; but they respond neither with gnostic despair and disdain, nor with sordid pandering to their desires, but with the severing love of Incarnation, that pulls us from our groins, and en-souls us with a new vision of the world. That re-soles our worn out shoes of flesh, that gives us new spirits, new eyes, and new bodies.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

birth of wonder

As I grow steadily
more austere
I come less readily
to Christmas each year.
I can't keep taking
without a thought
Forced merrymaking
and presents bought
in crowds and bustling.
--Madeleine L'Engle

 Fulton Sheen writes in The World's First Love that Mary is the one person in all of humanity of whom God "has one picture." There is perfect conformity between what He wants Mary to be and what she is. "The melody of her life is played just as it was written." There is no improvisation, no revision of the song, it is played as it was first conceived in the mind of the composer.

I am constantly fascinated by Mary's exalted state, particularly because Mary would not have known it herself. She had no way of knowing that she was, to borrow Sheen's words "an equal sign." Or would she?

The Gospel again today shows Mary "pondering" these mysteries of her life, and treasuring them in her heart. Her life is filled with undeniably unusual events. It seems that each of these events speaks to her, indicating---something? Indicating what? What does she make of all the events of Christ's birth, and of Christ's life? And Christ's death?

Mary’s silence meets the silence of the Word. The Word who cannot speak. During advent, there is a silence in the world. It is present in the quiet of the dead trees, who are shed of leaves that no longer rustle in the wind. It is present in the quiet of the world falling asleep. It is silent in the snow. We know that death is an event that often is met with silence. In fact most of the great miracles of life take place in silence, in the silence of the heart.

Most of human life takes place in the silence of our own hearts. What occurs there is a sacred, secret silence known only to God and us.

Mary's pondering inspires my own. What is God trying to tell me in the midst of the busy-ness of my life? What do the events of my life have to say to the deep silence within my own heart?

L’Engle writes of a need for quiet in the midst of “forced merrymaking.” Mary seems to be saying that there's a need for quiet--interiorly and exteriorly--in order to understand the action of God in our lives. In order to understand ourselves, as well, we must silently attend to the wells of silence within us from which our life springs.

Perhaps, as she attended to that quiet garden in her heart, as she listened to the silence of her soul, Mary saw an inkling of God's image of herself. She heard the melody, playing in the silence, and let that become the tune of her own life.