Sunday, May 19, 2019

Job's Fear

What is fear of the Lord?
And how is it beginning of wisdom?

Some people insist that it is the fear we afford the powerful—the terror of oppression, of being at the mercy of a God who commands his creatures like a general his armies.

But this is not the God of Bethlehem, who lay in a manger,
crying in his mother's arms,
crying because living is so confusing, even from its very first moments,
words fail the infant who cannot even yet think.
What is there to do in the face of it but wail?

The God we are supposed to cower before as lord was the pitiable outcast who was put to death with no fear of retribution—his friends were too weak, too poor, too unimportant to avenge him or defend him.

How can fear of the Lord be fear of a tyrant, if God revealed himself as neighborhood carpenter and homeless man?

Some say that fear of the Lord means simply awe or wonder at God—as though God were something harmless, some defanged sunset for humans to gape at. The sort of awe that is sparked my mountains or by an accomplishment of a friend.

A folksy sort of fear for our folksy God.

But perhaps fear of the Lord is the end of Job—
the God who makes the wild horse strong,
who knows where the storm clouds roll in from heaven,
the God who Job feels he must worship:
why?

Why must we worship this God? The world seems to run without our praise,
new days come and go.

But fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Perhaps we could scrape along the crust of a planet hurtling through space and never have to prostrate ourselves before the heavens. We could hum through the machinations of our own devising quite neatly but we'd never be human.
Would we?

If you love someone,
somewhere deep within your heart, a small seed of terror begins to bloom,
this fear can rot into something sordid, something sour,
or it can bear fruit into an awe that your life can be
so utterly in the hands of another:
another who can crush us or show us who we are.

Perhaps fear of the Lord is the trembling of two bodies meeting in desire,
the terror in the realization that the person who comes to meet you now so very much a part of you—
that you cannot live any sort of sensible life without loving her,
that the sun will not rise tomorrow if you do not worship him.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

cut flower care

my gardening skills are not what I would have them be
if we were creating a pioneer resume
I would inch these skills higher on the list of assets.

But what I do boast of—as niche as it may be—is
Is the ability to care for cut flowers tenderly
To extend their life (or death) as long as florally
tenable,
to turn them towards the sunniest shelf or windowsill,
to water their fresh vases faithfully,
pouring precious resource into their
coffin.

to tempt their phloem and tickle xylem
with just a dash of sugar
from the white Domino bag
sprinkled in the water.

to trim their stems as they begin to seal,
to reopening the wound as soon as it begins to heal.

Friday, May 17, 2019

body of Christ

India's buzzing in my head: something smells like Shanti Dan as I pass John the Divine—a whiff of memory floating off a street vendor's truck.

Fr. Michael is on fire with the Bread of Life Discourses, insisting that there is a radical community of Christians who intimately matter to each other—even the depressed person in India, he says. Did he know that I was thinking of Kolkata? I wonder.

I think about what joy means, particularly in a space like here, which is less like joy and more like concrete and a place like Kolkata, which is less like joy and more like sweltering heat and sweat dripping down the small of your back.

I do not know if I think about the depressed person in India, but I do know that too many days, on the subway, I look at the people all around me, and I just want to soak up all their pain like a sponge until I'm swollen with it and then wring it out like cleaning blood out of a sock covering a blistered foot, squeezing it all out like a sponge into the holy water font at the back of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

And I wonder if these are the moments we love most like God. We see what we are part of—we haven't even made it, but it's ours—and we just want to heal it, we cannot bear it being sad.

Or those moments when I cry—not the angry, swollen tears of loss or the hot and dirty tears of anger—the soft, warm tears of remorse, of sorrow for being a person who causes others sorrow. These tears flow easily, quickly, out of regret for misunderstandings, or for living out of fear, or for not extending kindness and empathy to the people who deserve them, the compassion I should give them that rises up naturally for the faces surrounding me on the subway.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

when your voice comes back

It happens in quiet waves, but unmistakable.

I walk down our hallway, to the mirror, to the bathroom, hike up my jeansI need to buy a beltand I look at my yellow shirt above the dark indigo jeans in the mirror. The hair on my arms stands out darkly for some reason in this light, and I examine it for a bit, turning my freckled, phosphorescent-pale arms around in the mirror, inspecting the dark, interrupting lines of hair against the smooth skin.


Oh this is my body, I realize, with shock that this is me staring at myself in the mirror. I look... permanent? It's hard to recognize yourself all the time.

But here I am, and for this moment all of my attention is resting here, at my reflection in this glass.
What's the point of this, if there's nowhere else I'm going?
There's something in my eye, maybe a stray eyelash, so I pull away my eyelid, trying to see it, all the while thinking: there's something sacred in discomfort. It really does open you up to the divine.


But discomfort and peace are not enemies, they are, perhaps kinsfolk.


If crying is exercise, then my saline glands should be made of steel right now, toned from a winter’s worth of work.


If you could loose weight with each tear you shed, then I would be (conservatively estimated) fifteen pounds lighter. Tears, unfortunately for my waistline, don’t cost much physical weight in flesh. They are heavy, and make their own weight.


Sadness is a pool, when you are submerged in it, it's hard (if not impossible) to believe there is anything else, yet, time and time again, I feel myself missing the God I met under that water. It seems morbid and macabre to say that God is most clearly met in our suffering—and I believe that I have seen God in the man I love and held him on spring nights and kissed his face enough so that I do not believe God is most clearly found in our desolation—but, there’s something about the desolation, of having nothing else, of having found the small consolation of our own self so unsatisfactory that renders God highly visible in our despair.


From this submersion, this theophany of God in the dark, the spaces of Joy are baptized. Our joy slowly, slowly evokes less of a satisfaction the world can explain and becomes rooted in something more holy and more joyful. The joy becomes imbued with the lessons of the sorrow—when we didn’t have anything, when we clung to the God who was with us when no one else was, who was by our side even when our own self worth, sense of self-composure, sense of self had abandoned us. This God makes the quiet, makes the peace, makes the eucharistic monotony of climaxes and resolutions of living Good. This is the God who we held onto in our pain, the light that shone in the midst of our winter. This God, who was the only solace in our sorrow, is actually and truly, really our only joy.


I stare at my permanent self in the mirror. Without a God, what joy is there in this reflection? But what does this reflection sing of if not a God who made it?


However my senses need to be sharpened so that I can pick this God, who shines so clearly in the dark, out in the sunshine, I will take it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

gospel of guffaw

How did Jesus respond, I wonder, to the feeling of sitting down next to the wrong person: in the subway car with the smelly homeless man sleeping, next to the albino teen who reeks of weed, next to the father blasting trap music over the stroller of his giggling toddler daughter, sitting in the empty church pew specifically chosen to be far away from the other freaks at Mass, to be a safe distance from anyone who could qualify as "neighbor," with a safe proximity of space, only to find that that pew happens to be the favorite of the Ignatius Reilly-type character straight out of A Confederacy of Dunces in the long trench coat and woven Crocs, talking loudly to his mother, while ensconcing himself right next to you and enthusiastically ringing the Eucharist bells at consecration.

I try to situate myself so that I am surrounded by those who are not lost: the subway car of manicured faces and shoes, the pew that's bedecked with no other offending stench than my own.

But we are a religion of the lost and losing.

I was reflecting on this: that there's a joy that comes from the Christians who are comfortable with loss and losing, with being in the train car of losers and not of winners. These Christians I know who embody this the most, I think, are those who have worked with The Poor—through teaching, through activism, through motherhood and policy. Evan said that phrase "The Poor" was strange—it is, potentially othering—although biblical. Because, he pointed out, we are all the poor.

Which is true, the radical dependence which the Eucharist initiates us into is a truth, however, which is very easy to intellectualize, to imprison in the abstract and to neglect to incarnate. It's easy to pay lip service to dependency and carry on doing your damndest to ensure you will never need to cash in on that dependence.

But to encounter the poor—those currently cashing in on their dependence—is to encounter the contingency that keeps you in your bubble of independence and not yet cashing in your check for aid. And to encounter the contingency of fate, to encounter the fact that our efforts cannot stave off our need for others, that we are actually born into this need, we inherit this dependency, is to encounter a relief, a surrender, as Rilke writes, to the hum of a story already in motion and to world in which we have a place and a role. Such a surrender leads, of course, to peace, to joy.

I noted that the humans I have found this joy in in spades in New York are the Franciscans. They, like the original Francis, really do find the freedom of Lady Poverty, in being able to laugh freely, guffaw loudly, and delight in the world as Francis did—a man who was free to love what he was radically dependent on, and loved because he cast himself upon the mercy of others, lavishly.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Washington Surrenders

If it be in rebellion or be a transgression against the Lord—save us not this day.

Merton smiles at his forefather underneath his strong twin brow.

Let me tell you about prayer—
it's in the Bible, read it for yourself.


Let me tell you about prayer anyway:

it's the drunken wails of Hannah in the temple,
the violent bargaining of desperate Abraham for Sodom.
It's the anxious mental dithering of the unnamed woman with the flow of blood,
should I touch him?
can I touch him?
can I reach him?
will this work?

Prayer isn't clean
and it isn't King James verse.

For every Magnificat there's Isaac with his pottage
for every Psalm 51 there's Saul,
offering rash sacrifice without the anointed prophet.

it's messy encounter of divine and human
and the humans never, ever get it right.

Jacob wrestles for his blessing,
until he succumbs.

Half of human prayer is a rebellion against the Lord,
and still he saves.

Monday, May 13, 2019

smelly sheep

What is good about sheep? Asks the pastor. He’s very joyful, even at seventy-five. I write down his ovine paean, meaning to relate it to Evan later, and forget.

Sheep, he bleats, in a sonorous baritone, light beaming from his face, are animals who remind us of our spirituality. He details the reactions to the sheep who graze in the graveyard every autumn for several months: overwhelmingly positive. Apparently, a flock of sheep is a universal referent to a bucolic, idyllic past in which we all had space to roam and a community in which to do it.

Sheep follow their shepherd—they are discerning animals who can pick out the tone of their shepherd's voice out of a cacophony of competing voices. Sheep are loyal; sheep are communal—gathering in flocks together. They are mild-mannered, vegetarian, peaceful, harmony-loving.

I love this characterization of sheep: these wooly Buddhas of the hoofèd mammal kingdom, gently nibbling grass all over the hillsides, wanting nothing more than to eat together, to live together, to follow the one voice that calls to them.

The pastoral he's painting is certainly the image of the monastery I'm craving; definitely a referent to the spiritual depths of my memory.

After Mass, I board the subway.

Oh yes, there's just one thing, the pastor adds.

A man is walking up and down, eating crumbs of potato chips from a small bag, humming loudly, his hair standing on end.

The thing about sheep is that they smell. Bad.

This man is followed by the stench of homelessness, which wafts through the subway car: an undefinable but unshakable odor of stale urine, desperation and loneliness.

Passengers pull their jackets up to cover their noses; they move away from where he teeters in the middle of the subway car, towards the doors.

But if the Good Shepherd's sheep knows his voice, I think he, too, knows their smell.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

marianity bears fruit

I reviewed Wild Nights with Emily for America Magazine.

You can read the review here. It is mostly just an excuse for me to meditate on how creative love is and how morbidly impossible it is to make anything from a place of fear. (I also take a moment to advocate for risk, because that has become my pet corollary of [or precondition for?] vulnerability.)

But the reason I link to it and the best part of the entire review is the comments section (I know !) In the comments section, a gentleman reader adds his own poem. It is beautiful. And, to me, makes writing the review worth it. You should read it. I think Emily would be pleased.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Christ is a surprise

The Christology outlined is one in which Christ is a counter-cultural figure, an ally of the poor, the sick, the destitute—all who are socially marginalised. —Graham Ward, "The Politics of Christ's Circumcision"

Crawford shared a pamphlet stuck at the back of his church full of the most hair-pullingly terrible theology. The sort of fearful things invented by people who are still afraid of being zapped by the gods.

Let me be painfully clear. I, too, am vitally afraid of being zapped by the gods. If I'm being honest, this is a fear that rules too much of my life. Because I, too, still insist on imagining divinity in my own image and likeness. It's not an attractive quality. But perfect love is the only thing that casts out fear and I am not yet quite able to entirely hand my entire self utterly over to perfect love. Again, work in progress.

It's just funny how easy it is to forget how wild Christ is, even if you make it a habit to think about, pray to, or read about him each day.

In the midst of all the theologizing, it's really easy to forget that God is wild. The God who is at the center of matter, the creator of mystery, is just like his creation in the sense that he utterly escapes our ability to pin him down. God is not in Aristotle. Aristotle is like vitamins. They are very important to keeping you healthy, and it's a very good thing to make part of your daily diet (unlike Sour Patch Kids or dried mangos). But it's not God, in that, it's not the sustenance, the food that lasts. Aristotle is not Quite It.

The whole thing about Christ is that if you aren't regularly shocked by him, you're not listening.

He's just wild. I keep repeating this word, hoping that it will land. But it's really the only word to describe a God who created the uncertainty principle. Christ embodies divine madness, in that he is never predictable, even in his natural rhythms—like a sunset.

Creation is symphonic—it is marched out, composed, pulled out of the earth with a clear tempo and structure. But it's always fresh, which is really shocking. The earth rotates around the sun slowly each year, turns rapidly on its axis each day, and the result of the monotony is not sameness, but a wild escapade of color, light, cloud, shade, sun, and streaks of clouds.

Christ is the same: his words beat out the same message of love, but its uttered in sparkling, crazed colors. And it's not simply the substance of what he says. His particular idiosyncratic manner of speaking is passed down to us in Scripture through the Evangelists, and it somehow still tracks as particularly his—vivid, arresting, and utterly enchanting.

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

I think, sometimes, we are too quick to turn historia into theoria—I did it myself, in this sentence: generalizing what is radically particular. Christ is like that. Of course Christ is the logos, the organizing principle of creation, the heartbeat to whose rhythm this whole body runs. But Christ is only that because he is radically unique—one particular Jewish body sweating underneath the sun and saying things like: eat my flesh. Love your enemies. So the last will be first, and the first will be last. Of course they are universal principles manifest in various ways throughout different religions. of course, they are the universal natural law of creation bubbling up in yet another manifestation.

But, coming from the mouth of Christ, translated into English, printed on a thin page of biblical paper, they truly are living water. Water that, 4,000 years after Jacob dug his well, still runs through the cold dark church and can be pulled out with a cup to quench your thirst.

Friday, May 10, 2019

listening

Statt in die weitesten Geleise
sich still und willig einzureihn
verknüpft man sich auf manche Weise,—
und wer sich ausschließt jedem Kreise,
ist jetzt so namenlos allein.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
—Rilke

It is very hard to listen. It is very hard to not construct, but to collaborate. To surrender. In fact, I wonder if it is impossible.

But the sun seems to do it each day, or at least that's Rilke's point. That the things of this world have a freedom to fall, to die, because they are not trying to be anything other than what they are not. They have an interior freedom of being nothing other than what they are.

It's very difficult to be genuine, which is ironic, because it seems that the one thing we are actually born and able to do as soon as we open our lungs to cry is that we are a self. It seems to be the one thing we should actually be able to do just fine.

But we don't really just be ourselves. We can only learn through imitation—imitating the language, habits, and faces of those around us. We become images of what we see. We quickly pick up the narratives we're supposed to live and inhabit those.

We wander tracks that lead us farther and farther afield.

How do we find our way back to the path that takes us forward?

Perhaps, it is when we cease to entangle ourselves in narrative, when we stop the struggle, and fall, like the leaf outside the window, like the paper from the balcony. We simply let ourselves listen. This takes a lot of courage, because no one will tell you what the metrics are for success in this new position. They are discerned—felt out and distinguished—in the darkness. There is no competition by which you can measure you are winning. It's a strange method of living called being.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

yo soy el pan de vida

Oh I'm very tired—
so is the man on the subway with the guzzy beard and flannel shirt, who stares at the fluorescent tube world through dulled eyes, through the glaze of a screen.

I see the psalms printed on the page through a lens of tears on a cloudy morning—February's chilly gloom seeping into May—a seasonal carbon monoxide leak.

I stare at the talking body across from me through the lens of

boredom—I compose an email I have to send.

anxiety—What time is it? Has my boss called? Will I have time to go to mass?

curiosity—what's happening behind his eyes? What's going on on the inside? The part of him where this internal dialogue is happening inside of me? The part that nobody shows, except in intimacy?

fear and hurt I map onto him, as part of a specific category of person that have nothing to do with him, particularly—does this man, too, watch pornography? What does he see when he looks at me? Does he see nothing more than a bra and breasts? Is he struggling not to imagine me naked? Is he seeing me as I see myself in the mirror? My eyes, my smile, the wrinkle between my eyebrows? Curiosity?

I fidget in a conference cage: how did I get here? I moan. Why am I not in a monastery?

Well, I figure this might as well be. Boredom, anxiety, curiosity, fear, hurt, listening to people you don't want to, and the pain of porn exist in monasteries as well as here.

This could very well be the monastery—the only change you need to make is that part inside of you that nobody sees, except in intimacy and in prayer.

I stare at the talking body across from me through the lens of

Christ—

This person, miraculously forming sounds to words to light—is Christ. I watch him with awe, with curiosity, and with gratitude. This is where I've been called to: listening to him speak here in this room, there is nowhere else to be. Here is Christ, in our meeting. And this is eternal life.



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

crooked heart

I love my neighbor from across the fences
Separating our twin lawns,
Across the expanse of white and picket.

My neighbor isn't crooked,
she's quite straight.
But I love her anyway.

I think of her when I am coaching
My morning glories to slowly encroach
her length of fence.

I guard her steps,
Watching each sneaker cautiously
carrying the autumn leaves
from the back deck to the shed.

I help her stay out of my business
By never asking her hers.

I let her grow,
And leave her be.

This seems to me the best sort of neighborly.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

a definite metanoia

I have given up all hope of adhering to the book in catechism class. The textbook is rigidly arranged in soporific lessons that do not attempt to market themselves to either a child with no theological knowledge whatsoever or to me, with a masters agree, the child's teacher. Therefore, I have mostly scrapped the lesson book for now and have decided that I will teach one lesson and one lesson only—vocation.

If I can make nothing else crystal-clear, I will make it known that there is a God who loves you who you are called to serve with your entire life. And that life you think God wants you to lead is not it—it's the life you're living now: of Instagram, Latin homework, gym on Wednesdays and basketball practice.

Along the way, I find myself teaching surprising tangents that are entirely new knowledge to a demographic I assume too much in. Today I taught twelve-year-olds the story of the Resurrection. As Baptized Catholics, they knew the general concept, but they had only the haziest concept of the details of the Resurrection narratives of Scripture: a Mary was involved and the door was open.

As I began to teach them who Doubting Thomas was, and then realized I had to explain the whole deal, I think I got a whiff of that kerygma-high the first Apostles must have felt when narrating these events for the first time:

And then—Jesus walked through the door. Like a ghost, right? Walking through walls. Like a spirit. And then—do you know what Jesus said next? He says: give me some bread. So they give him bread and guess what—he eats it.

Can ghosts eat?
No. Didn’t think so.

*drops the mic*

He says: touch my wounds. And they touch his body.

Isn't that crazy?!

As I look around the table of scandalized and skeptic faces of small men just old enough to be rational and just young enough to be impressed I realize that these stories are really satisfying narratively—they're dazzlingly odd. And these children are old enough to sense their strangeness. I was taught the story of Resurrection when I was still in an age of enchantment: the world is all sort of magic when you haven't figured out any of its mechanisms, and I hadn't. The Resurrection's singularity was obscured by the general mythic haze of miracle that ringed my world. But for these students, the Resurrection is an interruption of enchantment into an otherwise explicable world.

It is exhilarating.

So I taught them Resurrection, and then wrapped the lesson back around to my main point: which was that Francis Xavier's pre-Jesuit existence is fairly of-a-piece with his missionary existence. He liked socializing, he liked talking, he liked reading and persuasive rhetoric and galvanizing listeners. His unique personality was not erased by grace but elevated and perfected.

He didn't have to change to become a saint, I conclude triumphantly, armchair buddha, ensconced in my halo of anointed enlightenment, inviting others into my zen.

He had to change one thing, said the least-attentive voice in class, he didn't love God before, and then he did.

He couldn't live his life for himself, he had to give it over to God, to live out of love for God. To be himself, but not-quite-himself now: to be a self that was living for someone else.

They ask me:
Is that what you're trying to do, too?

Which, I imagine, must have been the response of the first audiences to the first evangelists.

You must change your life.

Monday, May 6, 2019

what's real in us is silent

Why this endless need for a man as a mirror? To see the Arthur Less reflected there?
Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Da muß er lernen von den Dingen,
anfangen wieder wie ein Kind,
weil sie, die Gott am Herzen hingen,
nicht von ihm fortgegangen sind.

So, like children, we begin again 
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left him.
—Rilke

Inside of a person is nothing but a silence, and this is, of course, terrifying—I wonder if this is the image of God in us. It is the part of ourselves that is dark and restless, constantly reaching out into a world, deeper into a heart that doesn't quite make sense. And demands a gentler sort of sense than cold, hard reason.

Anything that's real, anything that's truly worth our time, however, takes place in and with this silence.

I suppose this is known as contemplation.

Contemplation is nothing more than watching, than beholding, than, in fact, seeing.

Learning to be "alone" is first of all, impossible when you are lonely. Loneliness pollutes solitude so that it becomes a toxic isolation.

But the deeper you plunge into solitude, supported by if not a monastery, at least a hearty imitation of one, the more you discover that you are not alone.

But it is hard to get to that place of not-aloneness, when so much of solitude is allowing yourself to be alone: to not be distracted by Twitter, by newspapers, by arousal. So that you can reach the steadier and sturdier realities behind and beyond their imitation offer: conversation and relationship, books, and genuine physical desire—the sort that's a sacramental reality—the sort that takes over your whole body and mind and soul but doesn't eat away at them or confine them, but frees them. Transcendence, I guess.

This is solitude, in Merton's parlance. Also known as peace of heart according to Fr. Philippe. Whatever the name for it, it's certainly what Christ promises the world cannot give.

Because, in the deepest recesses of our heart, where there are no more words, where we are finally a quiet pool of silence, when we strip away all the words, we find that we are not actually an emptiness, and we are not left entirely speechless. This quiet we have been so afraid of, which we have been drowning with all our substitute noises, is a person—a Word, what we've longed to hear, what we've never quite been able to say—the self we were so sure was empty is actually, at its core, quite full. The silence is love.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

one and the same

when I was twenty,
I was torn between being
gentle and being strong.

I thought gentle was what
good people were
and strong was what
powerful people are.

now I am twenty-seven,
which is not much older.

but I have learned
that gentleness is like a tree
and so is strength.

Gentleness without strength
leaves your heart bitter
Strength without gentleness leaves
your mind brittle,
liable to be chipped.

But trees are strong,
because they are gentle,
gentle with the soil they sink into,
gratefully taking and giving in return.
They are gentle with their shade
and their leaves and their branches
sheltering from the strong April sun
and soft May rain.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

living soil

As I walk down the street, I reach out and touch the tree sprouting through its small square inch of planter mulch. City Trees are so incredible, so majestic. They are a glimpse of the world outside—a reminder that, underneath these concrete and asphalt grids lies soil—seething humus sprinkled on the firm granite bedrock.

I touch its bark—tough, scaly—the sort of armor the humans of this city wear.

The mystic sycamores sway in the sunlight sneaking through the thin slats of sky carved by the brownstones and apartment buildings. The silent prayer of growing things, the slight hum of life reverberates in the spring air.

It's a symphonic season—the world bursting into sound all at once, without a visible conductor, but with surprisingly simpatico coordination.

I imagine, as my fingertips graze the tree bark, if this wild symphony of growth took over the concrete and the asphalt. What if these trees swallowed this whole city?

I imagine Manhattan under a thin layer of water, perhaps just enough to send small waterfalls into the subway and to soften the concrete slightly. Perhaps it will even dissolve in the water. Perhaps the trees can eat the concrete.

Manhattan is such a permanence. I wonder how it can ever become a bit smaller, a bit more manageable, how can it become a more natural wilderness again?

Barring the violence of an Aleppo, a clearly inappropriate use of human ingenuity to destroy that which ought to be preserved.

I imagine that these trees mutate to eat concrete, to fuel their photosynthesis with the softened shale of sidewalk.

I imagine this entire city under ivy, moss, and forest. This is the Manhattan I would love to see. Perhaps we will live in trees instead of giant skyscrapers. The Midatlantic climate would have to become a more tropical mangrove forest instead.

This morning, the mist over the Hudson covers downtown. From my outcropping by the Jersey cliffs, underneath the George Washington Bridge, I am simply in a forest of bright green, new spring trees, red flowers, and water.

Nothing here exists except for earth. And I love it.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

hot rain

It's a very rainy day,
and I walk down West 107 toward the subway.

I flick up my umbrella as I leave the church.

I hear jazz.

Where is it coming from?

It's coming from a car—a man is blasting music so full of blue notes the air around his car is indigo.

In the car, he's playing his trumpet along with the music.

I imagine his wailing is unwelcome in the apartment.

So he finds the island of private quiet available in Manhattan—his car, a public kind of privacy.

And he plays tear-streaked music in the rain.

Manhattan is full of poetry, and all of it is sad.

But beautiful.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

divine dissatisfaction

There's a difference between being unhappy and being dissatisfied. I'm not quite sure what the criteria are for this distinction, but you can feel them out once you know their contours.

I think this is what prayer is trying to get us to practice—to understand the difference not between pain and joy, but between pains. There is the pain that simply bites at us, takes out chunks of us and scars us.

But there is this deeper thing, this sense of being not-at-rest, of unease, of unrest. And this must be attended to, in pain or in happiness.

This thing called joy, undergirding all our happiness, upending all our routine, and finding what is constant, what is good, even in the midst of turbulence.

Monday, April 29, 2019

March 17, Minnesota

The frozen pond like two lungs—the sun hitting the houses

This is a blessed place

Clouds like biscuits on a cobbler float beneath the plane

I would scoop up this snowy landscape
Into my bowl and eat it, dripping sugar, until I burst

It’s good to be going home to a bed you like.

I’m so  in Love


Monday, April 15, 2019

why lovers hold us

we fall in love so that we are not alone
in life's big moments:
our mother's passing,
our nephew's birth,
our best friend's wedding,
as Notre Dame burns.

Friday, April 12, 2019

loving these least

Do you ever feel, mid-conversation
with the elderly eyes you are staring in,
tearing up from the wind,
a deep love well up from you,
the primal urge to protect the fragile soul that meets you,
the call of ownership,
to hold this person who you speak with as gently as a crocus.

All the crocus blooms I've crushed
remind me to carry this heart gently,
make space for them to breathe and grow,
for the sake not of the ones I've dropped,
carelessly,
but simply for the sake of the soul
whose goodness overflows into now.



Thursday, April 11, 2019

blue sky scapulars

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless

It's funny what you think Catholicism is growing up. When you are small, it's hard to distinguish between what is mandatory and what is optional. Everything is at once: attendance at Mass is inseparable from wearing your brown scapular under dress-up clothes.

Your mental landscaped is formed by twisted columns of liturgical sentences.

The other day, I was walking down West 49th, and my brain just spewed out the phrase:

Tomad y comed 
todos de él 
porque esto es mi cuerpo

a strange mental burp of language.

And it's funny.

When you burp long after a large meal, and get a taste of the food you had previously eaten (this is gross, yes), you tase what you have eaten, you taste a bit of what is composing who and what you are.

This is what I'm made of: I'm made of Eucharistic anaphoras in Spanish. This is the food my brain is eating, what's fueling the synapses.

The easiest way to take the temperature of your mental health (this is a home remedy, but actual medicine is important, too) is to take stock of what your brain is saying, the mental grooves your words are carving, between actual thoughts.

Are you thinking:
I am failing, I'm a failure, I'm behind?
f^%K, s%$*^, f^$#?
or are you thinking:
the treasury of compassion inexhaustible
the other prayer, that's not an epiclesis or anaphora is the closing prayer of the Divine Mercy chaplet. I have grown lukewarm in my devotion to the Divine Mercy. In my childhood, I was mightily devoted, but this is because the Hmong community at our parish was devoted, and they made a huge feast every Divine Mercy Sunday and I love home made egg rolls and spring rolls. The Polish mystic's image of Christ is forever wedded with the taste of crispy fried wonton dough.

Religion is this weaving together of memories: deities and eggrolls, childhood and pre-history. Beyond memory, before time, rolled up into the present. That's ritual.

look kindly upon us and increase your mercy in us, that, in difficult moments we might not despair, nor become despondent, but, with great confidence, submit ourselves to your holy will, which is love and mercy itself. Amen.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

give thanks for what is good

Give thanks for what is good, even when you have been proved a fool.

Oh, wow.

Of course.

You have suffered loss—it’s that simple. To fail is utterly crushing.
You’re an idiot, Renée—only idiots risk loving people.

Was it worth it?

Is the letter about Mary good?

Why yes.

Is the postcard with the quiet words: I miss you very much, good?

Of course.

Are the memories—too many of them bitter and regrettable worth it?

It’s hard to say they are, when my heart stings from cruel words said and my eyes begin to burn with tears from having passion met with such a callous, cold indifference and my cheeks flush with hot anger and my brain begins to tell me the old story of my self-righteous hurt at the audacity of hands and tongues to making promises and laying claim to my body without intent to keep the promises or pieces—

You were a fool, of course, to believe them.

But thank God for that.

Guilt grabs my throat and I cry, not the bitter, swollen tears of loss, or the angry, hot tears of the raging scorned, but I cry because I did not hold another human gently, and I did not realize, as I read through the law students complaining about their massive amounts of work, describing symptoms, reactions, fights, and pains I recognize, which I was on the other side of. I cry, I suppose because of remorse, because of failure. To have failed to be good to someone; to have failed at understanding.

I know it is springtime, because my winter time duvet has begun again to sweat at night.

I know it is springtime, because there is a dogwood tree blooming on Broadway and there is free ice cream.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Major disclaimer: God is not Rod Dreher

But here’s the thing:

When I think of the divine, I do not imagine
That she exhausts herself in meeting
all our incessant efforts,
short-sighted prayers, with
correction.

I don't imagine wisdom whispers:
But actually
Here’s where you’re wrong

Whatever God is, he’s not a sneer.
Everyone’s a critic; God only creates

And doesn’t bemoan categories—
Straight white men

Men

Straights


God is something else,
my grandma‘d say

God is the one who says:
This is mine
And this
Mine
Mine
Mine
Mine

All of it:
Science,
History,
Your lover and your cat

God is the one who claims it all
—even death—without fear, making all of it an image of himself,
drawing all things to all,
til God in-all-ed is all.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

let's go back

I take one bite of what the café calls a cornetti, and it does not lie. I bite into the sweet butter of something freshly baked that tastes exactly like a café counter in Italian morning rush hour. No city wakes up like Rome, blinking and bleary-eyed, even the streets take an hour to open their eyes. I take another bite; there's no mistake: I am munching on March in Rome.

As I cross the street, the statue of whatever that L'Engle-ian, eschatological beast is on St. John the Divine's campus refracts the light of the spring morning into a distinctly Mediterranean key. If you squint, you can spy cypress and stone pine trees. I look up between bites, dipped in apricot jam, and the statue is a reminder the the world is woven of angels.



Film, my friend was saying, in this café yesterday, is a medium of memory.

Or wait—was I saying that, later, in the metallic, tinny air of the midtown diner, over milkshakes and fries? The essence of a weekend is good conversations, compounded, weaving together into a mesh of thoughts. The events are re-lived through their lens.

Living has this texture: the memories of sunlight, of angels in the courtyard, of trees in March, of the smell of blooming trees blending with baked goods in the fresh sunlight. It's the layering of Amsterdam Avenue and Via Magnia Grecia, apricot jam, flaky bread, St. John the Divine weaving in and out of the narrative, threading all the disparate beads together.

Film captures the valence of memory in living. Human stories are never just pictures—images always contain in them the memories of seeing them before, of finding in them something familiar we have seen in another place.

Theatre captures the immediacy of living, it's risk and danger. Theatre captures the knife-edge of being a person who is always in the grasp of decision. As we watch a play, we know, that even though the story is pre-scripted, although the actors follow a plotted-out trajectory, they could, at any moment fail. We sit in the theatre and watch them succeed, and their bravery reminds us that we may succeed, too.



There's nowhere like Rome in the spring. Except the Hungarian Pastry Shop and St. John the Divine, a black, unfinished diamond sparkling in the Mediterranean Manhattan sun.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

laundry day is sacred

A motivational speaker once relayed to a crowd of high schoolers the words of his wife to him in the midst of his desolation: Include me, and don’t shut me out—which I think are the words of the father in today’s Gospel, and the honest cry of most parents (and people), and the primary key to prayer.

Well, of course I’ll pray, but prayer will smooth the surface of the water, and ignore the churning tangle of tides underneath. Prayer will be the blanket I place over the bric-a-brac I've thrown into the wicker basket, it will be the shoving into the closet all the dirty clothes spilling out of my hamper onto the floor.

Prayer will be the mental level I drag myself up to—an effort to present myself as presentable to myself. All the unpresentable, sordid scraps of self are exceptions, they are what I should stuff away, drop off at the cleaners later, and then continue to ignore. Maybe laundry will eventually be abolished and I will never have to look at dirty clothes again, I hope.

But laundry—clean and dirty—is sacred, I realize, when I am "wasting precious time" doing my laundry when I ought to be writing. Having to drag my laundry out of my building, pay with money, and do the laundry myself makes me huff and puff with annoyance, until I realize that this is the more "natural" way to clean things then sticking them in a washing machine in my basement, and I should be grateful I have a laundromat instead of the Hudson River.

Life is the dirty laundry. Life is really about having things and then constantly cleaning them, making them shine. Even religious orders in radical solidarity with the poor—the Missionaries of Charity, the CFRs—own habits. Their white saris glisten miraculously pure and white in the hot Bengal summer sun; a brother's worn habit appears as a veritable crazy quilt of patches, each one of them an icon of loving-kindness: how good it is to be patched and not thrown away!

The more you have things, the more you have to clean and care and patch them to keep them sparkling.

If that's the rhythm of living, there must be something sacred about it. And prayer is about being alive within that, not trying to manufacture a holier life outside of it.

God is not in that manufactured holiness you've conjured, he is here: in the loneliness of your One AM bedroom, as you contemplate how to go to sleep: worshiping the god of your own emptiness, or allowing yourself to be filled by the God who doesn't want your imaginary life, but wants this one, here—right now.  This is the moment you choose God. This is not the exception to all the other times in which you do a great job choosing God. This is where God longs to meet you. In this moment of decision, which is not a curious side-show to the life he has made you, but is the very heart of the narrative, the hellish singularity of your existence he has come to harrow. This moment is the life that he has designed and given to you—woven of the longings of all twenty-seven year olds and all the desires that cause tears and moans and pain and simply asks that, in the midst of them, you realize God is the one who seeks to live in your heart in these moments, too. God is the one who desires madly to be included, always, and never shut out.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

singing to the basil

We bought a basil plant from Whole Foods, and I guess this is a cautionary tale about buying pre-planted basil, because this little guy is not thriving. Within 48 hours, he had wilted and begun to develop that dark tinge around the edges of his leaves—symptomatic of overwatering—while at the same time, growing crunchy and dry, as though we were baking it in the sun.

I have moved him to the front window, which gets the most possible sunlight from the street, I have watered him and sung to him, breathed out carbon dioxide onto his leaves. The plant is hanging on, and signs of fluid green growth abound, but I am befuddled at why the process of keeping this small intruder alive for just a fortnight seems so precarious.

It strikes me, as I dump water into his soil, that living is really such a chore and trial. It takes all our energies, and still we're not quite expert at it. It's a rum little game, and we've certainly not mastered it.

This poor little basil plant is just doing his best, struggling to make some photosynthesis with the little sunlight and water he's been dealt.

And I think, as I uncurl my hearts' own overwatered, blackened leaves, and douse water on her brittle stem, my own heart is just doing her best, like the rest of us.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

sorting out: automobiles, iPhones, the Latin Mass

Meditation on the automobile, what it is used for, what it stands for—the automobile as weapon as self-advertisement, as brothel, as a means of suicide, etc.—might lead us at one right into the heart of all contemporary American problems: race, war, the crisis of marriage, the flight from reality into myth and fanaticism, the growing brutality and irrationality of American mores.
—Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

If one of the (myriad) problems with smartphones is that they are a break with our past and a confinement to a self-saturated present, then Thomas Merton is the great antidote for smartphone. Reading Thomas Merton is like reading a transcript of your conversations or texts or internal monologue.

There's something very comforting in realizing that we are not part of a new problem, but simply part of a problem that minds smarter than we have been wrestling with for two hundred years and change.

For example, the miniature screed against automobiles that Thomas Merton marks down above eerily echoed a statement I made to a roommate, after seeing the number pedestrian fatalities from automobiles in New York since the beginning of the year. Cars still suck, even fifty years later.

Also, Merton simply points out that the latest piece of personal technology being used as a status symbol becomes a mirror where all our flaws are exhibited and enabled. iPhones are our portals to social media by which we do nothing but advertise ourselves, they are the window to the internet, through which porn is excessively available, the epidemic of iPhones, internet, and social media is indeed leading to a rise in loneliness, poor mental health, addiction, and suicides.

We feel—and maybe rightly—that our problems are worse than our mothers' and fathers'. Being a good human (or even a human at all) now feels objectively harder. When we own these pocket computers that suck away so much of our time—11 years! on average!—certainly we are beginning the search for God, the quest for human flourishing, the journey to become spiritually enlightened with an unprecedented handicap.

This, in fact, may be true. And perhaps what the long nineteenth century has been is a slow erosion of the social structures that halt the inward curve back in on ourselves and reroute us back towards the other, the neighbor, the community, the divine.

Maybe. But this has also, in a remix of the old tune of wheat and tares, happened side-by-side with undeniably good things: abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, increased lifespans, and better chances of surviving childbirth, epidurals. It seems no good in trying to blame time itself for our problems. Entropy makes everything a bloody mess, like an infant being born. Bloody mess is part of the process of getting living done.

I think, as I read Merton's jotted down thoughts, sitting on the park bench with beer and cheese and pistachios, in the rapidly decreasing temperature of sunlight, that during the time he is writing and in the intervening space between his writing and my reading, two movements to get back to the past began occurring in the church: ressourcement and the swinging pendulum of liturgical change.

This makes sense, in the stinking bog of modernity, it only makes sense that one would turn to the past (in the neolithic age before Aquinas) to try to reach a time before all this started. What were humans, Christians, or theologians like before Darwin happened? Before Luther, before Henry VIII, before the One Hundred Years War, before the plague, before the Avignon papacy?

It seems odd, then, that Catholics after Vatican II decided they wanted to "go back" to the Tridentine Mass, to a form of Mass which was a. not more ancient than any of the above, b. codified in a time of crisis, in what must have been the turbulent seas of Reformation Europe.

This seems less like a return to an ideal situation and more a decision to not divest oneself of the crisis response stance. It strikes me that the Latin Mass was the Mass we were celebrating all through the 20th century. We were still celebrating the Latin Mass as the world was crumbling around our ears in 1917, 1939, 1945.

The only reason to hold onto it, it seems, is a nostalgia. Or a distrust that the new solution can save us. The sense that the Latin Mass is the tradition that will save us!! seems short-sighted, as it imagines that the church’s cultural coinage crumbled in 1969, and that the fall of the Church's influence in culture was a result of Vatican II instead of Vatican II being a response to the fact that the Church had already lost a grip on modernity.

We are still in a crisis, writes Thomas Merton. We're still living in a world actively being stripped of her enchanted garments. It doesn't seem to be over yet.

Perhaps self-diagnosis is an inescapable pastime. Perhaps it is necessary, to identify all the barriers to our living-out of the Gospel. Because, certainly there are barriers, and certainly they must be overcome. It is incredibly hard to cultivate prayer without ceasing and radical attention to God-in-your-neighbor when most free time is spent on 2048 or looking through Instagram stories. I'm not saying it's possible, because Lord here we are in 2019, despite all odds, and spring is blooming in the park. But, still. It's definitely an uphill battle. Hasn't it always been?

At the end of the day, the task is always fairly simple: feed yourself and then go feed someone else. There will be so many barriers between that first and second step. As Sam the Seminarian aptly put it: just make people soup. But there will be many excuses for why we don't have time to feed someone else, or why there are other, more pressing things to do than offer soup to this person. Or why it's embarrassing or impossible or why we don't have the right tools for giving soup (per esempio, tureens are expensive, I just bought one at the Yemeni discount store for the price of $20 and scraping the bottom of the brain barrel for every last word of Arabic).

But, whatever problems we diagnose and issues we uncover in our rotten world, their cure certainly lies in the soup: the giving of it, the having of it, the receiving of it and the sharing of it. For, as Thomas Merton puts it:

Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

year without printer

Without a printer,
nothing I write is concrete.
I cannot see my drafts of words pile ups on the countertop and clutter the kitchen table.
I cannot print off too many articles that stack up on my desk and next to the stove and get red pasta sauce spilled on them when I cook.
Without a printer, I cannot print off labels to return packages. Every purchase is final.
Without a printer, words don't cost much.
They don't weigh anything, they don't displace any matter with their mass.
No one picks them up, lying about, or overhears unfinished outlines tucked between magazines.
They can be erased with a single keystroke,
like they were never there.

Monday, March 25, 2019

loving the beauty

No form of art, however perfect, can encompass beauty in itself as the Virgin contained her Creator.—Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

I examine the crocuses blooming in the woods of Morningside Park. There's a whole swatch of daffodils spreading their sunlight petals in between the still-dead trees.

I want to sing about them.

Above them, on benches, men with hard hats on the seats next to them are eating chicken over rice and burritos in tupperware that they packed this morning. It is better, I think, as I look for that same spring sunlight in their faces, manifest in the smiles of relief humans release when the sun snaps the sparkle back into the warming sky in March, it is better to write a poem about a person than a crocus, because a crocus does not doubt that it is beautiful.

But people have a tendency to forget who and what they are, find themselves adrift from the worlds of beauty that lie inside of them.

Hey! says a voice in the seminary library, as I make copies of scenes from Stephen Adly Gurgis' Broadway hit that I found squashed between two bookshelves at the Strand.

I am an intruder in the seminary. Everyone's nice enough not to point it out, but they almost can't help it. Difference is its own calling card.

I put the voice's hands to work stapling pages together.

As we talk about nieces and nephews and children of our respective siblings, I make a joke about how I'm super barren, except it's not a joke, because I am.
He laughs. I say: you can't laugh when a woman says she's barren. That's not pastoral. (again, joke and fact.)
Well, you're bringing life here, he says, doing theatre.

Jacques Maritain writes: "The artist's whole appetitive faculty, her passions and her will, to be rectified in relation to the end of her art, If every faculty of desire and emotion in the artist is not fundamentally rectified and exalted in the fine of beauty whose transcendence and immateriality are superhuman, human life, the humdrum activity of the senses, and the routine of art itself, will degrade her conception. The artist must be in love, must be in love with what she is doing."

Why is it so good? asks Fr. Aaron. Why is the theatre so good?

Why is it good? I wonder. I say I don't know.

But I do know that, in that room, guiding brains back into their bodies, prodding them to make choices with something other than their mind, to help the persons discover what they themselves, their entire mind and soul and self is capable of making, I feel more alive. I see what I am making, and I don't know that I am making anything other than helping other people see what they can make. Maybe that's what making life is:

To reteach a thing its loveliness is fine, but to reteach a soul her worth,
to show a small human what they're made of—sparks and wonder, flame and clay, magic and the living God poured into their nostrils with their daily dose of oxygen—that's a vocation, that's something you can sing about.

To watch someone discover a strength inside their voice they didn't know they had, to help them discover the thoughts of someone else live also inside their heads, to teach them that the feelings of their own heart are enough to understand someone else's—that's the best poetry.

That's why it's good.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

apologies to Richard and Rainer Maria

Love calls us to the things of this world, I think as my attention is drawn away from the tantalizing imaginary of blue and white messages glowing on a screen to the crushed cockroach at the Times Square Subway Station floor.

The poor pest lies supine, frozen in a humiliated moment of death. Poor guy.

It's a perfect day in Central Park, the sunlight is so clear, you can see the shadows in your soul take shape, their profiles detailed in high definition. Other shades, ones that haunt your brain, vanish in the sunlight. Who knew that such fraudulent ghosts could appear so concrete?

If love calls us to the things of this world, it calls us to the the puppy whimpering in the coffee shop, to slick dialogue gliding off quick tongues, to fine acting, revealing a human being in his simplicity, it draws us to the shape of the mirror down the hallway, to elegies shared over white cup diner coffee. Yes, love calls us to memories of rivers we once swam in. It draws us to the pine tree we climbed once with a whimsical lover, searching for a telos and a Lime Bike. It calls us to biking down cement in the South Bend summer. Love draws us to thick, frozen margaritas, served in goblets that might as well be bowls, garnished with the lazy sweetness of Saturday laughter.

Love calls us to all these things of this world.

But underneath these things, the world can often crumple back into ourselves. Just as we thought that love could call us out into the things of this world, we are sucked back into the sinkhole of our selves. Whom can we ever turn to in our need? cries Rilke. No one answers him. Swallow your sob. What's the point? If a single soul sobs in the middle of a universe that doesn't care at all, does anyone really hear her?

Love calls us to the things of this world: to the small mouse in the kitchen, to the worm in the puddle we carry to the grass, to the man holding out his cup for change. To the star, the wave, the violin or cello. To laundry.

The things of this world carry us beyond themselves, as all living things do, into the love that calls us to them. Because, well—what good would things be all on their own? Even our abstract possessions—happiness and peace—grow stale without a more robust reality behind them, guiding them, and receiving the emptiness of their arms.

The things of this world—the fox wagging its tail up ahead as it trots up the mountain trail, the cold of late-nights watching meteor showers on the driveway, the soft lips of sweet men—call us to the love whose terrifying presence calls us to them.

All this was mission.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

coffee rituals I

Carefully scrape four teaspoons,
Measured more by instinct than by volume.

The rose in the wine glass is still living,
The blue sky from the window well boils and roils
White clouds racing across.

The boiling water,
poured over waiting grounds,
bubbles up its glass case into churning chocolate foam.

Several Hail Mary’s
Or deep breaths later,

The heel of your palm on the pressurized seize
compresses the swirling grounds,
Steadying,
Clarifying,
Firmly
Slowly
Steadily
Grounds and liquid,
wheat and chaff,
inedible solid from what can be imbibed.

Friday, March 22, 2019

evening sacrifice

You were more marvelous in that simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach. — David Whyte

It's Thursday night, and the roof is actually gilded.

Three bodies walk into a darkened chapel, and sigh ourselves into pew pockets. We have just missed benediction, but its lingering incense still saturates the air. I stupidly realize that (of course) incense makes the air thicker. It's vapor and smoke, it crowds the atmosphere with excess atoms. It's not made up of imaginary molecules. All that scent costs something, has weight and heft.

But incense makes its presence felt not just in the air, but in your lungs. It's a heavy filter on your nose, it clings to your clothes and hair. Incense doesn't just rise up to heaven, it clings to earth, hungry to instigate some olfactory sea change, draping the entire community in a sticky cloud of sweetness. Perhaps this is the sort of the prayers the psalmist is invoking.

I sink into this pew like it's a miniature Sabbath.

Earlier, on the subway bench, chugging up the one train to this darkened chapel, I had finally realized that I didn't have to do anything. There was no book I had to read, there were no emails to check, I didn't have to be thinking or producing or writing anything. I was not on anyone's clock. And I felt whatever inside of me was wound up during the work day uncoil. I was, you could say, resting.

I am not used to resting, I am used to producing. Because most of my "hobbies" also demand production: writing, creating, thinking, applying, planning. Any time that is not spent producing is catastrophically categorized as "wasting" (most of this "wasting" time let's be honest is Twitter). Even time spent with friends becomes producing: cultivating communal relationships: check.

But what do I do for "rest"? Running is not quite rest. I certainly do it because of the weird kink in your brain that begins to crave it like no food. But I also know that it's productive, because it's getting exercise: check. Just another notch on my to-do list. Reading is not quite rest, knowing that whatever I'm reading is another "unit of literature" consumed, to borrow a friend's phrase. It could potentially become a piece of writing, I should analyze and process it, form an opinion about it that's more nuanced than a knee-jerk reaction (like to The Goldfinch, which I just finished and deeply loathe, but am open to being convinced of its goodness). Thinking isn't quite rest. And writing certainly isn't rest. Cleaning my room or apartment or organizing the sundry bric-a-brac that demand organization, hanging my icons, printing out photographs for the frames—this is certainly not rest.

Cooking: no. Baking: maybe? Watching VEEP? Wasting time, for sure. Sleeping—productive, always!

One Sunday, I realized I needed to rest. And so I set aside the day to doing so. The day did not look much different: I went on a run, I went to a coffee shop. But the running, the reading, the journaling, were done for the sheer enjoyment of it, for rest, in the name of resting, rather than being done in order to hopefully achieve rest.

All the activities were done with the intention of breaking a routine of productivity. This is a luxury in New York City, where one quickly feels the pressure of everyone working and hustling 24/7. You can never catch up with anyone, but feel yourself constantly, perpetually behind. This leaves no time for rest. Every precious second must be used.

New York City is very bad at Sabbaths.

So you must find small ones: a moment in a subway car and in a darkened chapel where your body unwinds, and you sink into the present with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. I wouldn't trade these moments for anywhere or anything else in the world.

To sit in a darkened chapel, and feel yourself existing; to study a subway ad, while sorting through the tangled ball of thoughts that accumulate throughout the day—these are moments of being. All need to produce is relieved, the call to till the earth and subdue it is suspended for a moment, and I just breathe.

The incense pours into each breath, reminding me that moments of silence and rest are the moments we are most, perhaps, able to love those who people our atmosphere densely with their smoke.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

March in Sugar Hill

Between St. Patrick's and Joseph's Days, 2019

It is a perfect March evening in Sugar Hill. I walk out of the Foodtown, turn to look south down St. Nicholas Avenue, and there’s a little pink patch of rosy cloud setting over the turrets of City College.

My bags packed with discount dyed-green bagels and Irish soda bread (no longer desired by the denizens of New York after sunsets of the 17th, although, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral has assured us, today is liturgically St. Patrick’s Day), I miss the traffic light that rules the squished-together intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and Place.  So, I turn north and walk down the small flagstoned park that decorates the median between the avenues.

I walk up towards the BP Gas Station and the Bailey Mansion—my singular favorite place in New York City, which reminds me of roaming through Manhattan on a Saturday night with nothing else to do, the romance of adventure, and being young. To think I live here: to think I have pitched my tent on my favorite unknown corner of romance that is now my daily stop on the way back from the subway and the grocery store.

James Bailey (of the Barnum and Bailey circus fame) built his mansion, thinking that this sweet peak overlooking the Harlem River would become another Upper West Side mansioned-neighborhood. He was subsequently grossly disappointed when apartment construction began on St. Nicholas Avenue. So he left. It became a funeral home. It stopped being a funeral home. No one lives there now.

What good is a place to live if you cannot enjoy it?

At the intersection of 150 and St. Nicholas Place and Avenue, the city widens out into the atmosphere of the Bronx. I do not feel en-gridded like further downtown. Sugar Hill is quiet and open, a little bit freer and more spacious tonight, away from the humming buzz of Broadway and the 1 train.

I can tell that by the river—the Hudson, on the other side—the sun is going to set clear and grapefruit tonight. I could rush down to the river to see it, or not. Knowing that I can go down tomorrow, or the next clear March night is a tent peg hammering me into the ground.

My God, this city—who I often accuse of abuse (and she is guilty of it)—is beautiful.

When you desperately need to write something for someone, it is that moment of need you feel yourself curiously drying up. You begin to parch as you reach deep into your heart to find the words that will adequately express the love that wells up and solidifies into the concrete form of the beloved. How do I have enough inside of me to tell them that I love them?

This seems to be one origin of the poetic instinct: this is why the poet reaches out into the world: there is enough in this creation, saturated and dripping with love to excess, that can express what I cannot summon up in my heart. I contain multitudes, writes Whitman.

Maybe, I think, reading Song of Myself by the river in another sunset. Perhaps only when the self is expanded to include nights like this, cracked open to make space for a cosmos. Whitman's, it seems to me, was.

I take a bite of the soda bread. Sweet pastries are meant to be eaten with coffee—the bitterness keeps the sugar from being saccharine. I have no coffee, but the lumpy, soft bread spiked with raisins pairs perfectly with the crisp autumn-spring atmosphere of March and the cold that hems in with the deeper blue that creeps over the quickly darkening sky. Between bites of bread, I drink it in deeply.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

meritless

What’s funny about grace is that it’s here, no matter what. It’s here in our missteps and our ill-informed decisions. It’s underneath the bickering in the car. It’s standing at the dinner table, waiting to be invited to a chair. It still manages to work through our sharp, pointed words that utterly fail to convey their point. It seeps through the worry and the fears for our loved ones that we can barely moderate. Our immoderate need to care for others is still grace, even if imperfect.

In the middle of a pompous, self-important Mass, featuring one of the most ear-numblingly tired homilies I have ever heard in my entire life, at the moment of consecration lost in the muddle of the moment, I laugh.

My God.

You are here, in this prideful and unrepentant soul, who sits in judgement of the smells and bells around her. You are here in the sniffly ceremonious reaching for the sublime.

Oh God—and I do not say it vainly—you are here in the mess and hell of it.

Taking what is ordinary: stiff necks, stony hearts, stale bread, and making it yourself.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

the usual exceptional

Joseph
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

Gabriel
No, you must believe. 
Be silent and sit still.

W.H. Auden, For the Time Being


If we could, with a single interior glance, see all the goodness and mercy that exists in God's designs for each one of us, even in what we call disgraces, pains, and afflictions, our happiness would consist in throwing ourselves into the arms of the Divine Will.

Marie of the Incarnation


How did I get here?

One fragile Friday, I begin to cry during Mass that I arrived to late. Tardiness is often the straw that snaps the last threads of resolve that have been pulling me through a long week. I pour out my tears, born mostly of frustration, at the feet of the Immaculate Conception statue above the altar of this grotto chapel.  I have tried so hard, I silently fret—with more childish bewilderment than bitterness— so. hard. to do "God's will." I have tried so hard to find the "right path." I don't really even know what it means to do "God's will." This is most likely contributing to my frustration. I'm like an ox that's sent out to till the earth, but I'm harnessed to a sickle, not a plow.

(Pardon the metaphor; I haven't spent much time on farms.)

The point is, I've got the wrong image of sowing all together. I'm doing my darndest at the task but I've got a faulty start from square one.

In the midst of the Niagara of hot, frustrated tears, an (even later) Mass-goer slings their backpack over the seat next to me—the appointed latecomer seat closest to the door that I left open for whatever tardy Elijah would appear after me. Oh Great, I think, in large sarcastic font, as snot drips down the gutter between my nose and lip. I need someone sitting next to me like I need a hole in the head (a colorful expression passed down by the West Texas women flowing through my maternal bloodline). As I try to erase the salty Euphrates streaming down my cheeks, the vision of Elijah melts into the familiar visage of my friend Peter's face. And a chipper midcentury voice, faintly dented by the baritone pockets of cigarettes, greets me in a whispered salutation:
Oh hey!

I have known very few people named Peter in my life. But most of them have (perhaps the original Simon Peter's) knack for crashing into scenes and executing a bullish grace, even as they smash all the china. There's something truly holy in the utter lack of craft.

There's nothing like someone sitting next to you to remind you that you are not a brain bubbling in a stewing vat of your own emotions—you are a person, who exists in a world of other people; look, here is one next to you, who knows you and will ask you what's wrong if you're crying. So either be prepared to explain your tears (and it better be a good story) or lay aside your woes for now, and enter into what's here—a reality we're sharing.

As it strikes me how much effort I have put this year into exegeting and executing the will of the Divine Mystery, part of me softens (maybe I have decided to finally abandon the sickle for the task of plowing) and the thought occurs to me that maybe this effort is really all that can be asked. I almost laugh at myself for the sheer amounts of mental strain with which I tugged the sickle. What do I believe in truly? Was it God's providence, or was it the second half of the equation, who helps herself? Good Pelagian that I am, I place most of my trust in my own strength, and when success eludes me, it is only because I haven't exerted enough strength yet. Not that one not ought to give of oneself, pouring oneself, through effort, into the world. But, like men's seed, morality in effort seems to consist in where it's headed and how. Of course it has only one option: go forth, but to what end and by what means—there's the rub.

Perhaps this effort is the task.

This is not an original observation, but when you really love someone, it seems to be impossible that you can make something beautiful enough to adequately express your love for them. Whatever you make for them has to contain the entirety of your love for them. There's an urge for totalizing self-gift that manifests itself in the creative act. John Steinbeck expresses this in his dedication of East of Eden: Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pat didn't ask John for everything, he just asked John to make a box.

That is how I feel trying to write something on the solemnity of St. Joseph. St. Joseph is not Pat, he is not even Peter, he is not a presence of my waking world, who calls me out of myself, who asks me for something: a box, a phone call, a MetroCard swipe. This is maybe absurd, writing something for someone who never even asked for it. Is this melodramatic, self-aggrandizing?

Perhaps. I know I have a tendency towards both. But I also know that today, March 19, is a day imprinted with the sort of meaning you ascribe to birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays—it is dedicated to the celebration of one person or event and all occurrences of the day refer back to him or her or it. It's perhaps the most primal form of love—worship—turning whatever beloved into the ordering principle, the logos of that day or time or season. How quickly, of course, love can turn to idolatry.

I love Joseph, because he offers such great hope. Hope that, actually, the will of God is present even in the most insoluble disasters of insolvency. That, actually, the angels who pop up next to you in chairs and dreams can shepherd you towards salvation. That, indeed, what is asked of us often seems surprising, contradictory, or unexpected. How does one go forward? Love. Just love the Virgin, love the Child, love your carpentry in your quiet, lovely Nazareth.

That is his story, and I love him for it. I love him because if his story of God's love in his life is one of saying yes without knowing what comes next, of trust and silent faith, then it must be, in part, mine, as well.

We are not asked to know the ending of the story, we are not asked to have a strategy, we are not even given one elegant and important proof that the path we are on is the wise, smart, or correct path. We ask for directions but are given no roadmap, other than to burst like Peters into creation, with nothing more than our sincere efforts and good intentions to offer all we have to what we love.

Monday, March 18, 2019

take this softened cup

And does your love prefer the others?/ And does your love just make you feel again? / Does my love prefer the others? / Does my love just make me feel good?—Mumford & Sons

When one feels like one's self-worth is pitted against someone else, the hurt, the rejection is being non-preferred. Why does he like her and not me? Why does he prefer him to me? Why does she prefer her over me?

Thus, we often try to find a rationale for why the other person chose the preferable party over us. This, of course, is a terrible idea.

We build a case for why they chose this person over us, we turn into psychological detectives, retracing their synaptic steps deep back into their past to discover what pathological flaw has caused them to choose another person over us.

The patterns we find may or may not be factual or true. But they are most likely untrue, in the sense that they are not a reflection of reality, but they arise from our own hurt and wounded psyche. Instead of transforming our mind to reflect reality, we twist reality into the image of our own pain.

We warp reality through the lens of the original sin: distrust. Thus, whatever material reality we are seeing is not true, because it is an unredeemed world. The world is postlapsarian, thus it is riddled with pain, but it is not a reality that has not known the saving solidarity of a crucified god.

Reality means accepting pain: we will be hurt, we will be rejected. Why, of course, is a mystery deeper than scripture and older than Job. But there is no sense not risking our own hearts, because they are precisely what the world will not spare. We do not want this to be what reality is, we do not want to accept the factthe historically obvious—that we can and will be hurt. There's no real reason for it other than that is the world we have been born into, and the best explanation for it is a myth born from Jewish foremothers in the deep dawns of time.

But it is better to see reality than to see the world as a pathological distortion of our own fear of rejection.

For the world and the ironic, corrupted, glorious and awe-inspiring people in it, whatever else it and they may be, is not entirely unsaved. It has been redeemed.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

sins of omission

I don't tell him about the play:
the play I love most.
You dog, Evan would say.
You dog.
I don't tell him about the painting—
I don't email him back on Sunday.
I skip answering the question.
I circle around your empty chair,
wagging my tail, whimpering,
just one small spaniel
casting her vote for your return.

anthropoid weather vanes

Being home for the weekend for a baby shower was basically my mom's "gathering of the girls," like she basically birthed her own girl squad. So I thought, as I was contemplating flights home: well, we owe it to her. What's the point of making your own squad if they don't come when called?

So, in the car on Friday night coming home from the fish fry—you gotta be the one wearing red lipstick to the suburban parish Lenten fish fry u GOTTA—I was like: gosh I miss weather, we don't have natural weather in the City: weather in New York is marked only by the appropriate miseries of each season. How is that different from anywhere else? asks my dad. Double points to Greg for challenging the grating New Yorker mantra of: gosh it's so ~~different~~ here in either the positive or the negatives dimensions.

But, New York weather is actually strange, because it is weather experienced without any sort of natural milieu. Humans are the only element of nature in the city, and thus the only yardstick of the seasons. And seasons and weather are experienced through us: good weather, in New York, is less evident by leaves on trees and flowers in bloom and warm earth and more by our good humor. Sure, there is sun in the sky and blue carpet rolling out overhead dotted with clouds but we are the primary symbol of the new seasons the beautiful weather—our good mood with the sun, our misery in the wind or snow, our discomfort in the summer heat.

We are the chief tokens of nature. Perhaps, if you are able to visit Central or Prospect Park each day, you have a better grasp on being a person in a natural environment and trees and dirt can be your weathervanes. Otherwise, all trees are overrun by people, all sky glimpsed is overshadowed by skyscrapers.

Spring is evident in the joy of the humans on the subway, summer heat is miserable in terms of the sweat that drowns the backs of our shirts. Winter is the season in which the wind flays the skin off our faces. There are very literal natural signs that the seasons are moving, outside our own experience.

And this is an unnatural misery. The joy of the seasons is that the earth is moving and we move with it. The delight of autumn is that the leaves turn colors, and fall into the humus of our own hearts, cultivating it for a hibernation that churns up crocus bulbs of new life.

It is not good for man to be alone. And man is marooned on Manhattan in an island of concrete and scaffolding, left referent-less in an unnatural world of concrete and scaffolding. She is sundered from the natural world in which she can find herself again in snowfall and spring mud in the park.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

the future is female, John Keats

The other day, I was reading Annie Dillard's The Maytrees. Dillard’s protagonist, Toby Maytree, who is probably the most likable detestable straight white male I have ever met in fiction, contemplates a letter John Keats wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds. In this letter, John Keats discusses the tragic propensity of intellectuals to constantly make connections and think about things, instead of being able to keep their minds focused, meditating upon one beautiful thing per day.

Keats bemoans this deplorable disposition for activity: why can we not just sit and ponder a single unplumbable beauty presented to us? There is more than enough—a saturated reality of enough—in a single beauty to keep us occupied for nearly an eternity. Keats then considers bees (do poets ever consider anything else?). And he meditates on how it is equally blessed to give as to receive, but no doubt “the flower receives a fair guerdon from the Bee […] and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted?”

Darling John Keats, I thought to myself in the shower later that morning (I was not delighting myself, I was simply contemplating John Keats). And it seemed impossible to me that John Keats would have been straight. And it his very comments about bees and the delight of the Woman that prompts this thought. This is narrow-minded of me, perhaps. Or perhaps means I have been overly influenced by the gay-interest-icon Ben Wishaw playing Keats in Bright Star (incidentally, probably the single most influential movie of my high school years).

But why do I think this? Keats, like most poets and intellectually-minded persons, presents like a very non-traditionally masculine man, because traditional masculinity, for all intents and purposes, in twenty-first century America seems to be an ideal that is predicated on power. Thus, it follows that men who are not much interested in securing their identity or asserting their self-worth through power over others have not been much interested in traditional masculinity. I think, as I pondered John Keats, this means less that they are interested in other men and more that they are interested in what is equal to them, what is on a similar footing, what is able to enter with them into their rapturous interest of contemplating the world, the bees, the blushing flowers of the spring—to be, like a best friend, the single strand of beauty they are able to exhaust, to gnaw to the marrow.

And, perhaps, historically, your chances of finding this among men was much greater than finding this among women. Fanny Brawnes are rare.

But also so are John Keats.

Anyhow, I am not ascribing the existence of homosexuality to the historical subjugation of women. The point is:


This afternoon, I was immersed in the ur-female ritual of a baby shower. While I have often showered (see above), I have never attended a shower for anything before. I didn't realize no men were invited. But there was not a single male in sight (barring the infant in utereo) and the man of the house quickly departed after being glimpsed in the shadows with a dog. I suppose the balloons and pastel paper is not the most female part of the ritual, although it may be feminine. No, there's something utterly primordal about a group of women offering up to one of their members blankets for a child not-yet-born, swapping advice about how to swaddle, coax an infant to sleep, or burp a baby correctly. It is viscerally female; the sort of rich, earthy female-ness of blood and flesh that the world is born from.

It is interesting to discover, after graduate school, that the very way one enters into conversations with women can be compromised. I stand outside of myself, shaking my head at my over-eager body getting trapped in my head and using too many hand motions at the blue-colored tablecloth, over word searches with words such as "pacifier" and "bassinet." My language does not belong here. But I also realize that I do. And I can bring this language—of lecture halls and seminars, and ridiculous talking-shop sessions in the lounge—to this space. None of these women here are not interested in ideas. Our lives are made up of ideas. One cannot help having an idea or operating on one. Ideas are part of who and what we are—to be able to express the ideas that lie at the center of our being is a great gift and is, according to Lewis' narrator in Til We Have Faces, a salvific necessity. We must be able to articulate the ideas at the center of our experiences in order not only to encounter our own identity, but the gods' as well.

Then, my sister-in-law's grandmother said something very much like Marilynne Robinson in her essay "Imagination and Community" in When I was a Child I read Books. I am listening to it in an audio version and it truly is like having the wisdom of your grandmother siphoned into your ear. It's glorious. Robinson's wisdom is the wisdom of grandmothers—the wisdom that defies rational argument. Marilynne, honestly, you're really not taking into account x, y, z when you discuss the market economy. She would most likely listen, as grandmothers do to the younger generation, realize there's no arguing with bull-headed youth who are intent on scientific correctness, and then continue with her point. When they were younger, these women inform us, they had only two options in their education: to be a teacher or to be a nurse. Perhaps a secretary, as a job, but the professions for women were education and nursing. Now, remarks Robinson, and the wise Carol Berg, women have so many more opportunities: all professions are open to women. She is delighted that we are taking our own selves with us into the foreign, alien worlds that have opened up to us.

How delightful that the experience of being in a sunny Minnesota suburban living room with other down-to-earth, earnest, hospitable, hard-working women who have the wisdom that comes from many children and building up their communities with their own two hands is no longer relegated simply to the sphere of home-building and person-raising. Perhaps I am a gender essentialist, I do not know, but it does seem that there is more to being a woman than my own individual experience. That to be "female" or "feminine" is not to be simply me, Renée, a woman, in the world, but participating in an experience of like-ness with other people who identify as women, to be "like" others who are feminine, whether male or female. We call a man "feminine" because he participates in these qualities that largely women share, and we call a woman "masculine" because she has some quality we see as originating in men. I do not know if this way of articulating this fact stems from the deep divisions in the past that are unhelpful and mostly should be done away with, but it does seem to be a deeper truth than any of the societal constructs which we have ornamented and confined each quality into.

Probably the wisest things to say about "feminine" or "masculine" begin with I don't know.

But it seems to me important and perhaps true that whatever quality it is that I share with the women around me, although I am different than them, is now part of the wider culture. This quality we share, where two and three of us are gathered, can create a different way of communicating, different management structures, perhaps different classroom cultures, different experiences and modes of experiencing the world coming into conversation with prevailing narratives. This wisdom and experience is vitally, viscerally important. I do not know that "feminine" is the life-blood from which the earth springs. But there's good reason that terra firma is called "mother earth." Life springs from the female, bloody and slicked in mucus.

I do not know, John Keats, if she delights more than the male. (I mean, as we all know, it is utterly contingent on him who seeketh to delight. Not all bees are equal, if you catch my drift.) But only when her delight, the force of her life, her desire, and her joy is truly and honestly considered is the world's severed halves made whole.

Friday, March 15, 2019

holy fool learns more prudence

That would be really helpful,
actually.

If you had warned me not to be a holy fool.

It would have been really helpful—
actually—
if you had taught me your cardinal virtue,
sipping tea in a Bethlehem thunderstorm,
reading Josef Pieper, wrapped in blankets,
learning prudence.


Josef Pieper reminds
me not

to make the nascent my life's foundation,

to meet fondness with unreciprocated passion.

Ha.

Oh, Josef. Have you never been in love?

It's a joke.


Pieper pops up with the croci
sprouting through the park's mulchy mud
to remind me:

An ounce of prudence is worth the pound of heartbreak
Ripping through my breast each morning.

Holy fool, proceed with caution;
you're the joke, later.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

sleepover

Of course I didn't tell him about my favorite painting.

Sick on cigarettes,
vomit,
and poison whiskey punch,

we three sleep dry-mouthed
in your mother's bed.

I pull myself to your sink in the morning and brush my teeth.
Foretaste of foreplay.

We sit on your couch
eating clementines:
fruit of a Domenic paradise.

Our hungover prophet
of anxiety relates his Daniel-dream:
the Icon of the Agony
commanded him to be kinder to you.

But here we are,
one year later:
New York,
Miami,
Minnesota.

No one one wit nicer.

So, no, of course I didn't tell him about my favorite painting.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

miscarried heart

To be heartbroken, truly heartbroken, is to carry a dead child within you. You can no more tell the heartbroken man or woman to “get over it” than you can command the no-longer nurturing uterus: “empty thyself.”

The heart cannot expectorate its inhabitant and neither can the uterus surrender her contents. They cannot. The un-quickened child lingers, the life-that-might-have-been has not yet been expelled.

I am not making light of miscarriage.

And I would expect all women who have lost a child in utero or stillborn to rightfully take me to task, and excoriate me with righteous anger. And tell me, to wit, that I have no idea what I am talking about. It’s true. I do not. Pain is sacred; life even more so. Loss and pains that we experience ought to be guarded. There can be no comparisons.

Just like the woman who mourns what is inside of her, which once was living and is dead, so I mourn the ending of a relationship—a life forged of two people. A life that had a life outside of just-me and just-him. An entity that contained in it all the possibilities of a future—new potentials, roadmaps of contingencies that, with our rupture, with his passing from my life—are null and void. That die, like the infant, before seeing them come to fruition.

Children are the fruit of what they are like. And they are our future—they are our relating, our loving, taking shape into something new, full of difference. Vive le difference, a bas le mort. And yet le mort wins today.

Just like the woman who cannot yet let go of the death of the future, whose child, no longer a living child, but the corpse of one, lingers in her womb, so you linger on my body. I mourn you, who infects my flesh with your dead, absent presence. Who lingers within me, whose memories press around and in and on and above me. You fill the space left for a stranger. You are still floating there, lifeless, impotent. A dead end womb. I can no more invite someone in than I can impregnate a miscarried womb. The space is, its true, empty of all living souls. But the dead still linger there. And life cannot win again until I labor you away.