Thursday, January 24, 2019

eye contact on the subway

New Yorker anthropology is a very funny thing.
My favorite thing about New Yorkers is the embarrassment of kindness:
I’ll do something nice for you, but please don’t act like it’s a big deal.
I don’t want to be surprised if you rip me off or kill me or steal from me.
I think you’re probably a scam, but I know you’re not, so I’m helping you but please don’t take it personally or make me feel like a good person or act like I’m doing you a favor.
Don’t. Act. Like. I’m. Doing. You. A. Favor.

A woman approaches me in the library and asks to borrow my phone charger, and I don't mind at all letting her use it, but I cringe when she acts like I am giving her my first born.

Please just take the charger and go sit down, lady, I think and realize to my horror that my embarrassment of appearing nice and kind is a new assimilation to New Yorker-ness.

New Yorkers get a bad rap. It's not that New Yorker's are unkind or individualist. They are quite considerate and very kind. It's simply that they are efficient about it: and since the number one rule of this city is not to get suckered, we are very careful to never be surprised if kindness erupts in our faces.

The other night on the subway, a man motioned to me to wake up a woman who, he was concerned, has slept pass her stop. She hadn't. But I brusquely tapped her on the shoulder and asked: what's your stop? Dykeman, she said. We were at 148th on the 1 train. She had a whole 'nother chapter of her My Brilliant Friend audiobook until then.

The man explained that he thought she'd said 96th.

It's rough to sleep through your stop, I agree.

One time I woke up in Coney Island, he volunteers. We all agree that that's dreadful.

There's a sense of caring that makes living on this granite rock of eight million rather bearable.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Unanswered Advertisement for Monastery

Seeking a man whose amber eyes shine when quoting Dante or I enter the same room.
Seeking a man who can speak Italian, French, German, and the language of my heart.
Seeking male human who can go toe-to-toe with me in conversation, who can keep step as we dance our way through dinners and brunches,
Who shares Italian poetry he translates on the fly. Who will finish the bottle of wine at the end of dinner by drinking out of it.

Seeking a man who can grow a good beard, but whose jawline stands independent without it.
A soul who can laugh like the Minnehaha running over stones in the springtime snowmelt.

Who can write poetry and letters,
Who will pray with his arms around me in bedrooms, on terraces, by rivers, smoking cigarettes, in sun-streaked basilicas.

I am looking for my monastery.
If you are out there, please send a small sign
To let me know that you are waiting
And that the kettle’s on.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

a rational thought

I realize, halfway up the West Side on the 1 Train:
I have forgotten entirely the feeling of putting my lips on yours.
Do you remember when you couldn't keep yourself off of me?
Our legs once entwined underneath the bedsheets—
was that this lifetime?
my memory's hazy.

Your eyes hurt,
not because they are cold,
but because they have forgotten.

What an idiot
I was to let you go:

it would have been wiser to suffocate in sadness
than to have let you slip out of my arms.

The price of being with you would have been my sense of self?
You are worth more than intact mental health.

I chide myself for being so rash and foolish in October
to value my own happiness
above the sacred softness of your lips.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


The playlist in this coffee shop was clearly curated by someone whose heart was broken January last and they are not yet over it.

It's a pretty standard mix of Adele, Lana del Rey, and other melancholic crooners who fall on various slots of the brunette scale. One fairly notable piece is the Kina Grannis cover of "You are My Sunshine." Which I did not know existed, and I don't have much insight to offer into it, other than it was clearly designed for listeners whose seasonal affective disorder is accentuating the grace notes of a nuclear-devastation-level heartbreak.

(Currently playing: a terrifying cover of "Crazy in Love" that sounds like an Evanescence recording.)

Often, when we are sad or in pain, our first instinct is to remove the offending pathogen. (Especially if you are a smart person—all our liberal arts schooling was supposed to help us be happy! What on earth is the point of Aristotle if he can't even protect us from this non-sense of pain.) If your hand hurts, remove the thorn, if your body aches, seek medical aid. We are trained to seek physic for what ails us.

I sit in the quiet church (it feels like I have been here for ages, but it's really only been an hour), and I can't take my eyes off the gold of the cross. I want to find a narrative that can uncouple me from the thorn in my heart, that can redeem me from the squirming of my own unfulfilled desire.

I have to accept that, right now, I am aching for a man I have lost—through his fault or my own—or both, and that I will not always feel this way, probably. [Even though the thought of being so divorced from mutual consequence in each other's lives stings.]

But that, if all living is encounter, then this encounter right here is with the cross: an encounter with the weight of sin, of failure, of selfishness, of our own ideals and plans, and the God who uses each terrible mishap, each fight, each cruel text and anxiety and stress and each scar to work the world into some beauty.

This does not, in any way, diminish the puckers in the fabric of the world caused by our own sin. But, rather, it promises a way forward. A life on the other side that is not always pain. It promises a triumph of grace, in a victory that is often hard and gruesome and not always obvious.

Friday, January 18, 2019

monastery #3: 155th Street

At 155th Street, there's a small cloister walk (call me Kathleen Norris) which I discover on a bland winter afternoon, stripped of personality and personality, in early January.

Walking through the streets in the hug of my parka's faux-fur-lined hood, I am walking in a mobile cloister, cocooned in the silence of medieval stone arches. The fringes of the fur are the grille separating me from the pedestrians passing by me: we see each other, but there are porous barriers between us.

At 155th Street, the warden opens up the doors to the church. And I step inside to this must-colored church which smells like the pages of a children's book.

Outside this church is a cemetery, beyond the cemetery is a river. Between the river and the church is Broadway. But you cannot hear Broadway or the river. The cavernous quiet of the undisturbed grass outside tucks the church under its coverlet.

I walk across the uneven, bumpy stones. The sort of pavement stones that are in Rome that vociferously chew up the soles of your shoes, devouring them and spitting them out like a frantic Cookie Monster on the air.

The stone structure, like St. John the Divine, is devoid of any sort of tangible divinity. But it makes up for it many times over in atmosphere seeped in the amorphous magic which eventually is organized into religion.

If religion is a systematization of the thin places of the earth, then this is a spot of unadorned spirituality—sure, it's decked out in the trappings of Christianity. But its sacredness, whatever is living inside of this Church has little to do with the categorizations of councils and creeds. The world has thinned out into a translucence here, and you can smell and hear what is beyond the veil.

I do not know what makes this magic. If it is that the world is attenuated, or if the world becomes pellucid and transparent when it is thickest, when the stories and centuries of human beings living wears away at the atmosphere we inhale, so we breathe something else entirely than oxygen.

I slip the scent of old stones, the underwater murkiness of the light from the shabbily stained glass windows, the muted colors of a day scrubbed by clouds through my fingers like rosary beads.

Pausing my paces in the center of the church, at the foot of the choir stalls, at the front of the nave, I notice the missing transepts. This church is a bird with clipped wings: a canary that has no need to be caged—she can't soar anyway.

Where the transepts ought to be, I stand. I breathe not deeply, but slowly, loosening the air at the bottom of my lungs. All that stashed-away carbon dioxide carries to the surface those small pockets of worries I stuff in pulmonary Pandora's boxes: the anxieties I let simmer below the surface, those thoughts we look at out of the corner of our eyes, afraid to make direct eye contact lest we find them gorgons.

That air escapes into the incubated stillness of the stone and streaked glass and mixes with the breaths of others who have knelt on the blurred marble, who have sung loud hymns to Guadalupe hanging in the shadows of the side-aisles, who have gathered in a shuffling congregation to worship, next to those who miffed them, those they were in love with, those they cherished and those they snubbed.

In this church, God is not in the altar, but in the stones and air and in the witness of these fragments of creation who have come here each day to kneel and pray.

I wonder what this church looked like when the front doors were always unlocked, and men and women stopped in to pray briefly before going to the short old-Manhattan houses like Hamilton's over in St. Nicholas Park.

I return to the warden, who locks up the church again. It is empty, but, as I cross the sidewalk to return to the 1 train, I can still hear its heartbeat in mine and taste its air hanging in deeply buried alveoli of my lungs.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

quick riposte to kenotic theology

Divinity does not contain a lack—it cannot.
"lack" is not a viable form of communication.

It is tempting to see it thus.

Because to reserve a space for someone who is not there is a de facto kind of intimacy. It's holding onto their absence, which we are, in many ways, commanded to do for those who have passed before us, who have gone from our lives.

Absence is a viable measure of presence. But it is not a measure of communion.

To hold someone's absence in your heart is to keep them alive, in some way. But it can quickly turn into a sort of mummification, they are embalmed, yet not living, there is no way to talk to them.

Except through prayer. This is the sort of prayer for the dead that keeps us in contact with them: we find ourselves with them and living in God with them.

But we cannot confuse these mausoleums, these effigies, with the living hearts we seek to know and love.

We hold an empty space for a visitor we await:
it is a chair for Elijah,
who is emphatically not here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

speak, lord

Shivering in the small, blank chapel niched in the wall of the vast cavern of the monastery church, I have no words.

There’s no creative angst or anxious knot—there’s just silence: I’m showing up completely blank—not empty—I just don’t have any pressing prayer to pray.

I stand with dread at the edge of this awkward pause, standing at the chasm of this dreaded moment in relationships:

when we breach the endless desert of drought of conversation and there’s nothing more to say to one another.

We accept that you are your unassailable island, and I am my own self-contained, sealed away mine.

We were supposed to be unplumbable mysteries, but we seem to have been plumbed.

How awful that conversation falters even with the divine.

You could listen.

In order for the Lord to speak, his servant must be listening.

Realizing, twenty-seven years too late, that yes, for God, too, this relationship is a two-way street. That I have to listen even as I God ask for God to hear.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is—
Oh, but do I really want to listen to what will come next?

No. How about we play fill-in-the-blank? It’s like a game of godly Mad Libs. Speak, Lord, and please say these lines, here. I’ve written them all for you noworrieskthanksyou’rewelcome. Just say them. Don’t say anything else. Stick to this nice script I’ve provided for us all. Let’s do this instead.

Instead of a true dialogue, prayer, then, becomes one of those terrible, unproductive conversations between not collaborators but one person bullishly insistent on their vision and the protestation of someone who would like to put in their two cents, to make this a collaboration in spirit and truth and not content themselves with a sham.

The prayer that takes the most courage, then must truly be that finished sentence:

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. 

Who knows what's on the other side?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Armenia! Alone!

In the antepenultimate room at the Armenia! exhibit at the Met, I seek solace in the giant tapestry of repeating crucifixions, which has transfixed my attention. There are certain musical tunes that trap me, pulling me into their cadence. Repeated ad nauseam, they never grow nauseating. There's enough contained in them that to enter into a practice of perpetual repetition only highlights what is enchanting in them even more. I wonder if this image of the crucifixion that grasped this mad Armenian several hundred years ago was the same for her or him.

Detaching myself from the side of the tall, sandy-haired artist-poet, I return to this wall of Golgotha, to lose myself in its patterns. This tapestry is a heart split open, revealing in all its chambers the same scene. The scenes of Calvary drip across the expanse of the wall like blood. Fresh with images of Julian's cross, bleeding and loquacious, my imagination demands this cross to speak to me, like hers.

I stare at the red-inked face of Christ like it's my salvation and sink into the silence of the threaded image. In the solitude, I feel the waves subside into something tangible: I am sad. My heart sinks like an anchor, and I am steadied by its weight.

Something calls to me. I cannot tell if it is Domenic's absence, my sadness, or maybe even Christ à la a Julian-esque showing.

Maybe they're all one and the same, a repeated pattern across the tapestry.

In front of this tapestry, I am not at peace, as my heart will, for at least the next two weeks, tear itself in two with longing and distress.

But I am finally alone.

I cry on the floor in the bathroom of the fancy Lower East Side restaurant. A woman opens the door that I thought I'd locked but hadn't.

I wonder if she thinks I'm some strung out banker, snorting coke off the bathroom countertop or taking pills, as I finger the rosary beads.

Or maybe she, too, has been on a date that makes you want to scream, and she has also hidden in a bathroom and cried.

Probably not.

Being on dates with people when you are in love with someone else is good character formation. I notice that I am an asshole, and the only thing preventing me from being one usually is that I care what other people think of me. With that prophylactic removed, all my absurd pride and inane self-interest bubble to the surface.

I have never felt anything like this abandon, this absolute lack-of-caring before, and with a masochistic sense of vivisection, I lean into it, examine it, picking it up and poking its functioning organs. I feel how hard my heart is in the middle of dinner, and, instead of truly softening it, I act as though I do: I ask a question, feign interest, not out of cruelty, but out of a forced desire to be virtuous. In the meantime, I am sounding the stony depths of a heart entirely disinterested in what is happening at table.

Every comment is simply another reason for resentment: as it is a reminder that the person speaking is not you and if you were here, you would say something different, I would feel different, respond with something different than my bullish pigheadedness (maybe). I would try to charm you, in the exact way I am not-charming him. With you, I would pour out the charm, opening up both the hot and cold taps full-throttle. There isn't even a drop of charm dripping from my faucet now: it's dry.

I am again at the Met, but this time it is not summer, and I refuse to fall in love.
We pass my favorite painting, and I think of pointing it out—but don’t.
No need to share that, or the quote of Dante in the journal, or the Final Redactor.

I tell the tow-haired man all the things I don’t want to tell you and, begrudgingly, some of the things I do.
I think he can sense that I am sharing each scene with you, not him.

I notice different things than I would with you—we walk around the rooms with a different rhythm and pattern.
And I like his questions—I practice with him all my good observational habits from art history class. Objectively, this conversation is elevated, curious and edifying.

And as arousing as cardboard.

My heart is feeling around for you, pulsing underneath not silences but conversation: an all-too-visible standard he is invisibly being measured to and comes up wanting, simply because he cannot provide the one thing I want:

With your rippling laughter and your strange shynesses, your anecdotes of Nashville childhood, your bursts of lightness that flash across your face, and your crushing analytic nature.

Right now, as I stare at the vast riches of Armenia pinned like butterflies to shadowboxes, I am in love with not the present but the subjunctive. I love the conversations we would have here, where you aren't: an omission that feels like an intemperate waste. I miss your laughter and your wit. Perhaps we are too effervescent. Perhaps we talk like two young people who have no responsibilities, who still wear life lightly, despite our scars. We do not talk with the maturity and the gravitas with which I speak to him.

Oh. God.
I know you don’t think I love you, but I do.

Impatient Delacroix tries to get the pieta right and fails.

Saturday, January 12, 2019


I have had to let go of my body's memories of you,
I have made a practice of washing you away each morning under the shower-head.
I do not want to, but you do not want to be here, with me.
So I must let you go.

I leave you behind in old apartments, where you beg to remain.
I wash you down the drain like yesterday's dust.

In the quiet ache of morning,
in the impossibly soft Fort George night,
on a subway, laughing a memory of holding you,
of your legs wrapped in mine comes to me,
and takes my breath away.

I laugh for joy
at the unspeakable delight
that once you were mine.

Friday, January 11, 2019


At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners, 
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners, 
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs, 
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. 
To discover how to be human now Is the reason we follow this Star."
—W. H. Auden, "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

From the office, as I end my day, or rather, hunker down for one more pass, I catch a glimpse of the mid-winter sunset—an orange and yellow tinge steadily hemming the fringes of an aquamarine sky stubbornly eking just past five pm now that it's post-Christmas.

The rippling (freezing) waters of the Hudson ripple a magnetic blue. The lights of Jersey City and Hoboken shine cheerfully, without the tint of claustrophobia from the Manhattan skyscrapers. Here, at the edge of the island, the night seems a little more voluminous, and the air is less crowded. The twilight blue trailing in after sunset is a blue that you can breathe in.

Small tugboats and ferries chug from the busy piers across the Hudson. Planes streak through the yellow underbelly of the horizon, vanishing up into the darkness of soon-to-be night.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

monastery #2:188th Street

Whenever I say a Hail Mary now I think of the Visitation stained into the glass of St. Elizabeth’s windows.

Like a spell, they summon me back to the peace of Tuesday afternoon and walking up and down the aisles while abuelas pray in the pews and workmen on ladders clamber up above our heads.

I am salty this Tuesday, and I walk inside to air sweetened with St. Elizabeth's saturated light. The windows are so brilliantly colored they sparkle in the sun that escapes the January clouds and the Church shines like a jewel-box.

Now, when I pray Hail Marys, I pray them to remember discovering the Annunciation window, hiding on the sidewall of the altar.

I stare for a long time at the window of the Annunciation that’s hiding by the altar.
The Annunciation:
God’s reinvention of the universe, a second stab at Eden.

This window spells out the mystery of salvation, of divine love—God does not scrap his ruined universe, but instead: God loves it into re-creation.

The mercy of God in this action of recreation taking place inside a woman's womb is mesmerizing.

Monday, January 7, 2019

monastery #1: 153rd Street

I was tired and I was cold. I was exhausted, rushed, and homesick, feeling rootless and discombobulated.

The priest lifts up the host, it’s a broken white within the white-washed walls of the miniature church.

And the world goes silent.

For a magic moment, the entire world is hushed.

There are no sirens.
There are no horns.
There is not a hint of the constant whirr of motion that buzzes in your ears when on Manhattan.
No one moves. Not a single coat rustles. No one coughs or sneezes—we barely even breathe. The world watches, breaths bated, as God comes to this quiet haven on 153rd Street.

This God of contradictions brags at being both prince of peace and a sword of division.

But here we get a rare moment of respite from paradox, and God is simply peace.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

eating bolognese

Feeling somewhat crushed by the weight of the world's problems, I mourn that making art won't help the woman who is battered in domestic abuse or save the boys who hang out by the 191st Street station, selling drugs.

Well do you want to solve those problems, asks John.

I stare at him blankly, because of course I do. What am I supposed to say? No I'm just fine with all those things occurring around me, thank you very much.

But, perhaps, says Maritain, the distinterested pursuit of beauty can be a healer in and of itself.

Perhaps the path that you have chosen has some merit in and of itself. Perhaps you can be of service in small ways. Perhaps this road will lead to good things, if you just keep committed to it.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

emotional first aid

loneliness is, in fact, as deadly
as a pack of cigarettes
spake Zarathustra in his TED talk,
through the guise of an unassuming
Swedish psychologist.

I think of you and Evan,
smoking like chimneys
ingesting cancer sticks
and wallowing in
isolated despair

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

infinitely suspended patients

The main task of the religious life with its discipline of prayer, scripture reading, and reflection is to peel away the many desires and wants that cover over the desire for unconditional love that is primitive, that is our last and first love. — Cyril O’Regan

I think I too often try to make God in my own image and likeness, not when I'm trying to be bad, but when I'm trying to be good.

In my attempts to be good and loving, I usually try to appease a scrupulous deity—a God who is overly concerned with the right and the wrong and not being mired in the wrong one.

I am challenged by a God of the psalms who desires mercy not sacrifice. For, I suppose, that means God desires to be merciful at every possible moment. There is not a single moment God desires to offer retribution rather than mercy.

That is not my deepest desire. My deepest desire is to remain unhurt for my entire life. I know that it is good to be forgiving, but I do not think my deepest desire is to forgive. It's a medium-depth desire, for sure. But, when offended, I often fixate on the fact that I have been offended. It is hard to see anyone else when you are only examining your own heart and taking stock of only your wounds.

But God, I am told by God's own self or by divinely-endorsed prophets in the words of scripture, desires in that exact situation not, like me, for the offending party to do something for one's self so that I may be unhurt or may find my way back towards being unhurt. Rather, God desires, even in terrible moments like the cross or a betrayal by an intimate friend, to grant mercy.

If my deepest desire is not to have mercy, then it seems that I am still denying myself the most fundamental desire—love. Unconditional love is not an imprudent love, a love that denies or ignores reality. It is not unconditional in that it does not have a form or it erases the demands of our own personalities. But it is, perhaps, unconditional, because it desires mercy, not sacrifice. It desires, at every possible moment, to offer mercy. Even if mercy, like some severe medicine, stings.