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,
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


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

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.

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,

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

It would have been really helpful—
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.


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


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

Sick on cigarettes,
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,

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.

Friday, March 8, 2019

This is Your Brain on Graduate School: Part II, the Bad News

But, also, for whatever reason, graduate school was the first time in my life I began to value myself based on someone else's standards for me. I think most of my peers at Notre Dame experienced this in high school and in undergrad, and, for this reason and pretty much this reason alone, I am endlessly grateful I was homeschooled. To have a space where something as intimate as learning is free from competition or anxiety to compare myself to others was a blessing. For learning is an intimate activity, it is soaking in the world around you and letting it form you into a full-fledged human. It's a breath-takingly dangerous venture: this dialogue between your soul and the world. And, just as it is difficult to have an authentic conversation in a café where the elderly couple the table over, slurping their soup in silence, elbows gliding by a thin margin past yours, can overhear whatever you tell each other, it's difficult to have that authentic conversation with the world through learning when you are mostly worried about the performance. Anxiety about what others are saying (maybe they're having a better conversation???) or how they are judging your conversation is a distraction from the business at hand: thinking and conversing with other thinkers.

Those four years of high school prepared me and insulated me enough that, at Notre Dame, instead of freaking out about grades (as I wish, as an adult, sometimes I would have), I continued my business of bumbling through the conversation. Sometimes my attitude towards the discipline of learning was more like overhearing a conversation happening at the table next to me, but, regardless, it was all my own. And for the most part, it worked well enough. I left college much as I had entered: still lacking discipline, with more than enough energy and passion to tackle any project, the propensity to take on too many of them, and bursting with love for conversation—in the classroom and beyond.

The second round was a somewhat different story.

I distinctly remember the semester that anxiety entered the conversation. My first semester, I pranced through in much the same fashion I did undergraduate. Only I was blessed with a more adult work ethic from working with high school students, and I was equipped with a keen desire to be in class and a renewed focus on doing the work.

It was the second semester in which I discovered myself doubting if I could do this project, why I was doing this project, and, for the first time, comparing myself to people who were people I didn't want to be. I didn't want to be Joe or Conor, and I don't want to be Tim and I certainly didn't want to be the blessed Carl! But I wanted to be saying what they were saying in class, because what they were saying was intelligent, and intelligent in a way that the academic community valued.

Perhaps that was when I realized there was a conversation happening I was not a part of, but here I was in the middle of it.

In some sense, this is also the business of learning: entering midstream into the conversation and learning through immersion. Picking your way through this new language you are born into.

Learning new languages is one of the chief joys of the human living. Thus, to continually learn new academic languages is a deep delight. But learning new languages in the classroom recreates the anxiety of the traveler in the foreign country: an anxious turn to exteriority. My environment is so other, so completely unassimilated into myself that my own internal measures of success, of thriving are thrown into confusion. I can only determine my well-being, my survival chances, by comparing myself to the community around me.

How do I order food? I listen and mimic their words.
How do I find the right bus stop? I absorb myself in following someone else's lead.
How do I formulate my sentences correctly? I ape the construction of those around me.

It is a skill of adaptability, our greatest evolutionary strength, to turn our gaze outward, and focus on the habits and values of this new community. And yet, in this learning a new language, we can forget our own. Our native tongue can become rusty, our own voice sound strange.

In this way, I find that I have lost my own knowledge of my own heart. As I alit from the subway at the 116th Street Station, I feel a grip of pain. That old pang of imposter syndrome. I am not a Columbia Student. No one has ever invited me into their Ivy League Club. Rejection stings my heart. Then I laugh.

Renée, have you ever wanted to be an Ivy Leaguer. Of course not. My undergrad application to Yale didn't even have the dignity of Rory-Gilmore-shaped aspirations. It was solely driven by a love of theatre, a love I am so estranged from. What does it mean to me now? As I think of scootering around my cul-de-sac, reading voraciously as a child, playing pretend in the backyard, writing short stories on papers that still live in folders, I think that this is how I have always defined myself: as someone who seeks beauty, who tells stories, who loves the world around her with generosity, and pours herself over it like too much syrup. I have measured my value by how much fun I'm having: the good and deep kind of fun of clear thinking and noticing the world around you and living authentically into the surprises of God. hat sort of fun. That kind of adventure.

I am most happy when I understand myself as living a story, not of my own devising, but one that has been given to me. This doesn't make me in the least passive, it just means that I am not seeking external validation for the choices I make. I am not seeking for anyone else to tell me that the story I am living is good. I know the story is good, because it comes from a God who is good. And then, I can get busy doing what I have always done: loving what is around me with generous energy.

You are good at enjoying things, says Sam. Well, that is what things are for, I respond. There is nothing better than celebrating: the world around you, the people who populate it, and the drama that sparks between the two and you.

So, this is what I am giving up for Lent: the unhappiness of this graduate-school, success-oriented, status-conscious mode of thinking. It will have to be unbuilt brick-by-brick, but, so help me God, Jericho will fall.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

This is Your Brain on Graduate School: Part I, the Good News

A friend texted recently: I’m the only Notre Dame student capable of defecting from God’s grace, not finding a mate, misremembering God’s transcendence, and freezing.

That, I responded, is the internal monologue of every graduate student in February.

Graduate school taught me a great deal and I'm monumentally grateful for it. Recently, I got stuck in the spin cycle of bemoaning my master's degree, wondering why I have just made myself inexplicable and entirely unknowable to a large swath of the male population, one of whom I would hope to mate with.

And it's true, being, for most of my life, unconcerned with prioritizing weight over mental health, organization over creativity, and expressing myself with prudent concern for public image, I have fairly tanked my prospects at being highly mate-able material. The master's degree is like an iceberg upon which I ran my Titanic, except the Titanic, in this version, was already riddled by tears in its keel by misguidedly scraping itself over a coral reef. In other words, the master's degree was only a matter of time.

In this particular spin cycle, running through Riverside Park, I suddenly stopped myself and laughed. My gosh, of course the theology degree was an excellent idea: it didn't make me ineligible, it rather gave me words to express that which was already within me. It gave me language to articulate to other people who may also think and care about the same things, in slightly different ways, what I care about deep within my heart. No, the master's degree was good, because it has made me more comprehensible to myself, and in that case, and only when we are clear to ourselves, can we make ourselves known more fully to others.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

fire and water don't mix

Subtle jostling,
The room’s female half,
Rolls up on itself,
Ferns slowly twirling back upon themselves,
legs twisting into
Compact pirouettes,
Shoulders slimming
So as not to skim
The suit-hems of their stronger neighbors,
Spreading their legs wider than the seat chair,
Arms bumping,

There’s no space for you here.
Curl up on yourself