“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue


19 December 2013: Elsewhere


Levitation, after Annie Dillard

उदानजयाअत् जलपण्खकण्टकादिष्वसङ्गोऽत्क्रान्तिश्च
udāna-jayāat jala-paṇkha-kaṇṭakādiṣv-asaṅgo-'tkrāntiśca
Gaining mastery over upward flowing energy severs contact 
with mud, water, thorns and the like; whereupon the yogi levitates.
~The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali  

I was remembering the way,
each night,
you used to carefully brush off
the soles of your feet
before stretching your soft legs
into the bedsheets.

At the time, I thought it a compulsion.

Later I saw it as an act of love
for your precious skin,
protection from those stowaway shards
of the broken world.

Then I saw that as exceptionalism,
and decided to dislike the gesture.

It is well known
that there are three ways
to levitate:
to die,
to trip,
and to love oneself
more than the earth.

I find I am opposed to all three.

It is less well known
that we levitate in embrace—
bodies, mud, thorns, and all—
as tenderness holds back fingers of flame. 

8 December 2013: Vermont

The Spinnery

It may as well be sorcery,
how she moves
from bleating sheep
to fair isle mittens,
through centrifuge and steam,
threshing and winding.

It’s the skeins still
deep with the colors
that floated off at shearing
onto the barn floor—
granite, caramel, rust, cloud—
that call me.

But it’s children we discuss.
I am there to find
the root of the next hat
I will knit for my son,
who loses them weekly.

The cloud that followed me in
was the shape of worry
over the particular shade of purple
his lips will turn
with snow on the air,
whether it is tolerable,
whether it will make him stronger
or do him in.

I have one of those,
she says.
A dreamer.
Jumping trains.
I don’t know where she is
for years at a time.

She makes it a point
to catch my eye:

But, you know, they don’t belong to us anyway.

And I laugh, 
remembering Frida
who loved to laugh,
with the barbaric steel in her spine.

Tragedy, she once said,
is the most ridiculous thing. 

23 November 2013: Neponset Estuary

Devotions

Today I built an altar.
It was an act of desperation, really.

The other parts seem to be functioning
relatively well, but
the part of me that knows
where home is
has been traveling for so long
that it seems to have forgotten
in which lifetime
it left the fires burning.

So I set out flowers
that might seduce
the armored fragility--

a smooth stone
to amuse the mute wisdom
with its tumbling, ancient stories
of adventure--

a jagged stone
to tell the reckless heart,
in wounded silence,
what it knows of mountains
and of arrowheads--

a feather to preach freedom
to the captive will.

Each offers kinship to each,
cautiously hopeful that recognition
will set spark
to some smoldering thing.

The candle in a porcelain saucer
does nothing but burn
until it can burn no longer,
until it is a mottled heap of self-sacrifice.

In its fragment of time,
it sets a perfect ring of light
around this stage of chatter
and courtship.

But it is the darkness outside
that whispers breathless promises--
so that you have to strain, ardently,
to hear.

18 September 2013: This Home, Last Days

Postcard from Here

There’s not much to tell
except that the sweet orange 
cherry tomatoes have continued
to spread their thin skins to transparent
and fill with with fruit,
in defiance of the blight.

Maybe also that the orange slant of light
that enters this room at eight
makes me wish for you.

It’s just that it is so improbable,
that glow like sunrise and sunset
and another planet, all at once.
So that if you could find your way across the miles
to just sit with me here for a while, 

in defiance of the blight, 
our shared witness might coax it to stay.
This room might find its way to taut hopefulness again,
might tremble at its edges
knowing its kinship with the slender thread of fall chill
woven into the late summer breeze.

Because I mean to follow that thread
back to the black dirt
or crystalline cloud it came from,
and ask what it is that compels the earth
to go dormant,
to end the blight not by healing the tomatoes,
but by sinking it all in a flood of frost
that spares only what huddles underground
or builds four walls.

I imagine you here to sanctify this waiting,
unsure how long it will last,
certain that this eight o’clock glow will move on 
in its journey to the earth’s darker side,
unaware of how much it is still needed here.

5 August 2013: Lake Champlain

Search for the Plesiosaur

“It doesn’t take much for a creature
to become a monster,”
he informs me,
tossing stones into shallow water.
“But it takes even less to bring them back.
They just have to know you love them.”

So we walk the sandy parts of the lake’s shore,
the wooded ones,
the bouldered coves,
the train tracks
sprouted with summer wildflowers.
We paddle out by kayak,
take the ferry roundtrip
across the narrow neck of the lake, 
linger at the apex of the arched bridge
between New York and Vermont.

I buy a second ice cream cone.
In case we find him.
In case he likes ice cream.

The time passes with comments on newness--
the peculiar flowers that seem to live just here,
the feel of cold, fresh lake water
under the layer warmed by the summer sun,
vistas with mountains whose names we don’t know, 
the way we can see rain clouds moving in 
from so far away.

I have no way to tell him, eight years old,
that I’ve been here before,
and not once.

This is where all the trouble starts—
searching for a monster
with a tender heart. 

23 July 2013: Charles River Summer Storm

Deliverance

I have only two emotions:
Careful fear and dead devotion.
~Carin Besser

Ripe with the fruitlessness of effort,
I watch
a hazy-bellied ant
face a lake of raindrops.

Six times she gives
her entire lifeforce
to the intention.

Six times she skitters
back and forth
at the water’s edge,
deciding.

Six times she sets out,
limbs, invisible
from the omniscience
of my park bench,
attenuated with purpose.

Six times her microscopic head
strains with terrified defiance,
then resigns
to the asphalt shore.

I despise this metaphor--
the fall down three times, get up four,
root down in the hurricane,
suffer now, live later
story of salvation.

I want to build her a boat
with what I have at hand,
a nibbled-edge oak leaf.

It will seem to her, I imagine,
infinite dry land
for a moment--
because that’s all she really needs
this time,
until next time.

So I offer her fragile deliverance
as the ominous shimmer
of a rain line charges
toward us across
the river’s surface.

Of course I see it coming.

But I'm certain
it’s aiming for some other
castaways.

28 April 2013: Tidal Basin, Washington DC

What we are given is taken away,
but we manage to keep it secretly.
We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequence it was to us. Memory
builds this kingdom from the fragments
and approximation.

  ~Jack Gilbert, "Moreover"

Walking the Monuments (for Jack Gilbert)

This is when I remember
it is a rare man who knows
he never touches the same woman
twice.

Somehow
she is always on that idle, receptive walk,
her bedrock shifting

with the child (not her own)
climbing just that much too far
out on a tree limb
bowing toward the river’s edge,

with the schizophrenic’s urgent address
to the cracks in the sidewalk,

with the inexplicable taxi driver
who abandoned Casablanca for Virginia
in search of adventure,

with the danger of getting lost
in the sunshine’s second offering of itself
at late day in the water’s shimmering.

There is no part of her that belongs
to you wholly.

But don’t believe what she tells you--
her future is always negotiable.
She can pray just as well amid the explosions
as the raining flowers.

Any newness offers up
that tectonic movement,
that edgy ecstasy.

This is when I remember
it is a rare touch that says
rest here for a moment,

it is enough.

26 March 2013: On the Priesthood

Visitations

It’s not that it’s unusual
for the saints to visit my dreams.
It’s just that they usually come
with so much inelegant baggage.

Francis once shuffled up to the screen door
caked in red clay dust,
trailed by a dozen woodland creatures
who raided my cupboards
for bread, nuts, and honey
while he wearily brushed himself off
on the shag rug.

Teresa came from Avila
to overhaul the order of my bookshelves,
tidy my desk,
and express her serious concern
over my straying devotions. 
She hovered during vigils,
commenting discreetly on my general level of distraction.
I was relieved when she left,
even as the warm aura of mothering
retreated with her.

But last night Therese of Lisieux
settled down beside me
on the cement curb
in cutoff shorts,
and handed me a purple popsicle.
She stretched her pale, thin legs
out into the street
to feel the summer sun,
and set to silent study
of the sparkling mica flecks in the pavement.

After some time,
she reached into her pocket
and pulled out a crust of bread.
“I’m still practicing, you know.
They have to let me do it some day.”

And she blessed the bread, broke it,
and embraced me with her eyes
as she offered it to me.

24 March 2013: British Museum (1998)

Meeting Guanyin

The first time I saw those eyes
in the shadows of your cupped palms,
they weren’t eyes at all.
They were wounds, half healed at the edges,
still open wide in the middle,
speechless and disbelieving.

So you can understand
why I couldn’t accept that posture
of flirtatious ease,
robes rippled like healing water.

You know that this present moment
we are asked to meet with equanimity,
with that serene contemplation
that turns your face
into a still lake under hovering fog
in early morning--
this moment, like every moment,
is stretched to bursting seams
with desperate pleas you can’t possibly answer. 

In the summer,
my children’s sun-touched, sandaled feet
stomp joyfully on ground
once drenched with the blood
of another mother’s child.

So why be coy?
We carry these bodies like stone and steel,
but we are all exposure--
even you,
in the shadowy depths of your resting hands
(which have no time to rest),
in the hardly veiled welcome
of your parted thighs.

And from inside your carved enclosure,
this is what you say:
what else is there to do
with open flesh, 
except to bless and wipe away the carnage,
stand on the edge of exposed nerve, 
and go on answering,
go on creating the wounded world.



23 February 2013: Hudson Valley


So this is what it comes down to in the end: earth and sand skimmed, trimmed,         
filleted from rocky bone, leaving only solid unshakeable bottom, what doesn’t in the
end give in to the relentless hammer, whoosh, and haul-away of tides but stands there
saying ‘Here I am here I stay,’...no going back to how things were once, but to go on
ending and ending here (from “Rock Bottom,” Eamon Greenan)

It is written that Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion commissioned with nothing less than easing the suffering of all beings, had what can only be described as a cosmic nervous breakdown. The bodhisattva was a man at the time, a simple human-shaped vessel, and took on his task in earnest for some time. That is, until the sheer volume of living pain resounding in his conscience caused his head to explode, and he was forced to call upon Amitabha Buddha for some relief of his own. Questionable relief it was: Buddha took pity on him and granted him not a much needed reprieve, but eleven heads to divide the effort. Presumably renewed in this ghastly form, he received those countless voices calling out his name, and reached out to grant aid where he could. So great was his exertion that his arms likewise exploded into a thousand pieces, and again he was forced to call upon Amitabha to have compassion on him. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” 

Thence comes the beautiful, coquettish female Guanyin with a thousand arms, whom we usually see dancing in joyful surrender. She is far too lovely to carry eleven heads, so instead she bears an eye in the palm of each hand, to see suffering in all corners of the world—brokenness rising up in exotic beauty and grace, and beauty and grace masking bottomless wells of misery. 

This reflection was mired in impossibility from the start, and it has taken me weeks to process what seems like even a partial response. It began when I read this: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2013/01/22/mallick_why_newtown_victim_noah_pozner_had_an_open_coffin.html 

For a full week afterward I could see in my mind’s eye nothing but Caravaggio’s bizarre homage to the “doubting” Thomas—Mallick’s words that dumbstruck finger mindlessly probing the wound in Jesus’ side. But behind the author’s hazy fascination with the morbid stands a mother's resolute offering of the sacrifice of her son’s flesh into the political morass of gun control. It is the mystic’s impulse: to stare into the abyss, to look decisively into this open wound and demand that others do the same. It is the same rock bottom that kicked up dust under Isaac’s feet in that predawn climb in his father's resigned shadow—spared in the end, but truly sacrificed already in that first step onto the mountain's face. 

We tend to talk about suffering as monolithic, a single cloak of darkness to be cast off. But the experience of embodiment teaches us again and again that pain is in fact quite specific and grounded. Children in China were taught that if they called out to Guanyin in their suffering, she would be there to respond, appearing in any shape appropriate to the circumstances. Not an abstract deliverance, but a specific one, tailor-made for that moment and that particular hurt. 

I doubt there is much comfort, in the presence of a child’s mangled body, in the proposition that nothing is ever really lost. The resurrection faith teaches us that what is true and loved persists, and the way of enlightenment tells us that it is not so much that loss happens to us as it is that we suffer because our very obsession with the impermanent makes pain ever-present.

Yet there is no doubt that the experience of loss is our greatest spiritual teacher; each broken thread shows us a bit more about what we truly love, and what is at stake in each moment. And then there is this entirely other realm of loss, where the impossibly perfect bodies of children are left broken on playgrounds, streets, in schools, in their own homes. It is not so much an occasion for mourning as it is a great, gaping wound in the fabric of existence. It is simply not possible to speak to such a wound in our usual mode, with our petulant demands that it be healed now so that we can go on as we were. There is nothing to be done in fact, as Mamie Till (and this) and Veronique Pozner well knew, except to gaze straight into it and know that it is the pure exposure of all of our mundane failures, resounding with all that we do and all that we leave undone.

I suspect that it is at the site of such a wound that we come closest to the possibility of Christian discipleship. Jesus’ disciples were at times understandably obsessed with death, feeling the spiraling urgency of Jesus’ challenge to a bloodthirsty political order. They would ask him to stop, slow down, or at least reassure them of coming glory. There is something about staring straight into the face of the end that grants sanctity to what would otherwise be bereft of meaning. But Jesus’ response is that the only truth to be known about death rests in the womb of embodiment, the precious vulnerability with which we enter a treacherous world: 

“The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Tell us how our end will be.’ 

Jesus said, ‘Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end?
For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his
place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death....
Blessed is he who came into being before he came into being. If you become my
disciples and listen to my words, these stones will minister to you.” (Gospel of Thomas)

Veronique placed a stone in Noah’s hand, I can only presume to accompany his released spirit with something relatively sure and unchanging. She saw, as every mother would, his beginning in his end, the angel spirit captured for too brief a time in the clear vessel of childhood.

For the rest of us, in a world that manufactures child sacrifice every day, where else can we think we stand except at rock bottom, called to heed the ministry of stones and of broken bodies? While the living world goes about its frantic business, the inert creation cries out that there is nothing more holy than this ephemeral flesh, no higher calling than to fiercely defend its blessed moment of flourishing.

30 January 2013: Glastonbury Abbey II

Left to my own devices,
I wander this house, unable to finish one thing
for beginning another.
Tasks call out fulfillment
from every corner,
and I follow their songs, a willing gypsy.

These are the auspicious days.
On the doomed ones,
I finish everything,
with precision
and certainty of judgment.

When there is space between the minutes
to watch the way
the kitten’s soft white belly rises and unfurls
in the warm pool of winter light
through an unwashed window,

things get done despite me.

The closet piled with holiday anachronisms--
an elf-bear tangled in crepe turkey feathers,
an emerald tinsel clover--
closes, with only a bit of extra force.

The piles of unread books
speak their truth ineffably
into the light of a dwindling fire.
All will be well,
every manner of thing will be well. 

This house I have assembled--
picture frames left unfilled,
unmade beds bearing the twisted shapes
of filed-away dreams--
this holy temporary encampment
will melt away. 

In fact, it’s already happening--
chipped dishes,
the serpentine crack halfway through its journey
from ceiling to floor,
pillows releasing their lumpy hearts
at weakened seams--
trace evidence of the always
and someday unraveling. 

This poem was actually written some time ago by Pablo Neruda, with typical quotidian-ethereal brilliance. 
 

30 January 2013: Glastonbury Abbey (Seaside Lauds)

 Scallop shell, symbol of the Camino de Santiago--one pilgrimage, many roads.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a stomach full or empty, with plenty or little. Philippians 4:11-12

There are times when the most decisive step you can take into life-as-it-is is a step away. The present tense, whatever it may be, has a railroading nature, a sense of self-affirming momentum that does not readily give in to reconsideration. Stepping away in deliberate acts of forgetting and release is often the most creative means to nurture and fully enter unfolding reality. “Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself,” Rumi wrote, but not seeking oblivion or escape: “The full moon is inside your house.

At its heart, this project is about pilgrimage and disentangling, acceptance and return. Each place we enter speaks to us about itself, but it also speaks to us about ourselves and the many places we call home, if we practice gratitude enough to accept contentment no matter its shape or duration. Ultimately, we are both pilgrims and nomads--going somewhere, setting up temporary shelters along the way that each hold a little piece of the home we are seeking. The journey requires both effort and release, or as Augustine exhorted: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

Several years ago, Fr. Jim Savage gave a homily at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge marking the first Eucharist of Ordinary Time following the Easter season. He spoke to the wisdom of the liturgy’s offering of this time, not as an inert placeholder between the high holidays, but as a call to a journey that requires a bit more from us and a bit less from God.

It has occurred to me since that it is quite possible to build a life leaping across the pilings of exceptional moments, just as it is possible to write a quaint history of humanity that hinges on exceptional individuals. But it is not possible to build an honest spiritual life this way. There is a despair that sets in over time, when we allow recovery to bleed into anticipation repeatedly, without intentionally occupying the space in between the milestones of our lives. We become anxious and inconsolable, always needing a new injection of external energy to make sense of our days. 

In ordinary time, we are forced to use metaphor in place of revelation. It is the space where we teach our souls reverence for the basic materials of existence, which array themselves beautifully at times but which more often simply rest in their own truth, offering themselves to us as tools and clay.

Most importantly, ordinary time is where we find that abundance resides in every degree of apparent scarcity. In the absence of events overflowing with grace and celebration, we find ourselves still and always in the presence of God, the calmer air we breathe still tinged with the electricity of the Spirit, and Jesus’ footsteps still marking the earth in front of us, calling us to walk and to fulfill. 

23 January 2013: Boston (bitter cold morning vigil)

Letter to my Daughter

There are some true things
you can only speak
into the wind
and hope no one hears
until you are long gone.
Because it would cost too much
to own them,
and even more not to
say them at all.

There are other true things
that can't be said
until you are close enough
to breathe them on his forehead,
still moist with unction
or streaked with ash.
They can rest there,
not held,
but safe and known,
until their time comes.

The truest true things
aren't really true until you scoop
their sweet roundness
into that tilting blue bowl
you threw last summer,
and feast across the table
with separate spoons.

We won't even talk about deceptions,
not even the ones that taste as soft
as the truth
or are feathery enough to ride
the current of air,
almost as if they were never spoken.

They are covetous.
And, believe me,
you don't want to be
an owned woman.

22 January 2013: Boston (under a dusting of snow)


There is a dog I sometimes take for a walk
and turn loose in a
field,

when I can’t give her that freedom
 I feel in debt.

I hope God thinks like that and
is keeping track of all
the bliss He
owes
me.

~Rabia of Basra (d. 801)

I am a heretic on the virtue of patience, particularly when it is confused, as it so often is, with endless self-sacrifice. This confusion has been handed down in the Christian tradition by the routine translation of the Greek hypomone as the passive concept of patience, which silently bears all manner of injury and inadequacy. But the Greek compound speaks much more to energetic persistence and steady work, inward in nature and always under (hypo) the canopy of God’s will though it may be. “In hope we were saved. But hope is not hope if its object is seen; why does one hope for what one sees? And hoping for what we cannot see means awaiting it with hypomone."

Kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in her childhood, Rabia was not deluded by the romance of long-suffering. The fire of sustained passion and resistance she lit still burned 500 years later on the beloved Rumi’s pen. Urgency, when carried with clarity of thought and action, is what separates the living from the dead, and the work of liberation from the mire of complacency: “A chief evidence of the grace of God--which always comes to us in, with and through each other--is this power to struggle and to experience indignation. We should not make light of our power to rage against the dying of the light. It is the root of the power of love.” It is telling that all this talk of patience in the gospels and letters plays out in the midst of the most urgent narrative--the careening train headed for Calvary and the second coming, the faithful and the fearful hanging on to the boxcars for dear life. 

Dear life. Because really what is impatience, if not God reclaiming that divine territory within us that we have been slowly, imperceptibly ceding to trivialities and the hazy “dream of separateness”?

Lately I have been insatiable. It is, by its nature, a comprehensive experience. I can’t possibly read enough, listen enough, write enough, touch enough, love enough, talk enough, move enough, breathe enough. Sleep is a quaint preoccupation or a spiraling dust cloud. The searing light of this energy has been casting long, cold shadows over necessary but uninspired tasks. There is something about waking to power that rouses this ravenous spirit in us, at once incoherent and single-minded. 

The deal struck in this experiment of divine embodiment is that God needs space in us to rest, but more so to hunger. This is the primordial formula: we are six parts toil of creation, one part sabbath. This is the root of our blessed intemperance, tempered just enough by balm and the soft breeze of patience to renew its fire. Our work, whatever its materials may be--words, chords, calculations, revolution, love--is right to call us from slumber.


19 January 2013: Chicago II

It has been many years since I have written a love poem, and when I did write them, I did so anxiously and quite badly. Likely I abandoned the form to salvage the craft. But lately the daily exercises of devotion have begun to speak to me in this language, in the interplay of universal and particular. Love poems are always composite portraits of our encounters and cravings, cross-sections of layered experience. Even so, their power is that they unapologetically fixate on a moment in time, as if the whole of creation hangs itself on that delicate hook, that sacred, singular exposure of soul to soul. Because, truth be told, it does. 

“Then, when she felt wasted by love,
Broken by her passion’s intensity,
Despondent, haunted by Hari’s
Response to her quarreling,
Her friend spoke to her.”
~Gitagovinda of Jayadeva


It must be vanity
that rises up in me and begs for you
to say something beautiful,
something hungry,
with contours my fingers can trace
in solitude,
with a soft, liquid body
shaped like my thirst.

Why else would I need you
to tell me what I very well know--
that my open soul,
its shy flesh bared under your gaze,
deserves nothing less than wordless awe?
There have been enough words
put to that.
Each time my heart is wrung out
by virile hands,
clenched in cruelty or desire,
a verse drips out,
just one.
Not much to build a life on.

(I am lately infatuated with my one grey hair. I saw it today, while I waited for you. It finds its way to brush my temple and whispers the story of our winter years. I am writing these words for you in a one room cabin, by the wood stove, in the lengthening afternoon light. The heart still fractured but no longer a yawning wound. Somewhere it became an anemone on the sea floor, settled in the deep, weightless, its storied body caressed by current and the familiarities of long love.)

It must be vanity
that wants you to tell me
how loveless certainty is burning--
all of it destined for ash, and soon--
when I am making it so,
when my every conscious breath
fans the flames.

18 January 2013: Chicago I


Sergio Gomez, "Spirit Rises"

I encountered this piece at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago after a morning spent reading John O’Donohue’s last work To Bless the Space Between Us. His opening words: “There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life. Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken our longing.”

I have always been captivated by the dual nature of visual art--how so often it can speak in one voice up close and such a different one from afar. My photograph is an anemic medium, and does nothing to convey the improbable luminosity of Gomez’s rendering. At a foot away, it is no more than rubbed dust and random splatter. From ten paces back, it hovers off of the wall, ready to dissolve into ether. And it glows--just flat white paint against charcoal, and it glows. In its presence I heard words from Mary Luti’s recent reflection on Epiphany: “...our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact ardent, vivid, and porous...we live in a world that is leaking light.”

This time of year, we entertain new beginnings at the most unlikely time, as we dwell in the earth’s long sleep. It is worth remembering this is the light we nurture with spiritual discipline, the one that glows for others because and in spite of the stuff it is made of--starshine and clay.