Here is what The Rev. Craig Townsend, Vicar of St. James' Church in Manhattan, writes about The Stone Boat, a new summer series of writing inspired by the Bible on the church website/blog:
...why are we calling this space a stone boat? The image is drawn from the legendary arrival of Saint James in Spain -- by stone boat -- after his execution in Jerusalem. However you respond to the mythology, the stone boat -- like so many elements of our experience of faith and grace -- confronts us with an idea of something that shouldn't work but does, something that defies reason but is nonetheless real. As we read Scripture, ancient words that have somehow survived the ages to touch our own lives, and as we allow ourselves to be changed by the stories and lessons of our Christian faith, we become seasoned mariners of that strange sea: pointing out for each other the constellations that guided us, the currents that moved us, the shoals we came up against, and the promise of that "wind from God" that carried us into something new.
I love this. How this eases my agony---for my relationship with the Bible has been nothing if not agonizing, and torturous, and frustrating interspersed with grateful moments of honesty, beauty and ecstacy. Have you ever had that? When I started to go to church I was terrified by my own ignorance. For two years, reading the Bible literally made me sick. I quite avoided it. I don't know why. Perhaps (I now wonder) it was because I had walked into faith, and faith overwhelmed me. I had entered the tremendous beauty that is Christianity. I had entered the sea that is centuries of human wonder, mystery, art, music and writing----and it blew my mind. It was so unsettling. (Is this really real? And what about those dark spaces of not-knowing that are all around me?) But luckily everyone was generous, willing and patient, and I liked the music and childcare so I kept coming back. You see it was an unbelievable discovery of a new world----full of light, color, compassion, joy and sorrow. A world that had existed on earth all along, right here, four blocks away and right before me and everywhere. It was incomprehensible.
It still freaks me out sometimes. All these people---so many people---over thousands of years who have set out, each in their own way, on the strange sea. And over the centuries these people keep honoring heaven on earth. And millions bow in prayer each day, raise their voices in joy, hold hands in sadness and for strength, recite words, and open their hands to receive a wafer and wine. It's so amazing that we do this when we could fine and happy as corporate lawyers, hockey players or dog-walkers, and call it a day.
Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light believe in the light, so that you become children of light." John 12:35-36
It's past midnight. It's quiet but for the bus lurching on the street below and the general hum of the city out the window, and my son on the bed beside me, wheezing, breathing too fast. My sleep tonight is surface---a petal on still pond. I'm scared. His temperature is almost 104f. He is so hot, you see, and seems to be having difficulty breathing. Once when he was a baby, he had seizures due to fever and though that was six years ago I'm not yet recovered from the terror. I brace myself for the possiblity now. My husband is away; why is he away again? I am alone and feel abandoned. I'm watching my son's every breath and this burden of responsibility, this fear of the next moment, drags me through the hours.
Sometimes I see war all around us. The grocery shelves stripped of provisions; abandoned children stripping bark off the trees, scurrying under a plastic tarp in Central Park; the church full of a thousand people seeking refuge, escaping murder. The place where I kneel to pray, filled with the stench of stale bodies and fear. We are so afraid of our own death, we kill others thinking that will save us from it.
I have been entrusted to you ever since I was
born; you were my God when I was still in
my mother's womb.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and
there is none to help. (Psalm 22)
The candle goes out, the light dims. The middle of the day becomes dark, the shadows are long and purple-tinged. A weird chill fills the air. The ground is rocky and there are thorny bushes, and big stones here and there too. The nails, the vinegar and spear. Earth and stars and sky and ocean.
The mothers and I wait for the school bus near hospitals and sometimes a child with grey skin, bald from chemotherapy, wearing a mask, is pushed past us in a wheelchair by her parents. We smile and move out the way, but you can see our terror and helplessness. And our reverence too. When the bus arrives blinking its yellow lights, we move toward the bus to greet a fiesty pack of red-headed and blond, back-packed, fushia-and polka-dotted coated kids who come tumbling out the door saying, Hi Mummy! Do you have a snack? Holly stepped on my foot! Look what I made today! But everything is not back to normal, for a while that child lingers in our thoughts and prayers.
The night of Tenebrae, the candles had been extinguished one by one throughout the service and darkness filled the church. It was silent. A siron passed by outside which brought an eerie beauty---signaling both pain and rescue---to the darkness and the sadness. Liv was the acolyte who carried the candle down the aisle through the darkness. The candle cast light on her a face. Click... click... click... went her white Jessica Simpson heels on the stone floor----she loves these shoes for the heels---and up the steps to the altar, where she placed the candle and then continued on.
I believe we walk in the light, but we are always one step away from the darkness. I really do believe this.
On our third or fourth night in New York, when we were sleeping on air mattresses on the bare floor and the walls were unblemished and the children were still babies--everything so pure and new---a blimp flew over our building. We rushed to the bedroom window and watched as it slowly, elegantly approached----very low----and we marveled. The children could clearly make out the Snoopy on the insurance ad, and I remember seeing the people in the cab as the blimp moved toward us in its stately eminince. It lifted before it reached the window and slipped over the building, close enough to reach out and touch.
We said, "Wow, New York is amazing with blimps always flying over our bedroom window close enough to touch." It was amazing and we waited for another blimp to arrive, but so far it's never happened again.
Sometimes on the occasional evening, after the children are asleep and the dishes are done, the garbage taken out and the dog walked, when I've climbed into bed and I'm alone reading, I feel a certain tug pull at my heart. Something is hanging over me. It's him again, I know. He's out there, and I feel him. I pause, knowing I shouldn't pay heed to the distraction but inevitably I do. My mind wanders to the end of the street where Gus, the polar bear who lives in the zoo, is probably crying.
Outside my window, a thousand cities, a cruel world. And Gus, mourning the death two years ago of Eva, his one love and only friend. In his grief, he is drained of his magnificence. His fur hangs off him in massive blankets. Does he even bother to seek respite from the rain? He hardly cares enough to adjust his front paw and rest his head more comfortably. The swimming pools of his enclosure are stagnant and too blue. Are the nights worse than the days, I wonder, or does the stillness bring relief? His sadness is so heavy that sometimes on the occasional evening, when the traffic is quiet or the moon is full, when it's particularly still or exceptionally cold, I feel the weight of it in my heart.
But then I think, in his life he's never known the arctic tundras, lingering dawns, long treks. He's never still-hunted a wild seal or mated in the wild. He has no scars or broken teeth from fights with other males. But maybe not forever. Maybe he will be free one day. Maybe, like Aslan*, one day he too will stand up and when he opens his mouth to roar his face will become so terrible that no one will dare look at him, and all the trees in front of him will bend before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind. And maybe he too will say---his eyes bright, his limbs quivering, "We have a long journey to go."
Late in the first spring in New York---though it seemed by the spring that we had been here our whole lives---I was ill and the illness obliterated everything for three whole months. I wasn't in a basement pulling stones out of the wall to curl up in a cave; there was no blood. But the days were very bright, and the afternoons were long and jagged. It's hard to remember exactly, but when the birds start speaking Greek it's always a bit of a headache for everyone involved.
When a friend came from Italy, we went to the Armory a half a block away and walked inside the enormous acreage of space. It was a silent old sailing ship, abandoned, full of cool and shadows and a dusty smell of attic. The light was soft.
Ernesto Neto's installation silenced everyone who entered, filled the space so peaceful and delicate and ephemeral, billowy gauze, draping or taut. We entered the corridors of silky light; fabric pods of turmeric, clove, ginger, black pepper and cumin hung like stalacites. I did not feel better then. But later I did. I started walking and talking again and there was a transformation, and to me this visit was its symbol. I had entered a womb filled with impossible light.
Note: due to technical difficulties (which were not my fault) (ps nothing ever is) this post was written on Saturday but not posted until now.
Saturday afternoon, 4pm. It is snowing---so beautiful---and such an odd and lovely contrast with the sound of bagpipe music incessantly rising from the parade below. How beautiful from above! How dismal down there. But by lunch time I can't resist. I take the little dog and rush out.
And it happens---it happens every year---I am swept away by emotion at the St. Patrick's Day parade. I die a million deaths with each passing high school tuba player. I weep with gratitude for the men and women passing in uniform, the police and the indestructable mayors. The men who---so stoic and gallant---emerge out of the Highlands mist playing the pipes on a lonely cliff, full of lament and romance, so out of this world. The twirling girls, the Ladies of Ancient Orders, families in matching Shetland sweaters. The parade reaches out to the people, the people rejoice. And I am seized by a longing that I can not reach---this wonder of human kind! All these thousands of people waking up each morning and dauntlessly facing each day, how do they do it? Waking up this morning before dawn and gathering their bagpipes or top hats, pinning war medals on their lapels, donning polyester high--school marching band purple-and-yellow uniforms and coming together to face the cold and pavement.
I am enraptured. But I'm not Irish, so I tug the dog and we set off. I would never be in a parade, I think to myself as we enter the park. I am not the group-bonding, uniform-wearing type. Not a team player. Never a rah-rah. Indeed, it's a miracle when I get out of bed and face the day at all. But then---we pass a lone trumpet playing under the foot bridge---I laugh. It dawns on me that tomorrow I too will rise at dawn. I will put on an outfit and assure that children look passable in their Sunday best. We will walk up an avenue that's been mighty cold lately. When we reach the church, Liv will put on a long, white robe. She can tie the rope-belt herself now, which she notes. There are no top hats or bagpipes, but a candle she carries to lead the procession into the church sanctuary. Haakon puts on his choir robe, and after the big flags, the candles and the cross enter, the children's choir proceeds. When Liv and then Haakon pass me, I don't cheer or clap or whoop or shout, but I never miss meeting their eyes. I never miss this moment. It doesn't make me cry; it doesn't fill me with longing. It just says, I am you, and you are me. I rejoice.
The dog and I reach the reservoir and take the outer path. The bagpipes are still going strong in the distance and it dawns on me for the trillionth time: But who am I? Shouldn't I know this before the kids start making things up? Am I the broken arms and dislocated knees of childhood? The summer evening cocktails mixed in ocean-y mansions, the grass tennis courts and German shepherds of my old home? The Camel Lights I smoked, the mountain I skied? West 10th, East 12th, Jivamukti, two babies, Psi U, Africa before there were cell phones? Tissue-thin blue airmail paper! Look at these things, they were my life once. But they are not really me. They don't even exist now.
The snow obscures the world for this little dog and me, but tomorrow the view will be different. It's different every time I walk here, and we'll be gone soon anyway. Every January when I pack up the Christmas ornaments, I wonder where I will I open the boxes next year----in Kenya? Bhutan? Here? This is the U.N. life----five year contracts, here and there. Sometimes I'm unwrapping ornaments wearing a silk gown in a well-polished, tropical living room. Sometimes I'm smoking a cigarette in a rustic house with herbs hanging in the kitchen. Will I be lonely? Maybe I will be Paul Bowles in Tangier, or MFK Fisher raising daughters alone in France after the war. Identity for the diplomat wife is limited only to her imagination. (The only constant, of course, being that I remain the diplomat's wife.)
Who are you? Are you living this life? Have you renounced, by choice or by circumstance, pieces of your identity? Did you move to a new country and leave the gardens behind? Prestigious schools meant nothing to anyone in the new land for me, no one could even pronounce the names! The boys grew up and went their own way. When there was not enough money for club membership, the other members turned away in fear and shame. The summer house was swept away by a hurricane, gone like that! The company went bankrupt and thousands of employees were laid off. Little dog? I say. Who are you? What a terribly nervous look she returns.
But listen, listen around you. God is inviting us to be who He wants us to be: to be shaped by love. And so that is what we are---when the gardens are gone and the children have moved on---that is what remains. There is only Love, and that is God. We can chose Him anytime. That is our one, true identity.
Above image: a painting by Craigie Aitchison, Dog in Red (1975).
We stayed at the carriage house---the house where I grew up----during the weeks before and after my son was born. The house hadn't changed very much since my parents had left. The rooms were like a preservation of our past, in a way. The antique furniture and Oriental rugs were all placed in familiar ways. The medieval front door, all iron and spikes, still made its familiar creak. The glass of the old windows distorted the elegant elms and massive oaks that I knew so well from childhood. The first floor's ceilings soared where the horses once lived; the basement remained cool where the carriages had been kept. The stairs seemed daintier, however, , and the doorknobs to the rooms felt smaller, but the house itself, unoccupied but for the occasional renter for a decade, felt immense from its emptiness, its lack of inhabitants, and its cold.
It was March when my husband arrived from Sudan to join us. The baby was due in ten days. There were patches of snow on the ground and the trees were still bare so we could see the ocean, though sometimes just a glimpse, from almost every window in the house. The French glass doors by the dining table---doors through which hay was once brought in for horses----opened to empty space over an ivy-covered hill. When we sat down for dinner, distracted and hovering in the abeyance that happens before a birth, the sunset made the harbor's bay through the trees fiery red and orange.
This would be our second child. I was gargantuan. I had gained over half my body weight and it was all in my tum. I couldn't walk to the beach. I couldn't focus on words. My hands were too swollen to type correspondence. I dreamed of digging a shallow hole under the juniper bushes by the sea and curling up there like a fox. Then waking the next morning, sniffing the cool sea air, as I curled around my squirming litter. Everyone avoided me. Even the sample people at Cost-Co turned away as I approached.
Mads wore my father's leather Navy jacket every day and said he was going to take Liv to the beach but ended up at the mall. Sometimes my Dad stopped by and took the old Chevy out of the garage and drove Liv and Mads down the back roads to Gloucester. They were all happy driving. I was happy with them gone. We reached out few. We felt like the only people in the world in that big, cold house, waiting for the baby to arrive.
But there were other people. In the late 1800s, stablemen had lived in what were now the upstairs bedrooms. They must have known the same views from the windows as I knew growing up. The towering pines to the north of the house were certainly less towering then; but the cove to the east couldn't have changed. The black rocks at the edge of the cove, incessantly vanished and returned by the tides, probably are just as before. I don't know what happened when the mansion, "rambling, haunting, and evocative", was demolished fifty years after it was built; how long the stablemen, horses and carriages carried on. I don't know, but I always felt comforting spirits in the house. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe I felt more the sense during my years there (many years to me; few to the house) that I was living in someone else's space. Even as a child I sensed that we were keepers---like the stablemen once were---passing through.
The baby came a week early. He was the biggest baby in the world! And he brought all the joy and wonder. Things changed. Our family unfolded again. The quiet days ended. The house felt warmer. Crocuses came out across the lawn. Friends visited bringing presents, and we made food, and the joking, laughter, and camaraderie of old friends returned to the house. It almost felt like years before, but soon that too ended. We packed a million bags and flew back to Africa. In the following years the children grew so fast and we returned to the house for a number of visits, but now the carriage house is gone from us. Like the stablemen and the horses, we were not meant to carry on there forever. Yet it will carry on without us. The bay will be fiery at dusk; giant rocks will lie like sleeping dogs to meeet the sea; the towering pines and elegant elms will sway in the wind. The house and the land endure. It's all eternal, and indifferent to our silly lives.
It was a beautiful house and a beautiful landscape and a precious childhood, but somehow the house and the landscape seemed aloof from the human inhabitants. I could sense it would go on without me, long after I was gone from there. Old houses and ancient seascapes do that I guess. They remind you of what you are, which is: fleeting.
Last month I went to Los Angeles for a weekend. It happened to be my 45th birthday that weekend, which seems odd because as far as I'm concerned I'm still 19. It's also odd because the legs that carried me when I was 25 years old still carry me today. And though the world has changed with its cell phones and internet and instant-everything, my same eyes watch the snow falling the same way that the snow fell when I was nine. The mesmerizing peace of watching the snow fall is the same too. A surge of love is the same now as how I experienced it when I was 13, and 33. The heart has not changed. Do you see the familiar veins on my hand? That is me, that has always been me. So I am not changed: I am not 45. I am just myself.
The flight to L.A. was seven uninterrupted hours long and after a decade of parenting, I appreciated the quiet. I left those rocky dark nights of parenting behind and sat in the warmth of the window's light, the white landscape burning and infinite beyond the glass. Everything was burning and infinite that weekend----the sky, the highways, the long dinners at restaurants bivouacked for a night by a chef we used to know. L.A. was infused with light and warmth, and so were my friends who had gathered together for the weekend.
Twenty years ago, when we were roommates in San Francisco, I watched and listened to these three friends intently. I was enamored by such powerful, beautiful, witty creatures, and when I left the west coast I continued to follow their spirit and slowly, over time----with their influence---my life changed direction.
But in 1990, we were not always good. Our ivy-league degrees hadn't ushered us to much that was sacred; we were finding and fumbling the way by ourselves. Distracted people were always coming through en route north or south to prove themselves as fishermen, lawyers, climbers of the Alps, skiers of uncharted terrain, vineyard farmers, drunk drivers or musicians (and one with ambitions to be a crossing guard). We lived in a realm of quiet anxiety and grew accustomed to living with subtle panic. There was not much light, I think. The perspective was inward. We discarded with fury and sadness any pain and heartbreak. We denied our natural instincts (to commit, to be free, to flourish, to be boring) because we were focused on greater things ahead. There were greater things ahead. But there were no greater things. You were the same once too: 23 years old and treacherous.
Sarah's house in L.A. is settled among a grove of sage and orange trees. It's cool and quiet, and truly sacred. We are in our 40s now but we spent the whole weekend being our old selves, endless talk about art, men, God, clothes, funny stories, really sad stories too, and cats. We are still so hilariously funny. We still confuse Memorial Day and Labor Day. We are truly the same as before!
But of course it is 20 years later and we have changed. We have crossed 100 deserts since then. Our lives have come together and totally fallen apart, and sometimes even both together. Everything is not the same as when we were 23. But we're ok, because here we are, together in lovely L.A. and the light is profound. Over the years, when it's been necessary, we have donned the new cloak required for the new phase of life; we have continually re-directed our perspective. Sometimes the new way of looking is away from the self. Sometimes we turn the gaze a little more outward.
This is repentance. You do not have to shave your head, or drag yourself tarred-and-feathered down main street. You just forgive the world, turn away from the self for a moment today, and let in the light. And maybe this is the beauty of aging---to embrace the desire to love, and to love.
Above painting by David Hockney, The Gate, 2000
Happy Birthday to my husband who is in Afghanistan today which is phew for me because as usual I forgot to buy a birthday present. Actually, no, I didn’t forget. I put it off and then it was too late, which happens every year because the only gifts for him are obscure history books about World War II and he’s already read all the obscure books that exist, I believe, and he's been reading them over and over since I met him 12 years ago, starting each book at a random page in the middle and reading from the middle to the end, and then---if he likes the end of the book--flipping back to finish the beginning. That’s not the way I read books, except for maybe poetry books or the Bible, so perhaps it is the same I hadn’t thought of that until now. And suddenly, we are kind of alike. The first time I handed him a piece of my writing he started in the middle and read to the end, and then he flipped back to read the beginning. (I pretended not to notice but I noticed.) That was a relief because I knew then that he liked my writing, and so we could get married.
And we did.
My love--- everything is not the same without you here on your birthday, but how the wind is making the afternoon so clear and bright. In Central Park all the fathers are pushing strollers past me, and herds of high school boys run like gazelles to the bridge where the birdy-girls stretch and flutter on the wrought-iron fence. A school choir congregates further south, practicing hymns by the edge of the pond. People are walking. The skyscrapers are prominent. It is beautiful, beautiful.
It was not always like this. The years in Sudan and Congo, for one. And the times that those 10 pound babies came to us from the moon, we didn't get a word in edge-wise! But we have not even passed our zenith yet; already the days are getting longer. Anyone who has been married knows that it's a continual dance. We spin and twirl and meet up and fall part. We catch a glimpse of each other one year, and the next year we waltz. Anyone who has been married knows that no one really knows about marriage. Well I know one thing: when I re-wrap your sweater for Christmas by accident, you pretend to be surprised.
So look, I've been thinking. I know I'm the best wife in the world. And a great cook, and also the best lover really---like Paris France in the afternoon or 20 virgins in heaven every day. I am an excellent & disciplined writer, we know that too, also very fiscally responsible. I recycle. My driving skills are superior---all this we know and yet it is still true isn’t it? That even a day without you, I could not live.
Along the East River off the 23rd Street exit, where children are escorted to well-powdered schools, the city meets its glorious end at a chain-link fence. Tufts of yellow and white plastic bags in the winter wind, snagged by the fence and fluttering like the feathers of little horror-stricken painted birds. I watch the black shirt of that river, its ripples, its shove and coil and somersault slap… That is the housewife's dream, I think to myself. That is what I long for. To tip over the edge and succumb to you, weightless going down, carried down by the longest day, dragged into one foolish decision after another… How beautiful. That would be a true commencement, that would be accomplishment. What achievement for a Tuesday morning. What relief.
But I walk by and deliver the children. I always do. I can resist its draw again (though the effort drains me for the rest of the day). It’s just another luscious temptation. It’s just another eternal Sunday morning, flowering into its own private community. Or in the psychiatrist’s words: Remember, they’re only feelings.
It is 8:35AM. The river children pass through the wire gates tossing yellow paper flowers against the black current for the love of the drowned and the persecuted and almost-extinct. Along the East River the paper flowers float happily, the way angels will drift and debate without fatigue for hours. But none of this matters anymore. I’m almost gone. It’s off to milk and pineapples, avocado, root beer, limes, 12 purple lilies and that crazy bastard fusilli. I’m pretty good. I can harvest a cab-load of sustenance for the family in the midst of a raw, urban winter in less than an hour. I don't have to bend over in the field once, or send my children out harvest with baskets on their backs, or bleed my fingers, or pray to God as if my life depended on it because my life, apparently, does not depend on it. My life depends on Trader Joe's.
Which is where I find myself at 9:45am with my collection of fruit, listening to the man bagging groceries----being lulled by his thoughts and dreams--- his brother's wife donated her kidney to his mother; he plays the oboe at Tanglewood on summer weekends; he dreams of the Peace Corps; he has a child he never sees; and his secret… he has a secret he will never tell...
Me too, I whisper and we wink to each other as he hands me the receipt. I balance the pineapple on my head and proceed to the elevator where an artist with a show coming up in Chelsea pushes the button—he’s going to be Famous! Not an elevator man, but famous! He is nervous, doesn’t sleep, still has so much work to do! I am a proud mother suddenly. I will be there, I promise. Little do we know, as we ascend together, that three miles south eight feet of water is beginning to churn and desire and yearn. Little do we know, this morning, that the art show in Chelsea will never happen, that the river’s hunger will surge over all the civil agreements, leases, contracts and rights. That it will spare no canvas or hand-made book or potential fame. That only three little maple trees along the West Side Highway, so sweet and magically untouched by the ravages, their yellow leaves still fluttering and burning---a true commencement, such achievement, what a relief---will remain in tact.
I slept until 8 this morning. My husband made breakfast for the kids and took them to the bus, and then brought me coffee in bed. I rolled out of bed in time to meet a friend by 9. We talked about work for two hours. When I returned home my husband was getting out of the shower, having gone for a run and done the grocery shopping, and when he was dressed we walked a few blocks up to the Frick to see the Piero della Francesca show. It was incredible. We had sushi for lunch on 2nd Avenue, and afterwards went to the post office to mail a coat to his brother. When we walked up 70th street I said, This is my favorite kind of New York day.
This is not the usual New York day, however. On Saturday, Mads will take a flight back to Afghanistan. No more coffee in bed, no more sushi for lunch. I will return to bus stops, homework, negotiations and love songs... Handling the children alone for six more weeks. I dread it. It drains me. Etc.
But then, walking up 70th street, I remembered this little story I recently wrote to a friend, who was leaving her job for the children. She was conflicted, naturally---and I was sad too, because unless you have tons of money (and thus help) being a housewife has its share of rather un-glamorous days.
You see, I pick up the kids at the bus every day at 3:35pm on 1st Avenue and it's not a generally pleasant tour. It takes an hour of walking round-trip, and everyone (especially me) is tired and dragging at that time of day. Because I leave the apartment for the bus at 3pm, and attend to the children until bed, taking care of the children has limited my job options. And even though it's only a few hours at the end of the day, it’s weirdly exhausting. There's a lot of negotiating and patience required.
One day last year, when my daughter was 7, she got off the bus crying. She's a rather delightful child and rarely has any issues, so it was a strange moment. I bent down to her and she whispered that an older boy on the bus had spit on her. He was at the stop too, so we talked to the boy and to his indifferent mother. Nothing came of that. I comforted my daughter and we talked on the way home, and then we talked about other things, and soon she had let it go and me too. There wasn't much I could do, but also it wasn’t the end of the world.
I admit without hesitation that I enjoyed the smack of granite air when I walked through the JFK terminal doors yesterday. Back to stone grey sky and dark-coated, grounded figures. Driving through Queens, the bare tree branches were black against the dusk, the playgrounds were abandoned in the cold, the red brake lights of traffic ahead of us on the L.I.E. glittered warmly. I asked the Sikh cab driver, a young careful man with a whispery lilt, how the weather had been and he said, Good good, it is good. But it seems sort of harsh today? I suggested. No no, it is good, he said. It is always good.
I quite agreed.
I can safely say that the tropical wind that blew through the last week of my life, fluttering the trees, clanking the palm leaves, rippling the surface of the swimming pool and whistling past the ropes that held the flapping tarps along the beach was beautiful, but contributed a certain air of distress to my life. Just as the incessant hush of the surf----rushing, rushing, rushing forward but never making progress----agitated, every so slightly, my existence.
I couldn't sleep, I couldn't swim, my attention span was limited. This was more annoying because all the hippies from California basking in the sun seemed unaffected; the guys on kite-boards, leaping like crickets over the reef and waves seemed transcendant in their amazing flight; even my husband had no issues plowing through his 600 page book without the slightest distraction. The children never stopped being delighted. I was surrounded by congregations of people in exaultation. And I was rattled by own disruptions. I wanted to to let go of them. I wanted to join in with the fun.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1.1-1.2) A wind from God swept over the face of the waters----can there be a more beautiful line? And to think that this force is considered, by some, as the Holy Spirit completes it for me. If I ever required a reason to believe in God, it is this passage. But it is 3:15. The children will be home from school soon, and all day I've been wondering this: I believe the Holy Spirit is beautiful and personal, an essence, difficult to articulate. I believe the Spirit is the wind across the water, enticing and reassuring. Yet now here I am, so old, and just beginning to see the disruption that it all brings.
I woke up last night, sometime in the middle of the night, in a room on the Yucatan Peninsula with my family sleeping around me. I lay awake and listened to the sound of the surf. I watched the full moon cast its Caribbean blue light on the giant nodding leaves out the window, and on the soothing curve of the round windowsill. I watched the chaise lounges in repose out the sliding glass doors---lovely in their aqua-colored cushions, so polished and indifferent to human pain, as delightful as two girls sunbathing into infinity. The moonlight picked up the edges of these things. The sea was silver under the moonlight. I counted the days until we return to New York, and shifted the number into days to cherish. I felt despair grow up beside me.
I had a friend who surfed down the coast of South America about 20 years ago, when he was 18 years old. He was losing weight and traveling a lot, and also drank a lot of beer and didn't think about things, when---I won't tell you how---he discovered he had a parasite. He ran to the clinic and everyone made a fuss, and over the course of hours a doctor extracted it slowly and with precision. When it was over, my friend took a photo of the worm stretched out along his surfboard. The two are the same length.
I love this gross story! Imagine it----extracting sorrow, despair, whatever devouring parasitic creature of emotion. Having it extracted and photographed alongside your surfboard----ew! How horrifying and satisfying it would be.
It's probably just the full moon, I dreamed last night, as the despair rose and coiled and pooled in my throat. It will pass; the night will end. You either live through it or you don't. I lay on my back like those silly chaise lounges and waited for morning.
The sea outside the sliding glass door is pure turquoise. The sand is white. Everyone here is tan and kind and can do a handstand or is recovered completely from cancer. The children make friends with other children and swim in the Italian-tiled pool while someone from the hotel rakes and sprinkles down the sand beside our little house. It is perfect, and I have nothing to do. I try to read but no book satisfies me. I try to write but there's so much time, why start now? The sea is rather choppy, don't you think? How long will this wind keep up anyway? Is it typical? Is it going to be windy all week? because the sound of the waves breaking wakes me up at 5am, and continues all day and is so… so very... relentless.
It is horrible, horrible to be transported to a beautiful place, a really beautiful, peaceful place and still be the miserable creature that I am. And the rest of it. My family is beginning to avoid me because I am distracted by something that they can't reach. (Between us, though, I watched the Swedish mother's face pinch up in exaserpation as her daughter cried with frustration over some goggle issue yesterday. So we're a pack, in a way.)
But there is some salvation. I stepped over the first dog in the reception area when we arrived. She was lying still, her bony rib cage dangerously swollen. She didn't flinch when I passed over her. "Oh!" I chimed, with all the cheeriness and open-mindedness of an American-tourist-just-arrived-in-Mexico. "She looks just like our cat a few minutes before he died. Doesn't she look like Chicken when he died, kids?" A question to which no one responded. I thought it odd that the hotel owners would have their dog die in the middle of the reception area, but then I thought how they must love this dog very much and can't just close the place to be with her in her final hours, so here she lies. And I was in total agreement with that. You know, in some of these ancients cultures, people still die in the living room with their families wandering around them drinking tea and wailing.
The dog that approached us at dinner was not dead. This dog---if indeed it was a dog---was the ugliest creature in God's loving kingdom, but I didn't flinch. If everyone else was cool with this dog, then I was too, because I am an American abroad exuding interest and understanding. Liv extended a delicate pointed finger toward the creature and, as if to test the outer limits of her compassion, touched him on the back, quietly demonstrating to herself that she---a consummate dog lover who can name, communicate with and kiss any dog on any New York street----does love each dog equally and indiscriminately. Even this Mexican dog, even this brown hairless dog, with the skin of a roasted pig, moles and warts scattered across its torso, bleach marks on its ass, a wart between its eyes and thin tufts of the softest baby hair in patchy places on its belly. I wondered if its ears had been sliced off with a knife, though it looked more as if they had been burned and curled back into nubby ridges, the way plastic melts in a fire. A long rat's tail, also hairless and freckled. It was something, and yes, silently, inwardly I saw my daughter decide that even this dog---if indeed it was a dog---would be honored. Mads and I later agreed that this was the most pitiful creature we'd ever seen.
I was a little startled the next day to see the first dog---with its same swollen-organ rib-protruding self---still lying half-dead, this time on the path to the pool. She didn't flinch when I passed over. Another day for you, I thought. what a miracle, and wished that Chicken had had the same. There are others: Yoda who walks with the back half of its body at a right angle (in my imagination, I see the pick-up truck run over and crush its middle); and an enigma name Emma that seems to only reveal itself to children.
Today at lunch, having said nothing about the dogs since we arrived, Liv broke our distracted silence and asked, "Has anyone else noticed that each dog here has its own particular flaw?"
"Hm, true," my husband and I mused, as if noticing this extreme ugly for the first time; as if nothing harsh or unfair had every crossed our minds; as if everything on this beautiful God-given earth was truly equal in our eyes. Well my 8-year-old love, Don't we all? Don’t we all have our own particular flaw.
We flew to Mexico yesterday. We lifted out of Kennedy at 8am and watched as the rising, transcendent New York City turned and spun in a white summer-like (only winter, certainly winter) mist-shrouded morning. There was no pain or yearning in that Tuesday morning city; no garbage in the streets; no chain-link fences, no neglected kids nor elderly waiting for a bus in the freezing cold. Its swelling, placid rivers still carried ancient ships; oysters still clustered its serene, still harbor. Its silence was still pure.
We had a quick lay-over in Atlanta and boarded priority to Cancun. The flight wasn't full. I had my own row. I've flown several times this month, uncharactistically these days, and each time I've spent most of the trip gazing out of the window. I absolutely understand my life and the world from here, which is rare, and nice. The ocean is the sky. My God these spelndid mountains; this awesome deserts, these seas so pristine and aqua-blue. Clouds cross below me casting shadows on the water. Even the suburbs don't offend. Everything is fine on, and with, the earth. The world is manageable. I spend hours gazing out like this and dreaming and planning my life. I see everything clearly; I can do anything.
Pregnant with Liv, I flew back from Africa and passed over my cousin dying of cancer below. I saw the lights of that little hospital town but not the details. The details were enveloped in winter darkness from here, like looking down on Bethlehem. Over Denver once, the friend with the abusive husband is having a dry martini and laughing, laughing among that row of main-drag street lights. The cruel divorce in LA is neat and organized into silver, glistening squares I can count in the afternoon descent. The man who bet everything and lost is a vast expanse of afternoon in western Colorado. Norway is edible. Uganda is a carpet of bouganville and jasmine, no people pissing, starving, begging, no AIDS, no rape.
I'm going to tell you something: 35,000 feet up is where I am invicible and complete. Maybe because it's all magic up there, or maybe because I (the daughter of a pilot) lived in the sky for 18 years. Growing up in the airpine community, it was a bit transcendent. We were tribal, encapusulated in our a silver ship, detached from the world and above it all. Lulled by the roar of the engines that contiunally propelled us ahead. Weightless and reassuring ourselves that it would last forever.
I went to church this morning. The wind whipped up Madison Avenue and it was a quiet morning with so many people traveling over the long weekend. The second reading was from Luke about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. The devil tempts him to make stone into bread when he is hungry; and offers him all the kingdoms of the world; and taunts him to jump off a temple so angels arrive to protect him. You know that Jesus had none of it and so the devil departed from him... until an opportune time.
I love that last bit.
When we got home we had hot dogs for lunch and watched ice hockey and then, at noon, my husband came home from Afghanistan. We haven't seen him since Christmastime, and for me the time apart has been something like 40 days in the wilderness only I didn't have the faith to resist the devil that much. I wonder----I'm just saying (Liv's words)---if Jesus had two kids and no nanny or SUV, would he have had the strength, conviction and faith to endure 40 days without food and without taking all the kingdoms of the world? Last month, I would have taken at least one kingdom if that kingdom had school buses that weren't on strike, because the buses were on strike here in New York and was it very expensive, time-consuming and draining taking the kids to school all day and spending the rest of the day complaining and freaking-out about it.
Well the 40 days passed, we endured, if imperfectly, and when Mads arrived, the doorman practically wept for his friend's return, the children jumped for joy, the dog ran in circles and wagged his tail madly, and I went upstairs and fell asleep for two hours.
Later, alone and free, I walked up a windswept Madison Avenue with the wind pulling back my eyelids to . see a show at the Guggenheim and I walked home with the wind at my back and the new radiant blue light of the Empire State Building against the purple-orange twilight. This was my day. There was so much I could write about but I was in agony over what to write. To write every day for 40 days: to write every day, to write within the restrictions; to create the stillness and the prayer. This is another route home for me, for Lent. Is this a way to create the space to reach out, to connect with God? You'll see. I'll see too.
But now I was agonizing. I agonised over Jesus in the wilderness and Mads in Afghanistan and the nature of family, connection, space, temptation and art, war and beauty. But nothing was working. The devil was whispering. My kingdoms of indifference were looming. The dog was not walked and the children were hungry when I found the Valentine's Day card my 6 year-old son had been silently working on yesterday for his father's return. I read it. I know I'm the mother and hardly objective, but I also know that this is the kind of poetry I aspire to. This is the connection. And so I will leave you with that, until tomorrow... until an opportune time.
To Mads from Haakon.
On Valentine's Day when I
stepped in my class I lokte in
my Bag it was amazing
and then I took off my coat
and then I past out my cards
and put them in every single bag
and then I did my little writing
and then I made a card for my sister
and then I went to short play
I came back I went to my bag
and then I took 5$ out of my
bag and then I went to the bake sale. the back sale
you bring in some things now or before and then you
by them I bot a lot of them
and did I say maximum 5$
minamum was 50¢ → flip over
I love you.
The image is by Zarina, Dividing Line, 2001 (detail). Woodcut printed in black on Indian handmade paper mounted on Arches Cover white paper.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path. Matthew 2.12
The view out our apartment window hasn't changed since we arrived four years ago and I started attending church. Its urban splendor continues to amaze me. The stairs from the top floor of our apartment still curl around to meet the bottom floor, and I am often struck at the same place of the descent by how insane it is that I even have stairs. And that when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I will find my children, a New York Times subscription, cans of tomatoes in the pantry, and coats and shoes for everyone. How did I not wind up in a state-funded institution off the BQE making bird houses out of popcicle sticks? What are these stairs? What is this miracle?
Even after so much church, I don't treat my kids nicely all the time. I sometimes get annoyed with my husband, even now. That hasn't changed. I gossip. Sometimes I feel a rush of relief, even pleasure, at other people's failures. I keep a list of the celebrities I've seen in New York City and I have a weird pride in this list because I worship celebrities a little. In the summers, I visit palaces perched on slopes and I dine on their terraces. I didn't sell my furs and work for the poor when I fell in love with my church. I continue to covet. I am often debilitated with self-loathing: I do at times hate what I have made. I wrestle with this beautiful life before me. That hasn't changed. I didn't become a nice or virtuous person when I started attending church. I'm not even totally happy.
The walk from our apartment to church still takes five minutes, as it did when I first walked there four years ago. Our neighbors are the same neighbors; we still love them. Every Sunday morning when I leave for church, the doorman lifts his head from the phone conversation he's having with his 98-year-old Peruvian grandmother and says, "Put in a good word for me," and I do. The Vietnam vet and his partner from Ghana still sell women's handbags on the corner.
Everything is the same since I began to pray. Isn't it? When it rains, it sounds as it did the night we arrived in this apartment, the delicate clicking against air-conditioner units out the window. The rain sounds like the rain against the plastic roof of the back porch in Kenya. They way it sounded against the roof that sloped beneath my childhood bedroom windows in Manchester. What has changed? What will ever change?
The Wise Men heeded a warning received in a dream to take another route home from Bethlehem. They had been transformed by their journey to and encounter with Jesus, but after their awesome experience, did they float home in joy? The new road was probably still arduous, muddy and cold, with irritation and cruelty lurking behind every tree. But anyway, it was a new road---something we all say we long for---and they were brave to listen to a dream and take it.
I'm looking at a painting on the wall that my friend made. It's so beautiful. When I wake up and throughout the day, it makes me happy. It reaches out to me and reassures me too. I love it. My friend is an artist and she's influenced by Japan and Buddhism and other things. The painting is seven or so sweeping, black brushstrokes. It took her probably ten minutes and her entire life, and also her ancestor's lives and all the Buddhists in the world to create it. How can you create a whole narrative, an entire novel, with seven strokes? How did she do that? There is yearning, there is love, there is tension and conflict. There is a tremendous rush and a turbulent fall. There is death and resurrection. There is escape. All in seven strokes.
To create art----do you remember that feeling? Do you remember that time of discipline, self-absorption, patience and wondering for a few months or maybe for years and years and then: one perfect brush stroke. And it is beautiful. It was not so long ago before children, work dinners, cell phones, music television dishes buses began to erode that time of creating.
It requires so much fortitude to create stillness in our lives today. It requires so much trust and patience to dwell in that stillness. To create space, stillness, enter it----and then to listen. That is the act of creation. That is also, I believe, the act of prayer.
God is the poetry in your blood. Step aside, listen.
Here is another piece I wrote for St James' Church in New York City, where I am still a happy parishioner and where, among other things, we meet to go on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery located two hours north on the Hudson River.
The piece charts the inner movements of being on retreat.
Click on title below to read.