Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Only last week I opened
the closet of sorrows
and you were there
hanging in your usual place.

I yanked you from your wooden hanger
bagged you, cinched you inside
thick black plastic and
set you by the door
one more bundle ready to be
dropped in the Good Will bin—
still useful to someone, perhaps.

Not my color, not my style anymore.
Too baggy now across the chest.
Too tight across the belly.
And who wears wool these days?
The day of the hairshirt is over.
It’s a new age, soft, smooth, convenient,
all comfort all the time.

Only last week.
Yet here you are
standing guard by my door
watching over all my comings
and goings, lying in wait
calling, calling, calling me
to open the shiny sack of my binding
bury my face in yours and breathe
in the scent of home
worlds of shelter, worlds of promise
slip inside the darkening until
I am wrapped in you, the word
I dare not utter, the word that creates,
the word that destroys, the word that gives,
the word that takes away,
blessed be the name of—
breathing out—

Next time I’ll rip you into rags
scrub the floor with you
let the dirt-sodden wads dry outside
in the sun, rot through the long winter
then incinerate the shreds
and wait
until the sky has erased the smoke,
until the wind has dispersed the ashes
to the ends of the earth,
and you are nullified,
ownerless as the dust of the earth.
Then I’ll go inside,
launder my clothes
wash and perfume my hair
scrub off seven layers of skin
dead dead
until the smell of you
no longer lingers,
beckoning me to lay
hold of you yet again.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Hope I Break God's Heart Like That

I Hope I Break God’s Heart Like That

Returning from dumping the garbage
in the basement three floors below,
finding my dog not in her usual spot,
I call her name.
She appears in the loft,
where she’s been looking for me
sniffing under my comforter
nosing her way behind my bathroom door
seeking the stay of her existence
my absence urging her
to climb the perilous stairs whose every step
hurts her bones
to know that I am there,
with her.

I hope I break God’s heart like that
when he sneaks out the door of my world,
returns to find me not in my usual haunts
and calls my name
catches me roaming the place where he
sleeps, washes, works without me while
I sleep and wait trusting below
when he sees me staring down at him with cataract eyes,
straining to hear his voice, not sure
if it is the one that is my life
or a stranger
when he watches me trundle down the stairs
accepts an offhanded kiss as I brush
past on my way to nestle into my dark corner to sleep
all well in the world
the absence of his presence become a present absence again.

I know that’s not how maturity is supposed to work.
Good selves leave the womb, individuate from the mother, let go
the hand of the father to walk on their own,
let the wandering lover go free,
befriend the absence of God in the world and
shoulder the heavy pack of human responsibility
like a barefooted Sherpa gracefully climbing
snow-covered peaks.
But spirits are not psyches.
The spirit lives and move and grows how it will,
in fits and starts, somersaults and handsprings,
backbends and roundups, comings and goings,
leaps and falls.
And I keep falling,
falling into love, into longing, into need
for that in which I live and move and have my being,
anxious to turn the absence of its presence into
a present absence
yet again.
I hope that breaks God’s heart and he comes to me
where I’m sleeping, bends down to stroke
the soft fur between my ears, and kisses my cheek,
in silence, saying, “I’m here now. I always come back.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

God? The human body-spirit? Where to begin?

Our lives are marked by the questions that dog and lead us. The two questions troubling the waters of my life—for good though at times for ill and often for a great deal of discomfort—are these: What and why is this reality we call “God”? Why are we human beings such a strange and disturbing mix of body and spirit, and how are we to live out this amalgam?

These are the same two questions that have dogged many philosophers and theologians, including John Calvin (which may annoy you if you believe him to be the father or all things puritanical, responsible for sucking all the joy and pleasure out of living, or amuse you if you have a taste for irony). It’s not just philosophers and theologians who spend their days answering these questions. Each one of us, every day, every moment, is answering these two questions in the way we live as this particular body-spirit.

And now it’s come time for me, erstwhile theologian, human animal, earth wanderer, wonderer, woman, once again to confront these two questions. I learned long ago from Calvin, standing in a long line of Clement, Augustine, Aquinas, and unnamed others, that these two questions are inextricably related. The first arresting sentence of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which stood its opening ground through Calvin’s many revisions, is stamped on my heart: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (1.1.1)
For the past two years, as this linkage of fundamental questions began once again to well up in my, I thought, Yes, after my sojourn as a theologian and a Christian, after so many years as a Jew and a fiction writer, in my years of opening, I will have to look again at these questions and see where I stand now.

But where to start? How to get started? This is the bane of everyone who feels the pressure to put marks on a page and begin the futile task that the writer of Ecclesiastes calls the “making of many books.” Calvin’s next sentences in Institutes describe why this is particularly difficult in this case, sounding the mystical themes of existing in the One and humility before the splendor of God:
1.1.1 But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves [Acts 17:28]. For, quite, clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves: indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God…. Accordingly the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him. (Ibid.)
1.1.2 Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself….
Knowing ourselves leads to knowing God and knowing God leads to knowing ourselves. So one should be able to start at either point. Calvin chooses to start with God, giving only this reason:
1.1.3 Yet however the knowledge of God and of ourselves may be mutually connected, the order of right teaching requires that we discuss the former first, then proceed afterward to treat the latter.
I’m not sure why, modernist that I am, I assumed for the past few years that I, too, would start with the first question, God, and let it guide me to human being. Perhaps it was my theocentrism, my anti-anthropocentrism that led me to this. Why do we persist in thinking we human beings are the center of the universe? Hasn’t there been enough scientific evidence by now to bump us out of that privileged place? Unfortunately, not. Perhaps that is what Calvin means by “the order of right teaching,” to move from the greater to the lesser, to orient ourselves properly at the beginning so we do not lose our way and overvalue the lesser, ourselves, by placing ourselves at the center of creation.

And why go the round-about way? Why not go straight to the heart of the matter, ask those hard questions about God, crack open the nut of our confusion? If not us, who? That is what I have tried to do in the last years, face the question of God in our post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment, post-post-postmodern world head on, trying to shoulder my way into that strange battlefield of the armies of fundamentalist atheists against the armies of fundamentalist religionists, their literalism and absolutism soaking the ground with blood, littering it with torn limbs and severed heads, ruining the very ground where so many wander without signposts, without comfort, looking for a way to answer these two questions—as we all must—of who we are and what, finally, confronts us.

I failed. I read. I pondered. I tried to write. Emptiness and worn out words is all I found.

But lately I’ve begun to realize that it’s the second question, who we are, that’s stirring up more trouble for me right now, and it’s there that I need to start if I want to find my way to a new understanding of God. Perhaps it’s a kind of second naiveté—once we realize human beings aren’t the center of the universe or the end for which it was created, we are able, armed with humility, to start with the question of who we are and have it lead us where we need to go.

So that is the question I will be pursuing for the time being: Why are we human beings such a strange and disturbing mix of body and spirit, and how are we to live out this amalgam?

Who knows where it will lead? Perhaps you will accompany me along the way.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Performance, Ritual, Bewilderment—Easter, 2013

This past Sunday, the sixth day of Passover, walking through the riot of sun and blooming, I happened upon a crowd of people in their Easter finest. Their outfits shouted celebration! Peach kimonos. Red-and-white hounds tooth-checked men’s suits. Pink crinoline skirts. Flowered tights. And the hats! Vintage feathered affairs. Multi-colored turbans. Homemade hats as tall and floppy as the Cat in the Hat’s. Easter baskets affixed at a rakish angle. Fuzzy bunny ears. Poor Boy caps. Black hats with netted veils pulled so tight they distorted the wearer’s face. A glittery crown of thorns atop a young woman’s tousled brown hair.
They were heading toward the Century Ballroom. Each dressed more fancifully than the next, all of them wrapped in a mood of anticipation and joy. How could I not follow them up the stairs?

Pastor Kaleb’s 14th Annual Easter Service, the posters in the grand ballroom announced. I stood beside the donations jar and peered inside. The place was packed. Singles, couples, mothers holding infants, families with small children, older people, younger people. Each one dressed more fancifully than the next. “Welcome!” the usher greeted me. “So glad you’re here!” She meant it. Her voice was warm and she was cheerful, in a genuine, so-happy-to-be -here way, and I took to her immediately. Her shoulder-length wig was a bright, almost-Smurf blue, a perfect contrast to her bare and beautiful face, with skin the color of a warm cappuccino. “Come in! Don’t be afraid. Everybody’s welcome!” As she nodded to me a purple plastic egg fell from her Easter-basket hat to the floor and rolled away. Laughing, she chased it down. She was tall and her very short skirt showed off her very long legs—she was a dancer, she told me later—and off-white sling-back heels. As she tucked the egg back in its nest on her head, I stepped inside the door. She pointed to the balcony. “Go ahead, take a seat upstairs.”

I planted myself next to her, my guide. While she greeted those on the way in or called out the bathroom code to those on the way out, I stood, my back against the bar area, where the bartender was working hard to keep up with the constantly replenishing line, surveying the scene and trying to orient myself. I was bewildered by what was happening. Was it a mock service? A theater performance? Another slam—albeit a colorful and good-natured one—at Christianity and the failures of the church? Or at all religion and religious ritual as “established,” boring, stodgy, empty, meaningless, intolerant, hypocritical, moribund—in a word, unhip? Was it a condemnation of our materialistic and conservative culture, using the medium of the church as theater to dramatize the judgment? Or a chance to openly flaunt what was sacred to others, to be irreverent or even give offense, with impunity—a kind of Mardi Gras or Purim of its own, when everything is turned topsy-turvy and the chaos of life or the pagan wellsprings of later ritual are given permission to come into the light for a moment?

Or was the key to what was going on the cacophony of images? Church hats, church clothes, bunny ears, a crown of thorns, a giant wooden cross dangling from a petite woman’s neck, gold dreadlocks, wigs of all the colors in a Skittles rainbow, eggs and flowers everywhere—it was dizzying. Was that it? Was this a post-post-modern feast of meaninglessness? In a world gutted of meaning, people left wandering about, in a pathless world, in tangled confusion, the old left behind, no new yet established , bewildered, yet hungry for meaning, hungry, picking up the dried and brittle carapaces of cast-off images, the bones of once-living symbols, and shaking them to try to create a new world of meaning, or the sound of a joyful noise? Strangely, this last seemed to me, a Jew, to fit the meaning of the season, a community of people wandering in the wilderness, escaped from an old order, desperate for a new order, groping toward freedom and new life. But neither this nor any of my wonderings fit the feel of the gathering. The picture of what was happening around me religiously speaking just wouldn’t come clear. I was lost.

My guide leaned over to me. “The sermon’s about to start,” she said. On the stage a man was standing behind a pulpit cobbled together out of tree branches. A church lady in a white suit and heels sat in a pew to his left. A choir of fantastically dressed individuals stood to his right.

“Is this a service or a performance?” I asked.

“We’ve been doing this for 14 years,” she said. “It’s a lot of people in the theater community, the drag community, families, a lot of people.”

Pastor Kaleb took the pulpit, dressed in black pants and a black shirt with what looked like huge Boy Scout badges patched all over the front. He riffed on the significance of the number 14, the years the community had gathered to celebrate. His text was random sentences from the weekly newspaper The Stranger, which he interpreted to great laughter. But amongst the jokes, this truth: “We wait all year for this! We prepare all year for this.” “Amen!” my guide.
The choir sang a rousing number worthy of the best off-Broadway theater. When they sang, “I’ve lost my way and I don’t know which way to turn,” my guide called out in merriment, “Turn left!”

The next preacher’s message was hope: “We made it! From the dark to the light, we made it!” And, “I’m a fool. Are you a fool?” And he brought out the day’s special guest, the “old” pope, Pope Benedict, a very old man dressed in full papal regalia, including a mitre. The pope took a seat on the stage and the preacher removed the pope’s mitre, revealing a full bunny cap and long ears. The Easter Bunny stood up, called the children to him, and handed out Easter baskets. Then they took a collection from the congregation.

All this time my guide was greeting the people who wandered by or gently rubbing the back of an infant whose mother stood near us, rocking the babe to sleep. She spoke so sweetly and lovingly to the child. She was cooing to the child as I left. I wanted to tell her “Thank you.” Tell her, “You are a beautiful person.“ But I was too shy. I left without speaking to her.

Walking home in the glorious sunshine I realized I had been in the presence of and why I had felt so comfortable in spite of my mind’s thrashing about for a meaning. I had witnessed, in sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim’s understanding, a true ritual celebrating the sacred. For Durkheim, the sacred is something that is set apart, non-ordinary, or forbidden. And ritual is the public action of a community that strengthens the bonds of the believers toward their god and “at the same time really strength the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he is a member, since the god is only a figurative expression of the society” (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, pp. 257, 474-57, passim). This community, whatever its gods may or may not be, was strengthening its hope, strengthening its bonds to one another and deriving hope and strength from that. They were at this moment, together, after great planning and preparation and anticipation, stepping outside (entering ecstasy, ek-stasis, standing outside) the ordinary world, a world where they had perhaps known more than their share of rejection and “difference” and pain and sorrow, and entering a non-ordinary reality together, as a sustaining and supportive community, stepping into a moment when all ordinary time and space is suspended, a place in which their hope could be renewed, their bonds to life strengthened, and their bond to one another strengthened, so that they could go on living and live more fully. Is this not human? Is this not wonderful?

Forget cynicism and the emptiness of the post-modernists and chilly superiority of those too hip to live among us. Forget those too evolved to have anything to do with “empty rituals” or “crutches.” Forget those afraid to be fools by showing their longing for hope and community and daring to live it out loud and sacrifice to create it. Forget those who fear laughter and merriment and experiment on the way to new traditions. Remember to love. In the words of my guide, "Come in. Don't be afraid. Everyone is welcome!"

Sunday, March 31, 2013

From the Exhilaration of Freedom to the Threat of Freedom

And there they were. Standing on the other shore. Safe at last. Free. They drummed. They danced. They sang. Every one of them giddy with weightlessness, the burden lifted, the yoke removed. All that pent-up energy released into rejoicing and thanksgiving.
When they woke to the world around them again, they packed their timbrels and turned to face the days ahead.

What faced them terrified them. An enemy vaster than imagining. A nothingness that swallowed up all that approached it. Boundless wilderness of time and space. And nothing, nothing to cut it down to size, carve it into pieces they could manage. No tasks to perform, no masters’ wills or whims to obey, no rituals to observe, nothing to be built or finished. Everything at the still point before the plunge into the beginning. A vast expanse promising only expanding terror, lostness, no way to get one’s bearings, each step erased as it is taken. A cruel infinity demanding to be conquered, choice upon choice, act upon act, knowing itself to be invincible. Crushing immensity. Rapacious void.

Some stopped there, never to move again. Without benefit of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, the existentialists or the absurdists, they knew the anxiety of open being and closed it off, knew the burden of freedom and shucked it off.

Others set off, in fear and trembling, into that unknown, following those who dared to blaze a path out of faith and hope, risking their lives on a tangled path carved out slowly, by excruciating and liberating trust, by law and by blood, cut into stone letter by letter, drops of blood spilling into the shifting sands on the way to a difficult, life-giving freedom.

And some—who can tell who they were or how they came that way—befriended that immensity. An immensity opened inside “as vast as night and light” that met the immensity outside and called it home. You can meet them wandering freely there today, their feet kissing the ground, their lips embracing the sky.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dust to Dust

Dust to Dust

I hate dusting, that Sisyphean task.
Impossible to remove it all, to achieve
that newborn place.
Wipe it away with your ravening rag
and specks escape,
floating free, unseen,
shrouding you in reflected light,
before settling into a new home from which you
have to drive them out.

At twelve my daughter asked me in queasy wonder,
“Dust is dead skin! We learned it in science!
Did you know that?”
I hated dust.
It left me no time for wonder.
Let it be someone else’s duty.
Let someone deal with it right,
come spray it with chemicals, kill it,
and drag the corpses away,
leaving surfaces nothing can cling to—
for a few days, an hour maybe,
a moment’s rest from laboring.

Dusting for Passover—no questions
from children—and a cloud of witnesses
rises up, sheening round me,
sloughed off skins of saints and sinners,
Hebrew and Egyptian, warrior
and builder, the free
and the bound, poets
and law givers, idol worshippers
and seekers, the cruel
and the merciful, those who hated
and those who loved, the drowned
and the saved,
a multitude forever mixed
all come to this—
dancing in the currents of a shoreless sea,
singing a song of love.
Even the dust praises you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Feast of Freedom

As Passover approaches, I find myself wondering about the meaning of freedom. Truly wondering, because I am not sure, in spite of my younger self’s confident knowing—about freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, academic freedom, and the freedom of women and all vulnerable persons to choose their lives and to live in safety, free of oppression—that I understand what it is to live freely, or that I have ever really experienced it.

As I contemplate celebrating the feast of freedom with family and friends, the abstraction, freedom, looms over me, and I don’t know how to escape its enormity. Blessedly, a distinction that John Calvin makes in the Institutes, a distinction he borrowed from the Greek philosophers, comes to my aid. Here are three ways to begin thinking of freedom these wise souls suggest: freedom from, freedom for, and freedom in relation to things that are indifferent.

Freedom from. This seems at first glance as if it would be the easiest to understand. Freedom from stereotypes, oppression, violence, illness, sorrow, lies, bigotry, shame, care, poverty of body, poverty of spirit, anxiety, worry, enemies, hatred, the power of addiction—all that grinds life down and limits the good. It seems easy to generate list, to name the things that hold us back, imprison us, and that whose absence would lift our spirits and smooth our daily lives and that would make it possible for us to experience freedom for. But these aren’t always so easy. To see the internal chains from the past or our own limiting visions of our self and our possibilities takes great effort and often much time.

Freedom for. Should be easy, right? We think we know what we want to be free to do, certainly all that we were not allowed or able to do when we were not free. But once our restraints have been lifted it’s difficult to transform our lives and begin to do what we think we want to do. We have to grow into that freedom. And there’s the difficulty that trips up so many of us. It’s often hard to know when our chains have been removed so that we are indeed free for living freely. I read recently that human beings train elephants by chaining their leg to the trunk of a tree when they are babies. As hard as they pull, they cannot break free. When they have grown accustomed to this, the trainer replaces the chains with ropes. The adult elephant could break free of the ropes with no effort at all. But they do not try. All that power within them, and they remain shackled, prisoners.

That’s the way it was in the wilderness after the children of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt. The oppressors were gone, dead. This massing 600,000 souls had incredible power, but they believed they were still chained to the tree of their trainer and so kept circling and circling it, waiting for the trainer to come and untie them and lead them off to work or perform as they had been taught. It took the children of Israel a generation to believe, to see that they were free and to exercise the creative power they had to build a life on their terms. They had to grow into freedom for and that growing was not easy. The gap between generations is always wide, but in those days, it must have seemed unbridgeable. Parents born in slavery and children born in freedom of former slaves—what different worlds they inhabited, what strangers they must have been to one another. How difficult and painful it was for that first generation to turn together from freedom from to freedom for. How difficult and painful it was for that second generation to understand the freedom from that carried with it the chains of the past. Maybe that’s the real miracle, that they did finally leave that narrow place, break free of the flimsy yet powerful rope tied round their leg and begin to roam freely toward a new life.

I’ll return to freedom in relation to things that are indifferent another day.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Man on the Street Delivered a Remarkable Message

Last week, as my son and I were walking toward Pike Place Market, a man passed by going in the opposite direction. He was tall, his step energetic. As he passed our eyes met. My son and I continued on our way. But the man turned round to speak to us and we stopped,there on Pike Street, in the crowd of people rushing east and rushing west. He asked for help to get a meal. As we fished for something to give him, he told us he was from Kenya, a stranger here, not used to the ways of people here. His face was smooth and shining,his eyes open to ours. We gave him a few dollars and were on our way again.

"Thank you" he called.

We turned round to look.

He stood still in the street, straight and tall. He looked intently at us, his face a still, clear point in the moving mass. "Thank you for looking at me," he said. Then he smiled, a warming, welcoming smile.

And then we were all on our way again, jostling and being jostled, stopping and going, looking but not seeing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Waking Up

In My Morning Bowl

in my morning bowl stars
stars waking up in a bed of oats
and clumps of crystalized honey
each dusky blue skin bursting
into five perfect points radiating
from the point where the stem once
attached to the branch
no scar to mark the moment—
just that tender opening to flesh,
a five-armed cistern now
collecting milk

How many mornings were they there
here, stars shining
as teeth crushed
each berry to pulp

I want my spirit to ripen
like that—juicy flesh stretching skin until
it tears
into a star-shaped opening
to silhouette the light