Sanctus

This morning, a colleague stopped at my office door, looked at me in horror, and said, “You’re wearing…black! All…black!” I was puzzled until I realized that it was because I was supposed to have on red or pink or some other Valentine’s Day color.

In 1998, David had already graduated from college and was living and working in Washington, DC. I was still up in cold, snowy Binghamton, trying to bang out two years of college in three semesters so I could move down there, too. Fancying myself a modern-day Erma Bombeck (that’s how cool I was!), I wrote a column for the school paper that was published on February 12. I attempted some wit about how my long-distance boyfriend was coming for the weekend, how our reunion would be so romantic, how it was so appropriate that would be visiting for the big holiday: President’s Day. We weren’t the V-Day types then either.

I guess that hasn’t changed much–I find the options for Valentine’s Day kind of gross. Browse the cards and you get saccharine devotion, florid adoration, or lewd eyebrow waggling. I get it–Hallmark doesn’t traffic in nuance or complexity; it’s just a card; and I suppose any of the three simulacra will do for a gesture.

But it’s not that I am not interested in love. Every day I am more interested in love that is too big, too radical to fit in the envelope. The love that’s gotten my attention is less a surprise box of chocolates and more a surprise punch in the stomach. It does not work well for marketing.

I am beginning to understand that if you are interested in avoiding pain, then you are not that interested in love. If you are interested in avoiding ugliness, then you are not that interested in love. To know it, you must be like one of Mary Oliver’s poems: “sentimental like a knife, unyielding.” It cannot be at its fullest expression unless it is connected to suffering and death. “My dearest, you connect me to suffering and death like no other. Happy Valentine’s Day!” You can have that one for free, Hallmark.

This is what I have learned: The preciousness of the love between my father and his family, and among all of us, was never more fully visible than in his sickness and death. The beauty of love in my marriage is not only in its sweetness, but as much–more–in its toughness.

I have heard that heaven and earth are full of the glory of God and it is holy, holy, holy. I don’t know about heaven but I do know that earth is full of sun and storm, and building and destruction, and poop and rainbows, and maybe it stands to reason that all of those are holy, holy, holy. It’s all in. It is all the glory.

So bring me a bouquet of flowers and weeds (both will wilt and die). Write me a poem (How do I love thee? By sitting with your suffering). Sing me a new song (all you need is love and a willingness to let your heart crack open). I want to open my eyes to it all–and name it all love.

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Prayers of the People

Church got snowed out on Sunday, but this is what was on my mind this week.

With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord.

We pray for this congregation—for our pastors and staff; for elders and deacons, for teachers and volunteers. For all of us who yearn to be faithful, who sense the promise of something more than a life of striving: shape us to live as your beloved, renewed and whole.

We pray for leaders in our nation and in the world: Renew in each the solemn desire to uphold the common good, work in their hearts to provoke the same desire of Solomon—an “understanding mind to govern your people, that [they] may discern between good and evil.” Shape us to elicit a nobler course from them; shape us for harmony; shape us for justice.

We pray for those who are affected by the shutdown—for those who are wondering how they will pay their bills, for those who don’t know how to plan for the future. Shape us to meet their needs.

We give thanks for the snow—for the ways it inspires joy, for the way it quiets the world for a moment, for the ways it makes us see with new eyes. Shape us for wonder and gratitude, and to protect the world you made for us.

Today we pray especially for those who despair, whether from circumstances, from physical or mental illness. Today we specially lift up those who are suicidal. Please, God of mercy, give them hope. Please, God of compassion, find them in their suffering and bind up their wounds. Shape us to love them in the ways they need most.

We pray for those who grieve — for lost opportunities, for lost hope, for lost love, for lost loved ones. Remind each of us who grieve that you are near to the brokenhearted. Shape us all to walk and weep with our brothers and sisters in pain.

Hear these prayers and our longings too deep for words. Shape us to offer even those to you, trusting in your tenderness and mercy. 

Sunrise

We arrived at the top of Haleakalā, 10,000 feet up, in the dark, in the cold, on one of the longest nights of the year. Above the treeline, under a nearly full moon, we put on ski gloves and parkas and wind pants to protect us. Venus was bright over our heads. Who knew the dark had so many colors? Imperceptibly moving from black to midnight to deepest purple and all of us waiting, waiting, waiting in the cold. The wind howled and blew dust into our eyes.

We milled about for an hour. We were tired of waiting. Our hands were cold. I’d been told it was amazing, it was worth it, but with frozen fingers it was hard to believe that it wouldn’t be more sensible to just go back to the bus.

I kept imagining that it might be a a little lighter, but it was so hard to tell if it was true or if it was wishful thinking.

The clouds glowed silver, and finally a bright red line at the top of the clouds.

A Hawaiian woman prayed:

Arise!
The sun in the east–
From the ocean, the ocean deep,
Climbing to the heavens, the highest heavens,
In the east, there is the sun!
Arise!

It obeyed her. Standing there, with five hundred others, wrapped in blankets and huddling together from the wind, it appeared brighter than we thought it could be, a sliver at a time, growing larger. And there it was–burning, brilliant, peeking above the cloud horizon–and the sky was light and the earth was illuminated.

I was struck all of a sudden by the notion that, on the top of the mountain, we were the ones who were hurtling faster toward the sun and not the other way around. In the surreal space where the air was thin and we looked down on the clouds and stood on moon-like craters, it seemed possible that maybe gravity was thinner too, and just by becoming aware of our rotation through space that our feet could leave the ground and we could fly off in slow motion, reaching with one arm toward the burning sun and, looking back with faces full of wonder and terror, the other arm reaching toward those left standing in the volcano.

But gravity held, and instead our faces all in unison fixed upon the blinding light, warmed, amazed at this miracle that the darkness did not hold, that the beauty of night gave way to the beauty of day. Tears trickled down our faces–whether from the cold or from the awe of what we had witnesses, it’s hard to say. For me it was both. I thought, I will never see anything like this again. And then: I see the sun come up every single day.

Oh, to see it with these eyes tomorrow.

Errand philosophy

“Mom, what’s the meaning of life?”

“42?” I had been rushing around on Saturday morning–get to the gym, dog to the vet, pick up from dive practice, and on to the next thing, and so when my 11-year old asked this question from the back seat of the car, I thought he was joking.

“No,” he said, “I’m curious about what you think. I mean, God put us on earth for some reason, right?” 

Pop quiz time! Quick précis on philosophy, faith, and existential dread from the station wagon driver’s seat: go! Continue reading “Errand philosophy”

You could say…

You could say I’m feeling bad about the state of the world.

For Yemeni children, starving to death, collateral damage in a war with Saudi Arabia. In large format photos, their bones jut through their skin, their eyes dare you to scroll by and move on with your life. Their parents are helpless to save them. Meanwhile, we count the money we make off of bombs sold to Saudi Arabia, and we shrug as they block money and supplies that could prevent famine.

For the two people murdered at a grocery store in Kentucky this week because they were black. Surviving a traffic stop seems to be a privilege you earn with submissiveness or whiteness. Meanwhile, endless think pieces ponder whether our culture shows enough respect to working class white people.

For Matthew Shepard, whose remains were interred today at the National Cathedral, twenty years after he was beaten and murdered. The Washington Post covered it in 1998, and republished the story today, where friends were careful to say–and the Post was careful to include–details that indicated that while he was gay, he wasn’t offensively gay, as if there were a version of the story where he would have deserved to be lured to a field to be beaten and left to die. Meanwhile kids still insult each other with “that’s so gay” on the playground, and our government tries to write trans people out of existence.

Brokenness so deep, my imagination is not up to the task of envisioning a way out. I give up, for a minute. Or maybe for the rest of the afternoon.

Then I’ll do the Anne Lamott thing, and remember that I can not feed Yemeni babies, but I will bring food to the pantry at the local elementary school and vote. I can not be a human shield in Kentucky but I will talk about whiteness and privilege at the dinner table. I can not bring Matthew Shepard back but I will weep for him now and send money to the Trevor Project.

I will practice radical hope despite the evidence, and trust in some invisible economy where the tears of those who mourn are precious, and mercy isn’t weakness, and weakness isn’t even weakness, really. It makes no sense but it is insanely beautiful, and so I’ll say yes to it again tonight.

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Nathaniel sends you peace, from 2012.

A theory of knowing

In graduate school, I learned a little bit about a lot of different theories that have been in fashion over the last century or so of literary criticism. But these days, I keep returning to two ideas that I’m sure I have misunderstood, rewritten, and misapplied a million times over in order to make mine.

The first, from psychoanalytic theory, is that the essence of human consciousness is lack and desire. To exist means to sense that you are incomplete–something is missing. For the psychoanalysts in the mold of Freud and Lacan, lack begins for girls when they realize they don’t have a penis. In 2018, in the middle of an outpouring of stories of the casual destruction of women’s lives that men leave in their wake, the notion of penis envy strikes me as absolutely hilarious. The most massively influential movement of the 20th century, one that has had profound impact on the way we understand human behavior and consciousness, is predicated on the idea that there would be nothing worse–nothing more existentially traumatizing–than not having a penis. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it were satire. But penis envy aside, the gist of it is that we feel we are lacking something, and yearn for fullness; completeness; plenitude.

The second theoretical thread, from semiotics, is that language is both gift and curse. Language allows us to try to share our experiences with others. But mediated through language, what we actually get is a crude approximation of experience. Language–no matter how precise, no matter how descriptive, abstracts reality.

I write the word “tree.” But “tree” is shorthand for a whole bunch of things. Did you imagine a quaking aspen, a tall oak, a Japanese maple? I can narrow it down–I am thinking of a specific birch tree in the woods in Maine, by the edge of Lake Maranacook.  I can tell you about the way the silver bark reflects the light while everything else in the wood seems to absorb it; the way the rings of bark loosen and peel off like snakeskin. The way the trunk crooks and curves like a frail old man’s back as it stretches up to the sky. I can tell you how the pale green leaves show their underside as the wind picks up and a storm approaches. But no matter how evocative my description, it will never capture the truth of the tree itself; the words will always just be symbols that stand in for the thing itself. Language tries–oh, how it tries to share with you the truth of the tree!–but ultimately it is not up to the task.

Were you to travel to the lake and see it, you might pick out the one I’ve described and think, “Ah! That is the one she meant!”

And you will notice the details I couldn’t capture, or you will think, “I don’t see a crooked spine but a silver lightning bolt, frozen in place.” But neither the spine nor the lightning bolt are the tree itself. They are metaphors, symbols, signifiers–always imprecise. The tree IS, beyond description. The moment I begin to put it into words, something is lost.

Is that not lack? Is that not the heart of our loneliness?  Continue reading “A theory of knowing”

Oh baby?

A colleague is planning an office shower for a co-worker who is expecting a baby soon. She asked me for help figuring out what to do, so I just finished some online shopping for party supplies. I am compelled to share what I have found. I am dealing ONLY WITH BANNERS. Forget the centerpieces, the favors, the pompoms.  Forget the games. Just banners.

Here’s a little window into the baby shower banner aisle at Target.com. I’ve broken it out into three categories for you.

The Informational

plain-shower.png

These seem to be designed for the occasion when your guests are confused about just what kind of a party they’ve been invited to. Is this a wedding? A graduation? A birthday party?

Nope! It’s a:

shower4

The Psychological

Many dissertations must be underway on what the new obsession with the gender reveal party says about us as a society and our anxiety around gender identity and fluidity.

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We demand certainty and we demand it now.

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Pretty sure it’s a BABY. But let’s ask it.

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“Well,” says the fetus, “I think that you might be a little preoccupied with my genitalia, but what do I know? I’m just a fetus.”

The Inexplicable

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For the Austin Powers-themed baby shower (“Baby: the other, other white meat”).

BaByQ Baby Shower BBQ Mason Jars Hot Sauce Whimsy Wise (14)

Or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.