Saturday, July 29, 2006

Creek of Doubt

Theology. The study of God. Or, to borrow a weasel phrase, the study of God-related program activities. As in, "They were unable to unearth evidence of God, but they found a hell of a lot of Church."

She was in one of her famous metaphysical snits again, this one precipitated by listening to some lectures on Christian theology. The lecturer, a witty Anglican with a major British accent, was discussing "Church" and the doctrinal underpinnings of faith. There could be, he said, no Christianity without Church. He "had little time for," he proclaimed, people who continued to attend Church after relinquishing all the doctrinal requirements of their faith. They were exploiting, he intoned, the community. The generous community, he added. They were manifesting an "infantile refusal" to let go of the final vestige of their rejected and despised faith. Like those apostate scoundrels from the Sea of Faith.

She squirmed. Her cheeks reddened as if the speaker's eyes were fixed upon her from somewhere deep within her car's CD player. She'd come across the "Sea of Faith," and had appreciated its deconstructive, linguistic approach to religion. She, herself, had approached the Church's generous table with the mind and heart of a reader of poetry, not the Faith of a Believer. She wasn't interested in accepting Jesus Christ As Her Personal Saviour. She, in fact, had no idea what that meant. She was attepting to explore whether there was within Christianity a vocabulary, a set of metaphors, adequate to the task of containing and expressing the mystery of the ground of being and the wonder and anguish of being here at all. She did like the metaphor of the Body of Christ, although she felt that limiting it to the Church and its members was a mistake: how could a metaphor purporting to address encompassing ontologies -- God drawing up everything into Christ, the speaker had said -- be limited to such earthly institutions as churches and those who pledge their troth thereunto ?

What about, for example, her old, sick cat ? Or strip-mined landscapes and oil-covered seagulls ? Or collaterally damaged babies in the Middle East ? But if everything were included in the body of Christ, if everything were, through Christ, to be granted automatic participation in God, then where would that leave Christians and all their Christ-related-program activities: sacraments, liturgy, scripture, prayer, faith and works, coffee hours and bake sales ? If everyone, including the unbaptised -- atheists, Buddhist, Muslims, pagans, Hindus -- were part of the Body Of Christ, wouldn't that obviate the need for Church ? It was all too complicated. She was tempted to reduce it all to membership in an elite club, with rules, initiation rites, pledges, dues, and, above all, exclusivity.

And up to now she'd assumed the pastor would at least tolerate a quiet guest in the back pew. But now she knew better. The pastor had her number, and it was 666. He could smell an exploitative apostate a mile off. The stench of unbelief was oozing from her pores like sulfur. She could no longer bank on that thing that happened so long ago, her baptism, as a ticket in the door, and then a meal ticket. Not that she would ever gatecrash a Catholic table. She was always one to play by the rules: she was Protestant, divorced, a real scandal, and she knew she wasn't welcome. But she'd assumed those other tables, those more open ones, were sincere in their welcome. Maybe she'd been hasty in her assumption. They didn't want the likes of her among the likes of them. She was, in a word, unclean. Indelibly so. She imagined her prayer, answered.

Create in me a clean heart, O Lord.

In you ? You're kidding, right ? (Cue cosmic laughter.)

So why was she still gazing with longing at the empty brightness at the top of the Stairs ?

And what did the Byzantine contraption known as Christian doctrine have to do with it ?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Fisherman's Wife

We have five cats, DK and I, and for our whole life together we've never had fewer than three. So far, we've managed to stay a kitten or two short of being cat hoarders. We've had cats long enough to have experienced this and the last century's great technological sea changes in feline waste management.

When we started out it was simple -- there was the oblong rubber trough, the bags of pebbly gravel, the slotted scoop. For a long time that sufficed. But then came the first innovation, the covered litterbox. It seemed like great way to keep the various odors relatively contained, so we got one. Next came clumping litter. Icky puddles of cat-piss now became cute little scoopable egg-shaped balls. Bad for the kitty ? Perhaps. But great for us. We converted. The next innovation ? Plastic litter pan liners. Utterly simplified the biweekly (oh, alright, alright, monthly) complete cleaning-out of the box. Despoiling the planet ? Yeah, probably. But by now, up to five pets and two litterboxes, and sole operator of the household waste-management contract, I was inured to guilt. I was becoming the Tony Soprano of cat doo doo.

Things coasted along smoothly until our last wedding anniversary in May. My romantic husband, the guy who once got me gerbils for Valentine's Day, bought me a new litterbox, a "Littermaid Elite Mega Advanced Automatic Self-Cleaning Litterbox." What motivated such an extravagant gift ? Guilt, perhaps, that I'd taken over all the catshit-related fun ? I cannot say. It was a loving, a well-intentioned gift. Much like a handbasket. As in The road to hell, over which she traveled in a handbasket, was paved with good intentions.

I stared, wide-eyed, at the carton. The image on its side depicted a blue-and-white contraption, clean as a swimming pool. Clinically clean, clean as an OR. I was, nonetheless, filled with a nameless trepidation; I felt an upsurge of my well-rehearsed puritan's guilt at extravagance. All my prior litterbox upgrades paled in light of this thing. It seemed a tad obscene. I felt like the fisherman's wife -- sending out her poor husband to demand larger and larger boons from the Flounder. Look where that got her.

I thanked my dear husband, and proceeded to ignore the big, unopened carton sitting in the vestibule. A week or so later I arrived home to find that he had opened it and assembled the Littermaid Mega Elite. He'd placed it in the basement -- in the skanky little corner beyond the washing machine -- next to the old litter box. The corner that always flooded in rainstorms. There it sat, its little digital clock blinking, its ionic air filter humming, poised to rake whatever our pets chose to deposit into the plastic receptacle beneath the trap door at its end. And there was evidence of it's having raked: neat little zen-garden parallel lines in the cat litter led from rake to receptacle. It was cleanish and almost beautiful.

Well, then, we'd give it a whirl, no ? I flipped through the manual, shuddering at the warning about "kittens less than six months old," skipping the stuff about how to program the timer, losing patience at the part about emptying the receptacles. Let's see if the thing could give me a day or two respite from scooping. That might be nice ! Brimming with an unfounded, quasi-psychotic optimism, I threw out the old box. How could this not work out ?

Two days later I squatted to inspect the thing. The trap door was half-open, resting on a mound of cat effluvia. The various nooks and crannies of the box and the receptacle apparatus were awash in yellow fluid, as was the floor. Abetted by the Littermaid Mega Elite, our innovative kitties were sprinkling outside the box. How clever. I decided to deal with the brimming receptacle at the end of the litterbox. Perhaps I could re-use the thing, although the manual warned against it. I proceeded to pry the flimsy, plastic tub out from under a long row of shit-encrusted little plastic tabs.

Before long, I, too, was shit encrusted. And piss-doused. In 22 years of scooping cat excrement I'd never ONCE gotten cat waste on my hands. Not ONCE, I tell you. Now, squatting there next to the Mega Elite, I'd been slimed. Horribly slimed. Vaguely nauseated, I emptied the receptacle into the old waste bucket, and then tried to re-insert it. Agains I had to stuff flimsy, squalid plastic under squalid little tabs. I felt myself grow agitated. The Box hummed and blinked, it was mega and elite and unnaturally calm. Practically imperious. It was mocking me.

Next I had to change the newspaper under the thing. How to lift it ? There was no good way. With each attempt, it began to come apart, disarticulating here, unhinging there. Hidden reservoirs of cat excreta poured out from its various nooks and crannies. I was close to tears. I was certainly paying for my two day respite from scooping.

Finally, I'd accomplished all I'd set out to do. I decided to run the rake through once, for good measure. I consulted the manual. Simple. Turn the power off, then on and the rake would activate. I did.

The rake shuddered once and was still. I turned it off and on again. Another shudder. And again. Just a shudder.

I consulted the manual. There were pages of troubleshooting tips. It suggested that rake failure could mean low batteries. But the thing was plugged into the wall ! It suggested that there might be too large a burden of stuff for it to rake. But the box was empty ! It suggested that the "runners" might be full of debris. I scraped out the little slot along which the rake was failing to travel. The rake continued to heave its windy, exasperated, shuddering little sighs. I stabbed blindly at the various little buttons near the blinking clock. And finally gave up.

I knew it. It was just as I'd expected. I was being punished for my hubris. Humiliated, in the root sense of the word: humus, dirt.

It was back to the rubber trough, pebbly gravel and scoop for me. No more mega-elite, heavenly palace. I was being banished back to my old seaside hovel. The Flounder was pissed off. And me ?

Pissed on.


A woman in a pink dress was sitting quietly at a picnic table at the river's edge. There was a book on the bench beside her, and she was gazing at the water. I walked by quietly, eyes averted, not wanting to disturb a fellow solitary's peaceful Sunday morning. I was heading toward a stalk of involuting queen anne's lace across the path when she called to me.

"Excuse me," she said, "I saw you taking pictures earlier down the path, and I was hoping you'd pass by. Come here. Look."

The picnic bench was in a little grassy clearing on the bank where a storm culvert opens into the river. I went up to the edge and peered down into the bronze water. It took a few seconds to pick out a shadowy form drifting just below the surface. Soon, a head broke the surface.

"Oh, my !" I exclaimed. "It's huge !"

"It must be twenty inches across," she said.

"I wonder how old it is !"

The head dipped back below the surface and the enormous turtle paddled about in slow circles. I lay prone in the rough grass and took some pictures. The woman in pink gazed at the water. The wizened face broke the surface again.

It appeared to be looking at us, appraising us. We looked back. Long minutes passed.

"I'm very interested in symbols," the woman murmured. I've been thinking of how his head resembles a heart."

"Yes, it does," I agreed, embarrassed to reveal my far less metaphysical thought: that the head resembled the heads of "little grays," the space aliens of abducting-and-probing fame.

I took a few more photos, thanked her, and went on my way. Symbols, eh ? I, too, had been grappling with symbols and metaphors recently, but not in a good way. I considered her turtle-head-as-heart image. It imported the whole, classic heart-and-head, feeling-and-intellect dichotomy, the idea of being encased in a protective shell, and a goodly dollop of the ancient and venerable. If a metaphor is a vehicle that "bears over," this was a veritable U-Haul of goodies.

Oh, and, of course, there's love. The heart as a symbol of love. Heart STANDS FOR love, just as "heart" stands for the palpitating muscle in just under my ribs. Or XXX OOO on a valentine stand for kisses and hugs. : ) -- See ?

I thought of the message on the billed cap. "I (heart) Jesus." That brought me back to my recent, renewed attempt to find within the language of Christianity, my native theo-tongue, something that would suffice to articulate the numinous mystery at the -- heh! -- heart of existence. Jesus was, after all, the Logos. A word, a symbol, a metaphor, someone who stood for something else. An icon. Or, on a bad day, an idol. I'd been listening to a talk on Christian theology, on the historical nuances of the idea of Jesus "dying for our sins" in light of five or six different models of justice and redemption. The talk made me peevish and impatient. What did this have to do with the ground of being ? Words, words, words, arguments, deconstructions, convoluted hermeneutings, thesisizing and anthithesisizing. It's enough to give a girl chest pains. Radiating down the left arm, the sinister arm, the heart arm.

A syllogism began to take shape in my mind:

God is Love.
Love is a heart.
A turtle is a heart.
Therefore, God is a turtle.

Now I was getting somewhere along the slippery synaptic byways of language and logic. For much does boil down to language. (Oh, the boiling byways of discourse !) Take that most simple of questions.

Do you believe in God ?.

Five little words. A long walk off a short pier ? A five step pier whose rotten boards give way after the first two steps ? Splash !

The committee that wrote the Nicene Creed wrestled with the same difficulties.

"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God," they stipulated, a strong opening, specific, full of almost scientific precision -- but, before long they are melting into a puddle of -- no, make that sublimating into a swirling cloud of -- poetry --

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God

I smiled. That was a nice turn of phrase. Even niftier in Latin.

Perhaps shouldn't be too hasty. I wouldn' t want to throw out the God with the Godwater.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sala(u)d Days

There's no denying now that the project of summer is well underway -- bright, hot, humid days, the kind I dislike, have arrived. I try to walk early, before the worst heat. The world has become a big green salad garnished with nuts and seeds and fruits; insects, birds and furry creatures crowd around, jostling for the best spot at the table. Back home, I crank up the fan, pull down the shades against the sun, and chew on ice cubes. I used to think that flawless spring leaves -- before insects have eaten holes in them or mined through them, before they've been smutched with blight or gall -- were the most beautiful. Now I prefer the stories that imperfections tell.

I have always thought that plantain seeds look particularly delicious. I love that wheat, from which we get our daily bread, is grass. I was taking pictures of a field of flowering grass at an Audubon sanctuary a month ago, when a docent and a group of children pulled up beside me.

She asked what I was doing, and I pointed out the beautiful, lyre-like seedheads of the grass with their little delicate, yellow pistils. It's winter rye, she said, and explained to the children how their lawns would flower if they were left unmown. One grave girl looked me in the eye as they passed. Thank you, she said.

I like to imagine she went home and sabotaged the family mower.

In high summer, there are hints of fall. Some things go to seed early. The mustards' upraised arms have browned, and dark little seeds are visible in their little septated, cellophane-like pods. The milkweed flowers have wilted, and small green, rugated pods are beginning to grow. Some campions have already become little urns full of seed, and various legumes -- vetches, trefoils, clovers -- are decked with beans.

Queen Anne's lace, just recently arrived, already begins to involute.

Salsify, that grandaddy of dandelions, becomes a spherical puffball of inverted parasols --

-- and fungi, those most courteous and discrete of undertakers, are at work in the recesses of shade.

All that being said, I don't like the heat. I bake in the upstairs of our old house. Heat makes me cranky. It blows rasberries at me: it bleats a snide, incarnation haha. In the heat I am all fat and gut. Even underweight, I feel corpulent, morbidly so, totally de trop. My too, too solid flesh can neither melt not thaw. It does, however, resolve itself into a sweat. I trudge, dripping sweat and DEET. I prefer the winter. Then, only the nose drips.

Cranky ? Today I continued my peevish correspondence with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the folks in charge of the river paths, about their aggressive landscaping practices ("Slash and burn. Leave no wildflower standing. All shall be lawn.") I'd been told that because of certain interdepartmental reshufflings, staff formerly responsible for the upkeep of playing fields were now responsible for the more delicate matter of pathside landscaping. Retraining was in progress, I was assured, and I was asked to be patient. But yesterday, at the gouged terminus of a long tire-track in the freshly hacked pathside, I found a dead mallard just inside the bushes.

Was the pathside grim reaper extending his purview from flora to fauna ? I held my breath and squatted above seething corpse. It was boiling with maggots. I felt ill, and snapped a few pictures. I thought of the scene in Peter Greenaway's masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, where a pair of naked lovers flees the wrath of her piggish husband in the back of a truck of rotten meat. It too always makes me feel ill.

Today I walked by the municipal pool on my way into the Watertown river path. Behind the chainlink, a shapely young woman in a skimpy swimsuit (are such things still called bikinis ? ) lay on her back on a towel on the concrete, full face to the sun. I, too, have gotten my free vitamin D today, albeit less than she has. I thought of my own swimsuit, the one my father declared frumpy back in 1972 when I bought it. It's a maroon, one- piece Speedo, "100% nylon," practically a quarter century old, and hardly the worse for wear. Unlike it, I have frayed. It will outlive me, I think. Perhaps I shall ask to be cremated in it. (Note to self. Ask to be cremated in frumpy speedo.)

But it's definately summer, and there's no choice in the matter. (Hot Buddha, cold Buddha mutters the teacher.) Beyond the desert of the river path the world goes at it, tooth and nail, eye and tooth, violent call to violent response. Innocents die, the empty word "regrettably" flutters briefly on hellbent, crooked lips, like a doomed moth that's about to be swallowed whole. Our boy-king George drifts across Europe into Russia, uttering inanity after inanity, platitude after platitude, earning the pointed derision of anyone within earshot. The makers of weapons and ordnance grow wealthier and wealthier, and proclaim their innocence. Their products are value neutral.

Closer to home home, a shoddily built tunnel ceiling falls and crushes a woman to death. The Governor, avid to be President, immediately takes to the TV.The corpse is barely cold. One lock of his magnificent hair and his expensive, tasteful necktie uncharacteristically askew, he, before anything else, before any regret or sorrow, screams for the resignation of a man he's been publically gunning for since since 2004. If you will. He's leaping at the chance to depose the hated functionary -- a man who came to his job 4-5 years after the epoxy may or may not have dried on the shabbily inserted ceiling bolts that gave way last week -- personal power vendetta trumping every other consideration of responsibility and investigation.

Yes, I'm cranky. Rambling. And hot. Sorely in need of a nice, cool epiphany, or at least a thunderstorm. Or some grownups to be at the helm of the world. Regrettably, nothing of the sort seems forthcoming.

There's always, well maybe not always, tomorrow.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


They called it a sacred heart
but it seemed to me more like a deflowering,
old blood, gone all velvety and black,
on an abandoned sheet.

But we are, they argued, brides
and bridegrooms, emblems of
the great, big nuptial thing
that entails both sacrifice and sacrament,
and ends in feasting on overcooked goat.

But I could only see
the indelible forensics of the marriage bed,
and soon, in a deepening twilight of oilsmoke and dust,
I could not tell
the face on the shroud
from a face in a crowd.

Friday, July 14, 2006


i. Instructions To The Cellist

bow down
C string
loose peg
near frog

low down

ii. Wood Wind

All morning, one loud bird
one laud bird
aes- aes- aes- aes-

iii. Lesson

It is best to keep silent,
my mother said,
lest you disturb
the horse altitudes.

iv. Pray, Saying


in the forthright, yellow
heart of summer,
give us this day
your prim crux,
your compass,
and volts

to fill our seed grails.

v. Double, Maybe Triple, Negative

Ceci n'est pas

un pas.


Q. With what was she baptised ?

A. With ink strained through the fenestrated dead.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Botanical Year

Spotless birth bears repeating
in ordinary summertime,
after the dead trees have been cleared from the hillside,
and the empty garage is swept down to oilstain,
after the fires are out, and the last steak has been eaten,
and after practically everyone's left
(did we remember to stop the News ?)
for the mountains or the ocean. Even then
milk-white, tongue-pink stars are arriving
in a clutter of brome and pepperweed.

Is this what was promised, this self-
renewing flower-flesh,
this immaculate rot ?