I have been in high reclusive mode lately, one of my most accustomed modes, akin, probably, to the musical Phrygian. As if in sympathy, the touch-me-nots have grown from ankle to waist-high within the week, and are beginning to bloom.
Touch their little pods and they will spit seeds at you.
I don't much like summer. It is the season of fun and conviviality, of barbecue and bikini volleyball on the beach, and as I indulge in neither meat nor revealing swim-wear, I am left out in the cold. Which is where I'd rather be, thank you very much. Out in the soggy woods with my D70 projecting myself into the smallest of leafy spaces like a child losing herself at playing doll house.
Above me, a catbird nags and scolds. I sigh. It's true. I have been ungrateful. The young summer has so far served up a series of crashingly delightful thunderstorms and today the thermometer barely broke 70. Nearly perfect for a gloomy recluse: cool, dark, damp. Rheumy weather.
But I know what the summer can do, and will probably do at any moment now: produce interminable stretches of hot, bright meat-and-bikini days. Days for the chipper and the optimistic, for gregarious extroverts showing expanses of tanned and buff flesh, for the billed-cap wearing masses, devotees of summer fun.
Summer highlights one's incarnation. I developed my animus contra summer as a young woman in full throes of despising my fleshly self. I would lie on the cold concrete of the basement floor, feeling much like a beached whale, muttering the lines from Hamlet: O that this too, too solid flesh/ would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew. I was overwhelmed by disgust. It became one of the defining emotions of my life, and summer became my sworn enemy.
We drove, on the night of the Fourth, DK and I, to the town's fireworks. We left home at the last minute. As we pulled into a crowded parking lot a few blocks away from the festivities, we could see the sky already filled with lights. I was in a sour mood. I'd avoided the family gathering, and felt guilty. I couldn't face the notion of masses of patriotic revelers. But DK, knowing that my Bartleby moods are often cured by forced excursions to places-I-am-reluctant-to-face, wheedled me into the Honda and we set out. We took our place on the sidewalk among throngs of billed-cap wearing citizens. If there is an antithesis to Thomas Merton's Louisville streetcorner epiphany, I was in the throes of it.
And so I kept fretting. Someone nearby was smoking cigarettes. With each thudding explosion, car alarms woke into bleating, wailing frenzies. I stared at the looming girders of some construction across the way -- the new, improved home of Ideal Concrete, whose previous incarnation had been so provincially charming. Now razed. I felt peevish and impatient. I brooded. How would we ever get out of the parking lot. The traffic would be terrible. What were we celebrating, anyway, with these pretty sky bombs ? The explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan that were tearing the limbs off people, killing them and terrorizing them ? The gunfire-related deaths whose increase the Supreme Court had just virtually guaranteed ?
But, slowly, the flowering, cascading lights seduced me. My chattering brain began to quiet, and I relaxed. Fretting is hard work and I was glad to take a break from it. I felt the same peace I feel in the woods with my camera: I leave the strangling strait of the self and enter the world. Or one might say the world enters me and replaces the hankering infant.
Small ecstasies. How does one stand outside the self ? At worst, it is an unnerving depersonalization. I watch myself watch myself ad infinitum. These terms are all wrong. What is this thing, the self, that one stands outside of ? It rankles, like the question Do you believe in God. It is so utterly the wrong question. It posits, on one side, you, and, elsewhere, some entity called "God" and between the two, a transaction called "belief in."
Where are the other, the useful terms ? Like "map," and "metaphor," "being," "language," and "ground" ? Where is "assent" and "intent" ? Where, Dear God, is "reality" ?
This morning there was a bit in the Globe about a newly discovered artifact, a pre-Christian tablet that heralded a Messiah who would rise from the dead in three days. DK pointed it out to me.
"See ?" I said to the love of my life who, nonetheless, calls me a religious lunatic. "I told you so."
"What do you mean," he said, referring to past conversations about "metaphor" and "map," "intent" and "assent." "I didn't think you actually believed all that stuff."
"Well, not like you're implying."
"You're using the Anglican Church for your own nefarious purposes," he concluded, turning back to his waffle.
"Some might say I am," I said. "Others wouldn't."
My peevishness dogged me into church today. My voice was cracking on any note above A. And for some reason, the phrase "water my camels" in the OT reading was striking me as irresistably funny. Hilarious, even. I could barely stifle my laughter. And then there came the bit about Rebekah's nose ring. Help me, Jesus. I snorted into my service leaflet. I couldn't wait to get to the epistle, Paul's lament about doing the evil he wills not to do and not doing the good he so longs to do. I thought of the patient who, earlier today, had paged me at 3:45 AM about her insect bites. As I sat at my laptop at my desk in my dark study, I bit back the words, "Why, madam, are you paging me at 3 AM for these bites you have had since Thursday ?" I thought about the admonition to see Christ in everyone. Like Paul, I willed myself to do good. Like Paul, I failed. Sin was running amok in me.
And this morning, in a frenzy of Altar-Guild anality, I had almost whisked away the 2 buckets of rock salt and the broken Mr Clean broom handle that Rev. S. had stashed between the little baptismal font and the upright piano as sermon props. She was preaching on My yoke is easy and my burden is light. It was Children's Sunday, and, since there were too few children for her usual participatory socratic, kids-at-the-altar conversation, she would go to to Plan B.
I have to confess that I've grown to like the Children's Sunday conversations -- both for the kiddos' goofy non-sequiturs about candy and pets, and for the astonishingly sophisticated theological comments that one little lad predictably utters. It was a Children's Sunday -- complete with rock band and drum set -- that sent me fleeing the UCC parish I had tried out a few years ago. Yes, they have the gender thing all resolved, I love them for that, but a drum set and guitars ! No, it would not do.
In any case, after discoursing a bit about being yoked one to another and sharing our burdens and Christ's burden, passing round a photo of two formidably-horned oxen yoked together, and demonstrating the principle of yoking with her props and the acolyte, all the while managing not to spill a jot or tittle of rock salt, Rev. S. laid out Plan B. I was still staring at the photo. The oxen looked miserable. Their necks bulged around the tight wooden throat-pieces, and their horns were overlapping like clashing swords. Rev. S.'s Plan B was to pair off, share our burdens and pray for one another. My heart sunk. There I was, in deeply Phyrigian reclusive mode, like some bit of dandruff fallen from the Body of Christ, and she was calling for "sharing" and "praying." I was grateful that my pal K. was in the pew in front of me. I scooted over and made eye contact.
"I can do this," I thought.
And I did, I suppose, but without much grace or ease. DK's words echoed in my ears. Using the Anglican Church for your own nefarious purposes. I am not much of a Christian, me and my misanthropic heart, black and shriveled as bunny shit. It's not the ontology part that's hard, it's the anthropology.
It's easy to hallucinate angels perched on the light fixtures, gleaming over the gloomy dark pews. You can almost hear their harps. It's much harder to be graceful and open-hearted at 3:45 am.
DK listened, amused, as I described the service.
What's next ? Altar calls ? Witnessing for Jesus ? Speaking in tongues ? If she ever pulls that again, I swear I'm going to defect to the Church of the Advent, I half-joked, and then recalled how even the Advent's ultra-high Church Anglo- Catholic Paschal fire had crackled from a Weber Grill on a utility cart.
I had to hand it to Rev S. -- shepherding me, she had it all covered: yes, she would nurture the Anchoress in me by suggesting I join the altar guild, often a "solitary and meditative" pursuit, but she would also encourage me in the convivial -- the life-together -- aspects of Christianity. The cenobitic ground out of which the eremitic vocation has to grow.
The strangling strait of the self. Is there a way out of it beyond losing myself in fireworks, or in the world seen through a macro lens ? What does Saint Paul say ?
It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.
I remembered gift of death and rebirth that I received at baptism, and reaffirmed last year at confirmation .
And that mercy and forgiveness streams from the fount of every blessing for even the blackest and most lost of your sheep, O Lord.
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be !
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, o take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.